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Government and People
Fragmented Before a Great Storm
Presented before the Arlington Historical Society
May 9, 2002
by Mark David Richards, PhD, Sociologist
Until 1846, Washington, District of Columbia, was shaped like a diamond. President George Washington, America’s greatest hero from Virginia and favorite General of the Revolution, determined DC’s shape in 1791. He included his hometown, Alexandria. In 1846, all DC land southwest of the Potomac River was returned to Virginia, perhaps foreshadowing the great storm that was to fragment the nation.
I’m pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you about the retrocession of Alexandria and Arlington County from the District of Columbia to Virginia. I am a long-term resident of DC. DC’s struggle to achieve equal rights today is similar to your area’s struggle some 150 years past. For nearly half a century, our areas shared a dream set out by George Washington, and together we formed his federal diamond. But the dream was fraught with difficulties. In 1846, Alexandria and Arlington County solved the problems by returning to Virginia. Georgetown and Washington City & County, which were merged into Washington, District of Columbia, have since struggled under federal rule to win the freedoms and rights your ancestors won for you when they made the choice to retrocede. Today, DC is in a difficult situation. It has been separated from Maryland for so long, most cannot seriously contemplate retrocession. DC has had a long-standing and steady goal—to achieve the same rights as all other citizens. But, Congress has not been willing to grant DC residents equal constitutional rights, much less statehood. But let’s start at the beginning.
The American Revolution was fueled by the English Parliament’s claim that it had the right to exclusive legislative authority, in all cases whatsoever over English citizens in the colonies, who, Parliament claimed, had "virtual representation" in that body. Colonists called that "taxation without representation." In 1774, citizens in Alexandria approved the Fairfax County Resolves, written by George Mason and George Washington. The Resolves claimed equal rights under the British Constitution—including representation in Parliament and control of taxation, military forces, judicial power, and commercial action. Great Britain, in violating her own principles of representation, showed she did not respect her subjects and united previously jealous colonies that fought a revolution to become independent states, loosely united under Articles of Confederation.
The District of Columbia was born in the second American Revolution.
After the Revolution, difficult economic conditions fueled public disorder, or mobocracy. George Washington and other leaders argued that the states needed a stronger central authority if they were to remain united. The Virginia Assembly called a meeting of commissioners to meet in Annapolis to discuss interstate trade issues and uniform regulation of commerce, related to a dispute between Virginia and Maryland over the Potomac River. The Annapolis meeting resulted in a call for each state to send a delegate to Philadelphia in 1787. Washington commented,
Washington presided over the Philadelphia Convention, where 55 notables forged compromises in a federal Constitution written to unite divergent interests—small states would have equality in the Senate, large states would have power according to their population in the House of Representatives. Though delegates had far overstepped their mandate, Congress approved the Constitution and sent it to the states for ratification.
Proponents (Federalists) said the new Constitution formed a "happy combination … the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures," and it could be amended if imperfections were identified.2 Anti-Federalists argued that the Constitution should be improved before it was irrevocably set into law, to which Alexander Hamilton (Federalist No. 85) wrote, "I should esteem it the extreme of imprudence to prolong the precarious state of our national affairs and to expose the Union to jeopardy of successive experiments in the chimerical pursuit of a perfect plan. …[T]ime must bring it to perfection." The Constitution was ratified.
Senator James G. Blaine, Republican author who chronicled the events leading to the Civil War in Twenty Years of Congress, (two volumes published in 1870), reminds that the 1787 Constitution wouldn't have been achieved without the compromise over slavery. But the compromise raised a moral question and was but a temporary measure that preoccupied the nation until slavery was abolished—first in the District of Columbia in April 1862, when 3,100 slaves were freed. Can you imagine the joy of being a freeman! This is hard to even contemplate. The slave trade was abolished in DC much earlier—in 1850, just a few years after Alexandria reunited with Virginia.
Alexandria and Arlington County were part of the District of Columbia for nearly a half-century. John Hammond Moore wrote in 1981 that the decision by Alexandria residents to retrocede to Virginia in 1846 was not "rooted in North-South animosities which fifteen years later would lead to war, nor were they based upon any intense, deep-seated desire by residents of Alexandria and its rural enclave (called Alexandria County until 1920) to be part of the Old Dominion once more. Retrocession was, in fact, a relatively sudden development avidly promoted by Alexandria merchants."3 Nevertheless, Constance McLaughlin Green in 1962 noted, "For the slave-owning South, Virginia’s reacquisition of a third of the ten-mail square was a victory" because "two pro-slavery members added to the Virginia Assembly would certainly strengthen the position of tidewater planters in their intensifying political struggle with piedmont and mountain county farmers."4 Dean Allard in 1978 noted that the final Congressional vote "fell far short of reflecting a clear division between north and south;" he noted that Jefferson Davis voted against retrocession.5
In chronicling the events leading to the Civil War, Senator Blaine did not mention retrocession. But the gathering storm in the nation over the issue of slavery is the context within which the 10-Mile Square—George Washington’s federal diamond—was fragmented in 1846.
Creation of The District of Columbia
President Washington was granted the right to choose a "District of Territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed, on the river Potomack, at some place between the mouths of the eastern branch and Conogocheque, be, and the same is hereby accepted for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States," in the Residence Act passed on July 16, 1790. The Act specified that the three commissioners who would implement the development of suitable buildings for the federal government, to be chosen by President Washington, "shall have the power to purchase or accept such quantity of land, on the eastern side of the said river, within the said district, as the President shall deem proper for the use of the United States. George Washington had a mind of his own. He fixed the base of the federal territory at Alexandria, his hometown, and made this proclamation on January 24, 1791:
On March 3, 1791 Congress passed a formal act confirming that George Washington could include his hometown of Alexandria in the federal district. Washington’s personal secretary wrote:
The area chosen for the Territory of Columbia was comprised of two established towns with governance structures—Georgetown (mapped in 1751) and Alexandria (established in 1749), and two plotted but undeveloped towns—Hamburg (or Funkstown, established in 1768) and Carrollsburg (established in 1780). Washington City was created—and grew over the other areas.
The Lower Potomac Region Crowned by The District of Columbia
Source: History of the George Washington Bicentennial
Celebration, Vol. 1 Literature Series,
George Washington signed a land agreement with nineteen landowners at the location of the current site of central Washington, DC. The land agreement only affected lots in that area, but did not affect Georgetown, Hamburg, or Carrolsburg—separate areas.
Contrary to popular legend, Washington City was not built on a swamp, but was considered to be a prime location for a capital of the newly emerging republic. There were limited areas of marshy land. The area was located in the center of the nation at the point where the Anacostia River joins the Potomac just below Great Falls on its journey to the Chesapeake Bay—a good location for defense.
Early Dissatisfaction With Prospect of Federal Rule
Efforts to retrocede started immediately after the states of Maryland and Virginia ceded the land for the Territory of Columbia. Residents had strong cultural attachments to their respective states. When laws changed in the former states that had ceded the land to the federal government to form DC, Congress didn't change the laws in DC, so the Code was quickly outdated. They started to notice neglect. They started to ask questions.
Each jurisdiction in DC had its own identity and political structure, and they were competitive. Washington City was uniquely the seat of government. Washington City’s residents were not interested in retroceding—they realized that their fortunes were tied to the federal government, which they feared might move.
The main problem was that basic principles of republican forms of government, for which they had fought a Revolution, were violated in the District of Columbia. A principle that had been adopted in the Constitutional bargaining was that the seat of government should not fall under the jurisdiction of any state, so the federal government would remain secure. That agreement seemed reasonable. Article I, 8, Paragraph 17 gives Congress authority…
Though some questioned the wisdom of the District Clause, the most important issue at the time was winning passage of the new Constitution with as few changes as possible. During the Philadelphia Convention there was some concern that the federal government could increase its power to the detriment of the states by buying up land.
Questions were also raised in ratification debates. A number of states disagreed or were uncomfortable with—and attacked—the idea of giving Congress exclusive legislative authority. Anti-federalist leaders, including George Mason of Virginia, George Clinton of New York, and Mercy Warren of Massachusetts, attacked the idea and used it to express their concerns about the Constitution in general.8 Samuel Osgood, a member of the Board of Treasury, raised the specter of federal control. He said,
Mr. Osgood proposed voting representation for the District as a solution.10
Alexander Hamilton introduced an amendment at the New York convention, proposing that until the District reached a certain number it would remain part of the state from which the land was ceded to the federal government; after the population reached a certain number, a "provision shall be made by Congress for having a District Representation in the Body."11 His suggestion was not included.
When Virginia ratified the Constitution, it added several proposed Amendments, including this one:
North Carolina delegates also proposed a similar amendment, as did Pennsylvania delegates who met nearly a year after their ratification convention.12
None of the amendments was included.
Federalists, such as Madison, did not believe the liberties of the residents in the federal district would be threatened, said Congress would grant the area an elected legislature, and argued that citizens would like to live in a city under the jurisdiction of an enlightened Congress. Madison wrote (Federalist Papers No. 43):
''The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy. This consideration has the more weight, as the gradual accumulation of public improvements at the stationary residence of the government would be both too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single State, and would create so many obstacles to a removal of the government, as still further to abridge its necessary independence.
The extent of this federal district is sufficiently circumscribed to satisfy every jealousy of an opposite nature. And as it is to be appropriated to this use with the consent of the State ceding it; as the State will no doubt provide in the compact for the rights and the consent of the citizens inhabiting it; as the inhabitants will find sufficient inducements of interest to become willing parties to the cession; as they will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them; as a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them; and as the authority of the legislature of the State, and of the inhabitants of the ceded part of it, to concur in the cession, will be derived from the whole people of the State in their adoption of the Constitution, every imaginable objection seems to be obviated.
The necessity of a like authority over forts, magazines, etc., established by the general government, is not less evident. The public money expended on such places, and the public property deposited in them, requires that they should be exempt from the authority of the particular State. Nor would it be proper for the places on which the security of the entire Union may depend, to be in any degree dependent on a particular member of it. All objections and scruples are here also obviated, by requiring the concurrence of the States concerned, in every such establishment.
A newspaper commentator argued that Congress needed exclusive jurisdiction mainly to protect itself from the international community and special interests that were expected to gather there, but suggested the problem of a disenfranchised local citizenry could be solved with a Constitutional amendment when the population reached 40-50,000.13
Congress Claimed Its Exclusive Power Over the District of Columbia
Congress assumed exclusive legislative authority of the District of Columbia on February 7, 1801. Alexandria’s Virginia charter remained in force until February 25, 1804, when Congress provided a new one.14
Once in Washington City, some members of congress continued to question the need for exclusive jurisdiction. Mr. Smilie said "he never could understand the reason for giving Congress an exclusive jurisdiction over ten-miles square. He believed there was but one reason: It had been thought good policy to introduce this article into the Constitution to facilitate its adoption, as it was known that all parts of the Union were anxious to have the seat of Government."15 He said, "It did not appear to him, in any proper point of view, necessary that Congress should possess such exclusive jurisdiction. There was no doubt that, let Congress sit where they would, they would always have sufficient power to protect themselves. … If Congress can derive no solid benefit from the exercise of this power, why keep the people in this degraded situation?"16
Residents of DC have been asking the same question since.
Mr. Smilie also raised the issue of time and expense of acting as the District’s legislature, and questioned Congressional competency to legislate for the District. He said, "the exercise of exclusive legislation would take up a great deal of time, and produce a great expense to the nation; and it was probable that, in the course of events, the trouble and expense would increase with the increasing number of inhabitants."17
In the Congressional debates, Mr. Smilie recognized the need for local self-government. He warned, "Here, the citizens would be governed by laws, in the making of which they have no voice—by laws not made with their own consent, but by the United States for them—by men who have not the interest in the laws made that legislators ought always to possess—by men also not acquainted with the minute and local interests of the place, coming, as they did, from distances of 500 to 1,000 miles."
Today, if a DC resident was in the audience you might hear her say, "Amen!"
Some Congressional members countered that District citizens would be only temporarily disenfranchised—eventually they would be represented in Congress and granted a Territorial Legislature. Benjamin Huger of South Carolina (Federalist) said he didn’t think the fact that District residents suffered deprivation of rights was an adequate reason for retrocession, "because they are now disenfranchised of their rights, it does not follow that they are always to remain so. Huger looked forward to the period when the inhabitants from their numbers and riches, would be entitled to a representation. And, with respect to their local concerns, when they grew more numerous and wealthy, "there would be no difficulty in giving them a Territorial Legislature," he said.18
Others argued that District residents had advantages that other citizens who retained their citizenship rights did not have. John Bacon of Massachusetts (Republican) said, "Though the citizens may not possess full political rights, they have a greater influence upon the measures of the Government than any equal number of citizens in any other part of the Union."19 After 200 years, we can assuredly say that Mr. Bacon’s argument is not applicable today because proximity to federal leaders is less important in light of modern communications and transport. In February 1803, John Bacon introduced a resolution to retrocede the District of Columbia:
Although the retrocession bill did not pass, the recognition that the current situation was a fundamental violation of the general principles of American governance was demonstrated when the subject was taken up again the next year. In 1804, a bill was introduced to retrocede all parts of the District of Columbia except Washington City. Ebenezer Elmer of New Jersey (Republican) argued that the exclusive jurisdiction was contradictory to the general principles of the government, and pointed out that "the power of exercising exclusive jurisdiction over this territory was left discretionary with Congress by the Constitution," and "it is a power that ought not to be exercised but upon the most urgent necessity."21 He said that exclusive jurisdiction is:
"a kind of government very foreign from the leading features of that which forms the basis of our social compact. The general principles of our Government are the wisest and best that the ingenuity of man every yet devised. They are the boast of every American citizen, and the admiration of the whole world. Under the government I hope and believe the United States will long continue to be flourishing and happy; and that her example will instruct, and tend to ameliorate the condition of the inhabitants of all the nations of the earth. We have most happily combined the democratic representative with the federal principle in the Union of the States. But the inhabitants of this territory, under the exclusive legislation of Congress, partake of neither the one nor the other. They have not, and they cannot possess a State sovereignty; nor are they in their present situation entitled to elective franchise. They are as much the vassals of Congress as the troops that garrison your forts, and guard your arsenals. They are subjects, not merely because they are not represented in Congress, but also because they have no rights as freemen secured to them by the Constitution.
"They have natural rights as men, and moral agents; they may have some civil rights constructively secured to them by the Constitution; but have not one political right defined and guaranteed to them by that instrument, while they continue under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress. I have not heard any gentleman pretend to point out any sentence of the Constitution that secures them against arbitrary and despotic domination—that says to Congress thus far may you go in your legislative acts and no farther."
Some Congressmen argued that District residents were better off now than under the British monarchy, and they had taken this deal to gain benefits, as authorized by the Constitution. For example, John Baptiste Charles Lucas of Pennsylvania (Republican) said DC inhabitants are "not in a worse situation than subjects are under a monarchy," and they had parted with their elective franchise for pecuniary advantages, a deal the Constitution authorized.22 Lucas’ argument is reminiscent of the comment made in 1997 by former Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia that DC citizens are better off than citizens of Cuba. Mr. Lucas thought that since the exercise of exclusive legislation had not been introduced by violence or conquest, it wasn’t despotic, but rather a moral obligation between the DC and the federal government. He took issue with the use of the word "recession" as an effort to soften the fact that District residents were to be "transferred as a bale of goods; and if they can be transferred to Maryland and Virginia, they may be transferred to Vermont and Georgia.23
Samuel Taggart of Massachusetts (Federalist) pointed out that those supporting the retrocession bill were paving the way for the removal of the seat of Government from the area because Georgetown and Alexandria, if in different states, would compete more aggressively with and perhaps injure Washington City.24
The threat of removal of the seat of government from Washington City instilled fear in Washington City residents. They argued for a Territorial government and an amendment for equal rights, not retrocession.
Other Congressional members wanted to retrocede the full area because they thought that it was not wise to form a Territorial government. Experience, they said, had shown that such governments were a step on the way to statehood. For example, James Holland of North Carolina (Republican) argued that since Congress has a Constitutional right to give to the people of the District—to cede to them—a Territorial government, they also have the right to retrocede the area. He argued against giving DC a Territorial government because, he said, citizens would not be satisfied with anything short of statehood:
The retrocession bill reported by the Committee of the Whole was defeated 87 to 46. The debate had become so associated with the idea of removing the federal seat of government from Washington City that DC residents preferred to wait rather than gain political rights immediately and watch the city die on the vine.26
An effort to retrocede emerged again in 1818, but was defeated.27 Again in 1822, when a proposal was taken up to establish a Territorial government in DC, proposals from Georgetown and Alexandria for retrocession to their parent states emerged.28
Robert L. Scribner (1965) reported that the first retrocession movement in Alexandria emerged in 1824, led by Stevens Thomson Mason, but, he said, "the townsmen were not yet willing to alter the situation in which Washington had placed them."29
Seeds of Retrocession Grow Roots
There were practical difficulties that, over time, caused Alexandria residents to wonder about the advantages of retrocession. A Memorial to the Senate and House of Representatives in 1826, signed by over 100 residents of Alexandria County, gives a hint of difficulties faced by residents of Alexandria County. It called attention to the fact that since 1801, DC’s Judges "were appointed, so as to be resident, one in each of the towns of the district." In 1826, memorialists said, both Judges made their residence in the county of Washington, causing daily inconveniences to Alexandrian county residents. "Your memorialists therefore pray, that an amendment to the act passed on the 27th February 1801 intitled [sic] ‘An Act concerning the district of Columbia,’ may be passed, so as to require that one of the Judges of the Circuit Court for the district of Columbia, should be resident in the county of Alexandria."30
Georgetown, Washington City and County, and Alexandria Town and County were also competitive in the struggle to enlarge their respective fortunes. But they did initiate a joint venture on July 4, 1828, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal project. This project was launched on the same day as their competitor, Baltimore, initiated the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad project, which eventually won the competition.31 For construction, Washington pledged a million dollars and Georgetown and Alexandria each pledged $250,000.32 In addition, Alexandria merchants raised funds to build the Alexandria Canal to link with C&O Canal by Aqueduct Bridge at the current site of Key Bridge.33
Alexandria Town’s economy was sustained primarily by exports of crops (tobacco) and increasingly food (wheat or biscuits and herring and general agricultural products).34 It imported manufactured goods and fruit, spices, liquor, and wines.35 The failure of the Potowmack Company in 1830 was an economic setback.36 Moore wrote, "Stagnant trade, a static population, and a sense of being ‘left out’ of District affairs—coupled with the financial burden resulting from heavy outlays for two canals—created a restless mood in Alexandria. Old-timers remembered the halcyon days of the 1790s before the District of Columbia became a reality, and others wondered if reunion with Virginia might not somehow bring relief from the municipal debts that mounted to nearly two million dollars."37 The seeds of the idea of retrocession were sprouting roots by 1835. A committee appointed by the Common Council of Alexandria "to attend to the interests of the Town before Congress" sent an 11-page Memorial to the District Committee. Members of the Alexandria committee, including Francis L. Smith, Robert Brockett, and Charles T. Stuart, explained their role was "especially to urge upon that body the subject of retrocession." They outlined the issues "which impel them greatly to desire, to return to the State of Virginia, from which in an evil hour, they were separated."
While retrocessionists were discussing their degraded state as a ward of the federal government, an increasing number of citizens were growing increasingly uncomfortable with slavery. In the 1830s, radical and progressive abolitionists formed a small political party, many from New England and members of the Society of Friends. Senator Blaine wrote that abolitionists were "a proscribed and persecuted class," denounced by both political parties, libeled in the press, and attacked by "furious mobs." In 1837, John Quincy Adams presented a petition to Congress from 150 Massachusetts citizens calling for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (http://www.wfu.edu/~zulick/340/gagrule1.html) Alexandria’s Franklin Armfield—like some slave traders in Washington City—was profiting by selling surplus Virginia slaves to whites in the Mississippi Valley.39
The issue was becoming too hot to handle in Congress. In 1838, under then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. James K. Polk, a gag rule was passed by Southern Democrats and Whigs in which "every petition, memorial, resolution, proposition, or paper, touching or relating in any way or to any extend whatever to slavery or to abolition thereof, shall on presentation, without further action thereon, be laid upon the table, without being debated, or referred."
In 1838 and 1839, Mr. Merrick of Maryland, a Southern Whig, introduced memorials in the Senate, which were referred to the Committee on D.C. On July 16, 1840, Mr. Merrick, from the D.C. Committee, reported a bill (S. 395) "to provide for the ascertainment of the wishes of the people of the District of Columbia, without the corporate limits of the city of Washington, upon the question of retrocession to the States of Virginia and Maryland respectively." It passed to a second reading.
On September 28, 1840, the Common Council of Alexandria directed that "polls should be opened on the second Monday in October 1840, in the several wards of the Town, to receive the votes of all free white male citizens of the Town and County of Alexandria over the age of twenty one years, on the subject of the retrocession of the said town and county to the State of Virginia." The vote was recorded as follows:40
The mayor was instructed to send copies of the results to the President, Congress, the Governors, and the State Legislatures, with a request that they do lay them before Congress and their respective State Legislatures. Memorialists from Alexandria sent a petition to Congress in 1840-41 seeking approval to retrocede to Virginia—they wrote:
In February 1841, Mr. Merrick again introduced memorials in support of retrocession of Georgetown and Washington County to Maryland. Shortly after, the General Assembly of Delaware sent resolutions to Congress opposing retrocession, but supporting representation for DC in Congress:
National and Local Contest Facilitated Retrocession
By the 1840s, there were two key national boundary questions unresolved related to the Republic of Texas and Oregon Country. In the Presidential contest of 1844, Mr. Polk gained the support of northern Democrats and won the party nomination by campaigning around the "Fifty-four forty or fight" slogan for the location of the disputed northern boundary in "Oregon Country" (jointly governed by U.S. and Great Britain). His opponent in the Presidential race, Henry Clay, did not support immediate annexation of Texas—he lost. Once in office, however, President Polk reneged on his Oregon promise and made an agreement with Great Britain to make the 49th parallel the boundary. Senator Blaine noted that if U.S. hadn't rushed into the deal, British Columbia would today be part of U.S.
The compromise in Oregon Country was considered necessary so U.S. could enter a war against Mexico to win Texas. In June 1845, Congress passed legislation admitting the Republic of Texas as the 28th U.S. state (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/texmenu.htm), which President Polk signed in December (http://www.lsjunction.com/events/events.htm). Texas entered a slave state.
Alexandria merchants were unhappy when Congress in 1844 outlawed banking corporations in DC (except on a partnership basis).42 In 1845 the Alexandria Canal connection with the C&O Canal was completed, bringing coal and raw materials to the area.43 But the canal was not adequately offsetting the overall economic decline, and there were other sources of tension related to the fact that the federal government had forbidden the construction of federal buildings in the southern portion of the District, and had not established a uniform legal code for DC or updated the Code Alexandria had inherited from Virginia.44
John Hammond Moore (1976) reported that Alexandria’s merchant class, concerned with economic stability of the area, began in January 1846 to highlight the results of the referendum to advance retrocession. He reported that Alexandria’s mayor explained the major part of the problem, "We are disfranchised, will any American freeman desire another or better reason?"45
On May 11, 1846, the U.S. declared war on Mexico to settle the boundary dispute that resulted in Mexico giving up claims to Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico.
Retrocession Movement Gains Steam in Richmond
Months before the war, on February 3, 1846, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to the retrocession of Alexandria Town and County, provided Congress approve.46 The count of the vote was not recorded.47
Mr. Moore reported (1976) that citizens of Alexandria fired a hundred-gun salute honoring Richmond’s overture, while Alexandria County protested that there had been a secret deal between Alexandria Town merchants and Richmond. George Washington Parke Custis, who chaired a meeting of citizens at Ball’s Cross Roads, explained the council’s protest, said the retrocession measure was "disposing of us as so many swine in the market, without our knowledge, and most clearly against our expressed wishes, repeatedly made known and publicly expressed, of which these very thirteen people had positive personal knowledge."48
While residents of Washington City were busy debating their future city charter and celebrating Congressional authorization to build the Smithsonian Institution, Congressman Robert Mercer Taliaferro (R.M.T.) Hunter of Virginia presented Congress with Alexandria’s case for retrocession.49 He argued that there were no federal structures in Alexandria, that there was more space in the northern part of the District alone than Congress would ever need.50
The Georgetown council remained silent, but Washington City’s council warned that retrocession of the portion of DC southwest of the Potomac might be "the first step toward abrogating or destroying the compact by which the seat of government was permanently located in the District, and result in the removal of the capital to some other place."51
In February 1846, the House District committee approved The Retrocession Act of 1846.
The preamble articulated the primary reason for why Alexandria should be retroceded—it was not needed for the purposes of the General Government:
The U.S. House of Representatives took up Mr. Hunter’s retrocession bill. Opponents argued that retrocession would be unconstitutional unless a Constitutional amendment was passed. John A. McClernard of Illinois asked why "only the southern part of the District would vote on retrocession… why not the entire area?"53 He noted that Congress had required the whole state of Texas to vote on its admission to the Union. Erastus D. Culver of New York asked, "(a) was the real motive of retrocession to prevent escaped slaves from taking refuge in the District, and (b) if Congress had the power to ‘make’ retrocession, then could it not also ‘make’ abolition?"54 Despite criticisms, the House of Representatives approved the bill 96 to 65. One condition of the bill required the white men of Alexandria Town and County to demonstrate their support by majority vote in a referendum.55
Although most members of the House apparently didn’t view the retrocession of the southern portion of the District of Columbia as an ominous sign, a reader of the National Intelligencer (Washington City, DC) did. He invoked the name of General Washington when he wrote, (Intelligencer, May 11, 1846):
On July 2, the Senate took up the retrocession bill and passed it by 32 to 14. Among southerners, all but three lent their support to the bill.57 President Polk signed the bill into law on July 10, 1846. The measure could not become effective until a referendum was held among white male citizens of Alexandria.
The Referendum Establishing Alexandria’s Consent
Residents of the northern side of DC and some Alexandria residents denounced the way in which retrocession was being railroaded and held mass meetings.58 Some prominent county families—the Balls, Carlins, and Birches—opposed retrocession.59 The country section in particular opposed—some residents had greater ties to Georgetown and Washington City, and were more concerned about dominance by Alexandria than federal disenfranchisement.60
Residents of the northeastern bank of the Potomac thought they should be part of the decision about breaking up the District. Some Alexandrians believed that the retrocession bill was "a contest between the wealthy and the laboring classes."61 Over 500 Alexandria residents signed a petition that they did not want to retrocede unless Congress assumed $561,000 in debt.62 The Alexandria Gazette (June 12, 1846) claimed the document was fraudulent.63 The "retrocession without relief" idea caused enough concern that the Virginia Assembly agreed to assume the Alexandria Canal debt.64 Richmond passed a measure extending its jurisdiction over Alexandria on March 13, 1847.65
A referendum was held September 1 and 2 at the Alexandria Courthouse. The event apparently created a lively scene. Retrocessionists even developed a Retrocession Song, sung to the tune of "Vive la Campaigne," part of which follows:
Black people in Alexandria were alarmed. A letter from black leader Moses Hepburn to New York abolitionist Gerrit Smith illustrates what Mr. Moore (1976) described as "the dread which most blacks felt as they faced the prospects of being under the laws of the Old Dominion":
The measure passed 763 to 222. White men of Alexandria Town supported the retrocession measure 734-116, and white men of Alexandria County voted against retrocession 29 to 106.68 Mr. Moore wrote, "If the free black population of Alexandria had been allowed to vote the tally would have been considerably closer."69
Days later, on September 7, 1846, President Polk issued the proclamation of transfer from the federal government to Virginia.
Attention turned to the Virginia House of Assembly
Some citizens of the Country part of Alexandria County sent a memorial to the Virginia House of Assembly in December opposing retrocession. They were ignored.
Representation in Virginia became the next issue in the southern portion of the District. The question was whether Alexandria and Fairfax County would share a single seat in the House of Delegates, or whether they would each have a seat.70 The western part of the state felt they were already under-represented in the legislature, and argued that giving Alexandria County a delegate was unconstitutional because it would be a reapportionment—an event called for only every ten years.71
Alexandria County lost the battle to remain in the District, but eventually won their own representative. The legislature passed a bill that Alexandria and the county would share a delegate "until a reapportionment shall take place, or until otherwise provided by the General Assembly."73 Harrison Mann (1958) explained that the following event supports the idea that there had been a side agreement: In December 1847, a delegate from each location demanded to be seated in the General Assembly and were granted their demand without a squabble.74
Qualified residents of Alexandria officially became full Virginia citizens on March 13, 1847, when the General Assembly passed a bill accepting the retrocession.
Dark Clouds Gather on the Horizon
DC became the eye of the storm. Rhetorical wars in Congress — disputes in the nation—culminated in what Senator Blaine called the "political revolution of 1860." In 1962, Constance McLaughlin Green wrote that as the slavery issue increasingly divided the nation, in Washington "a tacit rule of conduct … emerged: abide by the law, but say nothing, do nothing, that might upset the precarious sectional balance. The fiercer the storm blew roundabout, the greater the quiet at the center."75 She described DC as being "like the stillness at the eye of the hurricane. … Far less than other American citizens could District residents, unrepresented in national councils, forestall disaster growing out of the slavery question. Their one contribution must lie in concealing their inner fears and maintaining an air of calm."76 The idea of the dissolution of the Union was hardly thinkable to Washingtonians, for as Green pointed out, "it would spell annihilation."77
The retrocession of Alexandria accelerated the migration of free blacks to Washington and Georgetown.78 Between 1840 and 1850, the black population of the southern portion of DC declined—the slave population dropped from 1,474 to 1,382 and the free population declined from 1,962 to 1,409.79
By 1846, DC had physically become the fault line of the Union. Perhaps this fact made the retrocession of the southern portion of the District possible. But it appears that few at the time, besides majorities in Alexandria County—and those voices that were not a part of the decision in Washington City and County—made much of the fragmenting of General Washington’s federal diamond. Between this time and the Civil War, there were a number of efforts to retrocede the areas outside of Washington City to Maryland, but none succeeded.
On December 22, 1848, Stephen Arnold Douglas, AKA the "Little Giant," a Northern Democratic Senator from Illinois, submitted a resolution instructing the committee of D.C. to inquire into "the expediency and propriety of the retrocession of the said District to the State of Maryland." It was considered by unanimous consent and agreed to.
The next year, Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln proposed abolition of the slave trade in District of Columbia.80 That year, Mr. Cameron presented a petition from citizens of Norristown, Pennsylvania, praying the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and protesting against the retrocession of any portion of said District to the State of Maryland. The issues seem to have been linked.
The Washington city council supported ending the slave trade, but southerners in Congress opposed the measure because they viewed the District as a bellwether.81 After much debate and to the relief of slaves, in September 1850, the slave trade (not slave ownership) was abolished in DC. That year, there were 40,001 DC residents, of which 74% (29,730) were white (4,913 were foreign born, or 12% of the total population), and 10,271 blacks (26% of the total population). Of the African American population in Washington City, 8,158 were free (20% of the total population, 79% of the black population) and 2,113 were enslaved (6% of the total population, 26% of the black population).82
In 1850, the Senate again considered the resolution submitted by Mr. Douglas. In June 1856, Mr. Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, Chair of the Committee of the District of Columbia, presented a petition of citizens of Georgetown "praying the retrocession of that city to the State of Maryland," which was referred to his committee.
The next month, Mr. Brown reported a bill (S. 382) "to take the sense of the people living west of Rock creek, in D.C., on the question of the retrocession of that part of said District to the State of Maryland," which was read and passed to a second reading. The next year, the bill (S. 382) was read the second time and considered in the Committee of the Whole. Further debate was postponed. The nation was becoming increasingly polarized along two lines—and DC residents probably didn’t want to choose either.
In the end, the retrocession effort on the northeastern side of the Potomac was not successful and was terminated for many years, when South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Mr. Brown entered the Confederate Army as a captain, and was elected to the Confederate Senate in 1862.
The Civil War and Movement Toward Restoration of the Diamond
When Republicans took power, a movement to retrieve the retroceded portion to the District replaced the drive for retrocession. Those in the movement argued that the retrocession had been unconstitutional, an argument that to this day has not been settled. In the end, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue, and the Attorney General called it a fait accompli.
Abraham Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, for the people," was called a "Black Republican" by some southerners. He was elected President. Amidst a real estate market collapse, Washingtonians hoped for compromise. Citizens heard rumors that Lincoln would bring "a reign of terror," and that southern states would take the city, hang the Black Republicans, and stop the inaugural.83 Some said there was a local Fifth Column in DC. DC police were nationalized. A House committee investigated the rumors, and General Scott claimed less than half the local militia was loyal. Enoch Lowe, former Maryland Governor warned that DC would return to Maryland in the case of secession. DC was caught in the middle. The Mayor denied charges that DC residents would disrupt the inaugural. In the end, DC citizens organized 33 companies of infantry and two troops of cavalry to defend the Union. But there is no question that the war caused great mayhem in DC.
In his first annual address in 1861 in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln suggested restoring the original District boundaries, and, like President’s before, encouraged Congress to consider "District interests," since they had no representative:
The news of Fort Sumter in April badly shocked DC residents, many who had family in the south. In late May, DC volunteers seized Arlington Heights and tore down a Confederate flag. A hotel owner was killed—Colonel Ellsworth, the first to die in the Civil War.
In April 1862, the Union Congress emancipated the 3,100 District slaves—and compensated owners—and after 1863, blacks were actively recruited as soldiers. On April 9th, 1865, the bloody war ended with the Surrender of General Robert E. Lee. Altogether, 16,534 (13,265 white, 3,269 black) DC citizens fought for the Union.
President Lincoln was assassinated in on April 14, 1865. Although the police were nationalized, DC residents felt shame and warned those who had left to side with the south not to return. They were the first to place a bronze memorial statue of President Abraham Lincoln in front of their City Hall at Judiciary Square—where it stands elegantly and quietly today (Old City Hall), patina-colored over time.
In January 1867, the bill for unrestricted manhood suffrage in DC passed the Radical Republican Congress. Citizens of Georgetown and Washington City held referendums in which less than one percent supported the measure. President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. For the first time in our nation, Congress overrode a Presidential veto and passed the Civil Rights Act. Shortly after, Congress passed the 14th Amendment—Tennessee was the only southern state to ratify. Tennessee has a special place in DC’s history, because Tennessee was also the lone southern state to support DC’s bid for the right to elect the President during this century’s Civil Rights era.
In June 1867, blacks voted for the first time in DC. While DC struggled economically to rebuild in 1868, the House of Representatives voted eleven articles of impeachment against President Johnson for allegedly violating the Tenure of Office Act. He was acquitted in the Senate by one vote. That year, Sayles J. Bowen, a Radical Republican, was elected mayor of Washington City. When he advocated the integration of the white and "colored" school system, he alarmed even local Republicans.
In March 1869, General Grant was inaugurated President.
Later that year, Senator Halbert E. Paine, a Radical Republican from Wisconsin, submitted a resolution that was referred to the Committee of Elections, in which he challenged the legality of seating Lewis McKenzie in the House as a representative of the 7th congressional district of Virginia. He claimed that retrocession had been unconstitutional, and requested the Committee on the Judiciary inquire into the matter.
The Civil War destroyed Washington City’s infrastructure. Streets were a muddy mess. And by 1870, Washington’s financial health was so bad that Mayor Bowen’s furniture was seized in a judgment against the municipality. Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, a partial owner of the Evening Star, a prominent citizen and friend of President Grant, argued that the only way to solve the financial crisis was to merge the local jurisdictions and have the federal government appoint DC’s chief officers.
Mr. Shepherd and his friends convinced Congress to pass the "Territorial" bill in 1871, merging all jurisdictions with a Presidentially appointed Governor and upper house, and an elected lower house. The Georgetown Courier complained about Grant’s appointments:
Nationally, Liberal Republicans combined with Democrats, and in 1874 the power of the Republican Party was broken and Democrats won office. That year, Congress abolished DC’s "Territorial" government for mismanagement and established a 3-commission system, appointed by the President.
The commissioner form of government was made permanent and lasted until the Civil Right’s years when DC was granted limited home rule in 1973. Today, DC is a young and emerging representative democracy, and its citizens continue to ask for the same rights as citizens who live in states.
In 1875, an effort was made by an Alexandria County citizen to obtain a decision from the Supreme Court about the legality of the 1846 retrocession, but he failed.
For twenty years, the matter was put on the back burner.
The McMillan plan to continue work of Peter L’Enfant’s design for the federal city prompted the question of whether the retrocession of the Virginia portion had been legal.
In 1896, the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia considered the question, Senator McMillan introduced, and the Senate adopted a resolution of inquiry asking the Attorney General for an opinion and what steps would be required to regain that area as part of the District. The attorney general avoided the question.
In 1902, a joint resolution was introduced in both houses of Congress directing the Attorney General "to bring suit to determine the constitutionality of the retrocession of that portion of the original District of Columbia that was ceded to the United States by the State of Virginia." The joint resolution was referred in the Senate to the Judiciary Committee, which gave its opinion that the question was a political one:
Some Virginians supported a proposal to cede part of Arlington County to the federal government.87 Congressional representatives from Virginia said that state would "vigorously oppose any effort to reopen the question of retrocession," and federal officials agreed, saying, "the act of retrocession should be regarded as an accepted fact, a fait accompli, not to be reopened or disturbed."88
In 1913 and 1915, The National Geographic Society of Washington, D.C. reprinted two articles in what appears to be a hard cover book titled Washington, The Nation's Capital, by former President William Howard Taft and James Bryce. President William Howard Taft described the retrocession to Virginia as an injury:
President Taft was interested in 7,300 acres along the shoreline; in his 1910 annual message to Congress, he said the federal government already owned 1,000 acres, and claimed that the rest was "not of great value" and Virginia Congressmen supported the measure if it became parkland.89 His proposal, however, did not advance
In January 1910, Republican Senator Thomas H. Carter of Montana launched a campaign to solve the "crime of ’46" by restoring the 10-mile square, but he received no support.90 He based his analysis on the work of George Washington University professor Hannis Taylor, who argued that neither Virginia nor Congress had a right to retrocede the land without passing a Constitutional amendment.91 He said that because Maryland and the original landowners, who were part of a quadrilateral agreement in 1791, had not been consulted, either the retrocession was void or Maryland and the heirs of the original landowners could lay claim to Washington, DC.92
In the 1940s, an agreement between Virginia and the federal government resolved jurisdictional issues related to National Airport. The parties agreed that the landfill is part of Virginia and subject to its liquor and gasoline taxes, but remained part of the federal enclave for other matters.93
While they were residents of DC, Alexandria residents enjoyed local self-government (Alexandria City had 27 different mayors between 1790 and 1846), but not the same civil rights as citizens who lived in states—and that seems to have been a main cause of their willingness to return to Virginia. Another reason was because they didn’t have the right to vote in the federal government. This likely had negative consequences on their local economy. Residents of the southwestern portion of DC that retroceded to Virginia have since enjoyed full constitutional rights, including self-government, full voting rights in the federal government, and equal protection. The county eventually gained independence from Alexandria in the new state Constitution in 1870.
Residents of current DC have endured the struggle ever since. From one generation to the next, they have worked to restore local self-government and to win equal rights. In other work, I have documented DC residents’ substantial and tireless efforts. They have been loyal to George Washington’s idea a federal system. They have fought and died in every war. Yet, they remain disenfranchised. Some argue that giving DC residents a single vote in the House of Representatives would solve the problem. But it is as clear now for DC citizens as it was in 1846 for most Alexandria citizens that more drastic and lasting measures will be required to solve the problems and to achieve the same rights as citizens who live in states. But they live with a dilemma—the dilemma of how to gain equal rights without losing what they have always sought to protect—their identity.
Today, the majority of DC residents support making the area outside of the National Capital Service Area (NCSA) the state of New Columbia. They believe statehood is the best way to secure equal rights and to preserve their identity without suffering the ongoing negative terms of being ruled by a Congress whose names most DC residents do not even know. Over the years, DC residents have fought for and have been granted:
This falls far short of the rights enjoyed by residents who live in the former southeastern portion of DC.
Today’s DC residents have been separate from Maryland for over two hundred years. They have a separate identity that has as many historic ties to Arlington as to Maryland. Though the two areas are friends in many ways, there is little interest today in Maryland for merging DC into its state; indeed, there is little interest in DC in merging with Maryland. George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs conducted a representative survey of 459 DC voters in April 2000 and found 68% opposed the proposal that "the District become part of Maryland for the purpose of Congressional elections."
I thank Sara Collins and the Arlington Historical Society for allowing me—an outspoken District of Columbia resident—to examine more carefully how two hundred years ago our regional hero, President Washington, united our areas in a dream. Residents of the District, former and current, share a unique historic relationship that can be strengthened today. The original areas could establish a Historic District of Columbia (HDC) that includes all of the area General Washington included when he created his federal diamond. An HDC jurisdiction could consider unique cooperative agreements. In some ways, perhaps we could overcome the historical competition, bridge the Potomac, and once again make the District of Columbia whole.
Thank you for indulging me tonight, PLEASE, help DC win equal rights, and let’s have a toast to the memory of General Washington!
Mark David Richards
Support for Equal Rights for DC Citizens in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives
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