Early Capital Plan
Interesting Extract From Gazetteer Published in 1796
National Faith Pledged
Original Purpose to Make Washington Truly Federal City
George Washington's Idea
Parks to Be Dedicated to States as Sites for Statues and
Other Patriotic Memorials to the Nation’s Heroes
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, November 27, 1908 [p. 12]
Mr. William R. Smith, superintendent of the Botanic Garden, is a diligent keeper of scrap books. Some of his collections are of unique interest to the student of affairs in the past, and especially is this true of those scraps and cuttings which relate to the history of Washington city. Recently Mr. Smith, in looking over his old books, found a page which has a bearing upon the question of the plan of the capital, which has lately been under discussion in connection with projects for the improvement of Washington. This page consists in part of an extract from The Star of a date which, unfortunately, cannot be determined, though the publication was evidently a good many years ago. It is as follows:
The Plan as Announced in 1796
"Washington, a city of North America, now building for the metropolis of the United States. It is seated at the junction of the rivers Potomac and the Eastern Branch, extending about four miles up each, including a tract of territory scarcely to be exceeded in point of convenience, salubrity and beauty by any in the world. This territory, which is called Columbia, lies partly in the state of Virginia and partly in that of Maryland, and was ceded by those two states to the United States of America, and by them established to be the seal of government, after the year 1800. The plan combines not only convenience, regularity, elegance of prospect, and a free circulation of air, but everything grand and beautiful that can be introduced into a city. It is divided into squares or grand divisions, by streets running due north and south and east and west, which form the groundwork of the plan. However, from the Capitol, the President’s house and some of the important areas in the city, run diagonal streets, from one material object to another, which not only produce a variety of charming prospects, but remove the insipid sameness which renders some other great cities unpleasing. They were devised to connect the separate and most distant objects with the principal, and to preserve through the whole a reciprocity of sight.
"We have before us a curious old volume from the fine library of Mr. William R. Smith, superintendent of the Botanical Gardens, entitled 'The New Universal Gazetteer; or Modern Geographical Index. Containing a concise description of the Empires, Kingdoms, Cities, Towns, Seas, Rivers, etc., in the known world; the Government, Manners, and Religion of the Inhabitants; with the Extent, Boundaries, Produce, Revenue, Trade, Manufactures, etc., of the different countries, including a full account of the Counties, Cities, Towns, Villages, etc. of England and Scotland. Illustrated with six elegant maps. The second edition with considerable additions and improvements. Edinburgh: Printed by David Ramsey, for Bell & Bradfute, J. Dickson, W. Creech and P. Hill. MDCCXCVI.' In this book, under the head of 'Washington,' we find the following copious description of our Capital city, and the plan upon which it was designed:
Width of Streets and Avenues
"These great leading streets are all 160 feet wide, including a pavement of 10 feet and a gravel walk of 30 feet planted with trees on each side, which will leave 80 feet of paved street for carriages. The rest of the streets are, in general, 110 feet wide, with a few only 90 feet, except North, South and East Capitol streets, which are 160 feet. The diagonal streets are named after the respective states composing the Union, while those running north and south are, from the Capitol eastward, named East 1st street, East 2d street, etc. and those west of it are, in the same manner, called West 1st street, West 2d street, etc. Those running east and west are, from the Capitol northward, named North A street, North B street, etc., and those south of it are called South A street, South B street, etc. The squares or divisions of the city amount to 1,150. The rectangular squares generally contain from three to five acres, and are divided into lots of from 40 to 80 feet in front and their depth from about 110 to 300 feet, according to the size of the square. The irregular divisions produced by the diagonal streets are some of them small, but generally in valuable situations. Their acute joints are all to be cut off at 40 feet, so that no house in the city have an acute corner. All the houses must be of brick or stone. The area for the Capitol (or house for the legislative bodies) is situated upon the most beautiful eminence in the city, about a mile from the Eastern branch, and not much more from the Potomac, commanding a full view of every part of the city, as well as a considerable extent of the country around. The President's house will stand upon a rising ground, not far from the banks of the Potomac, possessing a delightful water prospect, with a commanding view of the Capitol and some other material parts of the city. Due south from the President's house and due west from the Capitol run two great pleasure parks or malls, which intersect and terminate upon the banks of the Potomac, and are to be ornamented at the sides by a variety of elegant buildings, houses for foreign ministers, etc.
"Interspersed through the city, where the most material streets cross each other, are a variety of open areas, formed in various regular figures, which in great cities are extremely useful and ornamental. Fifteen of the best of these areas are to be appropriated to the different states composing the Union; not only to bear their respective names, but as proper places for them to erect statues, obelisks or columns to the memory of their favorite eminent men. Upon a small eminence, where a line due west from the Capitol and due south from the President's house would intersect, is to be erected an equestrian statue of Gen. Washington, now President of the United States. Proper places are marked out for other public buildings; as a marine hospital, with its gardens; a general exchange and its public walks; a fort, magazine and arsenals; a city hall, churches, colleges, market houses, theaters, etc. The President of the United States, in locating the seat of the city, prevailed upon the proprietors of the soil to cede a certain portion of the lots in every situation, to be sold by his direction and the proceeds to be solely applied to the public buildings and other words of public utility within the city. This grant will produce about 15,000 lots and will be sufficient not only to erect the public buildings, to dig a canal, conduct water through the city and to pave and light the streets, which will save a heavy tax that arises in other cities, and consequently render the lots considerably more valuable.
The Eastern Branch Harbor
"The Eastern branch of the Potomac is one of the safest and most commodious harbors in America, being sufficiently deep for the largest ships, for about four miles above its mouth, while the channel lies close along the edge of the city, and is abundantly capacious. The river contains thirty and thirty-five feet to near the upper end of the city, where it is eighteen and twenty feet deep. The city being situated upon the great post road, exactly equidistant from the northern and southern extremities of the Union, and nearly so from the Atlantic ocean to the Ohio river, upon the best navigation, and in the midst of the richest commercial territory in America, commanding the most extensive interior resources, is by far the most eligible situation for the residence of Congress, and it is now pressing forward, by the public spirited enterprise, not only of the people of the United States, but also of foreigners. The inland navigation of the Potomac is so far advanced that craft loaded with produce now come down that river and its several branches from upward of 180 miles to the Great Falls, which are within fourteen miles of the city. By means of the canals at the Great and Little Falls the navigation is entirely opened between tide water and the head branches of the Potomac, which produces a communication of water between the city of Washington and the interior parts of Virginia and Maryland, by means of the Potomac, the Shenandoah, the South Branch, Opecan, Cap Capon, Patterson's creek, Conocheague and Monocacy, for upward of 200 miles, through one of the most healthy, pleasant and fertile regions in America, producing, in vast abundance, tobacco of superior quality, hemp, Indian corn, wheat and other small grain, with fruit and vegetables peculiar to America; in vast abundance.
"The lands upon the Potomac, above the city of Washington, all around it, and for fifty miles below, are high and dry, abounding with innumerable springs of excellent water, and well covered with large timber of various kinds. A few miles below the city, upon the banks of the Potomac, are inexhaustible mountains of excellent freestone, of the white and red Portland kind, of which the public edifices in the city are now building. Above the city, also upon the banks of the river, are immense quantities of excellent coal, limestone and marble, with blue slate of the best quality. The Tyber, which is the principal stream that passes through the city, is to be collected in a grand reservoir, beside the Capitol, whence it will be carried in pipes to different parts of the city; while its surplus water will fall down in beautiful cascades, through the public gardens west of the Capitol, into a canal. The plan of this city was formed by Major L'Enfant; and the founding of it in such an eligible situation, upon such a liberal and elegant plan, will by future generations be considered as a high proof of the wisdom of the present President of the United States, while its name will keep fresh in mind, to the end of time, the obligation they are under to that illustrious character. Lat. 38, 53 N (long, 77, 13, W)."
The Star of the same date, editorially commenting on this early publication, said:
National Faith Pledged
"Elsewhere we publish an extract from a curious old book, a Gazetteer of the World, published in Edinburgh in 1796, and which gives with minute particulars the plan of Washington city taken from a circular sent abroad by the commissioners of the new federal capital, pledging the faith of the nation to build a splendid city here, and inviting the liberal-minded of all nations to come here to establish the home of free institutions. It therefore becomes a matter of interest to know to what the commissioners of Washington pledged themselves in behalf of the Capital city and of the nation it represented, and most especially is it a point of importance to be informed, as we are here, what was the exact nature of the agreement between President Washington and the original proprietors by which the latter ceded fifteen thousand lot to the general government.
"This, then, was the plan of Washington and of his commissioners, and these were the pledges and assurances made by them to the people of the old world to induce them to come here and identify themselves with the new capital of a free country. And this plan would no doubt have been carried out had Washington’s ideas prevailed, but the advent of the president Jeffersonian doctrines of states rights, designed to minimize the importance of the general government and to build up that of the states, served to defeat the Washingtonian project, or to delay its execution for nearly a century. The Jeffersonian idea as that the federal seat of government should be a mere local agency for the transaction of the foreign business of the states, and that any decoration of the capital endangered the success of the states rights doctrine. It is only within the last half dozen years that Washington has emerged from the blight thrown upon it by the Jeffersonian ideas adverse to a governmental city, and it has only been since our District government entered upon the work with robust hand that the execution of the plan prepared by Washington himself has even been undertaken.
Beauty of the Plan
"It is only now, after the streets have been graded and paved, and unsightly obstructions removed from the intersections, that we can begin to realize the beauty of the plan of diagonal street, designed to avoid insipid sameness and produce a variety of charming prospects, and devised to connect the separate and most distant objects with the principal, and to preserve through the whole a reciprocity of sight. The spectator standing now at the intersection of streets radiating from the site of the old Northern market, or on the crown of Massachusetts avenue, at 12th street, can appreciate something of the exquisite beauty afforded by this plan when properly carried out and with the vistas fully opened by grading. But the most important point in this circular issued by Washington and his commissioners is the fact that it fully commits the government to the 'paving and lighting of the streets of Washington' as one of the considerations upon which the proprietors of the ground gave up 15,000 lots to the general government. That the states and the country were expected to shoulder the cost of carrying out this ‘liberal and elegant plan,’ so much beyond the ability of the inhabitants, is shown further by the fact that a large number of areas were designated especially to be embellished by separate states. But we have not space today to deal with all the points to be drawn from this exposition of the original plan of the city."