A Washington, D.C. Real Estate Investor Celebrates the Failure of Plans to Move the Nation’s Capital
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The Constitution granted Congress authority over a federal city in Article I, Section 8, but was silent on a location. The first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a financial plan that included the assumption of state debts, which was deeply unpopular in the South. In a compromise brokered by Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton, Congress agreed to accept Hamilton’s plan if the capital were moved South. After brief tenures in New York City and Philadelphia, the Residence Act (1790) officially moved the nation’s capital to Washington, D.C. in 1800. Nonetheless, efforts to relocate to a more cosmopolitan locale continued through at least 1815, as the federal city was lacking in everything from basic services to a social scene.
Here, Thomas Law, a D.C. mover, shaker, and heavy investor in housing stock, discusses one such effort, a proposal by Senator Robert Wright of Maryland to relocate Congress to Baltimore because of Washington’s housing shortage. Law almost gleefully reports the failure of the effort, as well as Congress’ appropriation of $50,000 to proceed with the Capitol Building. Considering his financial stake in the city’s development, he had reason to celebrate. [WASHINGTON D.C.] THOMAS LAW.
Autograph Letter Signed to Robert Goodloe Harper. Washington, D.C., March 29, 1804. 2 pp., 8 x 12¾ in.
Washington/ March 29 1804.
I replied to your favor respecting my son John some days ago, & am apprehensive lest it should not have arrived. I therein requested that you would be kind enough to fix him as you deem’d proper & to inform what Sum you thought would be adequate to his annual reasonable expences, a limitation I trust you will conceive proper for my guidance as well as his.
The Inhabitants here have been in some tribulation about a motion made by Mr Wright to remove the seat of Govt which was found to be a constitutional question & only three voted in its favor. afterwards an attempt was made to remove the Seat of Congress to the President’s house which also failed & at length by a majority of 17 to 7, 50000 Ds were voted to proceed with the Capitol. this I trust is the only attempt which will be made.
Mrs Law desires her affe regards to you and Mrs Harper &
I remain/ With esteem/ yrs obliged/ & mt fy
Thomas Law (1756-1834) was born in England and spent much of his early career working as a clerk and then revenue collector for the East India Company. After making a fortune on the side and reforming tax policies (as well as fathering three illegitimate mixed-race children—John, George, and Edmund—with his Indian mistress), ill health forced him to return to England. In 1794, he sailed for New York, then moved to Washington, D.C. He married Elizabeth Parke Custis, granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington and step-granddaughter of George Washington in 1796, and fathered a daughter, Eliza, the following year. Law and his wife separated in 1804 and divorced in 1810.
While in Washington, he invested heavily in local real estate and became an enthusiastic booster of his adopted city. Such real estate speculation was, no doubt, the reason he kept such a close eye on efforts to remove the seat of Government elsewhere. He also became a prominent socialite and politico, claiming friendship with such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, as well as common citizens.
In 1817, Law bought 243 acres of land outside the city and studied farming and livestock management. He soon became president of the Agricultural Society of Prince George’s County. The failure of some of his speculation led to Law’s comparative poverty later in life, though he never became completely insolvent.
Robert Goodloe Harper (1765-1825) served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1790-1795), represented South Carolina in the U.S. House (1795-1801), but moved to Maryland in 1800, where he married the daughter of Declaration of Independence Signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton. He practiced law in Baltimore, participated in the riots against the British during the War of 1812, and served as a major general in that conflict. A lifelong Federalist, he was elected to the Senate from Maryland in 1815, but served only one year before resigning. He is best known for his much quoted: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” regarding the infamous XYZ Affair during the Adams administration, when French diplomats demanded what amounted to bribes before coming to the negotiating table with the Americans. At this particular moment, he was between public service, practicing law and building a family of four children with wife Catherine.
Published in The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries IX:3 (March 1909), pp. 172-73; listed in Walter R. Benjamin’s 1952 catalogue.
Professional mends to several short tears; overall fine.