One of the conundrums that has puzzled Americans for hundreds of years is why the neatly laid out grid of numbered and lettered streets of our nation's capital is lacking a 'J' street. None of the numbered streets appears out of sequence; none of the other letters of the alphabet is passed over. Why, then, the seemingly arbitrary gap between 'I' and 'K' streets?
After the fledgling United States of America replaced the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution in 1788 to create a stronger federal government and "form a more perfect union," one of the tasks that befell its First Federal Congress and its first President, George Washington, was to create the national capital called for in Article I of that Constitution.
The task of designing, laying out, and building a national capital from scratch was a daunting one, and President Washington's first and only choice for the job was Pierre L'Enfant, a "French-born artist, architect, and civil engineer" who had served with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. L'Enfant began surveying land in March 1791 and soon completed plans for a city featuring "a system of radial avenues imposed on a grid of streets." That grid, when finally built, would lack a 'J' Street, giving rise to the legend that L'Enfant deliberately left the street off his plans because he bore a grudge against someone whose name began with J.
Who could have been this J-named enemy of the French architect? The person most frequently mentioned is John Jay, who was named the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Washington in 1791. The choice is obvious: Jay was a prominent member of the new federal government, both his first and last names began with the letter 'J', and his surname was J(ay) itself! The claim sounds even more plausible when one considers that from 1801 (when the Supreme Court relocated from Philadelphia to the new capital) until 1819 the United States Supreme Court met in a tiny committee room in the basement of the Capitol building because the original plans for Washington, DC failed to include a courthouse - evidence of another snub directed at Jay by L'Enfant.
Why would L'Enfant bear such ill will toward Chief Justice Jay? The reason usually given is that L'Enfant was upset with the controversial Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation (commonly known as the Jay Treaty), which Jay negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 to settle several disputes between the two nations about matters such as British interference with American shipping, the presence of British troops in North America, and the settlement of Revolutionary War debts. The treaty was unpopular with many Americans who considered its terms far too favorable for Great Britain, and it was seen as a betrayal by the French, who had been the United States' ally during the Revolutionary War and were now engaged in a war of their own with Great Britain. L'Enfant, a French-born American resident who had taken part in the Revolutionary War, presumably was doubly insulted by the Jay Treaty.
Unfortunately, this intriguing theory falls apart when the chronology of events is considered. L'Enfant was removed from the capital project by President Washington in early 1792 for refusing to submit to the authority of the commission in charge of the project. L'Enfant could hardly have been upset by a treaty that was still two years in the future.
So, what DID happen to J Street?
The truth is that J Street was omitted because the letters I and J were often indistinguishable from each other (especially when handwritten), and in 18th century English they were still largely interchangeable. (The 1740 "New General English Dictionary" published in London had a single section for I and J, and the standard identification Thomas Jefferson used on his personal possessions was "T.I.") Having both an "I" and a "J" street would have been redundant at best and confusing at worst, so "J" ended up as the odd man out.
The moral of the story? That (though we love a good story as much as the next guy) the best solution to a problem is very often the most logical and least complicated.