March 31, 1786
George Washington Argues for a “Professional Man” to Supply Technical Guidance to the Potomac Company
Between the anguish of war and the burden of the presidency, George Washington lived for, suffered with, and died over the gift of a grateful Virginia - the Potomac Company. Authorized under Virginia law in October 1784, the Potomac Company undertook to make the Potomac navigable above its falls – and at the same legislative session, George Washington was voted a gift of stock in the Company in recognition of his services during the Revolution.
This was, for Washington, only the first problem: acceptance of the shares, Washington believed, would compromise the reputation for disinterested public service he had carefully cultivated and protected from the start of the Revolution. Still, he was concerned about how to refuse them without seeming rude, haughty, or unappreciative: a dilemma he finally solved by holding the shares in trust for public benefit, and leaving them in his will to the national government. But despite his refusal to use the stock for his own benefit, Washington was passionate about the prospects for opening the Potomac above the falls. Envisioning a commercial waterway which would link the new West with the Old East, he saw in this the magic and crucial necessity of national unity. There was nothing, he felt, which would bind one (nascent) state to another, but commercial interest. So he dove in, head-first, into that daunting project, as this letter attests: discussing locks, declensions and the fine points of canal building with aplomb, he nonetheless recognizes he is out of his depth:
With respect to this part of the business, I feel and always have professed, an incompetency of judgment - nor do I think that theoretical knowledge alone, is adequate to the undertaking. Locks upon the best digested plan will certainly be expensive - & if not properly constructed, & judiciously placed, may be altogether useless. It is for this reason I have frequently suggested, though no decision has been had, the propriety of employing a professional man.
James Brindley, the nephew of the great canal engineer of the same name, did meet with Fitzgerald and Gilpin – but there is no record of his having been hired.
Autograph Letter Signed (twice: as “G. Washington” and with initials), 4 pages, recto and verso, quarto, Mount Vernon, March 31. 1786. To Colonels John Fitzgerald and George Gilpin.