Last Monday Americans gathered again after a two-year hiatus to celebrate America’s independence from Great Britain. Flags and fireworks flew over our nation’s capital to mark the anniversary of when the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), which announced the colonies’ separation from Great Britain, and precipitated the American Revolutionary War (1775–83).
After gaining its independence, one of the first official projects for the nascent country was to establish a permanent seat for the federal government. As to be expected, there were political twists and disagreements, and it was not until July 16, 1790 that the First Congress passed the Residence Act, which selected a neutral site on the Potomac River as the permanent seat for a national government. The act also gave the president the authority to select commissioners to oversee creation of this new capital and explicitly directed movement of all national government functions from Philadelphia into new federal buildings on the Potomac within ten years’ time. Subsequently, Congress authorized the creation of the first map of what was then referred to as the Federal City.
President George Washington (1732–39) selected the precise location of the capital—a 6,111-acre, triangular-shaped tract—located between the Potomac River and Eastern Branch (present-day Anacostia River). He then appointed three commissioners to oversee the planning and two men to oversee the field work and create the ground plan. Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), astronomer and surveyor from Bucks County, Pennsylvania and his assistant, Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), would serve as the official surveyors, and Pierre L’Enfant (1754–1825), a French architect who served in the Continental Army as an engineer during the Revolutionary War, would serve as the city planner.
In March 1791, L’Enfant arrived at the port of Georgetown, and by the end of June completed his first iteration of the city plan. His plan was influenced by 18th century European landscape architecture—using the topography of the land to place important structures on high ground to ensure beautiful panoramas, as well as interlaced radiating streets on traditional grids of north-south and east-west streets to connect outlying areas with a landscaped focal point. Washington and Andrew Ellicott surveyed the areas with L’Enfant on June 28, 1791 and suggested changes, which were expected to be updated and ready by mid-October to publish and circulate for the first sale of city lots. As work on the Federal City intensified, L’Enfant realized the plan would not be completed in time, and he asked Washington to delay the first sale of lots.
In August, L’Enfant traveled to Philadelphia to request the delay of lot sales and to present his findings, dotted-line map, and city plan to President Washington himself. The hand-drawn L’Enfant Plan, or Plan of the City, intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States would ultimately serve as the framework for the Federal City, but would never be engraved and published officially for the sale of city lots.
The first sale of lots was not delayed. The sale was completed, as advertised in the Gazette of the United States, on October 17, 1791, without a published map for buyers. Washington insisted L’Enfant have his plan published before the second sale of city lots, which was anticipated to happen in spring the following year. L’Enfant resolved to reduce his plan and have it engraved in Philadelphia, but he was unable to get a complete drawing before he left for the trip in December.
As a result of L’Enfant’s failure to complete his engraving within the provided timeline, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Secretary of State, directed Andrew Ellicott to make a reproduction of the manuscript plan for engraving and publication before the second sale of city lots. Ellicott found two engravers—Thackara and Vallance in Philadelphia and Samuel Hill in Boston—and the completed plan was delivered to Washington on February 20, 1792. Despite Washington’s desire to have the plan reviewed by L’Enfant and his name included on the official maps, the plan was sent for engraving without the Frenchman’s approval and published without attribution to him.
After completed by Ellicott and his assistant, manuscript plans were delivered to the two engravers to produce the separate official plans. The first printed map officially published in the United States, seen above, is the engraving of the Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia by Samuel Hill in Boston, which was delivered to Philadelphia on July 20, 1792, and sent to a printer known only as “Mr. Scott” to produce 4,000 copies. Printed copies of the Hill engraving were distributed at the second sale of city lots on October 8, 1792.
The second official publication, to the right, was a reduced plan engraved by Thackera and Vallance for publication in the March 1792 issue of Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine. It was widely circulated.
The larger version of the Thackera and Vallance engraving (51 x 68 cm) was not printed in time for the second sale of city lots. However, it is considered the preferred official version of the plan because it included important hydrographic information along the shores of the Potomac River and Eastern Branch. It is larger than the Boston engraving.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention there were two other publications of the first capital city plan, including a smaller Samuel Hill engraving published in the May 1792 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine, and the Tiebout engraving in the June 1792 issue of New York Magazine, or Literary Repository.
Scrupulous planning, toil, and talent were poured into the planning of the City of Washington—but in his folly L’Enfant underestimated the President and his cabinet’s resolve to plan and build our nation’s capital within the timeline established by Congress. Come visit the the Federal City to enjoy these masterpieces on the ground. While you are here, stop in the Geography and Map reading room to see the works of L’Enfant, Ellicott, Banneker, and all of the other contributors to the City of Washington.
To read more:
- Coolie Verner. “Surveying and Mapping the New Federal City: The First Printed Maps of Washington, DC.” Imago Mundi, Volume 23, 1969.
- Glenn Brown. History of the United States Capitol. Volume 1. Government Printing Office, 1901.
- Library of Congress. Quarterly journal of the Library of Congress. Volume 36, Number 3, 1979.
- Richard Stephenson. A Plan Whol[l]y New. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Plan of the City of Washington. Library of Congress, 1993.