Finding a Place in Early Washington

by Bob Arnebeck

a paper presented to the 2005 DC Historical Studies Conference

The request President George Washington made to the men he appointed to replace the first three commissioners overseeing the building of the federal city seems a simple matter. He wanted the commissioners to live in the city, as near to the public buildings as possible so that they could keep better track of the public works. Here's how he put it: "they would have it so much more in their power to scrutinize all the movements of men & measures which are under their control, than it is possible to do at the distance of two or three miles by periodical or occasional visits. Being on the spot & seeing everything that occurs, they would be better enabled to systematize the business & have it conducted with greater economy."

Finding a place in 1795 Washington should have presented no problem. The city then, as it would be for many years to come, was a magnificence of vacancy. Yet the commissioners were unsure from the outset. One of them, Alexander White, told Washington that his living next to Capitol building site would do no good because he simply didn't have the expertise. Washington reassured him: "The proposition was not made to you under an idea that you were skilled in the principles of Architecture, or because I supposed you had any particular knowledge of work, or the quantum to be exacted from workmen. The first is varying continually, according to the demand for, or the exorbitance of, the people: and care only is necessary when the latter is executed by contract, or the piece, to prevent, as much as the nature of the case will admit, imposition; and when day wages are given (which in all practicable cases ought to be avoided) to have an eye that the overlookers of them are diligent. For these, I have no doubt your judgment, inclination and industry are quite adequate."

While there were few private houses available, since the federal government had not yet moved to the city, there was little demand for those already built around those building sites. Yet the disinclination of the three appointees to reside in the city exasperated the president and became a public scandal. William Thornton, appointed in 1794 to succeed David Stuart of Alexandria Virginia, moved from Philadelphia to Georgetown, closer to the public works than Stuart but still too far away in Washington's view. Gustavus Scott, appointed in 1794 to succeed Thomas Johnson of Frederick, Maryland, moved from Baltimore to Georgetown and then built an estate just across the then city line, about where the Cosmos Club is today, closer than Frederick, Maryland, but still far from the public buildings. Alexander White, appointed in 1795 to succeed Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek who had kin on Capitol Hill and southwest Washington, lived out of hotels when the commissioners met, returning to his home in Woodville, Virginia, as often as he could, a net loss in terms of a supervising eye because of the three commissioners Carroll was the only one who, when he was in town, was often seen actually inspecting the work being done.

The reason Scott and Thornton gave for not moving to the city was that when Attorney General Edmund Randolph told them of their appointment, they understood him to say that the President wanted them to live in the city or Georgetown. Washington hotly disputed that insisting that he had pleaded for the old commissioners to build a house in the city, or at least move their office from Georgetown to the city. (That said, when Washington offered the appointment to Tobias Lear, prior to his offering it to Thornton, he assured Lear that living in Georgetown was "tantamount" to living in the city.)

One subtext to Scott's and Thornton's defending their initial move to Georgetown was that they could not simply look to their own comfort. Finding a place to live is not an exclusively male prerogative. Thornton had a wife and her mother to accommodate and Scott had a wife and several children. In the case of Alexander White who received news of his appointment directly from Washington, with the requirement of a city residence made crystal clear, Washington finally bowed to the preferences of Mrs. Alexander White, who came to the city in the late fall of 1796, stayed three weeks, and returned to Woodville. Exploring these commissioners' decisions as reflecting the power of women might be a profitable path. Unfortunately, what the ladies may have written about the issue hasn't survived. Mrs. Thornton was not then keeping a diary. White explained to the president how his wife made her decision. As she left the city after her three week visit, she told her husband that she would not give her opinion until she returned to Woodville. White who stayed in the city until the commissioners' adjourned for a long Christmas break, expected to get her decision in a letter, but she wrote that she would tell him when he returned to Woodville. It is likely that Mrs. Scott and Mrs. Thornton were also key participants in the decision to avoid the city, but I think another domestic institution played a larger role, though in a somewhat roundabout way.

At about the same time as these new commissioners took office, January 1795, a common laborer earned a commendation from his supervisor in the surveying department. I believe that is the only instance of such a commendation in the voluminous papers of the commissioners. One can amass a thick file about Commissioners Scott, Thornton and White. That letter is the only document that breathes life into Jerry Holland, so let's quote it: "Pay Jerry the black man a rate of $8 per month, for his last month's services, he is justly intitled to the highest wages that is due to our hands - being promised it and the best hand in the department - Dorsey excepted." The accounts of the commissioners make clear that Jerry Holland never got his raise and continued to get $5 a month even as the commissioners recognized Holland's talents and by 1798 made him their servant working in their office. The commissioners insisted on never paying laborers more than paid for hiring slaves, and it was this short sighted policy that created the environment that made it so difficult for the commissioners to live in the city.

That said, all the commissioners deserve our sympathy. The president and congress placed them in an impossible position. Both expected them to finance the public buildings without using any public money above the seed money for the project, $172,000, given by the states of Virginia and Maryland. The financing was to come from the sale of the city lots that the government bought from the original proprietors of the city. Peter L'Enfant was the first to recognize that in the short term this would never work. He drew up plans for building the city, including a budget, with the amount of loans needed, and an outline of the disposition of the 1,017 men he thought it would take to effect the project. For all the pains he took, he was fired, and a development plan with a grandeur of conception to match the city's plan was tossed aside.

L'Enfant worried about getting enough workers but those he did hire were paid and fed well. In his brief time supervising the workers, L'Enfant created an esprit de corps in part because for many he promised year round jobs. Once Washington dismissed L'Enfant, the commissioners fired the men he had hired, and looked to get the work that needed to be done on a piecemeal basis. After Washington's and Jefferson's plans to import workers from Germany came to nought, on April 13, 1792, the commissioners broadcast the order that might well be blazoned on some plaque that speaks to the city's origins: "The Commissioners resolve that to hire good laboring negroes by the year, their masters cloathing them well and finding each a blanket; the Commissioners finding them provisions and paying twenty one pounds a year wages. The payment, if desired to be made quarterly or half yearly. If the negroes absent themselves a week or more, such time to be deducted."

Of course this in no way introduced slavery to the City of Washington. The 1790 census credits Notley Young, who owned most of southwest Washington, with 265 slaves. The new commissioners were comfortable with slavery. Commissioner Scott would eventually hire out his slaves Bob and Kitt to work at the Capitol. In 1792 shortly after the slave-hire policy was instituted Commissioner Thomas Johnson bragged that by hiring slaves the white workers would have to "cool" their demands for higher pay. Indeed the wage for all unskilled labor, including that of whites and free blacks like Jerry Holland was the same as that received by masters who hired out slaves. At this time there was a surplus of slaves in Maryland and Virginia. The commissioners took advantage of this depressed market for slaves to depress wages in general around the City of Washington. Worse still for the city's economy, the wages for upwards of half their workforce went to slave holders in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, and not a few hired slaves came from the Plowden plantation near St. Marys, Maryland. The commissioners inadvertently crippled the local economy in another way. To fulfill their end of the bargain with the slave owners who hired their chattels, they built an airy wooden barracks on Judiciary Square where the slaves could spread that one blanket their masters provided. The perfect place to put a commissioner's house, situated between the public buildings, became the temporary home for slaves. To pay free laborers like Jerry Holland more so that they might be able to support a family defeated the commissioners' cool idea. Instead they provided wooden shacks for them and fed them with the hired slaves, at public expense.

This way of thinking helped set the tone for how they handled skilled workers. They got an assist in this from a well intentioned but poorly thought out idea of Thomas Jefferson's. Before the first auction of public lots in October 1791, in anticipation of sales and subsequent construction of houses, on instructions from the administration in Philadelphia, the commissioners published building regulations. Fires in cities with wooden housing were notorious enough, and a recent fire in Philadelphia prompted Jefferson to recommend that all buildings in the city be made out of brick or stone. Of course, even skilled workers in that era could not easily afford such housing so the commissioners allowed temporary wooden houses for workers. And since this housing was temporary, that is, to be certainly be torn down before Congress moved to the splendid new city in 1800, they could be put on the publically owned squares near the construction sites of the Capitol and President's house.

By 1796 Washington realized that building regulation was a mistake, and it was rescinded, but the damage was done. Instead of creating a situation where men working on the public buildings could raise families in the city, the commissioners oversaw a workers' encampment, where men were paid poorly, lived meanly in shanties, and supplemented what slop they might get from the public camboose with what they could buy at grog shops that also sprang up around the public buildings.

This concentration of poorly built inadequate housing on temporary sites served another misguided purpose. Since the city was not building an economy, the only way to make big money in it was to profit from the speculative bubble promised at its inception. The French traveller the Duc de La Rouchefoucauld-Liancourt noticed in 1796 that landowners hated the poor for stealing the space destined to be sold to the wealthy. So the public squares, that L'Enfant wanted to beautify before any lots were sold or houses built, were the huants of the poor. Most of the principal landowners lived on their city lands or had their agents there, and tried to police their property. The public lots were not policed.

Not that there was such a clear cut line between order and disorder. In late 1793 James Greenleaf persuaded President Washington and the commissioners to sell him 6,000 lots at a cut rate price in return for a steady infusion of cash and a promise to build more than enough brick houses to accommodate the government in 1800. Greenleaf included, Robert Morris, the illustrious financier and friend of George Washington in on the scheme, as well as John Nicholson, the former comptroller of the State of Pennsylvania, but alas they all went bankrupt. The commissioners never got their infusion of cash and only sporadic building. When they tried to reclaim the lots, Greenleaf's, Morris's and Nicholson's creditors held notes to which those lots had been pledged as security and sued to take possession of them. As a result the title to many city lots remained unclear.

Not that this deterred the commissioners from buying or building a house in the city. Commissioner Scott just as he tried to profit from slave hire, tried to profit from the speculators fall by joining other Georgetown wheeler-dealers in a speculation on the notes of Morris and Nicholson. The idea was to buy these almost worthless notes at say 15 cents on the dollar in the expectation that Morris's and Nicholson's property in Washington would rise in value, as all property in the city inevitabily must, and that they would eventually redeem their notes at a higher value if not par. To be sure, speculation in worthless personal notes was not what Washington had in mind when he wanted his commissioners close to the scene.

The crisis over where the commissioners should live came to a head in the late June, 1795, ironically just after Washington wrote to Alexander White about how easy it would be to keep tabs on operations in the city. Masons were busy putting up a foundation wall for both the north and south wings of the Capitol. Then the wall of the south wing collapsed. Secretary of State Randolph chided the commissioners for not paying closer attention. Scott and Thornton fired back describing what they had to put up with on the scene: "Those not acquainted with the motley set we found here, and who from necessity have too many of them been still continued in public employment can form no adequate idea of the irksome scenes we are too frequently compelled to engage in." And even if they had been on the scene everyday, they could not have prevented the "scene of villainy."

Given that this libel on the workers burst forth but 19 years after the Declaration of Independence, we might suspect its class bias to be frowned on by the administration in Philadelphia. But roughly at the same time, George Washington was looking for tenants to work his Mount Vernon fields. He asked friends in Britain to find him good farmers there, averring that he would never rent to Americans. I think that on closer examination the records of the commissioners holds a sobering sercret about early Washington and America. There was such class hatred that large building projects like the Capitol were bound to be unsatisfying to both the men who oversaw and those who did the work. Strangely no one seemed to see, other than L'Enfant, that to get the job done well the better sort had to loosen their purse strings and get off their high horse. Thornton, who prided himself on being an advanced thinker on social issues, came up with just the wrong solution to the "motley set" they had to work with. He suggested that the commissioners buy 50 slaves and train them to become skilled masons. Part of the bargain would be that they would get their freedom in six years. And the cost of the slaves would certainly be less than what the commissioners paid for skilled masons. Thornton's colleagues were not impressed by the idea.

Jerry Holland worked as a laborer that summer. Despite his being recognized for his talents, judging from the fact that in 1798 when he was the commissioners' servant that he still signed his pay receipts with an X, we can assume that no one thought of training him. The intriguing thing about that January 1795 letter commending Holland is that it said he was "promised" $8 a month instead of $5. Thomas Freeman, then head of the surveying department, who passed the commendation of Holland onto the commissioners, didn't intimate that he made the promise. It would be interesting to figure out who did. And I am afraid that awaits the arrival of a genius who can organize and better interpret the payrolls and timerolls in the National Archives. My guess is that Jerry Holland came with Andrew Ellicott and his brothers, not as early as Banneker, but soon enough for Holland to make an impression. Of course, that raises the question of why Holland didn't leave with the Ellicotts who may have promised him so much, or for that matter, why he didn't leave public employment and work with private builders.

The second question is easy to answer. The private builders faced as big a money crunch as the commissoners, and they found that one of the advantages to using slaves was that their masters did not have to be paid after each days work. Indeed, Morris and Nicholson beggared the skilled workers they needed to build houses by promising them payment in housing. This bartering for skills might have worked save that the houses were seldom finished and title to them was disputed once the speculators went bankrupt.

Free blacks in the city were counted in the 1800 census and while there is not a Jerry Holland, or Jeremiah Holland listed, there is a Josy Holland who had 7 dependants. If this was Jerry Holland, it explains why he stayed. And at first blush if he did have many children it seems my argument is wrong. The skinflint ways of the government didn't retard family life after all. But taking a broader view, Holland's staying as a public employee demonstrates how deflated and chaotic the economy of the city was, brought down by what seemed to be become the golden rule for the commissioners: hire slaves as cheaply as possible and base all other wages on that. But Jerry Holland did get two perks. The first was employment during the winter. To save money the commissioners layed off all but an handful of workers. Jerry Holland remained on the job -- still at the rate of $5 a month. The second perk was somewhat ironical given that it was the commissioners who were supposed to live in the middle of the city. In a list of the temporary houses the commissioners' owned near the public works, Jerry Holland is listed as the tenant in one.

Before concluding I need to make some apologies. Shallow indeed is a paper complaining about economic conditions that contains no more data than $5 a month and $8 a month. My hope is that rather than merely poke holes in my argument, someone brighter than me will take the men and women who made early Washington with the painstaking seriousness they deserve, not merely as necessary ingredients to the fulfilment of national grandeur in the city.

But back to finding a place in Washington. After the catastrophe at the Capitol, Thornton did rent a house near 14th and F streets which he soon purchased, but at the same time maintained a farm outside the city. He and his wife eventually became true, we might say, legendary residents of the city. Commissioner Scott never lived across the city line. He built Rock Hill, one of the finest seats in the area, lauded by Thomas Jefferson, and soon to be renamed Kalorama when Joel Barlow moved into it. On-line there is an article called "Neighbors of the Cosmo Club" which described Kalorama and the heroic life of Joel Barlow during the 1790s when he was an American diplomat of adventurous disposition. Good reading. There is no mention of Gustavus Scott who built the estate in the late 1790s, save for a PS to a letter Jefferson sent to Barlow in 1802. Scott died of cancer on Christmas Day 1800. There is no sadder epitaph for a city official: "P.S. There is a most lovely seat adjoining this city, on a high hill, commanding a view of the Potomac, now for sale. A superb house, gardens, etc., with thirty or forty acres of ground. It will be sold under circumstances of distress, and will probably go for half of what it has cost. It was built by Gustavus Scott, who is dead bankrupt"