Thomas Jefferson's Lafayette Square

Excerpts from
"The President's House"
by William Seale
Vol I, pp. 108-113

Social events in the circles of power had little direct effect on the people. But Jefferson's two public events [New packed the house with most classes. Then, citizens could go and see the foreigners in their official costumes. The Tunisian minister in his turban, silks, and pearls; the Indian chiefs in their feathers and paint; the ministers of European courts in their tight silks and satins, with powdered hair and jeweled medals.

On those days Jefferson greeted the people while standing in the center of the elliptical saloon. They filed in to shake his hand and to offer and receive pleasantries. Crowds increased by the year. Tables were pushed against the walls of the State Dining Room and filled with bowls of punch and plates of sweets. The Marine Band, already the President's own, played in the hall--military men in the White House, unarmed, at peace, and contributing to the merriment.

New Years was usually cold. But the Fourth of July was a time to be outside The grounds of the President's Park --called the "common"-- came alive at daybreak, with the raising of tents and booths soon followed by crowds of people. A regular fair was held, selling food and drink, as well as baskets, rugs, and other cottage products. There were horse races and rests of skill among the men. Cockfights and dogfights took place on the sidelines. In the bare "parade" kept clear in the middle, the Washington Militia and other military companies drilled. between ten o'clock and noon. A bareheaded Jefferson and his Cabinet watched from the steps of the White House, in civilian dress. Then the President invited everybody in to partake of his hospitality and his thanksgiving for the preservation of independence.

An undated drawing in Jefferson's hand shows an idea for the development of the landscape, using the two wings to divide the north and south grounds, one area being private and one public. Probably drawn in 1803 or 1804, the scheme shows wings of greater extent than those finished in March 1808. Here they connect on the east and west to the executive offices, but are interrupted halfway by substantial structures of some kind. There is little indication of what the pavilions were to be like, although their scale denotes their architectural importance.

Each pavilion is drawn in three parts within a rectangle. This reveals nothing about their elevations, but it may indicate that Jefferson contemplated a temple-like structure in each wing. Part of the east pavilion was built, greatly modified so that it rose only a small distance over the level of the terrace. It contained a guard lodge and a great arch through which the driveway passed from the south grounds to the north. A similar pedestrian passage may have been planned on the west, but no part of that pavilion was ever built.

Jefferson's grounds plan describes his solution for reconciling the big house to its barren yard. By separating the upper and lower grounds he allowed for privacy on the south and an official entrance on the north, related to the public common. He ordered a high stone wall to be built, following the outline of the temporary rail fence around the entire perimeter of the grounds, but excluding the executive offices. Within this nearly oval enclosure Jefferson plotted on paper a landscaped park of planted trees, parterre gardens, and graveled driveways, carefully binding the house to its surroundings.

For the north side, the sketch shows a heavy, even planting of trees, like a thick forest or grove, cut through in three places by cleared swards that were visual extensions of the two diagonal avenues and one direct Street that led to the President's Park from the north. The axes of these avenues were carefully delineated on the topographical survey Jefferson used in making his plan. He seems to have been adapting L'Enfant's idea for avenues directed on the palace facade like sun rays, even though his vistas were contained within his fence and did not relate to the commons or connect to the streets. On his plan the vistas -- past reflections not-withstanding -- give heightened importance to the White House over the departmental structures.

Back of the President's House, which long years after, in Jackson's time, was turned around, as it were, by the simple expedient of adding the present northern portico, was the dirt road which later on was proudly to bear the name of Pennsylvania Avenue, and just beyond and north of that was a graveyard, on the edge of a field, which, in due course of time became a commons; a market, removed in 1801 to Seventh Street and the Avenue, the old Center Market of today; a parade ground for the Washington Artillery, and by the slow processes of evolution, Lafayette Square. But as yet it did not bear that name. Not for many years.

But in Jefferson's time the whole neighborhood, save down toward the river, was sparsely settled, and there were many vacant squares, from which the one which afterwards came to bear the name of the simple and democratic marquis was in no wise distinguishable. Only because of its close proximity to the President's House did it gradually take on a certain flavor of of its own.

Impelled by that curiosity which always draws crowds to where the President may be seen, the people soon began using the square as a resting place and for their sports and games. Here they celebrated the first birthday of the Republic that was observed in the new Capital. How proud Mr. Jefferson must have been on that great day!

Lafayette Square has witnessed many more brave pageants since then, but it is to be doubted whether the people who have assembled there with Patriotic fervor in the after years have known the thrill of July 4, 1801.

"On Saturday," said the "Intelligencer" in its issue of Monday, July 6, "our great national day was celebrated here with patriotic and rational animation. The dawn of day was announced by a salute from the frigates, and during it ordinary business has universally suspended.

"About twelve o'clock the President was awaited upon by the heads of Departments and other officers, civil and military, foreign diplomatic characters, strangers of distinction, the Cherokee chiefs at Present on a mission to the seat of government and most of the respectable citizens of Washington and George-Town.

"The First Magistrate received the cordial felicitations of his fellow citizens on the return of the anniversary, with unfeigned satisfaction; and though adulation offered no ostentatious homage to power, yet all felt the inspirations of patriotic gratitude on contemplating in the midst of them the man, whose pen had traced, whose counsels had recommended, and whose firmness and talents had cooperated to establish the Declaration of Independence."

Col. W. W. Burrows, at the head of the Marine Corps, saluted the President at the Mansion House, "while a band of music played with great precision and with inspiring animation the President's march." The Marines drilled in the square, "fired sixteen rounds in platoons, and concluded with a general feu-de-joie,'' The Marine Band continued to play at intervals during the morning, while President Jefferson served refreshments to the assembled company; and from that day to this its musical story has been part of the history of the Presidents, and the celebrated house they have occupied in Washington.