Potomac River Site: New District for National Government


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D.Gettysburg College

If Congress could somehow be persuaded to stop debating the issue and settle on the Potomac River site for the federal “district,” Washington knew he could eagerly sign up “adventurers” for the project in France. And the mechanism for securing that agreement came to hand in one June evening in 1790. All of this could be more easily placed within the Potomac Company’s grasp.

The Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
The Potomac River site was settled as the permanent seat of the government. (Image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

The Deal between Hamilton and Madison

From the time the First Congress reassembled for its second session in January 1790 until June, the subject, which consumed virtually all of Congress’s time, was Hamilton’s Report on the Public Credit. It was a harrowing experience for Hamilton, whose “look was somber, haggard, and dejected beyond description.” Much of that dejection was due to James Madison’s resolute opposition to Hamilton’s plan, and especially the provision for takeover or assumption of the state debts by the federal Treasury.

But Madison wanted the Potomac, too. And Hamilton had something which he could deliver for Madison, and that was the votes of New York’s congressional delegation. So with Jefferson acting as host, Madison and Hamilton met quietly over dinner and cut a deal. Madison would drop his opposition to the takeover of the state debts, and Hamilton would line up his congressional allies behind the Potomac scheme. 

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Potomac River Site as Permanent Seat of Government

Without another word in public, a new bill for locating the capital appeared in the Senate, specifying that “a district of territory, not exceeding 10 miles square, to be located on the river Potomac, at someplace between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Connogochegue be accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States” and that the federal government would begin business there on the first Monday of December 1800. 

Three commissioners would be appointed by the President to act in charge of extinguishing existing land titles, surveying the district, and arranging for its development. In the meanwhile, Philadelphia would become the temporary capital, and the next session of Congress would open there on the first Monday of December 1790.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s republic.

A Petition for Freedom Signed by Benjamin Franklin

A petition was submitted and asked Congress to “use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bonds of slavery and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom.” This time, though, the petition came from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and was signed by its president—no one less than Benjamin Franklin. 

This provoked William Loughton Smith to complain that “a gentleman can hardly come with a servant or two to Philadelphia, but there are persons trying to seduce his servants to leave him.” No wonder Aedanus Burke could warn that “A Quaker State was a bad neighborhood for the South Carolinians.”

Madison thought the furor had been “shamefully indecent.” But he might also have reflected that any hesitation on the part of Congress about moving on from Philadelphia once the new capital had been laid out on the Potomac had been pretty effectively wiped clean.

Ellicott and Banneker’s Survey for the New Seat of Government

A portrait of Andrew Ellicott.
George Washington tasked Andrew Ellicott to survey the new district as the site of the new capital. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

It is one of the delicious ironies of the debate over the “seat of Government” that, in their eagerness to ensure that the capital really did move to the Potomac, and not merely stay put in Philadelphia out of sheer inertia, the “Southern members” inadvertently threw the work of surveying and laying out the new capital city into the hands of a free black mathematician, Benjamin Banneker.

By stipulating that the new “district” lie on the Potomac “between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and  Connogochegue,” the Residence Bill had actually given George Washington and his three commissioners whom he promptly selected from among the investors in the Potomac Company a 150-mile stretch of river to use in selecting a site.

But George Washington had no doubts where he wanted the federal city built— at the Eastern Branch—the Anacostia River, only 15 miles upriver from his own Potomac estate at Mt. Vernon. To survey the new district, he turned to Andrew Ellicott, who had completed the survey of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1784 and been involved in surveying missions in Western Pennsylvania and the Northwest Territory. And Ellicott, in turn, hired Benjamin Banneker as his assistant.

Learn more about George Washington’s inaugural.

Benjamin Banneker, a Mathematical Prodigy

Banneker was an unusual man, no matter which way you looked at him. He was born on November 9, 1731, and was noticed from the start as a mathematical prodigy, able to calculate complicated sums in his head and blessed with total recall. He attended a school in 1787 when the Ellicott family began employing him as a clockmaker, did he begin to show even more astonishing capacities. 

Ellicott fed his curiosity by lending him three books on astronomy, which he effortlessly absorbed and made “the great object of his life.” He issued an Almanac in 1792 with corrections of the astronomy textbooks he had read, and in short order, he found himself a celebrity.

Together, Ellicott and Banneker laid out the square of the district starting at Jones Point on the Potomac and laying out four angles. With a compass made for him by David Rittenhouse, Ellicott finished walking out the first boundary line by February 23, while Banneker checked all sightings by an astronomical regulator. On April 15th, they laid the first stone boundary marker at Jones Point, then began marking the remaining boundary lines through the summer.

Common Questions about Potomac River Site: New District for National Government

Q: What date was chosen for the first government activity in the new seat of government?

Following the selection of the Potomac River site as the permanent seat of government, it was decided that the federal government would begin its business in the new seat of government on the first Monday of December 1800.

Q: Which area was chosen as the government’s temporary capital before it started operating on the Potomac River site? 

By the time the Potomac River site was getting ready for operation, Philadelphia had been selected as the temporary capital of the United States. The next session of Congress was scheduled to take place on the first Monday of December 1790.

Q: Who were Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker?

Andrew Ellicott was a surveyor selected by George Washington to demarcate the Potomac River site, which was chosen as the new seat of government. Ellicott hired Benjamin Banneker, a mathematical prodigy, as an assistant.

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