Main Street Of America


Another wrangle between L’Enfant and the commissioners brought matters to the explosion point. The largest property owner in the District, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, a nephew of Commissioner Daniel Carroll, was building a new house. As far as was apparent to him and to most people, the house was on his own property, in the middle of pleasant woods and fields. But for L’Enfant, consulting his secret map, part of the house intruded upon New Jersey Avenue. He ordered it removed. The owner demurred and the commissioners backed him up. L’Enfant sent a party of workmen under the direction of his chief assistant, Isaac Roberdeau, to carry out his orders. The commissioners arrested Roberdeau, but when L’Enfant took over and directed the demolition, the commissioners hesitated to arrest their chief and advised the owner to lay his case before Washington.

The President was distressed. He was anxious that everything should go smoothly in the Federal City, fearing that any trouble would give opponents in Congress an excuse to try to cancel the whole scheme. He suggested to Carroll that he might allow the demolished walls to be rebuilt at public expense in a more acceptable place; or that he might rebuild them at his own expense, finish the house, and live in it for six years, at which time it would have to be removed. To L’Enfant, Washington wrote that “no precedent will be established by yielding a little in the present instance.”

L’Enfant, however, had no intention of yielding. Can-oil’s case eventually went before the Attorney General, who awarded indemnification to the tune of $4,500, a very large sum in those days. Meanwhile, Washington and Jefferson were gravely concerned about the temperament of their city planner. His conduct might be due to zeal or to an impetuous temper, “but be it what it will,” Washington wrote Jefferson, “it must be checked; or we shall have no commissioners.”

Jefferson replied, “to render him useful, his temper must be subdued.” But that task, even for two of the most adept statesmen in history, was too great. On February 27, 1792, Jefferson wrote L’Enfant, “I am instructed by the President to inform you that notwithstanding the desire he has entertained to preserve your agency in the business, the condition upon which it is to be done is inadmissible & your services must be at an end.” L’Enfant had held his post not quite a year. Andrew Ellicott succeeded him, and the first engraved plan of the city, copied closely but not exactly from L’Enfant’s, was issued under Ellicott’s signature.

With the temperamental genius out of the picture, the building of the capital proceeded at a deliberate, workaday pace. George Washington laid the cornerstone of the President’s House in September, 1793. The following year he marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with a delegation of Masons to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol. If this modest procession, picking its way over stubbled ground and along logs thrown over the creeks, can be called a parade, this was the first parade on Pennsylvania Avenue.

L’Enfant’s “agreeable and convenient” avenue was called Pennsylvania, according to some sources, to help the state of Pennsylvania bear her disappointment at not retaining the national capital at Philadelphia; others say that because Pennsylvania is the central state of the original thirteen, it was logical to give its name to Washington’s central avenue. Whatever the reason, it was an avenue in name only and remained so for some years. One of the first descriptions of it appears in the memoirs of one Thomas Twining, an Englishman who visited Washington in April, 1796. He wrote that, on leaving Georgetown, he entered a large wood through which a very imperfect road had been made, principally by removing trees, or rather the upper parts of them, in the usual manner. After some time this indistinct way assumed more the appearance of a regular avenue, the trees here having been cut down in a straight line. Although no habitation of any kind was visible, I had no doubt but I was now riding along one of the streets of the metropolitan city. I continued in this spacious avenue for half a mile, and then came out upon a large spot, cleared of wood, in the center of which I saw two buildings on an extensive scale and some men at work upon one of them.