First President and Federal City: George Washington and the Creation of Washington, DC

Neal Millikan. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 47, Issue 2. June 2017.

George Washington spent his presidential years living in both New York City and Philadelphia, yet his attention often centered on the city that would bear his name and eventually become the capital: Washington, DC. Once he signed the Residence Act in July 1790, the new Federal City occupied much of his time and energy as president. Washington appointed the city’s three commissioners and closely monitored their activities. He also involved himself in choosing a site, overseeing the location and progress of the various building projects, finding the means to finance the city, and dealing with complaints from citizens who believed they had been mistreated by the commissioners. Washington’s involvement was especially extensive toward the end of his presidency. After the publication of his Farewell Address in September 1796 he devoted a great deal of his remaining time in office to ensuring the construction work continued, the necessary funds were raised, and that the city being built up the river from his beloved Mount Vernon would be ready for habitation by the government in 1800. As one correspondent noted during Washington’s second term, “the success of” the Federal City “has now become important to your Reputation.” This article examines President Washington’s impact on the formation of Washington, DC, with particular focus on the personal attention he gave to the new capital during his final months in office.

Historians and political scientists have paid scant attention to Washington’s leadership role in the formation of the Federal City during the last months he was president. Part of the reason may be that The Papers of George Washington documentary editing project has not yet finished its series on Washington’s presidential years. The time and effort that goes into locating, transcribing, annotating, and indexing the volumes to make them useful to researchers means that this series, which began publication in 1987, is still being actively edited today. With every new volume published, fresh information comes to light on some aspect of Washington’s presidential leadership, whether in the realm of foreign diplomacy or in how he dealt with domestic issues.

This article highlights the leadership role Washington took independent of members of his cabinet and often at the behest of the DC commissioners whom he had personally hired to oversee the Federal City. As Jack D. Warren (1996, 14) has rightly emphasized, Washington’s involvement in the decision making regarding the new capital shows that the president was a much more active, hands-on leader than he has sometimes been given credit for being. When it came to creating the new capital, Washington was neither passive (Barber 1972) nor a figurehead above the fray (McDonald 1974).

Although much has been written about Washington as a presidential leader, most of these studies ignore (McDonald 1974) or only briefly mention (Burns and Dunn 2004) the president’s role in the foundation and development of early Washington, DC. Two books on the establishment of the Federal City, Kenneth Bowling’s The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital and Bob Arnebeck’s Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800, do note the role Washington played in creating the new capital. However, in both of these works, Washington is portrayed as only one of many players in the city’s formation; in Bowling’s book, the president’s decisions are largely limited to the final chapter, “George Washington in Command, 1790-1799,” and Arnebeck gives equal time in his work to Washington, the commissioners, city residents, and land speculators (Bowling 1990; Arnebeck 1991).

More recently, Stuart Leibiger’s Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic included a chapter that focused on the relationship between these two men during the early planning stages of Washington, DC. Leibiger rightly argues that Washington was the “first hidden-hand president” who “often cloaked his instrumentality” and that he was never simply “a majestic figurehead presiding over powerful appointees” (1999, 10). Leibiger’s chapter on the foundation of the Federal City notes that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, along with Washington, constituted “a three-way collaboration” that “guided the national capital’s initial construction” (1999, 146). Yet Leibiger argues that by 1792 Madison’s influence in this area had ceased (1999, 149). And when Jefferson left the cabinet in 1794 the collaboration ended, with the decision-making responsibilities falling primarily to Washington, who in many cases served as the final arbiter when the DC commissioners came to him with problems.

By closely examining Washington’s hands-on approach to the creation of the Federal City, especially during his last months in office, I show that the first president was an active and assertive chief executive, immersed in the details of administration and often making decisions without the advice or input of others. Washington’s dynamic, personal leadership style in establishing the new Federal City calls into question the validity of Forrest McDonald’s oft-repeated thesis that “Washington had done little in his own right” (1974, 186) during his presidency. The reality is that, at least with respect to the creation of the capital, Washington was the prime mover within his administration.

On July 16, 1790 Congress passed “An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,” also known as the Residence Act. This act authorized the president to appoint three commissioners who would help him prepare the city for the first Monday in December 1800 when they, under his approval, had to “provide suitable buildings for the accommodation of Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government of the United States” (Peters 1845, 130). During his two administrations this deadline constantly weighed on Washington’s mind. The act relieved Congress of any involvement in the creation of the Federal City and failed to appropriate any funds for construction in the new capital, leaving all funding issues to the president and the commissioners. The Residence Act gave the president the authority to select the district’s location, and Washington chose that particular site because it was the middle point between Massachusetts and Georgia and because of his long-held belief that the Potomac River would be an important part of the nation’s future navigation and presented possibilities for linking the East Coast with the western frontier.

The proprietors, a group of landowners in what would become the Federal City, signed an agreement on March 30, 1791, stipulating the terms by which they relinquished their land in the district to the federal government. In exchange for deeding and surrendering control of their property, the proprietors received monetary compensation for the land scheduled for public reservations and retained control of half of the lots on their former holdings (Mastromarino 1999, 24-26; Bowling 1988, 91). In early September 1791 the commissioners decided to name the capital city Washington and the territory Columbia (Mastromarino 1999, 506, 508). To show his own personal support for the project, and equally hoping to make a good investment with future dividends, Washington purchased lots in the city (Patrick 2009, 637; Hoth and Ebel 2011, 167).

One of the president’s major obstacles with the creation of Washington, DC was that he was an absentee administrator trying to build a city without being physically present. Consequently, some of the most important decisions Washington made involved choosing the men who would oversee the day-to-day construction of the city. This was the first presidential commission in American history. There was no need for senatorial confirmation; Washington appointed the men and they were solely responsible to him (di Giacomantonio 1991, 54); in turn, he relied heavily on the opinions and decisions of the commissioners, though they often created more problems for the president than they solved.

Washington personally knew the first three commissioners-Thomas Johnson (1791-1794), Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek (1791-1795), and David Stuart (1791- 1794)-and chose them in part for their ties to Potomac development and the region. The second permutation of the commission consisted of Gustavus Scott (1794-1800), Alexander White (1795-1802), and William Thornton (1794-1802) (di Giacomantonio 1991, 57, 59, 61-70). While sympathetic to the president and sometimes his confidantes, they were not necessarily the best men to fill the job of creating a new capital city.

Washington hoped to leave many affairs in their hands, but these men often required his approval or input on issues both major and minor. Washington spent his years as president traveling between New York City, Philadelphia, and Mount Vernon. On his way north or south he often stopped in the Federal City to confer with the commissioners in person. Most of the time, however, he was not present, and regularly received missives from the commissioners with wording along the following lines: “We are extremely sorry … to take up any part of your time on the affairs of the City; but hope that the importance of the objects of our correspondence may be our apology.” Such requests became irksome to Washington, who responded, “The pressure of my business with the different Departments … leaves me but little time to attend to other matters.” In their defense, the commissioners noted: “It is with extreme regret that we intrude on your time, which, we are sensible, is devoted … to the consideration of more important objects,” but that the problems they faced “renders it indispensably requisite.”

One group of Washington biographers noted that if the Federal City had been the president’s only responsibility, “he scarcely could have found the future seat of government more time-consuming” (Carroll and Ashworth 1957, 433). But overseeing the creation of the new capital was never his only, nor his most pressing, task. For the eight years of his administration Washington faced unprecedented challenges as he created the presidency and oversaw the resolution of foreign and domestic issues. In his last six months in office, he witnessed deteriorating relations with France and the struggle to free American sailors from Algerian captivity. After the publication of his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796 in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser, Washington received responses from state legislatures, county militia officers, Masonic groups, and individuals writing both to lament his decision to retire from public office and thank him for his service; he took the time to answer most of these letters. In what little personal time he had left, Washington corresponded with his new farm manager, James Anderson, to ensure Mount Vernon would be ready for his return in March 1797.

After the publication of the Farewell Address it was understood that Washington would not stand for reelection; at that point a new sense of urgency directed both the commissioners’ letters to the president and his replies. On October 1, 1796, the commissioners sent him a list of issues that had to be decided before he left office in March 1797. After this series of queries, they closed their letter by stating: “We have been the more particular in this communication, because, it is our earnest desire that everything respecting the seat of Government which can now be determined should be determined before a change takes place in the presidential Chair.”

During his last six months in office Washington sought, unsuccessfully, to finally solve one issue that had plagued him throughout his presidency: the location of the commissioners’ residences. It is unclear whether Washington ever explicitly told the first group of commissioners they had to live in the city. The original board members were not given a salary, but when these men were replaced, Washington offered the new commissioners $1,600 and informed them that they should reside within the District of Columbia (di Giacomantonio 1991, 57; Arnebeck 1991, 237; Ebel 2015, 157). He explained:

The dissensions, & controversies which so frequently happen in that City, are extremely to be regretted; and nothing, I am persuaded, will contribute more to appease them, and to remove the jealousies … than the residence of the Commissioners within the City; for which reason I do, in behalf of the public, give it as my decided opinion that they ought, and as my expectation that they will, remove into it … It would, I conceive, be submitting to a novel doctrine, to have the Commissioners of any City non-residents thereof; How much greater then must it be in one, where there are such a variety of objects to attend to? and such incessant calls upon their activity?

Even visitors to the Federal City commented on the oddity “of the Commissioners residing in George Town.” Gustavus Scott’s house, called Rock Hill, was beyond the city limits and much nearer to Georgetown than the Capitol building. Washington reminded him that the reason new commissioners were appointed was to get men who would live in the city and that not until the commissioners resided near the public buildings would “jealousies subside.” He gave a similar ultimatum to William Thornton:

all the Offices, and every matter, & thing, that relates to the City ought to be transacted therein, and the persons to whose care they are committed Residents. Measures of this sort, would … contribute not a little to the accomodation of the Members, who compose the Congress; for it is of little signification to prepare a house for that body to sit in, unless there are others for their beds & board.

Washington believed structures between the Capitol building and president’s house should specifically be encouraged, and admonished the commissioners to make “that part of the City their residence,” as doing so would compel “all those who are under their control to do the same, as fast as accomodations can be provided for them.”

Alexander White informed the president that his wife spent three weeks in the Federal City and upon her return home claimed her mind was “strongly bent against a removal.” White offered to resign, but Washington backed down and instead asked him to continue serving as a commissioner. In the end, for all his rebukes, Washington failed on this issue; perhaps he believed the commissioners’ place of residence was a battle best left to his successor.

The Residence Act failed to appropriate any resources for construction in the new capital, leaving all financial issues to the president and the commissioners. While the act authorized the president “to accept grants of money” to cover construction costs, Washington and the commissioners hoped that lots sold at public auction would raise enough money to erect the necessary government buildings; however, these sales were largely unsuccessful so they turned to domestic banks, foreign loans, and legislative bodies as possible funding sources (Peters 1845, 461; Arnebeck 1991, 173; Bowling 1988, 104). During Washington’s last six months in office a shortage of funds meant he and the commissioners constantly struggled to pay workers and keep construction moving forward. In the end Washington used his personal and political influence to help the commissioners secure a loan to resume building projects in the Federal City.

As the commissioners continued to search for financing opportunities, in the spring of 1796 Congress authorized them to apply for a loan to borrow money to cover construction costs, but they still needed to find a funding source. They tried to obtain foreign loans from two different European banking houses, but received word from both that it was impossible at the present time. They asked Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, Jr. to intercede on their behalf for a loan from the Bank of the United States; he was also unsuccessful (Peters 1845, 461). And the Bank of Columbia already had much of its capital tied up in Federal City land purchases and was not willing to provide a loan. In December and January the commissioners usually contracted for the supplies for the following year, so having a loan in place was extremely important in order to continue their operations after Washington’s retirement.

At the end of October the commissioners informed Washington of their plan to apply to the Maryland legislature and sent the president a document that empowered them to borrow money from that state. After the president returned the signed authorization, the commissioners sent Marylander Gustavus Scott to Annapolis to negotiate a loan and asked Washington to write that body on their behalf: “We are of [the] opinion, and we find it is the opinion of the best friends of the City, that it would have a decided effect, if your interposition is judged expedient, the earlier the communication of your sentiments is received, by the Legislature, the better, as the Session will soon be drawing to a close.” The commissioners apprised the president of their reduced funds and stated that “without some effectual aid” they would be required to stop work in the Federal City.

The president wrote Scott that he had “with much reluctance” sent a personal message to Maryland Governor John Hoskins Stone regarding a loan “to be laid before the assembly of that State.”18 Washington’s letter trusted that the Maryland legislature shared “the most anxious solicitude … for the growth and prosperity of that City which is intended for the permanent Seat of Government in America” and explained that without the Maryland loan “very great and many impediments must be endured in the prosecution of the Work now in hand.”19 Governor Stone replied that “whatever can with propriety be done relative to this loan, will meet with my most cordial support.” In December the Maryland legislature authorized a loan for the commissioners (Lowrie and Franklin 1834, 224).

During his last months as president Washington also sought to resolve as many disputes as possible regarding building locations and construction in the Federal City. The December 1800 deadline constantly loomed before him, as did the realization that his successor would come into office without the accumulated knowledge that he now had about the capital. A national university had for several years been one of Washington’s dream projects for the city. In a January 28, 1795 letter to the commissioners, he granted his fifty shares of Potomac River Company stock toward the endowment of such an institution in Washington, DC, and he and the commissioners agreed that an ideal site for the university would be near Georgetown on Peter’s Hill. In November 1796 the commissioners prepared a memorial for the president to present to Congress regarding the university, and in his final address to Congress in December he called for legislation to establish a school in the new capital and declared “how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.” Madison presented the commissioners’ memorial to Congress but in the end it postponed consideration of the measure and the president’s hobbyhorse quietly died in that body (Annals of Congress, 4th Congress, 2d session, 1600-01; Arnebeck 1991,411).

In his final months of correspondence with the commissioners, Washington spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the reasons why construction of the Capitol building should take precedence over all other building projects in the Federal City. This was an area where the president and the commissioners disagreed; while the commissioners could physically see what work needed to be done in the city, Washington heard grumbles from those in Philadelphia about what should have priority in the new capital.

With a little over a month left in office, Washington wrote the commissioners that they should forward construction on the Capitol building “in preference to any other object.” He noted that even among friends of the Federal City in Philadelphia there were those who doubted the building would be ready by 1800, and many worried that if Capitol construction lagged the other structures needed for boarders and shopkeepers would falter as well. He cautioned them that because of their difficulty in acquiring loans, it was paramount that public opinion regarding the city must be positive toward their construction decisions. This letter crossed in the mail one from the commissioners enclosing a plan for the two buildings of the executive departments, and a week later they again wrote the president inquiring if he thought finishing the Capitol was truly the highest priority: “Our opinion is, that preparing the Capitol for the reception of Congress, and the executive buildings for the reception of the respective Departments, are equally necessary.”

Washington replied that for the moment the executive offices ought to be suspended and all building efforts should be refocused on the Capitol, further noting that some believed there was a bias among the commissioners for the western areas of the city. The commissioners subsequently justified their decision to spend so much time on the other public offices, arguing that their “chief object” was to have all government building construction plans “approved of by you, rather than your Successor, to whom, the city & it’s affairs must, at present, be quite new.” In one of his final cost-saving efforts for the city, Washington “earnestly” cautioned the commissioners “that all carving not absolutely necessary to preserve consistency, may be avoided; as well to save time and expence, as because I believe it is not so much the taste now as formerly.”

Another issue Washington faced in overseeing the city toward the end of his presidency was the disputes Federal City proprietors and landowners had with the commissioners; these clashes often led to Washington’s direct involvement in order to pacify the situation. On October 31, 1796 George Budd and Norton Pryor, Jr., two of the four winners of Samuel Blodget’s hotel lottery, wrote the president seeking his intervention on their behalf with the commissioners. Budd and Pryor accused Blodget of not finishing the hotel and the commissioners of not taking an interest in the lapsed construction. Budd and Pryor had been in contact with the commissioners since 1795 trying to work out their issues, and only wrote to Washington as a last resort. In this instance Washington forwarded the letter to the commissioners, who replied to Budd and Pryor that they understood “the injustice” caused “by the delay in finishing” the hotel; however, the commissioners were “not empowered to bring suit to enforce the completion of it,” nor could they “be subjected to the payment of damages for the failure.”

One ongoing complaint came from proprietor and Georgetown merchant George Walker who owned a 358-acre tract in the eastern part of the Federal City (Mastromarino 2000, 554). On November 16, 1796 Walker wrote the commissioners claiming square number 1065 (near the bottom of Kentucky Avenue close to the Eastern Branch of the Potomac) as his property and threatening to publish a newspaper advertisement cautioning the public that the commissioners “have, for private purposes, been in the practice of conveying” Washington, DC, property “to which they or the public had no title,” and that he would warn the public that “any conveyance the Commissioners may pretend to give, to any part of that Square, will be rendered null and void by the real proprietor.” The commissioners sent the president Walker’s letter, stating that they would not comment on “his pretended ground of complaint” beyond that “the conduct pursued respecting Walkers property has been precisely the same with that observed to every other proprietor.” The president responded to the commissioners that “Mr Walkers attack; appears to me to be as impolitic, as it is indecent and intemperate.”

Not happy with his treatment by the commissioners, early the next year Walker wrote directly to the president on the issue of square 1065. According to Walker, the previous spring he had the square surveyed and found that “the public had got 126,000 Square feet, or upwards of 25 standard Lots, more than their half.” Walker approached the commissioners with the surveyor’s certificate and Gustavus Scott promised Walker “that the balance due me should be paid in Square 1065.” Yet when Walker visited the commissioners’ office and asked for the payment, Scott declared “he knew of no balance due me” and that the commissioners had already divided the square and “refused … to hear any reasoning upon the matter.”

After that incident Walker had a personal vendetta against Scott and informed the president that Scott actively worked against construction on the Capitol:

Mr Scott would sacrifice everything to promote his own interest, and having large property above Geo. Town … he has laid a deep Scheme to keep back the Capitol, in order that Congress may be forced to hold their Sessions in the Presidents House, and to lodge in and about Geo. Town. He accordingly has been speculating in lots at that end of the City, and has used every exertion to prevent strangers from purchasing Lots or Settling at the East end.

Walker predicted that if left in that position, “Mr Scott will reign an absolute Bashaw in the City. … For your Successor, will naturally pay such respect to the opinions of the Men you may leave in Office, that he will allow them to do as they please.” Washington replied to Walker that he never intended to “enter into the detail of the business for the execution of which Commissioners were appointed” but that he would, when faced with charges of malpractice or improper conduct by the commissioners, fairly examine such charges. A month later Washington informed the commissioners that Walker’s accusations against Scott were “according to the best of my information … unfounded; and that nothing in him is wanting, except residence in the City.”

Thomas Law, who had recently joined the Washington family by marrying Martha’s granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, also sent the president his own Federal City grumbles. Law purchased large amounts of land in Washington, DC, and as both a resident of the city and a relative of the president, he took it upon himself to inform Washington of the activities there and to voice his own complaints with the commissioners. Law sent him a “jocular petition” he composed from the point of view of the maligned Capitol building, which lamented that the president’s house received preferential construction treatment and that the commissioners preferred to live in Georgetown, “a little town three miles off,” rather than near the Capitol. Another missive from Law noted that though he was “averse to lacerate a mind already wounded by complaint” he worried that in 1800 when the Federal City was not ready Washington would “upbraid” him “for not candidly assigning to you the causes of the misfortune, when it was in your power to do them away.” Law also griped about Gustavus Scott, stating that he publicly avowed his partiality to Georgetown “and gloried in his refusal to come in to the City.”

Daniel Carroll of Duddington, who owned more land within the boundaries of the Federal City than any of the other original proprietors, also wrote directly to Washington with his fears that new buildings would be erected near the president’s house. Carroll had land near the Capitol and complained that nothing had been done to improve that area: “I had intended to erect a handsome tavern adjoining” that building, but now he refused to spend “one shilling.” Carroll further bemoaned: “I have three brick houses by the Capitol, but so little has been the attention paid to that building, & so much seems to be the wish intirely to defeat it, that they remain generally dead on my hands.” No extant replies from Washington to Law or Carroll have been found, but the fact that these Federal City residents, like many others, chose to write directly to the president with their issues shows these correspondents knew about Washington’s close involvement in the decisions being made for the new capital.

In some cases when petitioners wrote directly to the commissioners, that body still forwarded the complaints to the president asking for his advice, as with the letter from Joseph Covachich, who worried that a change to the proposed national university location would influence the value of the lands he owned. The commissioners replied to Covachich: “the power of fixing the scites for all public appropriations, in the city of Washington, is entirely with the president” and then sent the letter to Washington for his counsel. The exasperated president responded: “The discontents with which you are assailed by one or other of the Proprietors in the Federal City, must, unquestionably, be very disagreeable & troublesome to you, for they are extremely irksome to me” and then chided Covachich for “omitting to investigate” the matter fully before he purchased the land.

Washington’s leadership in the development of the new capital did not abate during his final days in office, even when he informed the commissioners that “the curtain is about to close on the political scenes of my life; and consequently to terminate the agency I have had in the affairs of the Federal City.” He promised, “if possible [to] give some direction concerning” arrangements for Washington, DC, “before I resign the Chair of Government.” Washington’s last official act for the city was signing an executive order describing all the public reservations to be conveyed by trustees to the commissioners on the president’s instructions.

On March 3, 1797, his final full day in office, Washington wrote his final letter to the commissioners in his official capacity as president, commenting on “things relative to the City of Washington” that called “for my decision … this is the last day I have Powers to give any.” Washington signed off on plans to begin new construction projects in the city; with this authorization, the president continued to support Washington, DC, by ensuring that the expansion of the Federal City persisted under the next administration.

Even in retirement Washington remained interested in the development of the city, corresponding with commissioners and city residents and regularly visiting the site. Writing to his former neighbor Sally Fairfax on May 16, 1798, Washington proclaimed: “A century hence, if this country keeps united (and it is surely its policy and interest to do it), [it] will produce a city, though not as large as London … on the banks of the Potomac …where elegant buildings are erecting and in forwardness for the reception of Congress” (Abbot 1998, 273). On December 8, 1799, one year before the scheduled move of Congress and less than a week before his death, the former president wrote a final letter regarding the evolution of Washington, DC: “by the obstructions continually thrown in its way-by friends or enemies-[this] City has had to pass through … the Ordea[l] of local interests, destructive Jealousies, and inveterate prejudices; as difficult, and as dangerous I conceive, as any of the other ordeals.” Yet despite all of these setbacks Washington’s presidential leadership had helped ensure the Federal City would be ready to house the nation’s new capital. His personal interest in the growth and development of Washington, DC is nowhere more evident than in Edward Savage’s 1796 painting “The Washington Family,” where the president, his wife, and two grandchildren are gathered around a table on which an early map of the city is prominently displayed with Washington’s hand resting on the plan.

By analyzing Washington’s last months in office, and particularly examining the role he played and the decisions he made in the formation of Washington, DC, it becomes evident that during this phase of his presidency he was an active, hands-on leader who made choices on his own or with little input from others. Instead of going to his cabinet of trusted advisors and seeking their advice or delegating matters to them, Washington, although he sometimes found the task “irksome,” maintained tight control over many of the pronouncements that were made regarding the funding of and construction in the Federal City. Part of this increased level of personal involvement may have been because the three original DC commissioners had by this time been replaced by men with whom Washington was not as familiar, and the cabinet positions formerly held by confidantes such as Hamilton and Jefferson were now filled by Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and Timothy Pickering, men with whom Washington did not have as strong a rapport. Washington’s increased involvement was also due to his belief that his successors would never be as intimately familiar nor care as deeply as he did about the Federal City and the region. A final reason for Washington’s highly personal involvement was that he believed, correctly, that the new capital city would be an important part of his legacy.

An examination of George Washington’s involvement with the development of the Federal City and an analysis of the correspondence between the president and the men living and working in the city disproves Forrest McDonald’s conclusion that Washington was “indispensable, but only for what he was, not for what he did” (1974, 186). In the creation of the nation’s new capital, the president was not merely “a symbol” that allowed others to do the hard work of administering and governing but was truly “the indispensable man” (Flexner 1974) who immersed himself in the tedious details of administration and often singlehandedly dealt with the issues that arose regarding the establishment of Washington, DC.