Nation’s Capital

Embodiment of Founding Principles

A view from the air reveals the design geometry and symbolism of L’Enfant’s Plan for the nation’s capital. Photo courtesy Carol Highsmith

While most American cities started and grew organically over time, the City of Washington is different. The 1791 L’Enfant Plan for the nation’s capital came all at once, out of the minds of visionaries — Peter Charles L’Enfant, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson — who participated in the founding of the United States and were steeped in the ideas, principles, and values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The heart of that Plan was the special public open space defined by the Capitol, the White House, and a monument to President Washington — what we know as our National Mall.

1791 L'Enfant Plan
L’Enfant annotated his 1791 Plan to explain the layout of grand avenues, public buildings and monuments, open spaces, and residential areas. Source: Library of Congress

Admired around the world as a model of urban design, the L’Enfant Plan is the source for Washington’s design geometry; the symbolic relationship of public buildings and open spaces, and of governmental core and residential neighborhoods; the majestic vistas and grand avenues; the sensitive interconnection of the man-made and the natural topography, rivers, and streams; and the low-lying city’s walkability and livability. Learn more about the L’Enfant legacy here.

Because of its association with George Washington and American founding ideals, the L’Enfant Plan has been called Washington’s “Planning Constitution” and an American “Founding Document.” President George Washington presented the L’Enfant Plan to Congress and to the American public as a gift and a monument to his memory.

President Washington holding the L'Enfant plan for the city of Washington
This family portrait by Edward Savage shows Washington and members of his family reviewing the L’Enfant Plan. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC