PRESENTATION COPY OF THE FIRST PLAN OF WASHINGTON from William Thornton, architect of the Capitol Building and Commissioner for the development of Washington to the Comte de Volney, author of the first book on the climate of the United States.
In January 1791 President George Washington announced the site of the future capital of the nascent United States of America. In March, Washington employed the services of Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) to layout a planned capital city on the shores of the Potomac River. At a meeting of the Commissioners in September 1791 a letter was written to L’Enfant in which it was stated ‘We have agreed that the federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the federal city ‘The City of Washington’. Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820) was employed as the surveyor tasked with laying out the physical city.
Phillips states that ‘four great intellects stand out pre-eminently in the founding of the city: Washington, L’Enfant, Jefferson and Ellicott’. When it was realised L’Enfant, who was difficult to work with, would be unable to complete a plan for publication in time for the first sale of lots in the new city on 17 October 1791, Washington turned to Ellicott to complete the drawing before giving it to James Thackaray and John Vallance of Philadelphia to engrave it. They first produced a smaller version for inclusion as the frontispiece to the March 1792 issue of ‘The Universal Asylum, and Columbia Magazine’. This is the very first printed plan of the new city of Washington, here offered in an example apparently never bound. Such examples are extremely rare on the market, let alone one with known provenance. Goff recorded the map printed on paper with two different watermarks or without one, this example has none. A similar smaller one was issued in the ‘Massachusetts Magazine’ in the following month of April 1792. Then followed to two folio sized printings in the summer of 1792.
Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney (1757-1820) was a French philosopher and historian whose ‘Ruins of Empires’ was mostly translated secretly by Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson who inducted him into the American Philosophical Society. On arrival in America in 1795 he was warmly received by President Washington who like Thomas Jefferson was an admirer of France. Their political rival John Adams however distrusted them. ‘The French were becoming even more ruthless towards Americans at sea than had been the British – no other country totally accepted the United States as a viable entity, and both Britain and France still believed they were entitled to most of North America. Many in both countries considered the American experiment would fail’ (Graye). Upon becoming President, John Adams’ suspicions about Volney increased although there is no evidence to support this. There are ten surviving letters between Thornton and Volney which relate their close friendship. Thornton aware of his position in Washington had to tread a careful line.
Jefferson’s political rival President Adams accused him of being a French spy, Volney left the country in 1798 to return to France. The results of his travels (1795-98) were published as ‘Tableau du Climat et du Sol des Etats-Unis’ published in 1803, the first work on the climate of the United States. On leaving, this and a collection of American printed maps of the States were presented as a gift by Thornton to Volney. ‘Presented to Mr Volney the 9th of February 1798 by Wm. Thornton commissioner to the public Buildings’ is written in his hand near the title.
Provenance: William Thornton, architect of the Capitol Building; Comte de Volney (1757-1820); acquired 15 May 1984; Burden Collection. American National Biography; Baynton-Williams mapforum.com issue 12 no. 5b; Burr, Nelson R. (1972) ‘The Federal City Depicted 1612-1801, in ‘A La Carte. Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases’ pp. 126-52; Goff, Frederick R. (1972). ‘The Federal City in 1793’, in ‘A La Carte. Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases’. Washington: Library of Congress. pp. 144-52; Goode, James M. (2015) ‘The Evolution of Washington, D.C. Historical Selections from the Albert H. Small Washingtonia Collection at the George Washington University’; Graye, Michelle (2014) ‘Thomas Jefferson’s Washington Architect: William B. Thornton’, Monticello West pp. 196-7; Padover, Saul K. (ed.) (1946) Thomas Jefferson and the National Capital 1783-1818′; Phillips (1917) ‘The Beginnings of Washington’ pp. 14-38; Reps (1967) 1-27; Reps (1972) pp. 251-61; Ristow (1995) pp. 117, 246-8; Verner (1969) Imago Mundi 23 no. 1; Stephenson (2014) ‘From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902’ in Occasional Papers no. 6 of Phillips Society pp. 1-9; Wheat & Brun (1978) 527.