J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Washington’s “Dishy Letter” about L’Enfant

Last month the Washington Post reported that local real estate developer Albert H. Small had bought what it called “George Washington’s dishy letter about Pierre Charles L’Enfant” at a Christie’s auction. Small plans to donate his entire collection about the first President, including this letter, to George Washington University.

That’s appropriate since Washington and L’Enfant worked together on developing a new national capital. Today we remember L’Enfant as that city’s principal planner. But in fact Washington lost faith in the Frenchman early in the project, which for a long time was a mess. Unfortunately, when it comes to unabashed gossip this letter is more disappointing than “dishy.”

In January 1792 the President had written: “The conduct of Majr. L’Enfant and those employed under him, astonishes me beyond measure! and something more than even appears, must be meant by them!” Bob Arnebeck, author of Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800, suggests that part of Washington’s discomfort might have been due to L’Enfant being gay; more about that here.

The federal government fired L’Enfant in February 1792, and months passed without much progress. On 30 November the President wrote this recently purchased letter to David Stuart, one of the government’s three commissioners overseeing the new city:
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. . . .

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 [New Jersey]) 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. [Samuel] 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 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.
In addition, Washington wrote, Thomas Jefferson “has a high opinion of Mr [Étienne Sulpice] 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.” Both Blodget and Hallet ended up working on the federal capital, and both ran into trouble doing so. L’Enfant ended up suing for back pay.

As for “Mr. F———s C——t,” that was Francis Cabot, a merchant from Boston who had moved to Philadelphia in the 1790s. He was somehow involved in developing the federal city. In February and March 1792, Washington and Stuart wrote each other letters warning of rumors that Cabot had bribed his way into the business and was skimming off government contracts. A man named Samuel Davidson later testified that in 1793 Cabot had charge of L’Enfant’s trunks and “the first plan exhibited of the city of Washington, by Gen. Washington.” Was Cabot the man of that name born in Salem in 1757 and dying in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1832?

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