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U.S. History/Building of Washington D.C.


QUESTION: Hi, Do you know anything about the building of Washington D.C.? I recently watched a program on tv, which is sometimes not credible, which said that Thomas Jefferson not only intended the city to be the capital of the U.S. bit also the "capital of the universe" based on his beliefs in heaven and other life beyond this world. I thought that it would be unlikely that Jefferson said this, but I don't know enough about him.


ANSWER: Hi Alex,

I have read a great deal about Thomas Jefferson and the early development of DC and have never heard of anything like that statement.  Jefferson actually had relatively little to do with the development of DC, other than his role in forging a compromise between Madison and Hamilton which in part approved the location of the Capital at its current location.  He was Secretary of State at the time and was more focused on foreign affairs.  George Washington was much more involved in the early development and planning of DC.

Secondly, Jefferson said very little about extraterrestrial life.  He was interested in science and astronomy, and in some private letters allowed for the possibility of life on other planets, but he never said anything I have ever read that indicates he ever thought humans would come into contact with life on other planets.

Thirdly, Jefferson was a strong believer in limited government.  He was reluctant to have the federal capital play too large a role in the country, let alone the world or universe.

Jefferson considers astronomy an important scientific study.  He proposed and supported an observatory that was eventually built at the University of Virginia.

It is possible that Jefferson who meandered through a great many topics in many private letters may have mused that the capital might some day become a center of learning, culture, or science and in that sense be a center of the "universe" much like London or Paris were considered at the time.  But that it would be the capital of some galactic empire or something like that does not seem like something Jefferson would ever say, even after having a little too much wine.

- Mike

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Thank you for the very informative answer. The same program also talked about masonry's influence on the grid layout of Washington D.C. such as the position of the capitol and the White House and how the roads form a square and compass, the symbols of freemasonry. Is this just coincidence or is there something to this?


I have seen analyses of DC's street grids and how one might make out certain masonic symbols.  But I don't really find this convincing.  It is true that George Washington was a Freemason, as was the man he chose as the original architect of the city, Charles L'Enfant.  L'Enfant was a freemason, but never went very far with it and never bothered to progress very far with it.

But I really think any images that one sees are coincidental.  Masonic symbols such as the square and compass are rather simple tools that one could probably see on any map of any city.  In truth, the city was designed on a simple grid system, but then overlayed with broad diagonal avenues that would like major elements of the government, such as the White House and Capitol.  The Capitol was given the most prominent spot in the city, on top of one of the highest hills because it was to be the most prominent center for the city.  Most of the diagonal avenues radiated out from that point.  These ideas were drawn from examples in Versailles from France.  

Also, no one person, or even a single organized committee designed Washington.  The original grid designed by L'Enfant was alters substantially by the surveyor Andrew Ellicott.  The two men did not get along and President Washington eventually fired L'Enfant because of continuing disagreements with the DC Commissioners and others.  Ellicott was not a Mason.

People can see shapes in certain street intersections, but I think what they see has more to do with their own imaginations than any specific intent by the city's planners.

- Mike  

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Michael Troy


I can answer just about any question on early American History. My specialties are the American Revolution through the Civil War/Reconstruction. I also have greater expertise in matters relating to military, political or legal history.


I have lectured at George Washington University regarding the Civil War, as well as several elementary school Civil War demonstrations. I was also a member of a Civil War reenactment group for about 10 years.


J.D. University of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

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