7/14/10 - washington, dc

In today's excerpt - George Washington's plans for Washington, DC:

"Because of his [interest in symbols and events that would give cause to citizens of the new United States for national pride above state pride], Washington was especially interested in the size and character of the White House and of the capital city that was to be named after him. The huge scale and imperial grandeur of the Federal City, as Washington modestly called it, owe much to his vision and his backing of the French-born engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant as architect.

"L'Enfant had migrated from France in 1777 as one of the many foreign recruits to the Continental Army. In 1779 he became a captain of engineers and attracted the attention of Washington for his ability to stage festivals and design medals, including that of the Society of the Cincinnati. In 1782, he organized the elaborate celebration in Philadelphia marking the birth of the French dauphin, and in 1788 he designed the conversion of New York's City Hall into Federal Hall. Thus, it was natural for L'Enfant to write Washington in 1789 outlining his plans for 'the Capital of this vast Empire.' L'Enfant proposed a capital that would 'give an idea of the greatness of the empire as well as ... engrave in every mind that sense of respect that is due a place which is the seat of a supreme sovereignty.' His plan for the Federal City, he said, 'should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.'

"Washington knew the site of the national capital had to be larger than that of any state capital. 'Philadelphia,' the president pointed out, 'stood upon an area of three by two miles. ... If the metropolis of one State occupied so much ground, what ought that of the United States to occupy?' He wanted the Federal City to become a great commercial metropolis in the life of the nation and a place that would eventually rival any city in Europe. The new national capital, he hoped, would become the energizing and centralizing force that would dominate local and sectional interests and unify the disparate states.

"L'Enfant designed the capital, as he said, in order to fulfill 'the President's intentions.' The Frenchman conceived of a system of grand radial avenues imposed on a grid of streets with great public squares and circles and with the public buildings—the 'grand edifices' of the 'Congress House' and the 'President's Palace'—placed so as to take best advantage of the vistas across the Potomac. Some of the early plans for the rotunda of the Capitol even included a monumental tomb that was designed eventually to hold the first president's body—a proposal that made Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson very uneasy.

"Although the final plans for the capital were less impressive than what Washington originally envisioned, they were still grander than those others had in mind. If Jefferson had had his way, L'Enfant would never have kept his job as long as he did, and the capital would have been smaller and less magnificent—perhaps something on the order of a college campus, like Jefferson's later University of Virginia. Opposed as he was to anything that smacked of monarchical Europe, Jefferson thought that fifteen hundred acres would be enough for the Federal City.'"


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


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