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.

1 comment:

Irreverent in D.C. said...

This is an extremely valuable article to me as a DC tour guide. Your post provides a really good eye opener about L’Enfant's role and the founding of the District of Columbia. Facts, that are not always as accurate as we deem them to be.