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A Defining Monument

William Thornton, the designer of the US Capitol, was a Tortola-born Quaker.

by Linda Gard

The US Capitol in Washington, DC has been called "America's defining monument." Its image flashes around the world perhaps millions of times a day, as newscasts and podcasts present it as a historic symbol of American democracy. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the Capitol building was first envisioned on a Tortola plantation by Quaker Dr. William Thornton before the government of the fledgling American nation was relocated from Philadelphia to Washington.

THE RUINS: "We'll go up there one day"

On a recent visit to Tortola, heading west along the coast road from Road Town just past Nanny Cay, a sweeping gesture to the right drew attention to a small, peach-colored market.

Thornton ruin arch

"That's the road up to the ruins of the Thornton plantation," said my hostess, "We'll go up there one day while you're here." No vacation is complete without a little ruin visiting, I always say. Adds gravity, better understanding of the present by exploring the past, broadens the mind, all that sort of thing. Of course, I had no idea who this Thornton person was.

Days later we were back, heading up that narrow road into the modest residential neighborhood of Pleasant Valley. The road forked and ambled; the car slowed to a crawl; we scanned the roadside for ruins. Less than a quarter mile up, a corner of crumbling 18th century brick and stonework loomed from under a dark, tropical canopy, butting rudely against the roadside, a remnant of decay as historic marker. We found a safe place to pull off the road, and headed back to the site on foot. On higher ground on the other side, a modern house looked down on us from what we later learned were the foundations of the original Thornton plantation house.

That first corner we saw from the car was indeed part of the 18th century Thornton sugar works. It continued down a slope, branching out across a sizable lot, an impressive monument of brick and stone, punctuated with long-empty window and doorway openings. The casual passerby might miss these walls entirely: trees and vines cloak their height and cast dark shadows; debris collects at their base. All conspire to obscure their links to history.

A closer look, however, reveals their testament to those who quarried and hauled the tons of stone they represent, those who cut it to fit, mixed the mortar and placed each heavy piece under a glaring tropical sun to construct hundreds of yards of once tall, straight walls and furnace boxes. Once they were finished, of course, the backbreaking toil had just begun. Now the sugar cane would come in from the fields to be washed and crushed. Block stone furnaces would have roared night and day with cane-waste fires under huge copper kettles steaming with cane juice boiled for hours to concentrate it for later refinement into molasses, sugar and rum for the insatiable European market.

Back in the car, we continued up along the road, where the area opens up into a bright, bowl-shaped valley, scattered with a few private homes. The whole expanse was once the Thornton plantation, densely planted with sugar cane and probably cotton, tobacco and indigo, up to the ridge straight ahead and on to Sage Mountain, to the left.

THE MAN: "full of hope, and of a cheerful temper"

Born on Tortola in 1761, William Thornton grew up as the heir to his family's plantation at Pleasant Valley. As a child of five, little William was sent "home" to Britain – a county he'd never seen – for his education.

The world was changing dramatically, and Thornton had a front row seat to many of those changes. He was in the care of his father's merchant-class Quaker relations in northern England when news of the American Revolution stunned Britain as a whole – and the northern textile mills in particular.

After four years apprenticing with a local physician and apothecary, Thornton enrolled as a medical student in the University of Edinburgh in 1781, where he would have come in contact with some of the most progressive thinkers of the age. Here the revolutionary idea was emerging that the individual could improve both society and nature through the simple force of reason.

Witnessing the massive construction of Edinburgh's New Town – considered a masterpiece of urban planning to this day – may have sparked Thornton's interest in architecture, which first took form as landscapes and sketches of castles in the highlands.

A remaining wall of the Thornton estate.

Above: A remaining wall of the Thornton estate.

In 1783, Thornton travelled to London to continue his medical studies, and attended lectures at the Royal Academy. Graduating from medical school in Aberdeen in 1784, Thornton travelled to Paris. He brought with him a letter of introduction to Benjamin Franklin, written by a distant cousin and fellow Quaker, John Coakley Lettsome, who had been born in the Virgin Islands on the island of Little Jost Van Dyke. Lettsome later went on to found the Medical Society of London. Franklin, then American Ambassador to France, was another Quaker who had previously travelled to Edinburgh to meet with the city's intellectual community. His conversations with Thornton took place under the gathering clouds of the French Revolution, just five years away.

By the time Thornton returned to Tortola in 1786, he was in his mid-twenties, "full of hope, and of a cheerful temper," as his wife later described him. His mother still presided over a plantation of 70 slaves and Thornton soon resolved to take up the abolitionist cause. He traveled to the new American republic, where, he said, "virtue and talents were alone sufficient to elevate to office, instead of hereditary rights derived from men whose meanness or vices were the principal causes of their grandeur." In the fall of 1786, Thornton immigrated to Philadelphia, "the city of brotherly love." Founded a hundred years before by fellow Quaker William Penn, it was the nation's leading city and its capital.

Thornton set up his medical practice, befriended the local cognoscenti – including future president James Madison – and became a citizen. In 1789, he submitted drawings for a design competition for the Library Company of Philadelphia's new hall. Thornton's drawings won the competition, described as the first in the "modern [classical] stile" when it was completed in 1790.

THE COMPETITION: "a flash of genius"

Thornton was back in Tortola, between 1790 and 1792, when he learned of another design competition, this time for the Capitol building in Washington. President George Washington and Attorney General Thomas Jefferson made their ideas on the project clear from the outset. "I should prefer the adoption of some of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years," wrote Jefferson.

The new federal Capitol was to embody the new Constitution and reflect the lofty ideals of republican government. Something similar to the famous and admired landmarks of the European capitals, reflecting the political freedoms and popular government of ancient Rome – but bigger – would do nicely. Thornton shared these ideas and was well equipped to implement them. His classical education enabled him to grasp the political implications in Jefferson's direction and translate the Constitution into architectural form. So, while maintaining his duties on the plantation, Thornton worked on the design. The result was a unique American building type, a physical representation of the lawmaking process on which the new republic would be built. And although the competition's deadline passed, he sailed to the United States with the drawings.

Fortunately for Thornton, neither Washington nor Jefferson was pleased with the other submissions for the United States Capitol; Jefferson conveyed his approval of Thornton's design to the selection committee, saying it "so captivated the eyes and judgment of all as to leave no doubt you will prefer it." Thornton later learned that George Washington had "given his formal approbation of your plan," noting the "Grandeur, Simplicity, and Beauty of the exterior; the propriety with which the apartments are distributed, and economy in the mass of the whole structure…."

"He established for all time what the Capitol was to be," architectural historian William Allen has written. "Everything that came later had to follow Thornton's design … He got everything right at once: the size, the degree of grandeur, the Anglo-American feel … It was a flash of genius."

Others have called Thornton's Capitol "the greatest design achievement of the early republic," "an essay in the emerging neoclassical style," and "reminiscent of ... the Pantheon." Others saw it as linking the new republic to "the classical world and to its ideas of civic virtue and self-government." On September 18, 1793, President Washington led the parade of government and community leaders, surveyors and tradesmen to witness the laying of the Capitol's cornerstone.

The vision of the Capitol that first came to Thornton in Tortola would take 33 years to complete, but many original elements from his design remain today: the original western façade of the wings, the Law Library door and much of the original eastern façade. By 1846, the completed Capitol was modified but it is still much as it had appeared in Thornton's original drawings. In 1863 the bronze statue of Freedom capped the dome. Revisions and additions continue, but Thornton's vision remains. As competition winner, Thornton received $500 and a small building lot in Washington.

LATER WORK: "... what I might have done"

In 1794, President Washington appointed him to a three-man board to oversee the further development of the new nation's capital. The president also recommended Thornton's skills in the design of three other houses in the area, each one now considered a triumph of the new American Federalist style and open to the public as a museum: the Octagon House, a three-story brick house near the White House; Woodlawn, a former plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia and Tudor Place, overlooking the Potomac River in Georgetown.

By 1802, Thomas Jefferson, who was then president, named Thornton the first Superintendent of the US Patent Office. In the position 12 years later, as British troops advanced on Washington, he secreted away most of the Patent Office's papers to his own estate for safekeeping and convinced British officers to spare the Patent Office's large collection of modeled inventions. He remained head of the Patent Office until his death in 1828. His enthusiasm for republican government never waned, nor did his ardor to serve it.

"I cannot rest when I think what I might have done, and reflect on what only I have done," he wrote to John Coakley Lettsome. "I sicken at the idea, and lament the loss of time ­­– God grant grace to me, and direct me to be, if possible, a benefactor to man....Thornton was buried in Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill.

Note: The ruins of Thornton plantation house and sugar are now privately owned, unpreserved and unguarded. Visitors should be mindful of property rights and their own safety when visiting the site.