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Lithograph print of building in three-quarter view
Lithograph of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Federal Hall on Wall Street, New York, ca. 1791. Clay and Richmond, [1879?]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Alexander Hamilton, and Federal Hall: A New Letter in the Manuscript Division

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People with grievances often make the best preservers of the past. Why? Because they have so much to say about what’s bugging them and they feel driven to say it. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these dissatisfied characters spun out their complaints at length in letters and diaries. A crabbed perspective, however, is not necessarily less factual than a sunny one, and if carefully read, these narratives can be important primary sources. A July 14, 1801, letter from Pierre Charles L’Enfant to Alexander Hamilton, unpublished and recently acquired by the Manuscript Division, is an example of such a kvetchfest.

Handwritten letter draft
Pierre Charles L’Enfant to Alexander Hamilton, July 14, 1801, page 1, 2017 Addition, Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

L’Enfant (1754-1825) is the French architect best known as the planner of Washington, D.C.[1] His 1801 letter came to the Library of Congress with a group of Hamilton family papers sold at Sotheby’s in 2017 after the musical Hamilton made its subject widely popular. The letter – along with the others the Manuscript Division bought at the sale – was then digitized and added to the division’s collection of Alexander Hamilton Papers. The editors of the modern published edition of Hamilton’s papers (available on Founders Online) described this letter by L’Enfant as “not found.” Now it has been found and is available for everyone to read for the first time.

The subject of L’Enfant’s 1801 letter is the payment he never received for planning and directing the renovation of New York’s old city hall into Federal Hall in 1789. With New York City serving as the national capital, Federal Hall became the home of Congress and was the site of George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States.[2] The eight-page letter reveals the prickly, aggrieved, self-aggrandizing temperament that would later help get L’Enfant fired as the architect of Washington, D.C. It also displays the peculiar English of this French native, which must have multiplied the misunderstandings that characterized his professional life in the United States. It additionally tells a story about his work on Federal Hall that diverges from the official narrative.[3]

That official narrative appears in the minutes of New York City’s Common Council, the legislative body that appointed L’Enfant to plan and carry out the transformation of the old city hall.[4] Their minutes show that the councilmen offered L’Enfant the freedom of the city, a traditional ceremonial honor, and ten acres of land for his work. L’Enfant accepted the freedom of the city, but refused the ten acres. When the councilmen asked him to confirm his refusal, he replied: “I will acknowlege herein, that the Idea suggested of a disinclination in me to accept of a Grant of the ten Acres of Common Land, your Letter allude[s] to, is perfectly agreable with my Sentiments & Disposition to refuse the Gift.”[5] Awkwardly phrased, but clear enough: No.

More than ten years went by during which the councilmen must have supposed that L’Enfant was satisfied with his decision, but by the time he wrote his July 1801 letter to Hamilton, his circumstances had changed. Not only had he refused compensation for his work on Federal Hall, but he had also refused payment and a plot of land for the famous plan for Washington, D.C., which he created a few years later. Now, not surprisingly, he was heavily in debt. At the same time L’Enfant wrote Hamilton about Federal Hall, he was also petitioning Congress for payment for his plan for the new national capital.[6] In his 1801 letter, L’Enfant asks Hamilton for help and reminds him that he had “ably performed” the work on Federal Hall “at your own particular invitation.” He seems, however, not entirely confident that Hamilton will support him, referring to the “coolness” with which Hamilton “evaded giving support to my demand” when the subject first came up. But, he awkwardly explains: “Depending on your own feeling on that and being with anxciousty to bring them back to more fair settlement of the business that I in this explicative manner address you.”

L’Enfant suggests that he and the councilmen had misunderstood each other. It appears that he had represented himself to them as too much the “disinterested” artiste to accept payment for his work.[7] In 1789 the councilmen had praised him for “generously” undertaking the renovation and described the ten acres they offered him as a gesture of “thanks.”[8] L’Enfant explains to Hamilton that they should have realized that when he refused the ten acres he didn’t really mean what he said: “I esteemed them collectively too wise and too liberal on the consideration to have assented to any refusal I may occasionally have testifyed,” he wrote. The councilmen were now offering him $750, but once again he refused.[9] He complained to Hamilton that “it is affronting to pretend that $750 were the agreed price for the service.” L’Enfant believed that the councilmen were “ill disposed men,” and authors of the “endless injury done me.” The councilmen, evidently equally affronted by him, “determined not to reconsider the subject.”[10]

There is a significant collection of L’Enfant correspondence in the Manuscript Division’s James Dudley Morgan Collection of Digges-L’Enfant-Morgan Papers, and Hamilton’s July 27, 1801, reply to this letter is there. Perhaps exhausted after reading eight pages of L’Enfant’s jumbled syntax, Hamilton replied with two hurried sentences pleading the press of work but promising to “do every thing in my power to fulfil your wish.” Regardless of whatever Hamilton did or did not do to help him, L’Enfant was never paid for his work on Federal Hall. But while his letter failed to win him payment, it succeeded in preserving a record of the character and experience of one of the most accomplished, but also one of the most difficult people in the history of the United States.

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[1] For L’Enfant’s work on Washington, D.C., see Scott W. Berg, Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).

[2] The George Washington Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress includes the text, in Washington’s hand, of the inaugural address he gave at Federal Hall on April 30, 1789, online.

[3] For L’Enfant’s work on Federal Hall, see H. Paul Caemmerer, The Life of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Planner of the City Beautiful, the City of Washington (Washington, D.C.: National Republic Publishing Company, 1950), 108-121, and Evan W. Cornog, “’To Give Character to Our City’: New York’s City Hall,” New York History 69 (October 1988): 389-423.

[4] Throughout his letter L’Enfant refers to the “Corporation.” New York City’s government is still called the Corporation of the City of New York.

[5] P. C. L’Enfant to Robert Benson, clerk, May 11, 1790, Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831, Volume I (New York: City of New York, 1917), 545, available on HathiTrust. The story of the Common Council’s resolution to grant L’Enfant the freedom of the city and ten acres of land appears in Minutes, I:494-495, 536, 545. For this incident, see also Caemmerer, Life of L’Enfant, 108-121.

[6] For L’Enfant’s refusal and then pursuit of payment for his plan for Washington, D.C., see Berg, Grand Avenues, 215-221, and Caemerrer, Life of L’Enfant, 226-229. L’Enfant’s letter to the commissioners planning Washington, D.C., refusing 500 guineas and a plot in the city is reproduced in note 2 with David Stuart to George Washington, April 18, 1792, in the published edition of Washington’s papers, available on Founders Online.

[7] See L’Enfant’s use of the term “disinterested” on pages 3 and 6 of the letter.

[8] Minutes, I:494.

[9] Caemerrer, Life of L’Enfant, 120-121; Minutes, February 16, 1801, II:709.

[10] Caemerrer, Life of L’Enfant, 120-121; Minutes, February 16, 1801, II:709.



  1. Knew L’enfant refused to finish the work on DC but only now do I understand why. No matter how difficult he was, he deserved to be paid. Hamilton was the right person to plead is case to. Wonder if they paid Banneker?

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