Primary Sources: The New Federal City
compiled by Mary Brigid Barrett
• The Residence Act of 1790 Ordering the Move of the Federal Government from Philadelphia to the Potomac Valley
• President Washington Chooses the Location of the New Capital
• Thomas Jefferson Expresses His Ideas About the Capital City
• L’Enfant Dislikes Grid Plan for the Federal City
• Maryland Newspaper Expresses Delight at Location of New Capital
• A Traveler to Georgetown Visits the Federal Territory with Pierre L’Enfant, the Designer Appointed by Washington to Plan the Federal City
• An English Visitor in 1796 Describes his Impressions of Washington City
• In 1806 an English Visitor to Washington City is Disappointed
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
The Residence Act of 1790 Ordering the Move of the Federal Government from Philadelphia to the Potomac Valley
Residence Bill [S-12], July 1, 1790
AN ACT for establishing the temporary and permanent Seat of the Government of the United States
 Be it enacted, by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That a district of territory not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the River Potowmack at some place between the mouths of the Eastern branch and Connogochegue, be, and the same is hereby accepted for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States, Provided nevertheless that the operation of the laws of the State within such district shall not be affected by this acceptance, until the time fixed for the removal of the government thereto, and until Congress shall otherwise by law provide.
 And be it [further] enacted, That the President of the United States be authorized to appoint, and by supplying vacancies happening from refusals to act, or other causes, to keep in appointment, as long as may be necessary three Commissioners, who, or any two of whom, shall under the direction of the President survey, and by proper metes and bounds define and limit a district of territory, under the limitations above mentioned; and the district so defined, limited and located shall be deemed the district accepted by this Act for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.
 And be it [further] enacted, That the said Commissioners. or any two of them, shall have power to purchase, or accept such quantity of land on the eastern side of the said River within the said district; as the President shall deem proper for the use of the United States; and according to such Plans, as the President shall approve, the said Commissioners, or any two of them shall prior to the first Monday in December in the year one thousand eight hundred, provide suitable buildings for the accommodation of Congress, and of the President, and for the public Offices of the government of the United States.
 And be it [further] enacted, That for defraying the expense of such purchases and buildings, the President of the United States be authorized and requested to accept grants of money.
 And be it [further] enacted, That prior to the first Monday in December next, all offices attached to the seat of the government of the United States shall be removed to, and until the said first Monday in December in the year one thousand eight hundred, shall remain at the City of Philadelphia. in the State of Pennsylvania, at which place the Session of Congress next ensuing the present shall be held.
 And be it [further] enacted, That on the said first Monday in December in the year one thousand eight hundred the seat of the government of the United States shall by virtue of this Act be transferred to the district and place aforesaid; and all Offices attached to the said seat of government shall accordingly be removed thereto by their respective holders, and shall after the said day cease to be exercised elsewhere; and that the necessary expense of such removal shall be defrayed out of the duties on imposts and tonnage; of which a sufficient sum is hereby appropriated.
July the 1st. 1790.
For more information concerning the Residence Act of 1790, check out The Library of Congress’ web guide article “Primary Documents in American History: Residence Act” and the White House Historical Association’s article “Where Oh Where Should the Capital Be?”
President Washington Chooses the Location of the New Capital
I do herby declare and make known that the location of . . . the . . . distract of ten miles square shall be found by running four lines of experiment . . . beginning the first of the said four lines . . . at the point of Huntington Creek [southwest half a mile from the Alexandria court-house and then due southeast to the Creek}.
Then beginning the first . . . line due northeast ten miles; thence the second into Maryland, due northeast ten miles; thence the third line due southeast ten miles; and thence the fourth line due southwest ten miles, to the beginning of Hunting Creek.
And the said four lines . . . being so run, I do hereby declare . . . that all that part within the said four lines . . . is now fixed upon, and directed to be surveyed, defined, limited, and located . . . for the permanent seat of the Government of the United States.
– George Washington, 24 January 1791
Thomas Jefferson Expresses His Ideas About the Capital City
The expression [in the Residence Act] ‘such quantity of land as the president shall deem proper for the U. S.’ is vague. It may therefore be extended to the acceptance or purchase of land enough for the town: and I have no doubt it is the wish, and perhaps expectation. In that case it will be to be laid out n lots and streets. I should propose these be at right angles s in Philadelphia, and that no street be narrower than 100. feet, with foot-ways of 15. feet. Where a street is long & level, it might be 120. feet wide. I should prefer squares of at least 200. yards every way, which will be of about 8. acres each . . . The lots to be sold out in the breadth of 50 feet: their depths to extend to the diagonal of the square.
I doubt much whether the obligation to build houses at a given distance from the street, contributes to its beauty. It produces a disgusting monotony. All persons make this complaint against Philadelphia, the contrary practice varies the appearance, & is much more convenient for the inhabitants.
In Paris it is forbidden to build a house beyond a given height, & it is admitted to be a good restriction. It keeps down the price of ground, keeps the houses low and convenient, and the streets light and airy. Fires are much more manageable where houses are low . . .
1500 Acres would be required in the whole, to wit, about 300 acres for public buildings, walks &c and 1200 Acres to be divided into quarter acre lots, which due allowance being made for streets, would make about 2000 lots.
– Thomas Jefferson 29 August and 14 September, 1790
To see Jefferson’s hand-drawn map delineating his plan for the Federal City in the Library of Congress’ online exhibits, click here.
L’Enfant Dislikes Grid Plan for the Federal City
It is not the regular assemblage of houses laid out in squares and forming streets all parallel and uniform that . . . is so necessary, for such a plan could only do on a level plain and where no surrounding object being interesting it becomes indifferent which way the opening of streets may be directed.
But on any other ground a plan of this sort must be defective, and it never would answer for any of the spots proposed for the Federal City, and on that held here as the most eligible it would absolutely annihilate every [one] of the advantages enumerated and . . . alone injure the success of the undertaking.
Such regular plans indeed, however answerable they may appear upon paper or seducing as they may be on the first aspect to the eyes of some people must even when applyed upon the ground the best calculated to admit of it become at last tiresome and insipid and it never could be it its origin but a mean continuance of some cool imagination wanting a sense of the real grand and truly beautiful only to be met with where nature contributes with art and diversifies the objects.
– Pierre L’Enfant
For information about Major Pierre L’Enfant and his design for the Federal City, go to:
- “The L’Enfant and McMillan Plans” on the National Parks Service website.
- “Pierre Charles L’Enfant: Architect of a Capital Idea” by Jed Graham on the Arlington National Cemetery website.
- “A Brief History of Pierre L’Enfant and Washington, D.C.: How one Frenchman’s vision became our capital city” by Kenneth R. Fletcher for Smithsonian.com.
Maryland Newspaper Expresses Delight at Location of New Capital
The City of Washington, in the district of Columbia . . . stand at the junction of the rivers Patowmac [sic] and the Eastern-Branch, extending nearly four miles up each, including a tract of territory, exceeding in point of convenience, salubrity, and beauty, by none in America, if any in the world-For, although the land is apparently level, yet, by gentle and gradual swellings, a variety of elegant prospects are produced; while there is sufficient descent to convey off the water occasioned by rain . . .
The Eastern-Branch is one of the safest and most commodious harbors in America . . . and is abundantly capacious.
This metropolis, being situated upon the great post-road, exactly equidistant from the northern and southern extremities of the Union, and nearly so from the Atlantic to Fort-Pitt, upon the best navigation, and in the midst of the richest commercial territory in America, commanding the most extensive internal resources, is by far the most eligible situation for the residency of Congress; and . . . it will grow up with a degree of rapidity hitherto unparallel in the annals of cities, and will soon become the admiration and delight of the world.
– The Baltimore Maryland Journal, 30 September 1791
A Traveler to Georgetown Visits the Federal Territory with Pierre L’Enfant, the Designer Appointed by Washington to Plan the Federal City
As soon as I arrived at Georgetown, I rode with Major L’Enfant . . . over the greatest part of the ground; the Major pointed out to me all the eminences, plains, commanding spots, projects of canals by means of Rock Creek, and . . . Goose Creek, which intersects the plan of the city along the Eastern Branch, quays, bridges, etc., magnificent public walks, and other projects.
The ground pleased me much; the Major is enraptured with it; “nothing,” he says, “can be more admirably adapted for the purpose; nature has done much for it, and with the aid of art it will become the wonder of the world.”
– William Laughton Smith*, April 1791
For information on William Laughton Smith*, go to “Smith, William Loughton” in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
*William Laughton Smith’s name is also spelled William Loughton Smith, and William Lawton Smith, in various primary and secondary historical sources.
An English Visitor in 1796 Describes his Impressions of Washington City
From the Capitol we walked down to the Point, where there is a place marked out for the battery. The view from here is extremely delightful:-On each side, a fine river, flowing with a gentle current along the base of a hilly and romantic country . . . with the distant view of Alexandria and its towering steeples, about six miles below, projecting apparently into the middle of the river. In the rear is the still nearer view of Georgetown, and of the president’s House and the Capitol. All tend to render it one of the most delightful and pleasant sites for a town I have ever remarked in the whole of the United States.
. . . The truth is, that not much more than one-half of the city is cleared:-the rest is in woods; and have a much more pleasing effect now than I think they will have when they shall be built; for now they appear like broad avenues in a park, bounded on each side by thick woods; and there being so many of them, and proceeding in so many various directions, they have a certain wild, uniform and regular appearance, which they will lose when confined on each side by brick walls.
The canal and the gardens, as well as the bridges, which you can see marked down in the plan, are not yet begun; they are still in the same state of nature that they were in before the city was marked out. In fact, were it not for the president’s House and the Capitol, you would be ignorant that you were near the spot intended for the metropolis of the United States.
– Francis Bailey, Journal 1796-1797
For more information about Francis Bailey, go to “Francis Baily (1744-1844)” in David Nash Ford’s Royal Berkshire History website.
In 1806 an English Visitor to Washington City is Disappointed
The description given by interested scribblers, may well serve to raise and Englishman’s curiosity’ and lead him to fancy the capital of Columbia a terrestrial paradise.
The entrance, or avenues, as they are pompously called, which lead to the American seat of government, are the worst roads I passed in the country; and I appeal to every citizen who has been unlucky enough to travel the stages north and south leading to the city, for the truth of the assertion . . . In the winter every turn of your wagon wheel is for many miles attended with danger. The roads are never repaired; deep ruts, rocks, and stumps of trees, every minute impede your progress, and often threaten your limbs with dislocation.
. . . Arrived at the city, you are stuck with its grotesque appearance. In one view from the capitol hill, the eye fixed upon a row of uniform houses of twelve in number, while it faintly discovers the adjacent tenements to be miserable wooden structures, consisting, when you approach them of two or three rooms above one another. Again, you see the hotel, which was vauntingly promised, on laying the foundation, to rival the large inns in England. This, like every other private adventure, failed: the walls and roof remain, but not a window! . . . Turning the eye, a well finished edifice presents itself, surrounded by lofty trees, which never felt the stroke of an axe. The president’s house, the offices of state, and a little theater . . . terminate the view of Pennsylvania, or Grand Avenue.
In some parts, purchasers have cleared the wood from their grounds, and erected temporary wooden buildings: others have fenced in their lots, and attempted to cultivate them; but the sterility of the land laid out for the city is such, that this plan has also failed. The county adjoining consists of woods in a state of nature, and in some places of mere swamps, which give the scene a curious patch-work appearance . . .
Some half-starved cattle browzing among the bushes, present a melancholy spectacle to a stranger, whose expectation has been wound up by the illusive description of speculative writers.
– Charles Janson, 1806, The Stranger in America
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Do you think President Washington and the Congress made the right decision to locate our nation’s capitol in the Potomac Valley? Does their original reasoning still have import now? Explain your reasoning.
- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Pierre L’Enfant had many differences of opinions as to what the new capital of the United States should look like. But they all agreed that the visual image of the city was important for its symbolic meaning and because it would send a message to the rest of the world showing other countries who the United States was and what was important to its people. Do you agree? Can cities inspire or intimidate? Do certain kinds of architecture express power or security better than other styles of architecture? Can a capital city and its architecture convey to the world the essence of its country and its people?
- What early American political party best expresses your philosophy of government, the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans? Why? Taking your philosophy of government into consideration, what do you think our nation’s capital should look like?
- Do you think landscape paintings and illustrations should only express the beauty of a setting, or should they show every realistic detail, including litter and destruction?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Have your young people research and write the history of their home or school and its land. Have them find out if any other buildings, farms, or business existed previously on the lot. With permission, conduct your own mini-archeological dig. The records in your own town hall and historical society will be helpful for research. Also of help—Douglas L. Brownstone’s A Field Guide to America’s History, or a similar publication. And check out Archaeological.org.
- There are many historical figures who played a part in the creation of Washington, D.C., our capital. They include: George Washington, Pierre L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Banneker, Daniel Carroll, James Hoban, William Thornton, and many more. Have students find out who all these “characters” were, what role they played in the development of the city, then have them write a poem about each character, writing first-person, in the voice of that character. Then the kids can share their poems informally or present them in a group dramatic reading.
- Your young people can design their own Federal City! Have the kids decide where in the country they think the capital should be located today. They can visit the library or go online to find maps of the geographic area where they would like to locate their new dream capital. Using L’Enfant’s and Thomas Jefferson’s city designs as a reference, have the kids map out their street plan for their dream capital complete with a house for the president, buildings for Congress and the Supreme Court, and all the parks, fountains, playgrounds, stores, and houses they desire!
- Look at a map of the United States and ask your children or students where they would locate the capital and have them discuss the underlying reasons for their locations. Then have them write a letter to their United States Senator or Congressman sharing their ideas, as well as citing the reasons why they think the capital should be moved to a particular location. They can choose to mail the letter, or keep it as a writing exercise.
- Accompany your children outside on a pleasant day and have them bring with them a small board to draw and paint on, and a backpack full of: watercolor paper, watercolor paints in a plastic or metal paint set, brushes, sponge and some paper towels, a pencil, a kneaded rubber eraser, a bottle full of clean water, a small plastic bowl and some masking tape. (Watercolor paper is available at your local arts and crafts store. Remember very few people know anything about arts supplies, so do not be afraid to ask for help, everyone does!) Find a beautiful vista, and have everyone try their hand at landscape painting. Have the kids sit down first and look and look and look. Have a discussion about the light and the color around them. Is a tree trunk brown, or is it really shades of gray? How many shades of green are the leaves? What direction is the light coming from? Where are the dark shadows? Have the children choose their perspective on the surrounding landscape and suggest that they lightly sketch out what they see first in pencil. When their sketch is complete, they can paint, and suggest they use the top of their paint box, or a small plate of plastic, or a plastic lid, as their palette to mix paints to get the shades of color they want.
Brown, Milton W. Brown. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting. Smithsonian Institute Press: Washington D.C., 1983
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington, the Indispensable Man. Little Brown and Company: New York, 1969, 1973, 1974
Greenberg, Allan. George Washington, Architect. Andreas Papadakis Publisher: London, 1999
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997
Ketchum, Richard M. The World of George Washington. American Heritage Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1974
Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson, a Life. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1993
Reps, John W. Washington on View: The Nation’s Capital Since 1790. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1991
Smithsonian Institution. Washington D.C.: A Smithsonian Book of the Nation’s Capital. Smithsonian Books: Washington D.C., 1992
©2016 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance