Thomas Jefferson lived in Washington, D.C., from late 1800 until his retirement from the presidency in March 1809. The story of his impact on the city, however, begins with the Compromise of 1790.1
Appointed Secretary of State by George Washington in 1789, Jefferson moved to New York in March 1790 to assume his position. Congress was then embroiled in controversy over the economic program introduced by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson later described his role in bringing Hamilton and leading Congressman James Madison “to a friendly discussion of the subject.” Hamilton and Madison dined together, at Jefferson’s invitation, to discuss the assumption of state debts by the federal government. Hamilton’s proposal, opposed by most of the Southern states, favored the debt-ridden Northern states. Discussion and dinner, Jefferson recalled, “ended in Mr. Madison’s acquiescence ... that ... he should not be strenuous” in opposing assumption.2 Realizing that assumption was a “bitter pill” for Virginia and other like-minded states, the negotiating parties agreed to soothe them with “the removal of the seat of government to the Patowmac.”3
The Residence Act of July 1790 provided for a national capital on the Potomac River and empowered President Washington to appoint commissioners to oversee the project. Washington turned to Jefferson and Madison for advice. Immediately, the creative Jefferson began to envision “the federal Capitol, the offices, the President’s house & gardens.”4 Early in September 1790, Jefferson and Madison traveled from New York to meet with landowners in the designated area. In a memorandum written from Alexandria, Jefferson noted that he “supposed that 1500 acres would be required in the whole,” and that the ideal layout would be a rectangular grid.5
From 1790 through 1793, when he resigned as Secretary of State, Jefferson served as Washington’s “second in command” on matters concerning the capital. Through regular communication with Washington and the commissioners, Jefferson addressed every aspect of the project. His letters, memoranda, and reports covered land acquisition; surveys, boundaries, and plats; public buildings and bridges; a canal and wharves; domestic and foreign workmen; the sale of lots, financing, and additional issues as they emerged.6
Upon selection of a site in the vicinity of Georgetown, Maryland, Washington appointed French Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the new city.7 Washington and L’Enfant were well-matched. Both men dreamed of a monumental federal capital, one that would signify the strength of the national government. L’Enfant’s grandiose plan, embraced by Washington and ultimately imprinted on the landscape, called for 5000 acres and radiating avenues between the primary centers of power.
Jefferson’s proposal for a modest town with a simple grid was quietly moved aside, but Jefferson himself maintained a key supervisory position. He provided L’Enfant with instructions to proceed to Georgetown and to immediately survey the area, requesting the Frenchman “to mark to me your progress about twice a week.”8 By the summer of 1791, the two men were communicating about the layout of lots,9 and early the following year, Jefferson was ready to embark on public works with Major L’Enfant.10 During the winter of 1791-1792, however, differences had arisen between L’Enfant and the commissioners. Neither side was prepared to back down and the President charged Jefferson with dismissing L’Enfant from service.11
As plans for the federal district moved forward, Jefferson’s particular passion for architecture came into play. Early in 1792, the Secretary of State suggested to Washington that an architectural competition should determine the design of the President’s House. Jefferson himself prepared an advertisement announcing the competition and noting that a “Premium of 500 dollars” would be awarded for the adopted plan.12 Some historians believe that Jefferson anonymously entered the competition, and an unattributed Palladian design does suggest Jefferson’s influence, if not his own contribution. The winning design came from President Washington’s favored candidate, Irish architect James Hoban.13
Simultaneously, Jefferson launched a design competition for the U.S. Capitol.14 A year earlier, Jefferson had described for L’Enfant his thoughts about the legislative building. “I should prefer,” he explained, “the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity which have had the approbation of thousands of years.”15 Jefferson prepared a sketch of a round design, based on the Roman Pantheon, to demonstrate what he had in mind. He was pleased, therefore, when a neoclassical submission from William Thornton met with Washington’s approval. Jefferson warmly praised Thornton’s design as “simple, noble, beautiful ....”16 During the early stages of building, Jefferson worked directly with Thornton and with site architect Stephen Hallet;17 during his presidency, he would work with architect Benjamin Latrobe on subsequent stages of the process.18
In November 1800, the President’s House was roughly ready for occupation and President John Adams was eager to take up residence. Adams was undeterred by reports of a muddy, rugged wilderness on the Potomac and a dwelling-place that resembled a construction site more than a presidential mansion.19 As Adams’s Vice President, Jefferson had not been engaged on the capital project for several years, but he too had heard the dismal reports and had his doubts. Late in November, he joined Adams, nevertheless, as one of the first federal officials to live in Washington, D.C. “[W]e are better accomodated here than we expected to be,” he promptly notified his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, “and not a whisper or thought in any mortal of attempting a removal.”20 Typically optimistic, he reported that Washington was “solidly established and this being now seen it will take a rapid spring.”21
Three months later, on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first president inaugurated in the new capital city. The Washington area sites listed below are associated with the years of his presidency.
- Nancy Verell, 8/1/14
SITES ASSOCIATED WITH THOMAS JEFFERSON
Gadsby’s Tavern, 134 North Royal Street, Alexandria. Jefferson stayed here on the occasion of a celebration in his honor in March 1801.22 The site is now a museum.23
The Octagon, 1741 New York Avenue, N.W. This house was the residence of John Tayloe. Tayloe was not a particular friend of Jefferson’s, but they did know each other.24 The Octagon is now the headquarters of the American Architectural Foundation.25
Christ Episcopal Church, 620 G Street, S.E. In 1807, the vestry reserved Pew No. 42 for President Jefferson. Jefferson responded with thanks, and noted that it would have been “extremely pleasing to me to have continued a member of their congregation & to have availed myself of their kind offer, had the distance of the new building permitted it.” He added, “this single circumstance obliging me to decline it, I take the liberty of mentioning it to you, that the pew may not remain unoccupied.”26 The church still stands today and has an active congregation.27
Main (Latrobe) Gate, Navy Yard, 8th and M Streets, S.E. As President, Jefferson had frequent business with the Navy Yard and, therefore, it seems probable that he spent time in this building. Designed by Benjamin Latrobe and erected in 1806, this site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.28
Kalorama, once near the intersection of Massachusetts and Florida Avenues. The house was the residence of Joel Barlow. Jefferson urged Barlow to buy this property in 1802, although Barlow did not do so until 1807. Jefferson is said to have visited Barlow to advise on landscaping and orchards.29 In 1889, Kalorama was leveled by the city to extend S Street, N.W.30
Sidney, Northeast Quadrant. Sidney was the residence of Samuel Harrison and Margaret Bayard Smith, good friends and colleagues of Jefferson. This house was their country residence. It is now subsumed in St. Thomas’s Hall at Catholic University. It is very probable that Jefferson visited there at some point.31
Theodore Roosevelt (Analostan) Island, Potomac River. Jefferson visited Analostan Island several times,32 both to see its owner, John Mason, and to enjoy the farm and gardens.33 The site is now administered by the National Park Service as part of the George Washington Parkway.34
Uriah Forrest House, 3350 M Street, N.W. Jefferson had dinner at this house in 1790, on his way to see the Little Falls of the Potomac River.35 This house now serves as the Ukrainian Embassy.36
Notley Young House, G Street between 9th and 10th Streets, S.W. Jefferson was here in 1790.37 The house was demolished in 1856.
Quality Hill (Worthington House), 3425 Prospect Street, N.W. We do not know whether Jefferson ever visited this house, but he did know John Thomson Mason, owner of the house until 1807.38 The house still stands, but is privately owned.
First Baptist Church, 19th and I Streets, N.W., Alexandria. Jefferson probably never visited this church, but he did contribute $50 toward it.39 The congregation has moved several times since Jefferson’s day, and is now located on King Street.
Washington Theater, 11th and C Streets, N.W. Jefferson attended plays here.40 The theater burned in 1821.
Suter’s Tavern, Wisconsin Street between M and Water Streets. Jefferson often stayed here on his way to and from Philadelphia.41 The proprietor moved to the Union Tavern in 1799. The original building housing Suter’s Tavern no longer stands.
Fountain Tavern, Royal Street, Alexandria. Jefferson often stayed here. The tavern hosted a public dinner in Jefferson’s honor on March 11, 1790.42 The building no longer exists.
Long’s Hotel, Capitol Hill. Site of the inaugural ball given for James Madison, which Jefferson attended.44 The building no longer exists.
Pontius Stelle’s hotels, various Washington locations. Jefferson was probably in most of them at one time or another, although no specific references have been found. Stelle’s hotels during Jefferson’s presidency were on A Street, then Carroll Row on 1st Street.
1. Between 1776 and the Constitutional Convention in 1788, Congress met in eight eastern cities. The government first relocated when British troops threatened Philadelphia in December 1776. Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, and New York City went on to serve as temporary capitals. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were determined to end the government’s peripatetic existence. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution provided for a “District (not exceeding ten Miles square)” that would “become the Seat of Government of the United States.” Anxious to gain approval for the Constitution, the convention delegates avoided the thorny issue of where the capital would be located.
2. Jefferson’s Account of the Bargain on the Assumption and Residence Bills, [1792?], in PTJ, 17:206-07. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Jefferson’s Draft of Agenda for the Seat of Government, August 29, 1790, in PTJ, 17:460-61. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. Jefferson’s Report to Washington on Meeting Held at Georgetown, September 14, 1790, in PTJ, 17:461-63. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson to Washington, September 17, 1790, in PTJ, 17:466-67. Transcription available at Founders Online.
7. Washington to Jefferson, March 31, 1791, in PTJ, 20:81-82. Transcription available at Founders Online.
8. Jefferson to L’Enfant, March 2, 1791, in PTJ, 19:355-56. Transcription available at Founders Online.
9. Jefferson to L’Enfant, August 18, 1791, in PTJ, 22:47-48. Transcription available at Founders Online.
10. Jefferson to L’Enfant, February 22, 1792, in PTJ, 23:141. Transcription available at Founders Online.
11. Jefferson to L’Enfant, February 27, 1792, in PTJ, 23:161. Transcription available at Founders Online.
12. An Advertisement for the President’s House, March 6, 1792, in PTJ, 23:227-28. Transcription available at Founders Online.
13. In determining that Jefferson entered the competition, architectural historian Fiske Kimball compared two sets of drawings. The first set came from the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at Massachusetts Historical Society. The second set, marked with the pseudonymous initials “A.Z.,” came from the competition designs preserved at the Maryland Historical Society. According to Kimball, the second set proved “to duplicate Jefferson’s studies line for line and distance for distance.” See Fiske Kimball, "The Genesis of the White House,"Century Magazine 95 (February 1918): 523-28. White House historian William Seale, however, questions the attribution of the “A.Z.” drawings to Jefferson. See William Seale, The White House: The History of an American Idea (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1992), 5.
14. An Advertisement for the Capitol, March 6, 1792, in PTJ, 23:226-27. Transcription available at Founders Online.
15. Jefferson to L’Enfant, April 10, 1791, in PTJ, 20:86–87. Transcription available at Founders Online.
16. Jefferson to Daniel Carroll, February 1, 1793, in PTJ, 25:110. Transcription available at Founders Online.
17. See, e.g., Jefferson to Washington, July 17, 1793, in PTJ, 26:517-59. Transcription available at Founders Online.
42. Address of Welcome from the Mayor of Alexandria, March [11,] 1790, and Response to the Address of Welcome, March 11, 1790, in PTJ, 16:224-25. Transcriptions of the address and the response available at Founders Online.