Thomas Law (1756–1834)

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Thomas Law (October 23, 1756 – 1834), was an important reformer of British policy in India and a major investor in early Washington, D.C.


Thomas Law was on October 23, 1756 in Cambridge, England, to a clerical British family. He was the son of Edmund Law, Bishop of Carlisle,[1][2] and the brother of Edward Law, 1st Baron Ellenborough, George Henry Law, later Bishop of Bath and Wells,[3] and John Law, Bishop of Clonfert and Kilmacduagh in Ireland.[4]

Thomas Law went to India as a "writer", or clerk, in the service of the East India Company in 1773, rose through the Company ranks, and became a revenue collector and judge in the province of Bihar. Like many other EIC officials, he made a small fortune in the process. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, Law was also something of an intellectual, a policy-maker who helped devise the so-called "Permanent Settlement" which transformed the basis of taxation and land tenure for the natives of India, while attempting to establish a secure revenue base for the Company. After returning in 1791 to England he encountered personal and professional setbacks that led him to leave the country. In 1794, along with two of his three illegitimate mixed-race sons, he migrated to the United States, where he invested large portions of his fortune in buying land and developing the nation’s new capital in Washington, D.C. In 1796 he married Martha Washington's eldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis.[5]

Soon after his marriage, Law moved into a new house that the National Park Service subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places (see Thomas Law House).[5][6] The house became known as "Honeymoon House" as the Laws lived there during their honeymoon while awaiting completion of another residence .[5] Law built a number of other buildings in DC, including a hotel, along New Jersey Avenue. SE, and later had a farm in Prince George's County, Maryland. Law and his wife separated in 1804 and were divorced on 18 January 1811.[5]

The couple had one daughter who survived infancy, Elizabeth Law (19 January 1797 – 9 August 1822). She married Nicholas Lloyd Rogers of Baltimore on 5 April 1817.[7][8][9][10]

Over time, Law assumed a prominent role in the city’s social, political, and economic life, becoming known as an energetic, if somewhat eccentric, promoter of his adopted country. He published poetry, moral philosophy, and other literary productions. He helped found the first theater in the nation’s capital, a dancing society, and a learned society called the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. After the War of 1812, he was one of the major leaders of the effort to keep the capital in Washington. He worked tirelessly to build a canal through the city to facilitate trade and publicly advocated the creation of a national paper currency to improve the country's economic development. Privately he supported the abolition of slavery and the colonization of free blacks outside the bounds of the United States. At the time of his death in 1834, he had earned the support and friendship of important national figures such as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay as well as the esteem of many ordinary citizens. Law's life and career provides a concrete link between Britain's First Empire in North America with its Second Empire in India.[11][12][13][14]

Because Law invested most of his fortune in property in Washington, DC, at a time when the city was struggling to get established, he was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy throughout his life. After he died in 1834, his daughter's children contested his will in a case that was finally decided by the Supreme Court in 1854 (Adams v. Law). By then, his property had appreciated substantially in value, making his estate one of the most valuable in DC. Finally, his investments had paid off .[5][5]


  1. ^ "About the Custis Family". The Papers of George Washington: Documents. Archived from the original on 2010-06-02. Retrieved 2015-11-20. 
  2. ^ Clark, Allen C. (1900). Thomas Law: A Biographical Sketch. (Washington, D.C.: Press of W. F. Roberts. pp. 11–12. Early in 1796 the engagement with Eliza Parke Custis was announced. Thomas Law, youngest son of the late Bishop of Carlisle, to Miss Custis.  At Google Books.
  3. ^ George Henry Law, National Portrait Gallery (London)
  4. ^ Bronson, E.; Others (1810). Memoir of the Life and Character of Dr. John Law. Select Reviews and the Spirit of Foreign Magazines. 4. Phiiladelpha: Edward Earle. pp. 281–282. OCLC 1765355.  At Google Books.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Brown, T. Robins (1973-02-05). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form: Law, Thomas, House (Honeymoon House)" (PDF). National Park Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-11-20. Retrieved 2015-11-19. 
  6. ^ "Law, Thomas, House". Focus: Digital Access Management System. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2015-11-20. Retrieved 2015-11-20. 
  7. ^ "Elizabeth Parke Custis". Arlis 2008-02-29. Retrieved 2008-02-28.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  8. ^ "Elizabeth Law". 2010-01-29. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. Retrieved 2015-11-21.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  9. ^ Geneall. "Elizabeth Parke Custis". Geneall. Retrieved 2008-02-28.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  10. ^ Thomas Jefferson, ed. J. Jefferson Looney, "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson"
  11. ^ Matthew, H.C.G. (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 765–766. 
  12. ^ Allen C. Clark, Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City (Washington, D.C., 1901)
  13. ^ George Alfred Townsend, “Thomas Law, Washington’s First Rich Man,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 4 (Washington, D.C., 1901), 222-45
  14. ^ Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay On the Idea of Permanent Settlement (Durham, N.C., 1996),

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