Monday, January 21, 2013

"Six Freemasons from Edinburgh" and the White House

Someone e-mailed me asking about the "six Freemasons from Edinburgh without whom the White House would not have been built." I had a sudden warm feeling and envisioned those master craftsmen leaving Scotland, sailing to New York or Philadelphia, greeted there by Federal officials, escorted to the Potomac, housed and feted with due ceremony before they got to work, all accompanied by Masonic choral music composed by Mozart! (The print above is from 1858 and of Freemasons parading from Edinburgh.)

George Washington was a Freemason, a relationship immortalized in the iconography of the great man.

Many Masonic websites celebrate that and many of them add that: "Records in the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum indicate that Bro. George Washington recruited six Masons from Edinburgh, Scotland to help build the White House in Washington, D.C."

Great story, but there is no evidence backing it up. Rolls
of the men working on the public buildings, now in the National Archives, date from late 1794. The roll of masons at the White House in December 1794 lists five masons: Henry Edwards, George Blagden, Robert Vincent, James Dougherty, and David Cumming. Blagden was English, born in Attercliffe, South Yorkshire. He was the master mason who worked on both the White House and Capitol and then supervised the stone workers at the Capitol until 1826 when he was crushed by falling stone while inspecting some old foundation work there. 


George Blagden 

Back to December 1794, twenty masons were working at the Capitol.

Alexander Reed
Robert Graham
David Ogilvie
James Logan
William Fisher
Henry Cook
John Henry
James Henry
Neal McKeever
John Bennett
David Kay
Robert Oliver
Andrew Shulls
John Cochran
Peter Larimore
Nath. MaCleish
William Beard
William Symington
Thomas Allen
Alex Williamson
Robert Tolmie
William Simpson
Hugh Somervill
James Somervill
Joseph Cockran
James Jack
John Shaw
Thom. Barth
Frederick Nie
Thos. Dollar
George Jacob
David Waterson

Some of them were Scots, and those that were soon made it plain where they had come from. They were about to get their wages docked unless they accepted the same piecework contract that Irish masons had agreed to. The Scots prefaced their petition to the commissioners by saying: "We the under named Masons, who were induced to come from different parts of the continent to the Federal City, under expectations of meeting with good wages...." They were already in America when they heard about work in the new city.

Collen Williamson, the first supervisors of masons, was hired in 1792. He was born in Scotland and bragged about the castles he built there. But he was already in New York City when he heard about the job from a relative, John Suter, a Georgetown tavern keeper. You can see the contract between him and the commissioners in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division:

Masons began laying stone at the White House in April 1793, a year after Williamson was hired. That was plenty of time for Williamson to get masons from Edinburgh. There is no evidence that he did. Masons in Maryland and Virginia organized the parade to Capitol for ceremonial laying of the cornerstone in September 1793. Newspaper accounts listed the order of parade which was led by masons from Alexandria and Maryland. That was a great opportunity to show off the six masons from the Edinburgh lodge, but none were there.

 An artist's conception of the Masonic parade to the Capitol

It is  fair to say that President George Washington tried to get masons from Scotland, but he longed for foreign masons because they might come cheaply. Americans of the ruling class then had a stubborn conviction that all American labor was over paid and that European workers were eager to come to America and would work for less pay, perhaps even as indentured servants.

In a 5 July 1792 letter to a Georgetown merchant named John Laird, who was going back to Scotland, the commissioners Washington appointed to oversee construction of the public buildings offered to pay 12 shillings Sterling a month for laborers he might find in Scotland, single men only. They also sought indentured servants, promising freedom to common laborers after two years work, less time required from mechanics: "They will be employed in public work only, and their living found as free men, we desire the Mechanicks to work only, Sixteen Months, and the Laborers two Years, from their arrival at this Port." (Commrs letterbook vol. 1 pp 97-8.)

In the 18th century, anyone who did physical labor was a "mechanick," but, as in this letter, a distinction was drawn between mechanicks who practiced a particular trade and "common laborers." The wage offered is a bit more difficult to parse. Using the rate of 4 shillings Sterling at $1, the commissioners wanted to pay laborers $3 a month. At that time, they were hiring slaves at the rate of $5 a month (money going to the slave owner, of course.) Another interesting remark in the letter: the commissioners only wanted "single men only." Their goal was to build the city without peopling it with working class families.

President Washington was very keen on getting indentured workers. It was how he commonly got skilled white workers for Mount Vernon. One of his indentured servants, an Irishman, did stone work at the White House once he was did his time at Mount Vernon. The president wrote to the commissioners: " would be better.... to have them indented at the time of engaging them, specifying the number of years they are to serve to commence at the time of their landing in the U.S.... And if mechanics of a particular description are most essential it would be well, in order to secure their Services beyond the term for which they might be engaged for their passages, to stipulate at the time of engaging them, that they should serve one, two or three years over and above that time at £ ... per year."

Washington left the wage blank. It went without saying that he wanted it as low as possible. What he was especially after was a low wage set for as many years as possible. Thus, there would be no demands for higher wages.

Washington added that he heard that German labor would be cheaper, though he thought an attempt should be made to indent some workers from Scotland, "whence many good and useful mechanics may undoubtedly to be had. I have been more particular in respect to Germany because they may probably be obtained from thence on better terms than from other quarters, and they are known to be a steady, laborious people."

Six masons from Hamburg, anyone?

In due time, Laird, who went to find workers in Scotland, wrote back to the commissioners that with "great demand and building going on in all the towns.... It is our opinion good men could not be engaged to go to America unless they were assured of near double the wages they get here."

The President was dumbfounded and urged the commissioners to redouble their efforts: "The more I consider the subject, the more I am convinced of the expediency of importing a number of workmen from Europe to be employed in the Federal City. The measure has not only oeconomy to recommend it, but is important by placing the quantity of labour which may be performed by such persons upon a certainty for the term for which they shall be engaged."

George Walker, a Scottish merchant who was a big landowner in the new city, also went back to Scotland to get workers. He had no luck.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Master Mason in the city, Collen Williamson, wasn't working out well. He bothered the commissioners with lectures on castles in Scotland and they fired him on the grounds that he was too old. He was 65. Williamson complained about that treatment to both Presidents Washington and Adams, and demanded to be rehired. He bragged about his accomplishments in Scotland and his work on the foundation and first story of the White House. In none of those letters is there any mention of "six Freemasons from Edinburgh."

Here is a taste of how Williamson importuned the presidents. This to the newly inaugurated John Adams:

"I should not have troubled you in writing but considering myself still in the public employ, I think it my duty to give information of what has been going on here for too long a time. There is a James Hoban, an Irish carpenter engaged as arcteck for the President's house from Charleston and soon after came acompany of thives his former associats.... The gentlemen here says it was good policy in Hoban to get me putt out of place fore then there was non to restrain them, they did as they pleasd, this man have been a recepticle for all the Irish vagbons that came in his way, there is noting here but fighting lying and stealing and will be as long as this man is in power..."

But with Hoban's rise, the city's Masonic Lodge was organized with that son of Kilkenney, not anyone from Edinburgh, as its leader.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Give L'Enfant a Break

How has it come to pass that the man who made the detailed plan of the city, who also made a written estimate of the amount of men and materials needed to build the public buildings, and who came up with a feasible plan to finance the public works, is now dismissed as a temperamental artist whose parting from the project allowed it proceed in sensible fashion under the control of President Washington and the commissioners he appointed?.

And L’Enfant also hired and directed crews of free laborers to begin digging foundations and quarrying stone for the public buildings. His workers were highly motivated. When the commissioners cancelled all L’Enfant’s orders, the men he had hired worked for nothing trusting that Major L’Enfant and his many friends in Georgetown would provide as indeed they did until the enraged commissioners put a stop to that. Temperamental artists usually don’t inspire such zeal.

Only Washington, Jefferson, the commissioners and relatives of Commissioner Carroll trumpeted the claim that L’Enfant was unreliable and, as we would say today, on an ego trip. One could argue that his many allies overlooked his faults because it was to their own advantage. The proprietors hoping to enrich themselves begged Washington to keep L’Enfant knowing that his zeal and expertise would move development along rapidly. The men L’Enfant hired, well, here was an employer who supplied them with “chocolate butter” at breakfast (something that infuriated the Commissioners.) However, Andrew Ellicott, who eventually earned L’Enfant’s enmity by making changes in his plan, thought very highly of L’Enfant and forgave him his popularity in Georgetown. Ellicott’s brothers joined Andrew including one who Andrew doubted had the capacity for doing good work. Andrew was amazed when, under L’Enfant’s influence, Benjamin Ellicott became a disciplined and skilled surveyor.

So what happened? Why did L’Enfant earn the enmity of Washington and his advisers, and was it a function of an artist’s ego trip? It is a long story which I tried to cover in my book Through a Fiery Trail: Building Washington 1790-1800. In it I try to give a dispassionate narrative of the events. I had a lot to cover so I could not get bogged down. But the more I think about it, L’Enfant’s actions are all defensible.

The first problem was that L’Enfant did not provide copies of the plan for the first auction of lots in October 1791. He blamed the engraver in Philadelphia. After L’Enfant left, Washington and Jefferson hurried Ellicott to get the plan engraved. It took months. Ellicott blamed the engraver in Boston. Then at the auction L’Enfant would not show his copy of the plan to bidders. Perhaps he should have but the bidding was confined to a square just northwest of the President’s House. Showing the huge expanse of lots which Washington and the commissioners hoped to see auctioned off later, would have only dampened the spirits of bidders. By the way, L’Enfant bought a city lot that day.

Then L’Enfant removed a building Daniel Carroll of Duddington began building in one of the future streets of the city. This issue resonates, and over 200 years later almost everyone sides with Carroll. Washington recognized that L‘Enfant was right but there was talk of due process. Here was a great city in its infancy and a proprietor who could most profit from its growth tried to subvert the plan. L‘Enfant did everyone a favor and I believe that if I were to start building in a street or a planned street today, I would not enjoy the luxury of a long court battle before what I built was removed.

The final disputes between L’Enfant and Commissioners essentially boiled down to each side hating the other. L’Enfant knew he could not work with the commissioners, and vice versa. The Commissioners were only in the city when they met a few days every month, and they increasingly objected to everything L'Enfant wanted to do. As befitted gentlemen slaveholders, they looked askance at paying anyone. The Commissioners sent Washington a copy of L'Enfant's expenditures. He was a slaveholder too. The Commissioners simply told the President that if L’Enfant stayed they would all quit. 

L’Enfant made a detailed case showing how he proposed to build the city, something the commissioners never did. By making it clear that only he knew how to fulfill his plan, he tried to force the President to choose between him and the commissioners. That was a tall order. The commissioners included one of Washington’s oldest friends, Thomas Johnson of Maryland; a Virginia doctor, David Stuart, who married into Martha Washington’s family and had long helped the President with family issues; and Daniel Carroll of Rock Creek who was part of the leading Maryland family.

L’Enfant’s assets were his almost completed plan for the city. Washington and members of Congress had seen and all liked the small, simplified version that L’Enfant shared. He probably had plans for the President’s house which Washington seemed most interested in seeing. When he heard that someone else saw them, he was irate. Perhaps L’Enfant should have begun working with his patron on the plan for the President’s house, and bring the temperamental artist out in the President. (His first reaction to James Hoban's plan for the White House was that it was too small.) Instead L’Enfant took a course which he thought would best assure the success of the whole city. He submitted two work plans detailing material and workers needed. One didn’t stint on showing the cost and complexity, but another outlined what could be done in the coming year with limited funds.

27 Carpenters @ 12 [dollars a month]
18 Masons ditto
18 Stone cutters ditto
23 Bricklayers ditto
4 Smiths ditto
10 Foremen for Mechanicks @ 24 [dollars a month]
20 Boatmen including 1 Master @ 8 & 15 [dollars a month]
20 Team Drivers & 1 Master @ 20 [dollars a month]
1 Commissary --- 2 deputies @ 20 [dollars a month] each
7 Overseers of the Labourers @ 20 [dollars a month]
360 Labourers @ 7 [dollars a month]
Subsistence for 511 men @121 [dollars] per month
NB This is calculated from beef at 7 Dolls, Pork at 12 - flour at 4 - corn at 2 1/2, Spirit at 50c a galln and proported by the follog allowance 1lb beef or pork, 1 lb flour. 1/2 lb corn meal, 1/2 pint spirit per day & 2 os. each chocolate sugar butter, 4 oz Soap, 1 lb Rice per week

("Labourers" were not slaves. In the fall of 1791 L'Enfant hired 75 "labourers" and none were slaves. Some were paid in advance as an inducement to get them to join the crew. Hired slaves were never treated like that. See my Stumbling to a Policy of Slave Hire)

Most importantly he submitted a plan to raise a loan in Europe. L’Enfant undoubtedly knew of the interest in the new city by agents of European bankers. Many had made a killing speculating on the American war debt. It was now widely thought that some form of speculation on American lands would fuel the next killing. Investing in a city that had to house the Federal government in 1800 might seem more attractive to investors than vaguer land deals.

After L’Enfant left, the commissioners and Washington administration sought and failed to get loans, so one can argue that L’Enfant’s loan plan was likewise doomed to fail. But by not supporting L'Enfant, the Washington administration sent a signal to potential lenders that its commitment to the project might be wavering and that it wanted to build the new city as cheaply as possible. The commissioners certainly did.

With L'Enfant still in charge when the building season began in April 1792 work in Washington would have begun with a highly motivated crew of free workers, with a commitment to a comprehensive plan that aimed to set magnificent public buildings in a landscape engineered to show them off at their best advantage. It would have spared the Federal city almost 200 years of jokes about sleepy southern swamps. Instead Commissioner Thomas Johnson sent out the word that it was best to hire slaves when possible primarily to keep white workers from making any demands for higher wages, much less chocolate butter for breakfast.

Thomas Johnson had a plan too. When he told Washington he wanted to resign as commissioner, he said, in so many words, that he thought he was now entitled to profit off the development of the Federal city. Indeed just before he gave notice, he and his fellow commissioners sold thousand of public lots to the speculators James Greenleaf and Robert Morris very cheaply (while at the same time Greenleaf bought Johnson’s Maryland lands a bit more dearly.) Then he bought lots in the city from Greenleaf but other proprietors, not so thrilled that he seemed to have retarded the development of the city so he could get lots cheap when he was ready to buy, tied up that purchase from Greenleaf by disputing it with the commissioners and threatening law suits.

L’Enfant got his due at the beginning of the 20th century when the City Beautiful Movement hailed him as the first great American city planner. One hundred years later, in this day of magical thinking, the free market makes the world just as it should be. So perhaps it is not surprising that a planner like L’Enfant is increasingly harder to understand. It is so easy to connect the dots. His only formal education was in art school in France and, in letters Washington rued his artistic temperament. Forget that L'Enfant rose to the rank of major in the Continental Army mainly serving as an engineer. Forget that after the war he was a successful architect in New York City. Forget that Washington and Hamilton both thought L'Enfant the best man in the country to carry on large engineering projects. Crazy artist is too appealing to the popular mind, no need to examine what he had done in just 11 months. The trouble was not his artistic temperament. The slaveholder mentality crippled the city's early development.

Of course, one can argue that if L'Enfant had kept Washington's confidence and had gotten new commissioners that he could work with that new team would have soon failed because of lack of funds. But a very good case can be made that, if he had been in charge, the work on the public buildings would have continued to have been done by free laborers. A pattern might have been set that would have kept slave labor confined to local contractors making bricks and cutting wood. African Americans would have played a role but as free men like Benjamin Bannecker and Jerry Holland. Throughout the early development of the city the commissioners' use of slaves intimidated free workers, just as Thomas Johnson intended. In turn Irish masons embraced the use of the government's slaves as helpers in an effort to under bid Scottish masons. (The walls the Irish masons built fell down within a few months.)

L'Enfant had no animus against African Americans. When he served in the South during the Revolutionary War, he was slated to be an officer leading slave brigades who would fight the British in return for their freedom, a scheme of the young Colonel Henry Laurens that never got off the ground. Major L'Enfant fought and was seriously wounded at the Siege of Savannah. At the risk of his own life he led 5 men toward enemy lines and tried to set woods on fire hoping to obscure advancing troops. A crazy artist? Hardly. He saw the terrain and in action long remembered by witnesses tried to engineer a plan to save the day. Stop accepting the insinuations of the slaveholders uncritically; stop ridiculing L'Enfant. Walk the Plan. Understand the genius of the man. Remember April 13, 1792, the start of the first building season after the completion of the plan. That could have been the day L'Enfant started building the Nation's Capital as a symbol freedom and engine of prosperity for workers and proprietors. Instead it was the day the Commissioners ordered the hiring of slaves, sending money to their masters in southern Maryland.

The Bubble and the Nest Egg: A Founder’s Entitlements Founder

The Founders may have risked their all for us, but before they died they were not adverse to cashing in. The same day, December 23, 1793, that Thomas Johnson sent his letter of resignation, as one of the three commissioners readying the City of Washington for the reception of the federal government in 1800, the commissioners finalized the sale of 6000 lots in the new City of Washington, about one-fourth of the marketable land, to James Greenleaf and Robert Morris for under half the going price. During negotiations for the purchase of Washington lots, Greenleaf bought 15,000 acres of Commissioner Johnson’s land in the Potomac valley for 5,000 Pounds (The country had embraced the dollar but only for things like calculating the national debt; what counted was priced in pounds, shillings and pence.)

In his letter of resignation to President Washington, Johnson explained that he wanted "to benefit myself by the rise of the city to which a long friendship for the Potomack and every exertion in my power in its favor fairly entitle me."

Both born in 1732, Washington couldn’t get enough of Johnson, who was not lovingly called “The Little Rooster.” They became friends during the Revolution when Johnson was Governor of Maryland. Washington put Johnson on the Supreme Court and offered him Secretary of State. As for Johnson’s self dealing, Washington was not adverse to the precedent it set.

Washington had introduced the young Boston speculator James Greenleaf to the commissioners. Fresh from making a killing speculating on American debt in Holland, Greenleaf came to the president and explained that he planned to form a partnership with Washington’s close friend Morris and that they hoped to use profits from their investment in the City of Washington to buy lands in the West. It was no secret that Washington owned thousands of acres out there. In his letter introducing Greenleaf to the commissioners, Washington asked them to “listen with attention and weigh with candour any proposals.”

In their letter to the President, the commissioners were candid in turn, adding, “Messrs. Greenleaf and Morris do not confine themselves to the city….”

Back in Philadelphia Greenleaf and Morris soon intimated to Washington that they wanted to buy his Western lands. At the same time, there was a snag in the deal for Washington lots. Secretary of State Jefferson ruled that the speculators could not get deeds for any lots until they paid for them.

In the First Deal, European banks held all the big money card. The speculators needed deeds to take to Holland to get mortgages. Fortunately, Jefferson resigned. Washington appointed Edmund Randolph to State and that worthy dabbled in stocks. Recently Morris had lost half million dollars when a British bank collapsed; Randolph, then Attorney General, lost $2,252.50. Randolph ruled that on reputation alone the speculators could get the deeds to 1,000 city lots. Washington appointed their agent Vice US Consul to Amsterdam (Greenleaf was already the consul) and off he went to get the Dutch money.

In mid May 1794 Washington got a note from Greenleaf, then in New York, with the latest news from Europe and when Greenleaf said he would soon be in Philadelphia, Washington assumed he was coming to close the deal for his land. Washington sent Morris a list of his holdings and their value.


After his heroics in the French and Indian War, Washington and other colonial officers were given warrants for unsettled lands in the Ohio River valley. Knowing that lesser men preferred cash, Washington bought as many warrants as he could from comrades for as little money as possible. Although these warrants predate the Revolution, it’s not unfair to say they are the first American entitlements, the first shine on the American Dream, and how Washington loved them.

He told Morris that his lands promised “the richest future harvest of any thing of the kind I have contemplated.” He was very keen on “the Town of Mount Pleasant at the confluence of the Ohio and Great Kanawha.” In an addendum titled “Land Belonging to the Subscriber West of the Alleghany Mountains and the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia,” he listed 11 parcels of land in what is now Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio, totaling 54,702 and ½ acres, valuing the parcels at between 3 shillings 9 pence, and 40 shillings. But even though he thought the land was “richly worth the sum” listed for each parcel, and the whole total value was 57,332 Pounds, he would sell the lot for 50,000 Pounds. With an exchange rate of 7 shillings 6 pence for one dollar, he would make $133,000, several times his Presidential salary of $25,000 a year.

Thanks to subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, the business plan of Greenleaf and Morris is known. When they first hinted at buying Washington‘s land, they had already decided that they’d be fools to pay more than three shillings an acre for Western lands. And the speculators amassed 6 million acres bought more or less at that price. (Johnson’s lands were east of the mountains and thus fetched a higher price.) But Greenleaf’s agent sent bad news: no mortgages and even the speculators securitizing most of the land did not entice Dutch bankers. The bubble soon burst. Greenleaf went to Philadelphia’s Prune Street Debtor’s Prison first, in 1797, $2 million in debts, including payments due to Thomas Johnson. Morris followed in 1798, $3 million in debt.

Retirement in those days, even for the 1%, was no genteel tea party. Washington feared he wouldn’t even have enough money to pack up and get back to Mount Vernon when his second term ended on March 4, 1797. His insider dealing stymied, Washington advertised his lands for sale in the Philadelphia newspapers and snagged two buyers, both “colonels.” As he bitterly put it: “to clear me out of Philadelphia, and to lay in a few necessaries for my family, I sold two valuable tracts of land in the State of Pennsylvania a short time before I left the City, for 22,000 dollars.” That’s 20 cents on every dollar of his American Dream. Not that he actually got that much. Both buyers paid by installments, one with what Washington described as “drib'ling payments.” Undaunted, in his last will and testament Washington valued his Western lands at around $325,000.

Washington was called out of retirement to lead the American army organized to fight off an expected French invasion. Back in Philadelphia in November 1798 he visited Morris at the Prune Street prison. No one knows what they talked about. Perhaps Western lands came up. We know now that Morris had a better grasp of their true value. The town of Mount Pleasant that Washington thought had such potential became today’s Point Pleasant, West Virginia, population 4,637.