The first printed map of Washington, D.C. being the small-scale edition of the “Ellicott Plan” engraved by Thackara & Valance for the Columbian Magazine.
Due to the vicissitudes of war and sectional politics, the site of the American capital remained unsettled for years after independence, and before 1790 Congress met variously at Philadelphia, Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania; Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland; Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey; and New York City. The location of the permanent capital was not confirmed until the Residence Act of 1790, which provided for a district not more than 10 miles square along the Potomac River “at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Connogocheague.” Passage of the Act was made possible by the “Compromise of 1790,” in which southern states agreed to back Hamilton’s plan for federal assumption of state debts in return for the latter’s support for locating the capital along the Potomac.
In January 1791 President Washington announced that the capital district would be a diamond-shaped tract, 10 miles per side, roughly centered on the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch (Anacostia) Rivers. Andrew Ellicott was engaged to conduct a topographical survey of the area, while Pierre L’Enfant was hired to develop a plan for the capital city itself. L’Enfant was a French artist and engineer who had served as a volunteer during the Revolution and was sufficiently well connected that he had been asked to design the seal for the Society of the Cincinnati. He was brilliant but difficult, so much so that Washington eventually fired him in 1792 and engaged Ellicott, who used L’Enfant’s design as the basis for his plan of the city.
L’Enfant had envisioned a grand capital on the European model, with broad avenues, large public squares and dramatic sightlines, all designed to make the most of the site’s topography and its splendid riverside setting. The intent was to convey the grandeur and permanence of the national government—which at the time was all of three years old, boasted a bureaucracy of perhaps 200 employees, and rested on a Constitution that was feared as much as it was venerated. This vision was of course realized, but few would have predicted it at the time. In 1792 the site was a humid swamp and would remain so for years, and its grand buildings rose in the midst of a veritable sea of mud.
Copies of Ellicott’s manuscript plan were forwarded to the firms of Thackara & Vallance in Philadelphia and Samuel Hill, Jr. in Boston. They were to engrave and publish it as quickly as possible, in order that it might be distributed to facilitate the sale of land in the new city. Before publishing the large-scale “official” plans, each firm released smaller versions. The first of these—the map offered here—was engraved by Thackara & Vallance and appeared as a plate in The Universal Asylum And Columbian Magazine for March 1792, while Hill’s was included in the May 1792 Massachusetts Magazine. The proofs of the official plans were not ready until June or July 1792, making these small-scale editions the first and second published plans of Washington, D.C.
Jolly, Maps of America in Periodicals before 1800, #440. Miller, Washington in Maps: 1606-2000, pp. 44-47 (illus.) Stephenson, “From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902,” p. 6 (in Philip Lee Phillips Map Society, The Occasional Papers, series no. 6 (Winter 2014)). Wheat & Brun, Checklist of Maps Printed in America before 1800, #527.
Folds flattened, upper-right margin expertly reinstated with period laid paper, repairs and reinforcements to verso. Minor soiling and discoloration in margins.