Building the World

The Founding of Washington D.C., United States

Map of Washington D.C. (1833) by W. Elliot, from Library of Congress at

Building the World is proud to present as guest scholar, Dr. Darwin Stapleton. Dr. Stapleton is currently a member of the History Department faculty at University of Massachusetts Boston, where he directs the M.A. Archives Track, and Executive Director Emeritus, Rockefeller Archive Center. His many publications include 13 books authored, co-authored, edited, or co-edited, including The Engineering Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (editor) and The Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 3 vols (associate editor). When appointed “Surveyor of Public Buildings” by President Thomas Jefferson, Latrobe immediately re-designed the Capitol building, and went on to give Washington, D.C. a House of Representatives, Senate chambers, and the Supreme Court.

The United States has been the source of many innovations including the formation of a capital in a specially-designed location – one of the most notable creative ideas coming from a nation known for innovation.


A dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson was the setting for a decision that formed the nation and its capital. There had been intense competition over the capital’s location: Virginia wanted the honor; Pennsylvania lobbied intensely; New York sought the prize, Baltimore proposed its own site, and George Washington, the father of the country and its first president, favored land around the Potomac. Although we don’t have the Jefferson’s menu, we know the meat of the feast. It was decided that Congress would award Philadelphia the capital for ten years, after which the seat of government would be moved to a site on the Potomac to be selected by President George Washington. The dinner took place on June 20, and Congress enacted separate Assumption and Residence Acts in July. During Congress’s six-week recess, the president moved to a two-story mansion in Philadelphia, former home of William Penn.

Interestingly, George Washington himself declined to be present at the dinner party. He knew in advance what the conclusion would be, so he elected to stay in the Potomac area to prevent local landowners from getting a whiff of the plan to site the new capital in their neighborhood. Preventing land speculation would require presidential attention, and besides, George Washington owned land there too.


Locating the new capital on a waterway was high priority. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington agreed on that essential requirement. Jefferson had been to France and seen the Canal of Languedoc, the most important part of the Canal des Deux Mers. When Jefferson and soon-to-be-president George Washington were, with others, in discussion about locating a capital for the new country, canals figured heavily in the considerations.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, from the National Park Service at

Another influence was also French. George Washington hired architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant in March 1791 to map out the new city. The choice may have been influenced by military service. Although born in France, L’Enfant was so inspired by the cause of America’s Revolutionary War that at the age of 22, the young engineer volunteered to serve with the Corps of Engineers of the Continental Army. It was there that George Washington met him. L’Enfant was excited about the idea of a capital separate from the individual states.  His plan for a tract encompassing 9.5 square miles rejected Jefferson’s preference for a small village that would gradually expand in favor of a massive area that would gradually fill up. But if the initial vision came quickly, construction proceeded slowly as the contentious L’Enfant became entangled in disputes. When Washington fired him in 1792, L’Enfant stormed out, taking the plans with him.


While there is no doubt L’Enfant designed the capital, it could never have been built without an Benjamin Banneker, whose brilliant mind saved Washington, D.C.  When the President fired the architect and the plans left town tucked under his arm, L’Enfant left something behind, not on paper but in the mind of a certain surveyor.

Benjamin Banneker, from Brookhaven National Laboratory at

Benjamin Banneker and Major Andrew Ellicott must both be credited with saving the capital. Banneker, an African-American mathematician and astronomer, had been engaged by Ellicott to help survey the federal territory during the time Ellicott was working closely with L’Enfant. Banneker was able to reproduce the complete layout – streets, parks, major buildings. But others say the story about reconstructing from memory may not be entirely Banneker’s achievement, citing Andrew and Benjamin Ellicott who told Secretary of State Jefferson and President Washington they could reproduce the plan in enough detail to make something suitable for engraving. Whichever side of the controversy you’re on, there is much to be said for sharing designs with a core team.

“The L’Enfant & McMillan Plans,” National Park Service


George B. Matthews, after C. W. Peale, 1931.

In 1803, another Benjamin was hired as surveyor by the President of the United States. It was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, born near Leeds, England in 1764. Latrobe was educated in England and Germany, and then well-trained on-the-job in both architecture and engineering. He emigrated to the United States in 1796. He had just completed his first major project, the Philadelphia Waterworks, when President Thomas Jefferson appointed him “Surveyor of the Public Buildings” in 1803. Latrobe immediately began re-designing the Capitol building at Washington, which was plagued with problems after the initial work by self-taught architect William Thornton. Latrobe also helped to shape the city of Washington by serving as the first engineer of the Washington Canal, as the engineer of the Washington Navy Yard, by contributing to the design and furnishing of the White House, and by surveying the first turnpikes to connect Washington to Maryland and Virginia. When Latrobe completed his work on the Capitol in 1817 it included the House of Representatives (now Statuary Hall), and chambers for the Senate, and the Supreme Court. He gave each an exquisite neo-classical form that is admired by visitors today. Latrobe spent the last three years of his life completing a water system for the rapidly-growing city of New Orleans, where he died of yellow fever in September 1820.

“Benjamin Henry Latrobe: Architect of the Capitol,”


Many countries start from a core that includes the most populous city, such as London in England or Rome in Italy. But the United States proposed a revolutionary idea. As L’Enfant wrote to Washington, the new capital would be a “plan wholly new. No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed.”

Since September 11, 1789 when L’Enfant wrote these words, other nations have followed the idea of selecting a new capital.  If there might come a time in a country’s development when a decision is made to form a permanent capital at a new site entirely dedicated to government, the new city can generate renewed patriotism and national unity expressed through symbolic architecture. Such capitals are, in a sense, public art.

Brasilia is an example. When the former capital, Rio de Janeiro, had become too populous and also perhaps vulnerable being on the coast. Brasilia, located on a high plane in the middle of the country, has the distinction of being the first city designed to be view from the air. The capital is built the shape of an airplane.

Since precedent exists for locating a capital in a location chosen for its special purpose of governing a nation, should this idea help nations whose capitals are threatened by dangers of destruction? When many of the world’s large cities were built, it was not known their urban centers were developing over tectonic faults. Recently, Japan has been troubled by earthquakes that may eventually threaten its capital, Tokyo. The same is true for Mexico City, capital and Federal District of Mexico. Among the world’s top three most populous cities, Mexico City is also on the list of the world’s cities most vulnerable to earthquakes. Mexico already has taken the step of establishing a Distrito Federal (DF). Therefore, it would be possible to move the governmental functions to a safer location?

What about Haiti? Many believe the collapse of the government buildings in the recent earthquake slowed down disaster response. What can we learn from the new capital of Kazakhstan, another place where earthquake vulnerability came together with a change in dynasty when the country was “born” during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Architect Norman Foster worked on the new capital, Astana, inspiring citizens from many different religions to be portrayed together in the Pyramid of Peace.

Washington, D.C. remains a model for a center of government that functions independently. Through the work of leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, L’Enfant, Banneker, Latrobe, the District of Columbia continues to inspire. Will the new National Mall extend the tradition?

Document of Authorization

The Residence Act of 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 Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogocheque; 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 provided…And be it further enacted, that on the first Monday of December next, all offices attached to the seat of the government of the United States, shall be removed to…the city of Philadelphia…and be it further enacted that on the first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred, the seat of government…shall be transferred to the district and place aforesaid. Approved July 16, 1790.

– From “An Act for establishing a temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States,” First Cong. Sess. II, Congressional Record, Ch. 28, page 130, 1790.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Capitals as Public Art: One of the purposes of a capital is the representation in art, architecture and landscape design, of the virtues and values of the nation. Monuments inspire. Open spaces allow for gatherings whether in support or protest. In 1900, a joint committee of Congress, chaired by Senator James McMillan of Michigan, the idea of a great mall was conceived. The American Institute of Architects was inspired by the potential and adopted the McMillan plan. Daniel Burnham, whose success in the Chicago Exposition brought in a new era of architecture and public-space planning, joined the team. The United States is presently seeking proposals for a redesign of the National Mall. The results of the design competition will be announced in November of 2012. What should the new mall look like and why?

Capitals in times of Disaster: Haiti had a difficult recovery from the recent earthquake due to the collapse of the government’s capital that crumbled during the disaster. Should capital cities located on tectonic fault lines (for example, Mexico City or Tokyo) be re-thought? In the agreement regarding the establishment of the capital of the United States, there was great flexibility on location. The government first set up office in Philadelphia and later moved to Washington, DC. Should capital cities in danger relocate their offices of government?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library,  including some of following: 

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

 (* indicates printed in Notebook series)

“The Residence Act – 1790,” from William A. Davis, ed., The Acts of Congress in Relation to the District of Columbia from July 16th, 1790, to March 4, 1831, Washington, D.C., 1831, p. 62.

“Amendment of the Residence Act —  1791.” See above, p. 63.

Additional copies of the Acts, M. Paul Caemmener, USGPO, 1939 (F194.C182), “A Manual on the Origin and Development of Washington.”

More copies of the Acts from Congressional Record, First Congress Session III, Ch 16, 17, 1791, p. 214-215.

“Washington’s First Charter – 1802,” District of Columbia Code, 1967 edition, vol. I, Washington, D.C., 1967.

“Benjamin Banneker: Mathematician, Astronomer. http://www.princeton-edu/~mcbrown/display/banneker.html. Accessed January 15, 2005. Includes extensive bibliography.

“Benjamin Banneker 1731-1806, created and maintained by Dr. Scott W. Williams, Professor of Mathematics, Mathematics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo @bonvibre&daughters 2005. Http:// Accessed February 4, 2006.

“Letter to Arthur Young, Philadelphia, December 5, 1791,” regarding agriculture of wheat with advantages of Potomac region as well other considerations. Pp. 558-561 of Washington the President  (no further bibliographical data but printed in folder).

Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: the Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Excerpt describing the dinner party held by Jefferson at which it was decided that Congress would award Philadelphia the capital for ten years, after which the seat of government would be moved to a site on the Potomac.

Allen, W.B. editor and compiler. “George Washington: A Collection.” Indianapolis: Liberty Classics 1988. ISBN: 0-86597-059 hard and 0-86597-060-2 soft. Excerpt,  Presidential Addresses, 1789-1796.


“Original Plan of Washington, D.C.” with text of letter written by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant on September 11, 1789, “to solicit the favor of being Employed in the Business” of designing the new city.

Brief summary of L’Enfant’s plan as well as discussion of Richard M. Stephenson, who coordinated the restoration and photography of the plan. Information on how to obtain “A Plan Wholly New”: Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Plan of the City of Washington, from Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, title and stock #: 030-000-00247-4.

“Washington’s Letter to and about L’Enfant: March and April 1791.”

“The L’Enfant & McMillan Plans,” National Park Service,

For design competition for the National Mall:

For Benjamin Banneker:

For the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program regarding Benjamin Banneker:

For a discussion of Benjamin Banneker’s contributions:

Levine, Michael.

“Washington” The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Volume XXVIII: Vetch to Zymotic Diseases. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, New York: 1911.

“Washington Monument, Washington, DC

“To Thomas Jefferson from Mount Vernon, August 31, 1788.” Correspondence regarding the Canal of Languedoc. From Allen, W.B., p 418-419.

For Benjamin Latrobe:

Darwin Stapleton (editor). The Engineering Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe: America’s First Architect


“Benjamin Henry Latrobe: America’s First Architect.”   With host Paul Goldberger, Kunhardt McGee Productions and WETA, Washington, D.C. 2009. DVD available. Aired on January 18, 2010 Public Broadcasting System:

Creative Commons License

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. I can not find the answer too this question “what African American contributed to the design and construction of Washington, dc

    • Benjamin Banneker contributed to the design and construction of Washington, dc. In “Building the World,” Volume 1, pages 153-4, one can find “A Letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson, Maryland, Baltimore County, August 19, 1971, where more detail may be found.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar