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“L’Enfant’s idiosyncratic personality interfered with his complete success yet only serves to make this biography a fascinating read.” –Booklist
“A welcome narrative… Berg performs sterling service in excavating this little-known story from the archives.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“The reader never will be able to walk the streets of Washington again without envisioning the haughty genius of Major L'Enfant on horseback, oblivious to the rain and cold, looking down from Jenkins Hill, and with a vision of pre-revolutionary Paris in his mind's eye, seeing one of the world's great capital cities spread out before him.” –Buffalo News (New York)
“Scott Berg has created a readable portrait of Pierre Charles L’Enfant that shows the artist in full, with both his great gifts and his Icarus-like ambition. It is fascinating to speculate how America’s federal government might have emerged differently over the centuries if it had been seated in Thomas Jefferson’s simple ‘federal town’ rather than in L’Enfant’s grandiose city. The character of the capital city today is inseparable from its designer’s personality and vision.” –David A. Price, author of Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation
The largest stone in the political foundation of L'Enfant's journey had been laid eight months earlier, in July 1790, with the passage of the Residence Act. These six paragraphs of federal legislation authorized President Washington to place a district of one hundred square miles somewhere along the Potomac between the Eastern Branch and the Conococheague Creek, eighty miles upriver, for the establishment of a national capital. No state would have jurisdiction in this territory following the transfer of the federal government from Philadelphia, a move set for December 1800. It was a deadline so close—less than ten years away—as to seem fanciful, even laughable, to many Americans.
The establishment of the federal city spoke of the preeminence of George Washington, who'd been given control over nearly every aspect of its creation, from the choice of its location to the appointment of surveyors and commissioners. But it spoke just as loudly of angry divisions between North and South, both of which had schemed and argued since the end of the War for Independence to claim the national capital. Not only was the presumed political, economic, and social bounty of the seat of government at stake; so too was something more ineffable: the chance to become the locus of the world's next great empire. Washington's proclamation placing the district just upriver from his home at Mount Vernon, at nearly the precise halfway point between northernmost Maine and southernmost Georgia, had finally quieted nearly a decade of backroom deal making, congressional oration, and fiery newspaper editorializing over more than thirty potential locations, including undeveloped sites along the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers as well as the existing locales of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. From this point forward, the arguments would circle around what the city should be, not where to put it or whether it should be built at all.
For the residents of the region where the Potomac and the Eastern Branch met, the choice of ground was not a matter of ideological symbolism or sectional disputes. It was, rather, a matter of sizable personal gain. L'Enfant's arrival was important to the propertied men of Georgetown and other landholders within the limits of the new federal district, who were ready to watch his every move—what he viewed and measured—because these movements would presumably offer their best clues to the president's intentions. It was something of a lottery: once Washington pointed to a surveyor's map of the district and said the capital would rise here, the landowners in and around that spot might find their financial dreams come true. As L'Enfant headed out of Georgetown on the morning of March 10, there were eyes on his back and talk behind it.
In a set of notes on the implementation of the Residence Act written for Washington in November 1790, Thomas Jefferson had proposed making a direct appeal to avarice:
"When the President shall have made up his mind as to the spot for the town, would there be any impropriety in his saying to the neighboring landowners, "I will fix the town here if you will join and purchase and give the lands." They may well afford it from the increase of value it will give to their own circumjacent lands."
Washington agreed and wanted any announcements or visible preparations to strongly suggest that the city's exact location was open to negotiation should one group of landholders be willing to offer more advantageous terms than another.
The president and the secretary of state had reasons to prefer either one of two sites: the ground just across Rock Creek from Georgetown or the unrealized "paper town" of Carrollsburg on the prong of land where the Potomac met the Eastern Branch, 160 acres laid out on speculation into 268 building lots but still absent of streets and new structures. The Rock Creek choice meant immediate proximity to a preexisting social and commercial infrastructure, while the other boasted excellent undeveloped terrain and shoreline on two navigable rivers. Though today these spots both rest comfortably within the capital, in 1791 Washington and Jefferson viewed them as entirely separate contenders for the location of the seat of government. They knew that the asking price of lots circling the area they designated for the Capitol and the President's House would climb steeply the moment their decision was made public, and so they were looking to obtain as much land as possible before such an announcement was made.
Washington had begun this quest by supplying William Deakins and Peter Stoddert, two of the district's property owners, with survey maps and telling them to acquire as much land as possible in their own names. Provided these were clean buys, free of legal baggage or disputed boundary lines, the lots would be transferred to the federal government and paid for "so as to excite no suspicion that they are on behalf of the public." Even a few hundred acres in hand as L'Enfant began his work would give the government some leverage going into what threatened to become bare-knuckle negotiations. It needed that leverage soon: Deakins, Stoddert, Jefferson, and Washington were all racing against the creation of eminent domain laws in Maryland that would require the payment of more than fifty dollars per acre, a price the president thought well out of the reach of the federal treasury.
These undercover preparations help to explain why L'Enfant was told to begin his work on the Eastern Branch. In theory, his presence along that river with surveyor's tools in tow would create the impression that the president was about to make his choice. Should the ruse succeed, went the logic, those with property near Georgetown—a much larger and more vocal group of men than the wealthy few with an interest in and around Carrollsburg—would sell more quickly and cheaply rather than watch the center of American government, and the profit, head to their neighbors' ground.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted June 18, 2011
Mention the name "L'Enfant" in my current city, Washington D.C., and most would only know that it is name of a subway station. Scott Berg's well researched book reveals the many layers of the Frenchman whose vision provided the blueprint for our nation's capital. He does a great job of explaining not only the foresightedness of L'Enfant's plan but also how his plan fell prey to political infighting of those quick to make a buck. "Grand Avenues" is valuable for its insights on our Founding Fathers who had contrary visions for the capital. The book also captures the Frenchman's own quirks which played a large role in his ruination. Highly recommended.
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