Rare Letter Written by George Washington to Be Auctioned at Christie’s on Friday
The 1792 missive from the first President to David Stuart concerns the planning of Washington, DC and the “untoward temper” of Pierre L’Enfant.
DC government leaders, you are not alone. Veritable centuries before the phrases “fully loaded” and “b***h set me up” were a common part of the local cultural lexicon, a most prominent local figure was struggling with bad publicity, bureaucratic delays, inefficient staff, and connections to shady characters who would later be imprisoned for not paying their debts.
Such were the burdens weighing on President George Washington in 1792 when he dashed off a letter to David Stuart in “George Town” to discuss the construction of the Federal City that would later be named after him. Frustrated by inaction and the negative sniping of a naysayer named Francis Cabot Lowell, Washington stresses his intention to appoint “a man of fertile genius and comprehensive ideas” to oversee the construction of the city following the firing of Pierre L’Enfant. The letter, which will be auctioned at Christie’s in New York Friday and has an estimated value of $250,000 to $400,000, asks that the commissioners of the city appoint a new superintendent to supervise the project.
This is no easy task, Washington acknowledges. “But where, you may ask, is the character to be found who possesses these qualifications? I frankly answer I know not! Major L’Enfant (who it is said is performing wonders at the new town of Patterson) if he could have been restrained within proper bounds and his temper was less untoward, is the only person with whose turn to matters of this sort I am acquainted.”
“There’s always been tremendous interest on the part of collectors in letters and documents written by George Washington,” says Christies’ Chris Coover, senior specialist in manuscripts and Americana. “The fact that [this letter] is about the layout and planning of Washington, DC makes it even more interesting. If you read between the lines, Washington’s frustration is palpable.”
The letter also spends time discussing the qualifications of Samuel Blodget, an amateur architect and economist whose shady real estate schemes later led to his being imprisoned in 1802 (he was also one of the original campaigners for a fund to establish George Washington University). Says Washington of Blodget: “He … is certainly a projecting genius … if he has any influence in this country, it must be in a quarter where it is most needed; and where, indeed, an antidote is necessary to the poison which Mr. F___s C___t [Francis Cabot] is spreading, by insinuations, that the accomplishment of the Plan is no more to be expected than the fabric of a vision, & will vanish in like manner.”
Washington concludes the letter with a barrage of questions concerning a plan for the Capitol and the foundation of the president’s house. The following year in 1793, the first cornerstone of the US Capitol was laid, although it would be another seven years before Congress would hold its first session in 1800, by which time President Washington had succumbed to a sore throat.
Whatever Washington’s problems were, one thing the president benefitted from is a quality rarely associated with government these days: goodwill. “Washington was fortunate to come into the office as the first president with a great deal of personal respect, which made it much easier to pass legislation,” says Coover. “He didn’t have quite the same difficulties we see now.”
The letter goes up for auction as one of the star items in a sale of rare books and letters written by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Voltaire, and other luminaries. For more information (or to place a bid if you have a spare few hundred thousand knocking around), visit the Christie’s website.
The letter’s full text is reprinted below with kind permission of the auctioneers.
To David Stuart (one of the three Commissioners of the District)
Philadelphia, November 30, 1792
Knowing that tomorrow is the time appointed for the monthly meeting of the Commissioners at George Town, I had intend’d to have written you a line or two on a particular subject by Wednesday’s Post; but one thing or another put it out of mind until it was too late. I now set down to do it as the letter in the common course of the Post will reach George Town on Monday, probably before you have left that place.
You will consider what I am now about to say as a private communication; the object of which is only to express more freely than I did in my last letter to the Commissioners, the idea that is entertained of the necessity of appointing a Superintendant of the execution of the plans & measures which shall be resolved upon by the Commissioners of the Federal City—one who shall always reside there—and being a man of skill & judgment—of industry & integrity, would from having a view of the business constantly before his eyes be enabled to conduct it to greater advantage than the Commissioners can possibly do unless they were to devote their whole time to it. Instances of this are adduced by some of the Proprietors; particularly in the alteration which has taken place in the Bridge, the delay consequent thereof, &c. It is remarked by some of (the best disposed of) them, that although you meet monthly, spend much time together, and are truly anxious to forward this great object; yet, from the nature of the thing, you cannot acquire at those meetings the minute information which a proper character always on the spot would do, and which is indispensably necessary to do in order to avoid mistakes, and to give vigor to the undertaking.
And besides, add they, a man of fertile genius, & comprehensive ideas, would, by having the business always before him, seeing, shewing to, & conversing with Gentlemen who may be led either by curiosity or an inclination to become adventurers therein, to view the City, obtain many useful hints, by means of which, and his own reflections, might suggest useful projects to the consideration of the Commissioners at their stated (say) quarterly meetings, or at such occasional ones as he might, in cases of importance and emergency, be entertained to call.
But where, you may ask, is the character to be found who possesses these qualifications? I frankly answer I know not! Major L’Enfant (who it is said is performing wonders at the new town of Patterson) if he could have been restrained within proper bounds and his temper was less untoward, is the only person with whose turn to matters of this sort I am acquainted, that I think fit for it. There may, notwithstanding, be many others although they are unknown to me, equally so.
Mr. Blodget seems to be the person on whom many eyes are turned, & among others who look that way, are some of the Proprietors. He has travelled, I am told, a good deal in Europe, & has turned his attention (according to his account) to architecture & matters of this kind. He has staked much on the issue of the Law establishing the permanent residence; and is certainly a projecting genius, with a pretty general acquaintance. To which may be added, if he has any influence in this country, it must be in a quarter where it is most needed; and where, indeed, an antidote is necessary to the poison which Mr. F____s C___t [Francis Cabot] is spreading, by insinuations, that the accomplishment of the Plan is no more to be expected than the fabric of a vision, & will vanish in like manner. But whether with these qualifications, Mr Blodget is a man of industry & steadiness, & whether (as soon as it is necessary) he would take up a settled abode there, are points I am unable to resolve.* (*) As an Architect, Mr Jefferson has a high opinion of Mr Hallet, but whether Mr Hallet has qualities, & is sufficiently known to fit him for a general Superintendency I cannot pretend even to give an opinion upon. If Mr Blodget is contemplated for this office would it not be well to be on or off with him at once. Now he is held in suspence on this head.
Have you yet decided on a Plan for the Capitol? Mr. Carroll talked of their being sent hither. Is anything done towards the foundation of the president’s house? What number of lots are bona fide sold? In what squares do they lye? Let your clerk send me a list. Do you receive offers to purchase at private sale? If you have fixed on a time for another public sale, ought not notice thereof be immediately given; & measures adopted to make the thing known in Europe as well as in this Country. Inserting advertisements in the Gazettes of the latter at intervals between this & the sale, by way of remembrances. A little expence in these would be profitably incurred. How does Ellicot go on? I am always, & affectly Yours,