With Americans of Past and Present Days/2
LITTLE more than a century ago the hill on which rises the Capitol of the federal city and the ground around it were covered with woods and underbrush; a few scattered farms had been built here and there, with one or two exceptions mere wooden structures whose low roofs scarcely emerged from their leafy surroundings. Not very long before, Indians had used to gather on that eminence and hold their council-fires.
As far now as the eye can reach the picturesque outline of one of the finest cities that exist is discovered; steeples and pinnacles rise above the verdure of the trees lining the avenues within the unaltered frame supplied by the blue hills of Maryland and Virginia.
The will of Congress, the choice made by the great man whose name the city was to bear, the talents of a French officer, caused this change.
Debates and competitions had been very keen; more than one city of the North and of the South had put forth pleas to be the one selected and become the capital: Boston, where the first shot had been fired; Philadelphia, where independence had been proclaimed; Yorktown, where it had been won—Yorktown, modest as a city, but glorious by the events its name recalled, now an out-of-the-way borough, rarely visited, and where fifty white inhabitants are all that people the would-be capital of the new-born Union. New York also had been in the ranks, as well as Kingston, Newport, Wilmington, Trenton, Reading, Lancaster, Annapolis, Williamsburg, and several others. Passions were stirred to such an extent that the worst was feared, and that, incredible as it may now seem, Jefferson could speak of the “necessity of a compromise to save the Union.”
A compromise was, in fact, resorted to, which consisted in choosing no city already in existence, but building a new one on purpose. This solution had been early thought of, for Washington had written on October 12, 1783, to Chevalier de Chastellux: “They (Congress) have lately determined to make choice of some convenient spot near the Falls of the Delaware for the permanent residence of the sovereign power of these United States.” But would-be capitals still persisted in hoping they might be selected.
Congress made up its mind for good on the 16th of July, 1790, and decided that the President should be intrusted with the care of choosing “on the river Potomac” a territory, ten miles square, which should become the “Federal territory” and the permanent seat of the Government of the United States.
Washington thereupon quickly reached a decision; a great rider all his life, the hills and vales of the region were familiar to him; it soon became certain that the federal city would rise one day where it now stands. The spot seemed to him a particularly appropriate one for a reason which has long ceased to be so very telling, and which he constantly mentions in his letters as the place’s “centrality.”
But what sort of a city should it be? A residential one for statesmen, legislators, and judges, or a commercial one with the possibilities, considered then of the first order, afforded by the river, or a mixture of both? Should it be planned in view of the present or of the future, and of what sort of future?
With the mind of an artist and in some sense of a prophet, perceiving future time as clearly as if it were the present, a man foresaw, over a century ago, what we now see with our eyes. He was a French officer who had fought for the cause of independence, and had remained in America after the war, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant.
Some researches in French and American archives have allowed me to trace his ancestry, and to add a few particulars to what was already known of him.
Born at Paris, on August 2, 1754, he was the son of Pierre L’Enfant, “Painter in ordinary to the King in his Manufacture of the Gobelins.” The painter, whose wife was Marie Charlotte Leullier, had for his specialty landscapes and battle-scenes. Born at Anet, in 1704, on a farm which he bequeathed to his children, he was a pupil of Parrocel and had been elected an Academician in 1745. Some of his pictures are at Tours; six are at Versailles, representing as many French victories: the taking of Menin, 1744; of Fribourg, 1744; of Tournay, 1745; the battle of Fontenoy, 1745 (a favorite subject, several times painted by him); the battle of Laufeldt, 1747, where that young officer, destined to be Washington’s partner in the Yorktown campaign, Count Rochambeau, received, as we have seen before, his first wounds. The painter died a very old man, in the Royal Manufacture, 1787.
Young L’Enfant grew up among artistic surroundings, and, as subsequent events showed, received instruction as an architect and engineer. The cause of the United States had in him one of its earliest enthusiasts. In 1777, being then twenty-three, possessed of a commission of lieutenant in the French colonial troops, he sailed for America on one of those ships belonging to Beaumarchais’s mythical firm of “Hortalez and Co.,” a firm whose cargoes consisted in soldiers and ammunition for the insurgents, and which was as much a product of the dramatist’s brain as Figaro himself. Figaro, it is averred, has had a great influence in this world; Hortalez and Co. had not a small one, either. The ship had been named after the secretary of state, who was to sign, the following year, the United States’ only alliance, Le Comte de Vergennes, a name, wrote Beaumarchais, “fit to bring luck to the cargo, which is superb.” The superb cargo consisted, as usual, in guns and war supplies, also in men who might be of no less use for the particular sort of trade Hortalez and Co. were conducting. “Some good engineers and some cavalry officers will soon arrive,” Silas Deane was then writing to Congress. One of the engineers was Pierre Charles L’Enfant. His coming had preceded by one month the sailing of another ship with another appropriate name, the ship La Victoire, which brought Lafayette.
L’Enfant served first as a volunteer and at his own expense. “In February, 1778,” we read in an unpublished letter of his to Washington, “I was honored with a commission of captain of engineers, and by leave of Congress attached to the Inspector-general.… Seeing [after the winter of 1778–9] no appearance of an active campaign to the northward, my whole ambition was to attend the Southern army, where it was likely the seat of war would be transferred.” He was, accordingly, sent to Charleston, and obtained “leave to join the light infantry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens; his friendship furnished me,” he relates, “with many opportunities of seeing the enemy to advantage.”
Not “to advantage,” however, did he fight at Savannah, when the French and Americans, under d’Estaing and Lincoln, were repulsed with terrible loss. The young captain was leading one of the vanguard columns in the American contingent and, like d’Estaing himself, was grievously wounded. He managed to escape to Charleston. I was, he said, “in my bed till January, 1780. My weak state of health did not permit me to work at the fortifications of Charleston, and when the enemy debarked, I was still obliged to use a crutch.” He took part, however, in the fight, replacing a wounded major, and was made a prisoner at the capitulation. Rochambeau negotiated his exchange in January, 1782, for Captain von Heyden, a Hessian officer.
“Your zeal and active services,” Washington wrote back to L’Enfant, “are such as reflect the highest honor on yourself and are extremely pleasing to me, and I have no doubt they will have their due weight with Congress in any future promotion in your corps.” They had, in fact, in the following year, when, by a vote of the assembly, L’Enfant was promoted a major of engineers, 1783.
His knowledge of the art of fortification, his merit as a disciplinarian, the part he had taken, as he recalls in a letter to Count de La Luzerne, in devising the earliest “system of discipline and exercises which was finally adopted in the American army” (all that was done in that line was not by Steuben alone), rendered his services quite useful. His gifts as an artist, his cleverness at catching likenesses made him welcome among his brother officers. He would in the dreary days of Valley Forge draw pencil portraits of them, one, we know, of Washington, at the request of Lafayette, who wanted also to have a painted portrait. “I misunderstood you,” the general wrote him from Fredericksburg, on September 25, 1778; “else I would have had the picture made by Peale when he was at Valley Forge. When you requested me to sit to Monsieur Lanfang”—thus spelled, showing how pronounced by Washington—“I thought it was only to obtain the outlines and a few shades of my features, to have some prints struck from.”
Some such pencil portraits by L’Enfant subsist, for example in the Glover family at Washington, and are creditable and obviously true-to-nature sketches.
Whenever, during the war or after, something in any way connected with art was wanted, L’Enfant was, as a matter of course, appealed to, whether the question was of a portrait, of a banqueting hall, of a marble palace, a jewel, a solemn procession, a fortress to be raised, or a city to be planned. A man of many accomplishments, with an overflow of ideas and few competitors, he was the factotum of the new nation. When the French minister, La Luzerne, desired to arrange a grand banquet in honor of the birth of the Dauphin (the first one, who lived only eight years), he had a hall built on purpose, in Philadelphia, and L’Enfant was the designer. Baron de Closen, Rochambeau’s aide, writes as to this in his journal: “M. de La Luzerne offered a dinner that day to the legion of Lauzun, which had arrived the same morning (August 2, 1782). The hall which he caused to be built on purpose for the fête he gave on the occasion of the birth of the Dauphin, is very large and as beautiful as it can be. One cannot imagine a building in better taste; simplicity is there united with an air of dignity. It has been erected under the direction of Mr. de L’Enfant, a French officer, in the service of the American corps of engineers.” Closen adds that “Mr. Barbé de Marbois, counselor of embassy of our court, is too modest to admit that his advice had something to do with the result.”
When peace came, those officers who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Americans returned home, bringing to the old continent new and fruitful ideas, those especially pertaining to equality and to the unreasonableness of class distinctions. Liberty had been learned from England; equality was from America.
L’Enfant was one of those who went back to France, but he did not stay. He had been away five years and wanted to see his old father, the painter, whose end now was near. A royal brevet of June 13, 1783, had conferred on the officer a small French pension of three hundred livres, “in consideration of the usefulness of his services, and of the wounds received by him during the American war.” He sailed for France late in the same year, reaching Havre on the 8th of December.
The Society of the Cincinnati had been founded in May. For the insignia appeal had been made as usual to the artist of the army, L’Enfant, who was, moreover, commissioned by Washington, first president of the association, to avail himself of his journey to order from some good Paris jeweller the eagles to be worn by the members, L’Enfant himself being one. He was also to help in organizing the French branch of the society. Difficulties had first been encountered, for the reason that no foreign order was then allowed in France, but it was recognized that this could scarcely be considered a foreign one. In an unpublished letter to Rochambeau, Marshal de Ségur, minister of war, said: “His Majesty the King asks me to inform you that he allows you to accept this honorable invitation (to be a member). He even wants you to assure General Washington, in his behalf, that he will always see with extreme satisfaction all that may lead to a maintenance and strengthening of the ties formed between France and the United States. The successes and the glory which have been the result and fruit of this union have shown how advantageous it is, and that it should be perpetuated.” Concerning the institution itself the minister wrote: “It is equally honorable because of the spirit which has inspired its creation and of the virtues and talents of the celebrated general whom it has chosen as its president.”
L’Enfant sent to Washington glowing accounts of the way the idea had been welcomed in France, and told him of the first meetings held, one at the house of Rochambeau, Rue du Cherche-Midi, for officers in the French service, and another at the house of Lafayette, Rue de Bourbon, for French officers who held their commissions from Congress, both groups deciding thereupon to unite, under Admiral d’Estaing as president-general.
What proved for L’Enfant, according to circumstances, one of his chief qualities, as well as one of his chief defects, was that, whatever the occasion, he ever saw “en grand.” It had been understood that he would pay the expenses of his journey, and that the Society of the Cincinnati would only take charge of those resulting from the making of the eagles. His own modest resources had been, as Duportail testified, freely spent by him during the war for the good of the cause, and little enough was left him. Nevertheless, did he write to Alexander Hamilton, “being arrived in France, everything there concurred to strengthen the sentiment which had made me undertake that voyage, and the reception which the Cincinnati met with soon induced me to appear in that country in a manner consistent with the dignity of the society of which I was regarded as the representative.” He spent without counting: “My abode at the court produced expenses far beyond the sums I had at first thought of.” He ordered the eagles from the best “artists, who rivalled each other for the honor of working for the society,” but wanted, however, to be paid; and a letter to Rochambeau, written later, shows him grappling with the problem of satisfying Duval and Francastel of Paris, who had supplied the eagles on credit, and to whom the large sum of twenty-two thousand three hundred and three livres were still due. These money troubles caused L’Enfant to shorten his stay in France; he was back in New York on the 29th of April, 1784, and after some discussion and delay, the society “Resolved, that, in consideration of services rendered by Major L’Enfant, the general meeting make arrangements for advancing him the sum of one thousand five hundred and forty-eight dollars, being the amount of the loss incurred by him in the negotiation for a number of eagles, or orders, of the Cincinnati.”
THE COUNTRY was free; war was over now, people felt; for ever, many fondly hoped. Settled in New York, where appeals to his talents as an architect and engineer made him prosperous for a time, L’Enfant believed such hopes to be vain, and that the country should at once make preparations so exhaustive that its wealth and defenselessness should not tempt any greedy enemy. He placed the problem before Congress, in a memoir still unprinted, which offers particular interest in our days, when the same problem is being again discussed. 1
“Sensible,” wrote L’Enfant, in the creditable if not faultless English he then spoke, 1 “of the situation of affairs, and well impregnated with the spirit of republican government, I am far from intimating the idea of following other nations in their way of securing themselves against insult or invasions, surrounded as they are with powerful neighbors, who, being the objects of reciprocal jealousy, are forced to secure not only their frontier, but even their inland towns with fortifications, the much happier situation of the United States rendering those measures of little or no necessity.” 2
The States must act differently; but not to act at all would be folly. “How and upon what foundations could it be supposed that America will have nothing to fear from a rupture between any of the European Powers? … A neutral Power, it will be said, receives the benefit of a universal trade, has his possessions respected, as well as his colors, by all the Powers at war. This may be said of a powerful nation, but this America is not to expect; a neutral Power must be ready for war, and his trade depends on the means of protecting and making his colors respected. America, neutral without [a] navy, without troops or fortified harbors could have nothing but calamity to expect.” She cannot live free and develop in safety without “power to resent, ability to protect.” 3
A noteworthy statement, to be sure, and which deserves to be remembered. L’Enfant draws, thereupon, a plan of defense, especially insisting, of course, on the importance of his own particular branch, namely engineering. 2 4
Houdon’s brief visit, shortly after, in order to make Washington’s statue for the State of Virginia, 3 must have been particularly pleasant to the major, to whom the great sculptor could bring news of his co-Academician, the old painter of the Gobelins Manufacture, father of the officer. 5
An unprinted letter of L’Enfant to the secretary of Congress, sitting then in New York, gives a number of details on Houdon’s stay in America. The Federal Congress had thought of ordering, in its turn, a statue of Washington, which would have been an equestrian one; but what would the cost be? A most important question in those days. On behalf of Houdon, who knew no English, L’Enfant wrote to Charles Thomson that Mr. Houdon could not “properly hazard to give him any answer relating [to] the cost of the general’s equestrian statue”; there are a great many ways of making such work, and Congress must say which it prefers. A book belonging to Mr. Houdon will shortly reach these shores, where particulars as to the “performance of the several statues which have been created in Europe are mentioned, together with their cost.” The book is on a vessel, soon expected, and which brings back Doctor Franklin’s “bagage.”
Congress had thought also of a marble bust for the hall where it sat. Houdon was taking home with him a finished model of the head of the great man, and had exhibited it, for every one to say his say, in the “room of Congress.”
Such busts, L’Enfant wrote, are “generally paid in Europe five thousand French livres”; but as many duplicates will probably be ordered from him, Houdon will lower the price to one hundred guineas. “He begs leave, however, to observe that a bust of the size of nature only may be fit for a private and small room, but not for such a large one as that devoted for the assembly of a Congress, where it should be necessary to have a bust of a larger size to have it appear to advantage.”
The price had been asked, too, of duplicates in plaster of Paris, for private citizens. The answer was: four guineas, also in the thought that a goodly number would be wanted, “provided that there be a subscription for a large number, and that the gentlemen who will have any of these busts in their possession consider themselves as engaged to prevent any copy from being taken; this last condition he humbly insists upon.”
As for the original, Houdon is anxious to know what the compatriots of the general think of it; any criticism would be welcome: “Mr. Houdon hopes that Congress is satisfied with the bust he has had the honor to submit to their examination, begs the gentlemen who may have some objections to communicate them to him, and he flatters himself that Congress will favor him with their opinion in writing, which he will consider as a proof of their satisfaction and keep as a testimony of their goodness.”
He is just about to sail, and the bust has to be removed at once: “Mr. Houdon, being to embark to-morrow morning, begs leave to take out the general’s bust from the room of Congress this afternoon.” 4
L’Enfant’s chief work in New York consisted in the remodelling of the old, or rather older (but not oldest), City Hall, the one which preceded that now known, in its turn, as the old one. The undertaking was of importance, the question being of better accommodating Congress, which had left Philadelphia with a grudge toward that city, and was now sitting in New York. A large sum, for those days, had been advanced by patriotic citizens, which sum, however, L’Enfant’s habit to see things “en grand” caused to be insufficient by more than half. The city hoped that the devising of such a structure would be for it one more title to be selected as the federal capital, and it therefore did not protest, but on the contrary caused a “testimonial” to be officially presented to L’Enfant, highly praising his work: “While the hall exists it will exhibit a most respectable monument of your eminent talents, as well as of the munificence of the citizens.” 5 L’Enfant received “the freedom of the city” by “special honorifick patent,” as he wrote later, and he was, moreover, offered ten acres of land near Provost Lane, “which latter he politely declined.” 6 12
The building won general admiration for its noble appearance, the tasteful brilliancy of its ornamentation, and its commodious internal arrangements. The only objections came from the Anti-Federalists, who called it the “Fools’ Trap,” in which appellation politics had, obviously, more to do than architecture.
L’Enfant, a man of ideas, had tried to make of the renovated hall something characteristically American, if not in the general style, which was classical, at least in many details. National resources had been turned into use; in the Senate chamber the chimneys were of American marble, which, “for beauties of shade and polish, is equal to any of its kind in Europe.” 7 The capitals of the pilasters were “of a fanciful kind, the invention of Major L’Enfant, the architect.… Amidst their foliage appears a star and rays, and a piece of drapery below suspends a small medallion with U. S. in a cipher. The idea is new and the effect pleasing; and although they cannot be said to be of any ancient order, we must allow that they have an appearance of magnificence.” 8 The frieze outside was so divided as to give room for thirteen stars in so many metopes. A much-talked-of eagle, with thirteen arrows in its talons, which, unluckily, could not be ready for March 4, 1789, when Congress met in the hall for the first time under the newly voted Constitution, was the chief ornament on the pediment. On the 22d of April the news could be sent to the Salem Mercury: “The eagle in front of the Federal State-House is displayed. The general appearance of this front is truly august.” 9 The emblem was thus at its proper place when the chief event that Federal Hall, as it was then called, was to witness occurred, on the 30th of the same month, the day of the first inauguration of the first President of the United States.
Crowds came to visit what was then the most beautiful building in the country; but better than crowds came, and one visit was for the major more touching and flattering than all the others put together—the wife of his general, now the President, Mrs. Washington, caused Colonel Humphreys and Mr. Lear to make arrangements with L’Enfant for her to inspect the hall, in June of the inauguration year. 10
The expensive and greatly admired monument was to experience the strange fate of being survived by its author. Becoming again City Hall when Congress, soon after, left New York to go back, reconciled, to Philadelphia, it was pulled down in 1812, the building itself being sold at auction for four hundred and twenty-five dollars: and thus disappeared, to the regret of all lovers of ancient souvenirs, the beautiful chimneys in American marble, the “truly august” eagle with its thirteen arrows, and the first really American capitals ever devised, and which, though in a new style, were yet “magnificent.” 16
One solitary souvenir of the building remains, however, that is, the middle part of the railing on which Washington must have leaned when taking the oath; a piece of wrought iron of a fine ornamental style, now preserved with so many other interesting relics of old New York on the ground floor of the New York Historical Society’s Museum. In the same room can be seen several contemporary views of Federal Hall, one in watercolor, by Robertson, 1798; another, an engraving, showing every detail of the façade, represents, as the inscription runs, “Federal Hall, the Seat of Congress.—Printed and sold by A. Doolittle, New Haven, 1790.—A. Doolittle Sc. Pet. Lacour del.” 17
Shortly before the inauguration of the first President, L’Enfant had had to lend his help for the devising of a grand, artistic, historical, and especially political procession, a Federalist one, arranged in the hope of influencing public opinion and securing the vote of the Constitution by the State of New York. This now revered text was then the subject of ardent criticism; famous patriots like Patrick Henry had detected in it something royalistic, which has long ceased to be apparent, and were violent in their denunciation of this instrument of tyranny. New York was in doubt; its convention had met at Poughkeepsie in June, 1788, and it seemed as if an adverse vote were possible. The procession was then thought of. 18
It took place on Monday, the 23d of July, and was a grand affair, with artillery salute, trumpeters, foresters, Christopher Columbus on horseback, farmers, gardeners, the Society of the Cincinnati “in full military uniform,” brewers showing in their ranks, “mounted on a tun of ale, a beautiful boy of eight years, in close-fitting, flesh-colored silk, representing Bacchus, with a silver goblet in his hand,” butchers, tanners, cordwainers “surrounding the car of the Sons of Saint Crispin,” furriers exhibiting “an Indian in native costume, loaded with furs, notwithstanding it was one of the hottest days in July.” 11 19
The chief object of wonder was the good ship Hamilton, presented by the ship-carpenters, mounted on wheels, a perfect frigate of thirty-two guns, with its crew, complete, firing salutes on its way. The confectioners surrounded an immense “Federal cake.” The judges and lawyers were followed by “John Lawrence, John Cozine, and Robert Troup, bearing the new Constitution elegantly engrossed on vellum, and ten students of law followed, bearing in order the ratification of the ten States.” 12 The tin-plate workers exhibited “the Federal tin warehouse, raised on ten pillars, with the motto:
When three more pillars rise,
Our Union will the world surprise.”
—tin-plate poetry, for the tin warehouse. Then came learned men, physicians, clergymen, the regent and students of Columbia University, scholars, and among them Noah Webster, famous since as a lexicographer, and then as a professor and journalist, now admired by everybody, but, in those days of strife, only by Federalists—“a mere pedagogue,” disdainfully wrote Jefferson later, “of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices,” in saying which he himself, maybe, showed some prejudice, too. 13 20
A grand banquet, at which, according to the New York Journal and Weekly Register, 14 bullocks were roasted whole for the “regale” of the guests, was held at the extreme point reached by the procession, called by the same paper the “parade des fêtes champêtres.” The President and members of Congress sat under a dome devised by L’Enfant. It was “surmounted by a figure of Fame, with a trumpet proclaiming a new era, and holding a scroll emblematic of the three great epochs of the war: Independence—Alliance with France—Peace.” 15
This was greatly admired. “The committee,” we read in a note printed by their order in the Imperial Gazetteer, “would be insensible of the zeal and merit of Major L’Enfant were they to omit expressing the obligation which they are under to him for the elegance of the design and the excellence of the execution of the pavilion and tables.” 16
The whole was a considerable success. “As it redounds much to the credit of the citizens, …” another paper observes, “it ought to be remarked that there was not the least outrage, or even indecency, notwithstanding 6,000 or 7,000 people (as supposed, spectators included) had collected, and that the whole company was dismissed at half after five o’clock.” 17
Three days after the procession the vote was taken at Poughkeepsie, and if any influence at all could be attributed to the effect on public opinion of the quasi-mediæval pageant, its organizers must have felt proud, for in an assembly of fifty-seven the Constitution was actually voted by a majority of two.
Note 1. Only his orthography is corrected in the quotations. Orthography was not L’Enfant’s strong point in any language. His mistakes are even worse in French than in English, the reason being, probably, that he took even less pains. [back] Note 2. Unpublished, n. d., but probably of 1784. (Papers of the Continental Congress—Letters, vol. LXXVIII, p. 583, Library of Congress.) His ambition would have been to be asked to realize his own plan, “as Brigadier-General Kosciusko, at leaving this continent, gave me the flattering expectation of being at the head of [such] a department.” [back] Note 3. On this visit, see below, p. 225. [back] Note 4. New York, 3d November, 1785. Papers of the Continental Congress—Letters, 1. 78, vol. XIV, p. 677. [back] Note 5. October 13, 1789. [back] Note 6. Taggart, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, XI, 215. [back] Note 7. Thomas E. V. Smith, The City of New York in 1789, p. 46, quoting contemporary magazines. [back] Note 8. Ibid. [back] Note 9. C. M. Bowen, The Centennial Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington, 1892, pp. 15, 16. [back] Note 10. “Mr. Lear does himself the honor to inform Major L’Enfant that Mrs. Washington intends to visit the federal building at six o’clock this evening.—Saturday morning, 13th June, 1789.” (L’Enfant papers.) [back] Note 11. Martha J. Lamb, History of the City of New York, 1881, vol. II, pp. 321 ff. [back] Note 12. Ten had already voted the Constitution, which made its enactment certain, for Congress had decided that an adoption by nine States would be enough for that. As is well known, there remained in the end only two dissenting States, North Carolina and Rhode Island. [back] Note 13. To James Madison, August 12, 1801. [back] Note 14. Number of July 24, 1788. [back] Note 15. Martha J. Lamb, ibid. [back] Note 16. July 26, 1788. [back] Note 17. New York Journal, July 24.
Note 1. [back] Note 2. Same letter. [back] Note 3. March 1, 1782. Washington papers. [back] Note 4. Brother of the minister to the United States, New York, December 10, 1787; unpublished. Archives of the French Ministry of Colonies. [back] Note 5. Mentioned before, p. 21. [back] Note 6. Brevet 14,302. Archives of the Ministry of War, Paris. [back] Note 7. Steuben writes him from West Point on July 1, 1783, sending him “a resolution of the convention of the Cincinnati of June 19, 1783, by which I am requested,” he says, “to transmit their thanks to you for your care and ingenuity in preparing the designs which were laid before them by the president on that day.” Original in the L’Enfant papers, in the possession of Doctor James Dudley Morgan, of Washington, a descendant of the Digges family, the last friends of L’Enfant. To him my thanks are due for having allowed me to use those valuable documents. Note 8. December 18, 1783. Rochambeau papers. Note 9. Asa Bird Gardner, The Order of the Cincinnati in France, 1905, pp. 9 ff. Note 10. An undated memoir (May, 1787?), in the Hamilton papers, Library of Congress. Note 11. Text annexed to L’Enfant’s letter to Rochambeau, June 15, 1786. Rochambeau papers.) On August 1, 1787, however, Francastel was still unpaid, for at that date one of L’Enfant’s friends, Duplessis, i. e., the Chevalier de Mauduit du Plessis, who, like himself, had served as a volunteer in the American army, writes him: “J’ai vu ici M. Francastel le bijoutier qui vous a fait une fourniture considérable de médailles de Cincinnatus et qui m’a dit que vous lui deviez 20,000 livres, je crois, plus ou moins. Je l’ai fort rassuré sur votre probité.” (L’Enfant papers.)
THE SAME year in which the New York Federal Hall had seen the inauguration of the first President, the chance of his life came to L’Enfant. He deserved it, because he not only availed himself of it, but went forth to meet it, giving up his abode in New York, “where I stood at the time,” he wrote later, “able of commanding whatever business I liked.” This was the founding of the federal city. 1
The impression was a general one among the French that those insurgents whom they had helped to become a free nation were to be a great one, too. Leaving England, where he was a refugee during our Revolution, Talleyrand decided to come to the United States, “desirous of seeing,” he says in his memoirs, “that great country whose history begins.” General Moreau, also a refugee, a few years later spoke with the same confidence of the future of the country: “I had pictured to myself the advantages of living under a free government; but I had conceived only in part what such happiness is: here it is enjoyed to the full.… It is impossible for men who have lived under such a government to allow themselves ever to be subjugated; they would be very great cowards if they did not perish to the last in order to defend it.” 1 2 L’Enfant, with his tendency to see things “engrand,” could not fail to act accordingly, and the moment he heard that the federal city would be neither New York nor Philadelphia, nor any other already in existence, but one to be built expressly, he wrote to Washington a letter remarkable by his clear understanding of the opportunity offered to the country, and by his determined purpose to work not for the three million inhabitants of his day, but for the one hundred of ours, and for all the unborn millions that will come after us. 3 The letter is dated from New York, 11th of September, 1789. “Sir,” he said, “the late determination of Congress to lay the foundation of a city which is to become the capital of this vast empire offers so great an occasion of acquiring reputation to whoever may be appointed to conduct the execution of the business that your Excellency will not be surprised that my ambition and the desire I have of becoming a useful citizen should lead me to wish a share in the undertaking. 4 “No nation, perhaps, had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed.… And, although the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent, it will be obvious that the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period, however remote. Viewing the matter in this light, I am fully sensible of the extent of the undertaking.” 2 5 Washington knew that L’Enfant was afflicted, to be sure, with an “untoward” temper, being haughty, proud, intractable, but that he was honest withal, sincere, loyal, full of ideas, and remarkably gifted. He decided to intrust him with the great task, thus justifying, a little later, his selection: “Since my first knowledge of the gentleman’s abilities in the line of his profession, I have received him not only as a scientific man, but one who has added considerable taste to professional knowledge; and that, for such employment as he is now engaged in, for prosecuting public works and carrying them into effect, he was better qualified than any one who had come within my knowledge in this country.” 3 The President informed L’Enfant that he was to set to work at once, and so bestir himself as to have at least a general plan to show a few months later, when he himself would return from a trip South. On March 2, 1791, Washington announced to Colonel Dickens, of Georgetown, the coming of the major: “An eminent French military engineer starts for Georgetown to examine and survey the site of the federal city.” A few days later the arrival of “Major Longfont” was duly recorded by the Georgetown Weekly Ledger. 4 6 L’Enfant’s enthusiasm and his desire to do well and quickly had been raised to a high pitch. He reached the place a few days later and found it wrapped in mist, soaked in rain, but he would not wait. “I see no other way,” he wrote to Jefferson on the 11th, “if by Monday next the weather does not change, but of making a rough draft as accurate as may be obtained by viewing the ground in riding over it on horseback, as I have already done yesterday through the rain, to obtain a knowledge of the whole.… As far as I was able to judge through a thick fog, I passed on many spots which appeared to me really beautiful, and which seem to dispute with each other [which] commands.” 5 7 When he could see the place to better advantage, his admiration knew no bounds. In an unpublished letter to Hamilton he says: “Now, when you may probably have heard that I am finally charged with delineating a plan for the city, I feel a sort of embarrassment how to speak to you as advantageously as I really think of the situation determined upon; for, as there is no doubt, I must feel highly interested in the success of the undertaking, I become apprehensive of being charged with partiality when I assure you that no position in America can be more susceptible of grand improvement than that between the eastern branch of the Potomac and Georgetown.” 6 8 A few weeks later L’Enfant was doing the honors of the spot to a brother artist, the painter Trumbull, just back from Yorktown, where he had been sketching in view of his big picture of the surrendering of Cornwallis, and who wrote in his autobiography: “Then to Georgetown, where I found Major L’Enfant drawing his plan of the city of Washington; rode with him over the ground on which the city has since been built. Where the Capitol now stands was then a thick wood.” (May, 1791.) 9 Another visitor of note came in the same year, namely the French minister, a former companion in arms of Lafayette and of L’Enfant himself, Ternant, back from a three days’ stay at Mount Vernon, and who gave his government an account of what he had observed: “I would not leave Georgetown without having seen the ground destined for the federal city. The position seemed to me a most interesting one from every point of view. The French engineer who has already traced the streets, is busy preparing a detailed plan.… The President shows the greatest interest in this new Salente, which is to bear his name.” 7 10 The city, L’Enfant thought, must be great, beautiful, and soon peopled, drawn “on that grand scale on which it ought to be planned”; 8 meant to absorb “Georgetown itself, whose name will before long be suppressed, and its whole district become a part of the cession.” 9 It must be quickly filled with inhabitants, because this will strengthen the Union: “I earnestly wish all that the Eastern States can spare may come this way, and believe it would answer as good a purpose as that of their emigration to the West. It would deface that line of markation which will ever oppose the South against the East, for when objects are seen at a distance the idea we form of them is apt to mislead us … and we fancy monstrous that object which, from a nearer view, would charm us.… Hence arises a natural though unwarrantable prejudice of nations against nations, of States against States, and so down to individuals, who often mistrust one another for want of being sufficiently acquainted with each other.” 10 11 The city must be beautiful, due advantage being taken of the hilly nature of the spot for grand or lovely prospects, and of its water resources for handsome fountains and cascades: “five grand fountains intended, with a constant spout of water—a grand cascade” at the foot of Capitol Hill, 11 etc., a part of the plan which was, unluckily, left in abeyance. Some had spoken of a plain rectangular plan, “a regular assemblage of houses laid out in squares, and forming streets all parallel and uniform.” This might be good enough, L’Enfant declared, “on a well-level plain, where, no surrounding object being interesting, it becomes indifferent which way the opening street may be directed.” But the case is quite different with the future federal city: “Such regular plans, however answerable they may appear on paper … become at last tiresome and insipid, and it could never be, in its origin, but a mean continence of some cool imagination wanting a sense of the really grand and truly beautiful, only to be met with where nature contributes with art and diversifies the objects.” 12 We may imagine what his feelings would be if he saw, in our days, the steam-shovel busy around the city, dumping as many hills as possible into as many vales, and securing a maximum platitude. 12 But the city must be more than that; besides being beautiful, healthy, commodious, it should be full of sentiment, of associations, of ideas; everything in it must be evocative and have a meaning and a “raison d’être.” Rarely was a brain more busy than that of L’Enfant during the first half of the year 1791. Surveying the ground, mapping out the district, sketching the chief buildings of the model city that was to be, 13 he presented three reports to Washington, the first, giving only his general ideas, before the end of March, the second in June, the last in August, the two latter accompanied with plans, the last of which being the one which was followed in the building of the city. 13 By the amplitude of its scope, the logic of the arrangements, the breadth of the streets and avenues, the beauty of the prospects cleverly taken into account, the quantity of ground set apart for gardens and parks, the display of waters, the plan was a unique monument. The selection of the place for what we call the Capitol and the White House, which were then called the Federal House and the Palace for the President, near which the ministerial departments were to be built, had been the result of a good deal of thinking and comparing. “After much menutial [sic] search for an eligible situation, prompted, as I may say, from a fear of being prejudiced in favor of a first opinion, I could discover no one so advantageously to greet the congressional building as is that on the west end of Jenkins heights, which stand as a pedestal waiting for a monument.… Some might, perhaps, require less labor to be made agreeable, but, after all assistance of arts, none ever would be made so grand.” On that very pedestal now rises the Capitol of the United States. 14 As for the “Presidential Palace,” L’Enfant made his choice with the object, he says, of “adding to the sumptuousness of a palace the convenience of a house and the agreeableness of a country meat,” which are the three main qualities actually combined in the present White House. He selected a spot which Washington had himself noticed as a convenient one, at some distance from Congress, it is true, but that would not matter much, L’Enfant thought, with his old-world notions of etiquette, for “no message to nor from The President is to be made without a sort of decorum which will doubtless point out the propriety of committee waiting on him in carriage, should his palace be even contiguous to Congress.” Since it was a question of driving, it little mattered whether the drive was to be a little more or less long. 15 For different reasons President Washington approved of that distance; major e longinquo amicitia, he apparently thought. “Where and how,” he once wrote to Alexander White, “the houses for The President and other public officers may be fixed is to me as an individual a matter of moonshine, but … the daily intercourse which the secretaries of the departments must have with The President would render a distant situation extremely inconvenient to them; and not much less so would one be close to the Capitol, for it was the universal complaint of them all, that while the legislature was in session they could do little or no business, so much were they interrupted by the individual visits of members (in office hours) and by calls for papers. Many of them have declared to me that they have often been obliged to go home and deny themselves in order to transact the current business.” 14 In that respect, carriage or no carriage, distance would have its merits. 16 L’Enfant’s letters and the notes accompanying his plans show that everything in the future city had been devised, indeed, with an intention: ever-flowing fountains and a cascade for health and beauty; an avenue of noble buildings, leading from the Capitol to the Presidential House, and increasing the dignified appearance of both: “The grand avenue,” he wrote, “connecting both the Palace and the Federal House will be most magnificent and most convenient,” with a number of handsome monuments, a very characteristic one being a temple for national semireligious celebrations, “such as public prayer, thanksgivings, funeral orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally opened to all.” It would also be a pantheon for the illustrious dead, “as may hereafter be decreed by the voice of a grateful nation.” A column, as yet never built, was “to be erected to celebrate the first rise of a navy, and to stand a ready monument to consecrate its progress and achievements.” The squares were to be allotted, one to each of the States forming the Union: “The centre of each square will admit of statues, columns, obelisks, or any other ornaments … to perpetuate not only the memory of such individuals whose counsels or military achievements were conspicuous in giving liberty and independence to this country, but also those whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation, to invite the youth of succeeding generations to tread in the paths of those sages or heroes whom their country has thought proper to celebrate.” This was a way, L’Enfant considered, of fortifying the Union and of giving to the very city that educational value to which he attached so much importance. 17 Chief among those patriotic objects was to be, at some distance north of the place where the Washington monument now rises, “the equestrian figure of George Washington, a monument voted in 1783 by the late Continental Congress.” And L’Enfant must certainly have hoped that the author would be his illustrious compatriot, the sculptor Houdon, on whose behalf we have seen him writing to Congress, in 1785, as to the probable cost. 18 Distant views and prospects were, of course, to be used to the best advantage: “Attention has been paid to the passing of those leading avenues over the most favorable ground for prospect and convenience.” But, above all, L’Enfant was persistent in his request that, on no account, the grandeur of his conception be in any way curtailed: it was to remain commensurate with the greatness of the United States of future times. The plan “must leave to posterity a grand idea of the patriotic interest which promoted it.” 15 He foresaw much opposition to some of his ideas, but besought the President to stand by him, and especially to prevent any dwarfing of his views: “I remain assured you will conceive it essential to pursue with dignity the operation of an undertaking of a magnitude so worthy of the concern of a grand empire … over whose progress the eyes of every other nation, envying the opportunity denied them, will stand judge.” 16 19 To make a man of that temper and enthusiasm, having a reason for each of his propositions, accept hints and change his mind was almost an impossibility. In vain did Jefferson object “to the obligation to build the houses at a given distance from the street.… It produces a disgusting monotony; all persons make this complaint against Philadelphia.” In the same record of his views, however, and much more to his credit, Washington’s secretary of state is seen foreseeing the sky-scraper and its dangers: “In Paris it is forbidden to build a house beyond a given height, and it is admitted to be a good restriction. It keeps down the price of grounds, keeps the houses low and convenient, and the streets light and airy. Fires are much more manageable when houses are low,” 17 as was only too well evidenced since in the fires at Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco. 20 As for the President himself, he had well-determined, practical ideas on some points, such as the befitting distance between the places of abode of Congress and of the chief of the state, and, what was of more import, the necessarily large extent of the ground to be reserved for the building of the future capital. 18 On the rest, with his habit of trusting those who knew, he seems to have left free rein to L’Enfant. Submitting to him certain suggestions, some from Jefferson, he allows him to use them or not, as he pleases, and he personally seems to incline toward not: “Sir, although I do not conceive that you will derive any material advantage from an examination of the inclosed papers, yet, as they have been drawn under different circumstances and by different persons, they may be compared with your own ideas of a proper plan for the federal city.… The rough sketch by Mr. Jefferson was done under an idea that no offer worthy of consideration would come from the landholders in the vicinity of Carrollsburgh, from the backwardness which appeared in them, and therefore was accommodated to the grounds about Georgetown.” 19 21 Criticism of L’Enfant’s plan turned out to be insignificant, and the approbation general. “The work of Major L’Enfant, which is greatly admired, will show,” Washington said, “that he had many objects to attend to and to combine, not on paper merely, but to make them correspond with the actual circumstances of the ground.” 20 Jefferson, who had the good taste not to stick to his own former suggestions, was sending, a little later, copies of the plan to Gouverneur Morris, then minister to France, for him to exhibit in various cities as a thing for the United States to be proud of: “I sent you by the way of London a dozen plans of the city of Washington in the Federal territory, hoping you would have them displayed to public view where they would be most seen by those descriptions of men worthy and likely to be attracted to it. Paris, Lyons, Rouen, and the seaport towns of Havre, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseille would be proper places to send them to.” 21 22 Three assistants had been given to L’Enfant, two of the Ellicot brothers (Andrew and Benjamin) and Isaac Roberdeau, the major’s trustiest second. Three Commissioners of the District had been appointed, Thomas Johnson and Daniel Carroll, both of Maryland, and David Stuart, of Virginia. They notified L’Enfant, on the 9th of September, 1791, that a name had been selected for the district and the city: “We have agreed that the federal district shall be called ‘the Territory of Columbia,’ and the federal city ‘the City of Washington.’ The title of the map will therefore be ‘A map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia.’” 23 For the expropriation of the ground with a minimum actual outlay, an ingenious system, also applied elsewhere, had been adopted: “The terms entered into by me,” Washington wrote to Jefferson, “on the part of the United States with the landowners of Georgetown and Carrollsburgh, are that all the land from Rock Creek along the river to the Eastern Branch … is ceded to the public, on condition that, when the whole shall be surveyed and laid off as a city, which Major L’Enfant is now directed to do, the present proprietors shall retain every other lot, and for such parts of the land as may be taken for public use they shall be allowed at the rate of twenty-five pounds per acre, the public having the right to reserve such parts of the wood on the land as may be thought necessary to be preserved for ornament; the landholders to have the use and profit of all the grounds until the city is laid off into lots, which by this agreement became public property. Nothing is to be allowed for the ground which may be occupied as streets or alleys.” The President was confident that everybody would acquiesce and show good-will, “even the obstinate Mr. Burns.” 22 24 But it turned out that there were other obstinate people besides Mr. Burns, L’Enfant himself chief among them. He had evinced from the first a great fear of speculators, and was at once at war with them. “How far,” he boldly wrote to Hamilton, “I have contributed to overset that plotting business, it would not do for me to tell; besides, I am not wholly satisfied whether I would be thanked for by the people among whom you live.” 23 The three Commissioners had notions of their own, but could never bring L’Enfant to take into account either their persons or their ideas; he would acknowledge no chief except Washington, who, gently at first, firmly afterward, sternly later, and vainly throughout, tried to make the major understand that he was one of the Commissioners’ subordinates. A great reciprocal irritation, which even the President’s painstaking diplomacy could not assuage, began between them from the first. Out of fear of speculators, L’Enfant wanted the sale of the lots to be delayed, while the Commissioners desired to make a beginning as soon as possible. The officer kept, accordingly, his plan to himself, and refused to have it shown to would-be purchasers. How, then, Washington exclaimed, could they be “induced to buy, to borrow an old adage, a pig in a poke”? 24 25 The major would not be persuaded, and, giving an early example of an unconquerable fear of what would now be called a “trust,” he persisted in refusing to show his plan to any individual or association. He had declared beforehand, in one of his reports to the President, what were his views and how things should be delayed until the plan could be engraved, distributed all over the country, and made known to all people at the same time: “A sale made previous the general plan of the distribution of the city is made public, and before the circumstance of that sale taking place has had time to be known through the whole continent, will not call a sufficient concurrence, and must be confined to a few individuals speculating … and the consequence of a low sale in this first instance may prove injurious to the subsequent ones by serving as precedents.” He was afraid of the “plotting of a number of certain designing men,” of the forming of a “society” organized “to engross the most of the sale and master the whole business.” 25 26 When one of the chief landowners of the district, Daniel Carroll, of Duddington, a relative of one of the Commissioners, decided, in spite of all warnings, to go on with the building of a house across what was to be New Jersey Avenue, matters came to a crisis. Washington tried to pacify L’Enfant, whose indignation knew no bounds. “As a similar case,” he wrote to him, “cannot happen again (Mr. Carroll’s house having been begun before the federal district was fixed upon), no precedent will be established by yielding a little in the present instance; and it will always be found sound policy to conciliate the good-will rather than provoke the enmity of any man, where it can be accomplished without much difficulty, inconvenience, or loss.” 27 But even at the request of a leader whom he worshipped, L’Enfant would not be persuaded. With no authority from the Commissioners, he sent his faithful Roberdeau to raze the house to the ground, which was but partly done when the Commissioners had Roberdeau arrested. L’Enfant thereupon came in person with some laborers, and saw the work of destruction perfected (November 22). He barely escaped arrest himself. Washington, who, as he wrote to Jefferson, was loath to lose “his services, which in my opinion would be a serious misfortune,” severely remonstrated now with the major. “In future I must strictly enjoin you to touch no man’s property without his consent, or the previous order of the Commissioners,” adding in kindlier tones: “Having the beauty and regularity of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person or thing were obliged to yield to it.” 26 28 But so they are, thought L’Enfant. For him the city was his city, his child, and a father has a right to rear his child as he pleases. Remonstrating went on some time. Jefferson came to the rescue of the President, used the fairest means, asked the major to dine with him “tête à tête,” so as to quietly discuss the federal city, the hour for the meal differing rather widely from ours: “Mr. Jefferson presents his compliments to Major L’Enfant, and is sorry to have been absent when he was so kind as to call on him, as he wishes to have some conversation with him on the subject of the federal city. He asks the favor of him to come and take a private dinner with him tomorrow at half after three, which may afford time and opportunity for the purpose.—Saturday January 7, 1792.” 27 Nothing resulted. Another landowner, Notley Young, had been found in December building a house which had, “contrary to expectation, fallen into a principal street. But I hope,” Washington wrote the Commissioners, “the major does not mean to proceed to the demolition of this also.” 29 On no point would L’Enfant yield, so that on March 6, 1792, Jefferson wrote to the Commissioners: “It having been found impracticable to employ Major L’Enfant in that degree of subordination which was lawful and proper, he has been notified that his services were at an end.” 30 A consolation and a comfort to him was the immediate signing by all the landowners of the district, except two, of a testimonial “lamenting” his departure, wishing for his return, praising his work, “for we well know that your time and the whole powers of your mind have been for months entirely devoted to the arrangements in the city which reflect so much honor on your taste and judgment.” 28 31
Note 1. To his brother, Philadelphia, November 17, 1806. Revue des Deux Mondes, November 15, 1908, p. 421. [back] Note 2. Original (several times printed in part) in the Library of Congress, Miscellaneous—Personal. The rest of the letter treats of the necessity of fortifying the coasts. [back] Note 3. To David Stuart, November 20, 1791. [back] Note 4. W. B. Bryan’s History of the National Capital, 1914, p. 127. [back] Note 5. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, II, 151. [back] Note 6. April 8, 1791. Hamilton Papers, vol. XI, Library of Congress. [back] Note 7. September 30, October 24, 1791. Correspondence of the French Ministers, ed. F. J. Turner, 1904, p. 62. “Salente,” the ideal city, in Fénelon’s Télémaque. During the War of Independence Chevalier Jean de Ternant had served as a volunteer officer in the American army. He was at Valley Forge, at Charleston, took part under Greene in the Southern campaign and was promoted a colonel by a vote of Congress. [back] Note 8. To Jefferson, March 11, 1791. [back] Note 9. To Hamilton, April 8, 1791. [back] Note 10. Same letter to Hamilton. [back] Note 11. L’Enfant’s Observations Explanatory of the Plan, inscribed on the plan itself. [back] Note 12. First report to the President, March 26, 1791. [back] Note 13. For he was depended upon for that, too: “M. L’Enfant,” Ternant wrote, “aura aussi la direction des bâtimens que le Congrès se propose d’y faire élever.” September 30, 1791. See also the documents quoted by W. B. Bryan, History of the National Capital, 1914, p. 165, note. L’Enfant actually made drawings for the Capitol, the President’s house, the bridges, the market, etc., which he complained later the commissioners to have unjustly appropriated. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, II, 140. [back] Note 14. March 25, 1798. [back] Note 15. L’Enfant’s Observations Explanatory of the Plan, inscribed on it. [back] Note 16. Conclusion of his third report. [back] Note 17. “Opinion on Capital,” November 29, 1790. Writings, ed. Ford, V, 253. [back] Note 18. Which agreed perfectly with L’Enfant’s constant desire to ever do things “en grand.” Washington writes to him that, “although it may not be immediately wanting,” a large tract of ground must be reserved. The lands to be set apart, “in my opinion are those between Rock Creek, the Potowmac River, and the Eastern Branch, and as far up the latter as the turn of the channel above Evens’s point; thence including the flat back of Jenkins’s height; thence to the road leading from Georgetown to Bladensburg as far easterly along the same as to include the Branch which runs across it, somewhere near the exterior of the Georgetown Session. Thence in a proper direction to Rock Creek at or above the ford, according to the situation of ground.” Mount Vernon, April 4, 1791, Washington’s manuscript Letter Book, vol. XI, Library of Congress. [back] Note 19. Same letter. [back] Note 20. To the Commissioners, December 18, 1791. [back] Note 21. Philadelphia, March 12, 1793. [back] Note 22. March 31, 1791. [back] Note 23. April 8, 1791. Hamilton papers, vol. XI. [back] Note 24. To David Stuart, November 20, 1791. [back] Note 25. Report to the President, August 19, 1791. [back] Note 26. December 2, 1791. [back] Note 27. L’Enfant papers. [back] Note 28. March 9, 1792. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, II, 137.
THE BRIGHT part of L’Enfant’s life was over. His fame was great, and appeals continued for some time to be made to him when important works were contemplated. But his same tendency to ever see things “en grand,” his unyielding disposition, his increasing and almost morbid fear of speculators wrecked more than one of his undertakings. 1
Almost on his leaving his work at Washington he was asked to draw the plans of the first manufacturing city, devised as such, in the United States, and which is to-day one of the most important in existence, Paterson, N. J. “Major L’Enfant, it is said,” wrote Washington, who still retained a friendly feeling for him, “is performing wonders at the new town of Paterson.” 1 The moving spirit was Hamilton, under whose influence had been founded the “Society for the Establishing Useful Manufactures.” The chief point was to transform into a city a spot where only ten houses were in existence, and to make of it an industrial one by turning into use the Falls of the Passaic. Several letters of the major to Hamilton, giving an account of the work, in which faithful Roberdeau was helping, and of the increasing difficulties with all sorts of people, are preserved in the Library of Congress. After one year’s toil, L’Enfant was once more notified that his services were no longer wanted. 2 He is found in the same year and the following one working as an engineer at Fort Mifflin, on the Delaware, and as an architect at a mansion in Philadelphia which was to surpass in magnificence any other in the States. It had been ordered of him by Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, and the richest man in America. 2 Here was, if ever, an occasion to do things “en grand.” L’Enfant, however, did them “en plus grand” than even the financier had dreamed; improvements and afterthoughts, the use of marble for columns and façades increased the delay and the expense. His being busy at Paterson had also been at first another cause of complaint. “Dear Sir,” Morris beseechingly wrote him from Philadelphia, “I had like to have stopped my house for fear of wanting money; that difficulty being removed, it will now be stopped for want of Major L’Enfant.” 3 The roof had at last been put on, and one could judge of the beauty of the ensemble, quite remarkable, as we can see from a sketch by Birch the Elder preserved in the Philadelphia Library, when Morris’s catastrophe occurred, putting an end to the work, and swallowing part, if not all, of L’Enfant’s savings. 4 3 In his delight at being intrusted with the plan of the federal city he had never said a word about any remuneration, and he had not copyrighted his plan. At the time of his dismissal Washington had written to the Commissioners: “The plan of the city having met universal applause (as far as my information goes), and Major L’Enfant having become a very discontented man, it was thought that less than from two thousand five hundred to three thousand dollars, would not be proper to offer him for his services; instead of this, suppose five hundred guineas and a lot in a good part of the city were substituted?” 4 The offer was made; L’Enfant refused, without giving reasons. More and more gloomy times were in store for him; mishaps and disappointments multiplied. He had laid great store on the selling of copies of his plan, but since he had not copyrighted it, no royalty on the sale was reserved for him. He protested against this, against the way in which the engraving had been made, with grievous “errors of execution,” and against the suppression of his name on it, “depriving me of the repute of the projector.” Contrary, however, to the fear expressed at first by Washington, that out of spite he might, in his discontent, side with the many who disapproved of the vast and difficult undertaking, he remained loyal to it, and “there is no record of any act or word that tarnishes his life history with the blemish of disloyalty to the creation of his genius. He bore his honors and disappointments in humility and poverty.” 5 5 Poverty was, indeed, at his door, and soon in his house. Haunted by the notion of his wrongs, some only too real, some more or less imaginary, he sent to Congress memoir after memoir, recalling what he had done, and what was his destitution, the “absolute destruction of his family’s fortune in Europe,” owing to the French Revolution, his being reduced “from a state of ease and content to one the most distressed and helpless,” living as he did, upon “borrowed bread”; but he would not doubt of “the magnanimity and justice of Congress.” 6 6 The family’s fortune had been reduced, indeed, to a low ebb, his own lack of attention to his financial affairs making matters worse. His inability to properly attend to them is only too well evidenced by some letters from French relatives, showing that, while he was himself in absolute want, he neglected to receive the pension bestowed on him by the French Government, and which, in spite of the Revolution, had been maintained. He had also inherited from the old painter, his father, a small farm in Normandy, but had taken no steps about it, so that the farmer never ceased to pocket the revenues. 7 7 One of these letters, which tells him of the death of his mother, who “died with the piety of an angel,” shows what reports reached France as to the major’s standing among his American friends: “All the persons whom I have seen and who know you, assured me that you enjoyed public esteem. This is everything in a country of which people praise the morals, the virtues, and the probity as worthy of our first ancestors.” 8 8 On two occasions, after many years, Congress voted modest sums for L’Enfant, but they were at once appropriated by his creditors. He was, moreover, appointed, in 1812, “professor of the art of military engineering in the Military Academy of the United States,” a nomination which, in spite of the entreaties of James Monroe, then secretary of state, he declined. He is found in September, 1814, working at Fort Washington, when fifty men with spades and axes are sent him. 9 He survived eleven years, haunting the lobbies of the Capitol, pacing the newly marked avenues of “his” city, watching its growth, deploring the slightest deviation from his original design, for, as Washington had early noticed, he was “so tenacious of his plans as to conceive that they would be marred if they underwent any change or alteration,” 9 visiting the friends he had among the early settlers. “Mr. W. W. Corcoran, who lately departed this life in the city of Washington, full of years and honor … had a very distinct recollection of the personal appearance of L’Enfant, the latter having been a frequent visitor at his father’s house. He described him to me as a tall, erect man, fully six feet in height, finely proportioned, nose prominent, of military bearing, courtly air, and polite manners, his figure usually enveloped in a long overcoat and surmounted by a bell-crowned hat—a man who would attract attention in any assembly.” 10 10 He ended his days, the permanent guest of the Digges family, in their house near Washington. His death occurred there in 1825, and he was buried in their property at the foot of a tree. An inventory of his “personal goods and chattels” showed that they consisted in three watches, three compasses, some books, maps, and surveying instruments, the whole being valued at forty-six dollars. 11 The federal city, Washington had written in 1798 to Mrs. Sarah Fairfax, then in England, will be a great and beautiful one “a century hence, if this country keeps united, and it is surely its policy and interest to do it.” It took, indeed, a great many years, and for a long time doubters could enjoy their doubts, and jokers their jokes. The Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited the incipient town in 1797; he found that it possessed one hundred and fifty houses, scattered here and there; the house for the President was ready to be covered the same year, and the only wing of the Capitol yet begun was to receive its roof the year following, both being “handsome buildings, in white stones very well wrought.” But the unredeemable fault, in his eyes, was the very magnitude and beauty of the plan. “The plan,” he wrote, “is fine, cleverly and grandly designed, but it is its very grandeur, its magnificence, which causes it to be nothing but a dream.” The distance, so heartily approved of by Washington, between the President’s house and the Capitol, seemed to the traveller a serious objection; the raising of five hundred houses would be necessary to connect the two buildings; not one is in existence. “If this gap is not filled, communication will be impracticable in winter, for one can scarcely suppose that the United States would undergo the expense for pavement, footpaths, and lamps for such a long stretch of uninhabited ground.” 11 This wonder has, however, been seen. 12 For a long time, for more than half the present duration of the city’s life, deriders could deride to their heart’s content. Few cities have ever been so abundantly nicknamed as Washington, the “wilderness city,” the city “of magnificent distances,” the “village monumental,” the city, as reported by Jean-Jacques Ampère, the son of the great scientist, who visited it in 1851, of “streets without houses, and of houses without streets.” He saw in its fate “a striking proof of this truth that one cannot create a great city at will.” But this truth, as some others, has proved an untruth. 13 The growth was slow, indeed, but constant, and when the century was over, Washington’s prophecy and L’Enfant’s foresight were justified by the event. A city had risen, ample and beautiful, a proper capital for a wealthy and powerful nation, one quite apart, copied on no other, “not one of those cities,” as was remarked, in our days, by one of Washington’s successors, Mr. Roosevelt, “of which you can cut out a piece and transplant it into another, without any one perceiving that something has happened.” 14 Then at last came L’Enfant’s day. What he had always expected for “his” city took place; what he had never expected for himself took place also. In January, 1902, both the “Park Commission,” composed of Daniel H. Burnham, Charles F. McKim, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and F. L. Olmsted, and the Senate committee presented their reports on the improvement and development of Washington; the conclusions were: “The original plan of the city of Washington, having stood the test of a century, has met universal approval. The departures from that plan are to be regretted, and wherever possible, remedied.” It was thus resolved to revert, as much as circumstances allowed, and in spite of a heavy outlay, to several of L’Enfant’s ideas, especially to one which he considered of greatest importance, and which had been kept so long in abeyance, the giving of its proper character to that “grand avenue” between the Capitol and the White House, meant to be “most magnificent and most convenient.” It is now going to be both. 15 As for L’Enfant himself, one more appropriation, this time not to go to his creditors, was voted by Congress on account of the major, and it was resolved that his ashes, the place of which continued to be marked only by a tree, should be removed to Arlington National Cemetery, to lie in that ever-growing army of the dead, former members of the regiments of that Republic for which he had fought and bled. His remains were brought to what had been “Jenkins’s Hill,” and placed under the great dome of the Capitol. In the presence of the chief of the state, President Taft, of representatives of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Society of the Cincinnati, and other patriotic and artistic societies, and of a vast crowd, on the 28th of April, 1909, orations were delivered by the Vice-President of the United States, James Sherman, and by the Chief Commissioner of the District, Henry B. McFarland, the latter amply making up, by his friendly and eloquent address, for the long-forgotten troubles of his predecessors with L’Enfant. The Vice-President courteously concluded thus: “And turning to you, Mr. Ambassador … I express the hope that the friendship between our nations, which has existed for more than a century, will be but intensified as time passes, and that we will in the future join hands in advancing every good cause which an all-wise Providence intrusts to our care.” The hearse, wrapped in the three colors of France and America, was accompanied to Arlington by the French naval and military attachés, and an escort from one of those regiments of engineers to which the major himself had belonged. 16 A handsome monument was unveiled two years later by Miss E. C. Morgan, the great-grand-daughter of William Digges, who had befriended L’Enfant in his last days, the chief speeches being delivered by President Taft, and by the secretary of state, Elihu Root. 12 “Few men,” Mr. Root said, “can afford to wait a hundred years to be remembered. It is not a change in L’Enfant that brings us here. It is we who have changed, who have just become able to appreciate his work. And our tribute to him should be to continue his work.” The monument, by W. W. Bosworth, who, like L’Enfant had received in Paris his artistic education, is in the shape of a table, on which has been engraved a facsimile of the original plan of the city by the French soldier-artist. From the slope where it has been raised can be seen, on the other side of the river, the ceaselessly growing federal capital, called Washington, “a revered name,” another French officer, the Chevalier de Chastellux, had written, when visiting, in 1782, another and earlier town of the same name in Connecticut, “a revered name, whose memory will undoubtedly last longer than the very city called upon to perpetuate it.” 17
Note 1. To the Commissioners, November 30, 1792. [back] Note 2. Morris had bought for it a whole block, limited on its four sides by Chestnut, Walnut, Seventh, and Eighth Streets. [back] Note 3. May 9, 1793. (L’Enfant papers.) [back] Note 4. He seems to have tried to help the financier rather than to be helped by him. Ill-satisfied as he was with the house, for which he, apparently, never paid l’Enfant anything, Morris wrote: “But he lent me thirteen shares of bank stock disinterestedly, and on this point I feel the greatest anxiety that he should get the same number of shares with the dividends, for the want of which he has suffered great distress.” Written about 1800. W. B. Bryan, History of the National Capital, 1914, p. 181. [back] Note 5. S. C. Busey, Pictures of the City of Washington in the Past, 1898, p. 108. [back] Note 6. Memoirs of 1801, 1802, 1813, in the Jefferson papers, Library of Congress. [back] Note 7. Letter from his cousin, Destouches, Paris, September 15, 1805, greatly exaggerating, as shown by the letter mentioned below, his mother’s state of poverty. (L’Enfant papers.) [back] Note 8. From his cousin, Mrs. Roland, née Mallet, whose husband had a modest position at the Ministry of the Navy; Paris, May 5, 1806. The mother’s furniture and silver plate was valued at 1,500 livres. Allusion is made to L’Enfant’s deceased sister and to her “mariage projeté avec Mr. Leclerc.” (L’Enfant papers.) [back] Note 9. To David Stuart, November 20, 1791. [back] Note 10. Hugh T. Taggart, in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, XI, 216. [back] Note 11. Voyage en Amérique, VI, 122 ff. [back] Note 12. May 22, 1911. [back]
- Philadelphia, February 18, 1782. Washington papers, Library of Congress.
- Same letter.
- March 1, 1782. Washington papers.
- Brother of the minister to the United States, New York, December 10, 1787; unpublished. Archives of the French Ministry of Colonies.
- Mentioned before, p. 21.
- Brevet 14,302. Archives of the Ministry of War, Paris.
- Steuben writes him from West Point on July 1, 1783, sending him “a resolution of the convention of the Cincinnati of June 19, 1783, by which I am requested,” he says, “to transmit their thanks to you for your care and ingenuity in preparing the designs which were laid before them by the president on that day.” Original in the L’Enfant papers, in the possession of Doctor James Dudley Morgan, of Washington, a descendant of the Digges family, the last friends of L’Enfant. To him my thanks are due for having allowed me to use those valuable documents.
- December 18, 1783. Rochambeau papers.
- Asa Bird Gardner, The Order of the Cincinnati in France, 1905, pp. 9 ff.
- An undated memoir (May, 1787?), in the Hamilton papers, Library of Congress.
- Text annexed to L’Enfant’s letter to Rochambeau, June 15, 1786. (Rochambeau papers.) On August 1, 1787, however, Francastel was still unpaid, for at that date one of L’Enfant’s friends, Duplessis, i. e., the Chevalier de Mauduit du Plessis, who, like himself, had served as a volunteer in the American army, writes him: “J’ai vu ici M. Francastel le bijoutier qui vous a fait une fourniture considérable de médailles de Cincinnatus et qui m’a dit que vous lui deviez 20,000 livres, je crois, plus ou moins. Je l’ai fort rassuré sur votre probité.” (L’Enfant papers.)