Cession and Retrocession of the District of Columbia

the 1878 boundaries of Alexandria County show the area once included within the District of Columbia and retroceded to Virginia in 1847
the 1878 boundaries of Alexandria County show the area once included within the District of Columbia and retroceded to Virginia in 1847
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington (by G. M. Hopkins)

During the American Revolution and the era of the Articles of Confederation, the US Congress met at various locations. In 1783, the Pennsylvania government refused to order the state militia to protect the Continental Congress from a mob of soldiers demanding back pay, and Congress moved. When the new Constitution was ratified in 1788, Congress was meeting at New York City.

The Constitution included a clause that led to creation of the District of Columbia, with exclusive Federal jurisdiction:1

The Congress shall have Power... To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States

Creating a Federal district ensured that no single state would have special leverage over the Congress, and that clause generated little controversy. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison noted the risk that any state retaining control over a national capital might apply inappropriate pressure, and:2

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.

the original version of the Residence Act excluded Alexandria from being included in the District of Columbia
the original version of the Residence Act excluded Alexandria from being included in the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, An act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the government of the United States

The political debate after ratification of the Constitution was where to place the new capital. Various sites in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York sought to become the new home of the new government. A political compromise, arranged by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to balance interests of northern and southern states, determined that the capital would be located on the Potomac River.

Jefferson and Hamilton were political rivals, but recognized the benefits of negotiating deals that would benefit both sides. In 1790, Hamilton wanted to increase the financial power of the new Federal government. He sought Congressional approval for the US Treasury to assume responsibility for the debts incurred by the states to fund their efforts during the American Revolution. Creating a national debt to replace 13 separate state debts would increase support in the business and financial communities for a successful Federal government, one that could repay its debts.

Thomas Jefferson had philosophical objections to a stronger central government, fearing an increased Federal power would result in an equal decrease in the power of individual states. The successful American Revolution had stopped British officials from imposing decisions in America by fiat. Jefferson had supported adoption of the US Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation, but had no desire for the national government to grow powerful enough to impose its will on the states by fiat.

Jefferson and Hamilton orchestrated a deal. In 1790, the Funding Act transferred state war debts to the Federal government, and the Residence Act directed that the new national capital would be located on the Potomac River in a 100-square mile district controlled by the Federal government.

Placing the capital so far south was expected to affect the culture in the Congress, in particular its willingness to accept slavery. About 170 years later, John F. Kennedy supposedly said with an ironic twist, "Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."3

The Funding Act and Residency Act were passed while Congress was meeting in New York City. The government relocated to Philadelphia for 10 years so there would be time to buy land and prepare government buildings in the new capital, and as part of the bargain struck with Pennsylvania leaders to get their approve of the deal. President George Washington was authorized to select the exact location on the Potomac River "at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue."4

the initial Residence Act authorized George Washington to place the new Federal district between Conococheague Creek (Williamsport, Maryland) and the mouth of the Anacostia River
the initial Residence Act authorized George Washington to place the new Federal district between Conococheague Creek (Williamsport, Maryland) and the mouth of the Anacostia River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Washington ordered that the boundary survey start at Jones Point. That ensured Alexandria would be included within the boundary, even though it was downstream from the mouth of the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River). Congress quickly legalized his executive decision by passing a 1791 amendment to the Residence Act.

George Washington's decision included a well-developed port city within the boundary of the Federal district. That limited the ability of Virginia and Maryland to interfere with transportation and potentially gain some influence over the national government.

Washington may also have desired to provide some economic advantages to his neighbors in Alexandria, less than five miles from his own Mount Vernon plantation. He expected that the activities of the Federal government, including the US Congress, would stimulate the local economy.

He knew that in Virginia's rural counties, the days when the local court was in session attracted lawyers, plaintiffs/defendants, jurors, and others. Government activities increased business activity, and markets would open on certain days when a crowd was anticipated. However, the 1791 amendment to the Residence Act that authorized inclusion of land upstream of Hunting Creek also required that all public buildings be located on the Maryland side of the river, limiting any economic activity on the 31 square miles within the district that were formerly part of Virginia.5

the District of Columbia was a diamond, 10 miles on either side, with all Federal buildings in the Maryland portion
the District of Columbia was a diamond, 10 miles on either side, with all Federal buildings in the Maryland portion
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States (by Charles L'Enfant)

Virginia agreed in 1789 to cede to the Federal government the land on Virginia's side of the Potomac River. Maryland formally transferred its ownership to land within the district in 1791, allowing George Washington to negotiate deals through which local landowners sold their land to the Federal government. In May, 1800, President Adams ordered Federal officials in the Executive Branch (all 125 of them...) to move from Philadelphia to the new capital; he first slept in the Executive Mansion in November 1800, just as Congress first met in its new location.6

Virginia was slower to transfer its sovereign authority to the Federal government. Congress passed the Organic Act of 1801 to organize local courts, and authorized the president to appoint a mayor for the District of Columbia. Creation of a municipal government triggered Virginia's official cession, ending Virginia's legislative authority within its part of the District on February 27, 1801.7

Under the 1801 Organic Act, the town of Alexandria retained its municipal government within the new district. The adjacent land outside the town boundaries, but within the District of Columbia, was designated Alexandria County. That farming land was often described as the "country" portion within the District of Columbia, and today most of it is Arlington County.

Cession of 32 square miles of Virginia resulted in a shrinking of the land area and population of Fairfax County. Alexandria was the county seat of Fairfax County when the District of Columbia was created, so county officials prepared by building a new courthouse further inland. The Fairfax County courthouse has been located there ever since.

Transfer to the District of Columbia meant that residents in Alexandria lost their Virginia citizenship. Starting with the election of 1802, Alexandrians were not allowed to vote for members of Congress, or for president starting in 1804. Elections for town government did continue, and Congress issued Alexandria a new town charter in 1804. Congress did not create a territorial legislature comparable to the Virginia General Assembly. As a result, those living in Alexandria County were completely were disenfranchised, since the President appointed the district mayor and justices of the peace for local courts.

At the local level, Congress failed to update the Virginia civil/criminal codes after 1801. They continued to be the law in Alexandria County and in the town of Alexandria, and Maryland law stayed in force north of the Potomac River.

In the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia, Congress was prohibited from erecting public buildings; in compliance with the Residence Act, all Federal facilities were constructed north of the Potomac River. In 1826, Congress relaxed its limits and did fund construction of a jail in Alexandria County.8

a jail in Alexandria was constructed with Federal funding authorized in 1826
a jail in Alexandria was constructed with Federal funding authorized in 1826
Source: Library of Congress, Slave market of America (1836)

More significantly, Congress did not provide substantial funding for local transportation infrastructure such as the Alexandria Canal, in part because Georgetown residents successfully opposed extension of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal to the rival port. In contrast, the Virginia General Assembly created the Board of Public Works in 1816 and started subsidizing turnpikes, canals, and railroads for rival Virginia ports, especially Richmond.9

The lack of Congressional response to address local concerns, and the lack of any business improvement from being part of the District, frustrated local leaders. A locally-led "retrocession" movement in Alexandria, to undo the original land cession by Virginia to the Federal government, started in 1824. In 1832, residents rejected a proposal to rejoin Virginia by 419-310 vote. In 1838, Georgetown residents also rejected such a proposal, but the 410-139 vote indicates how the Maryland side received more economic benefits than the Virginia side of the District.

By 1840, however, the residents on the Virginia side concluded a debate in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser by voting 537-155 in favor of "retrocession" of the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia back to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Congressional refusal to recharter local banks had reduced the local money supply and interfered with business, causing one person to express a complaint that is still heard in the District of Columbia today:10

[Congress treated] the ten miles square...as a field upon which experiments in legislation might be safely tried by political quacks... regardless of the wishes... of the people.

Alexandria voters also feared that Congress might outlaw the slave trade within the boundaries of the Federal district. In the 1840's, the town was a major slave market. That business, though less respectable than shipping wheat, provided a significant number of local jobs while trade with the hinterland shifted to other ports with better transportation corridors into the Piedmont.

the slave trade was legal in the District of Columbia until the Compromise of 1850, and continued on the south side of the Potomac River in what was Alexandria, Virginia until the Union Army occupied it in 1861
the slave trade was legal in the District of Columbia until the Compromise of 1850, and continued on the south side of the Potomac River in what was Alexandria, Virginia until the Union Army occupied it in 1861
Source: Library of Congress, A slave-coffle passing the Capitol

In 1844, Congress ended its self-imposed ban on debating anti-slavery petitions. Ending the "gag rule" was an indicator of the growing political power of abolitionists. The worst-case scenario for Virginia slaveowners was the prospect that slavery would be banned in the District of Columbia. Simply walking across a political boundary with no physical barriers might enable slaves to escape, connecting to the Underground Railroad and reaching freedom further north.

slave house of J. W. Neal & Co. in DC north of Potomac River
slave house of J. W. Neal & Co. in DC north of Potomac River
Franklin and Armfield's slave prison in Alexandria
Franklin and Armfield's slave prison in Alexandria
Source: Library of Congress, Slave market of America (1836)

It took six years of lobbying in Richmond before the Virginia General Assembly endorsed retrocession, and the US Congress also concurred in 1846. In the House of Representatives, R. M. T. Hunter led the effort to obtain concurrence. He avoided discussion of the slavery issue and focused on how voters had been disenfranchised and Alexandria had been damaged economically, by inclusion within the District of Columbia.

States had invested in roads and other internal improvements to draw trade to their ports, and provided financial support for state banks to encourage commerce. Hunter portrayed Alexandria as a child of the Federal government, but "neglected by the foster mother."11

If she had remained in Virginia she must have been considered in the system of internal improvements in that State, and by this time, it is probably that she would have commanded the trade of a part of the valley of northwestern Virginia, and western Maryland. A large region, rich in agricultural and mineral resources, which is now locked up, would probably long since have been opened to this place as its commercial depot...

If she has fallen behind in the race, is it surprising in her to believe that it is owing, in part at least, to her separation from Virginia, and her connexion with this District?

Alexandria voters then confirmed their support for retrocession in a 763-222 vote. Residents of the county were opposed by 106-29, in part because taxes were predicted to rise to pay for the bonds sold to finance the Alexandria Canal, but their votes were swamped by the overwhelming support within the town. Another segment of the population also opposed retrocession. The number of free blacks in Alexandria dropped from 1,962 in 1840 to 1,409 in 1850, down to 15% of the population. Between 1850-1860, the free black population continued to decline, dropping to 11%. People without access to the ballot could still vote with their feet...12

Transfer of the land back to Virginia became official in 1847, and the land area of the District of Columbia was reduced by 1/3. Virginia purchased bonds and subsidized the debt of the Alexandria Canal, and Alexandria began financing expansion of a rail network to the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley.

Three years after retrocession was finalized, Congress abolished the slave trade within the boundaries of the remaining portion of the Federal district as part of the Compromise of 1850.

after 1847, the County of Alexandria and the Town of Alexandria were no longer part of the District of Columbia
after 1847, the County of Alexandria and the Town of Alexandria were no longer part of the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, War map, showing the vicinities of Baltimore & Washington, compiled from the latest surveys by G. M. Hopkins (1861)

The Civil War gave the Congress an opportunity to reconsider retrocession. At the end of 1861, Abraham Lincoln proposed restoring Alexandria to the District, stating:13

the extension of this District across the Potomac River at the time of establishing the capital here was eminently wise, and consequently that the relinquishment of that portion of it which lies within the State of Virginia was unwise and dangerous. I submit for your consideration the expediency of regaining that part of the District and the restoration of the original boundaries thereof through negotiations with the State of Virginia.

In 1867 the House of Representative approved a bill to rejoin the Virginia section with the Maryland section, but Reconstruction politics intervened. An Alexandria resident trying to avoid paying taxes to Virginia sought a legal opinion in the 1870's that retrocession of just a part of the District of Columbia was unconstitutional, or that rejection of retrocession by the voters in the county should have blocked further action. The Supreme Court declined to intervene, ruling in Phillips vs. Payne (1875) that individual plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue because the state and Federal government were not disputing the status of Alexandria.14

In 1905, operators of gambling centers at the horse racetrack on Alexander Island (now Reagan National Airport) sued to block Alexandria officials from intervening, claiming the 1847 retrocession was unconstitutional and the "pool rooms" were legally in the District of Columbia. Other local officials and business leaders debated whether rejoining the District would result in Congressional appropriations for parks and roads, or increase real estate prices.

President Taft proposed re-acquiring just the undeveloped "country" portion for parkland along the Potomac River, while leaving the city of Alexandria in Virginia. The Federal government already owned over 1,000 acres within Alexandria County after seizing/purchasing the Arlington estate of the Custis/Lee family; the success of the McMillan Plan for redesigning the Mall could be enhanced by protecting the shoreline from inappropriate development.15

Modern Rosslyn would not have been possible, if Virginia had agreed and then Congress had funded Taft's proposal to purchase an additional 7,300 acres - with or without altering the official boundaries of the District of Columbia.

proposals to undo the retrocession decision were in the news between 1890-1910
proposals to undo the retrocession decision were in the news between 1890-1910
Source: Library of Congress, "Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers," Evening Star (December 19, 1896 and October 15, 1905), Washington Times (October 16, 1905), and Washington Herald (January 28, 1910)

Links

References

1. Article 1, Section 8, "US Constitution," National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html (last checked September 2, 2014)
2. James Madison, The Federalist No. 43, January 23, 1788, http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa43.htm (last checked September 1, 2014)
3. BrainyQuote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/johnfkenn143149.html (last checked September 1, 2014)
4. "An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States," July 16, 1790, in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=253 (last checked September 1, 2014)
5. "An act to amend 'An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States'," March 3, 1791, in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=337 (last checked September 1, 2014)
6. "May 15, 1800: President John Adams orders federal government to Washington, D.C.," This Day in History, The History Channel, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/president-john-adams-orders-federal-government-to-washington-dc; "Nov. 1, 1800: John Adams moves into White House," This Day in History, The History Channel, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-adams-moves-into-white-house (last checked September 2, 2014)
7. Young vs. Bank of Virginia, United States Supreme Court Reports, Volume 2, Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company, 1882, p.655, http://books.google.com/books?id=WXwYAAAAIAAJ (last checked September 2, 2014)
8. "An Act to provide for erecting a penintentiary in the District of Columvia, and for other purposes," May 20, 1826, in Nineteenth Congress, Session I, Chapter 81, 82, p.178 in United States Statutes at Large, Containing the Laws and Concurrent Resolutions ... and Reorganization Plan, Amendment to the Constitution, and Proclamations, Volume 4, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1846, https://books.google.com/books?id=LiBNAQAAMAAJ (last checked April 13, 2016
9. William B. Hurd, "The City of Alexandria and Alexandria (Arlington) County," Alexandria History, 1983, p.4, https://alexandriahistoricalsociety.wildapricot.org/Resources/Documents/1983_AlexandriaHistory.pdf (last checked September 2, 2014)
10. A. Glenn Crothers, "The 1846 Retrocession of Alexandria: Protecting Slavery and the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia," in In the Shadow of Freedom: The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital, Paul Finkelman, Donald R. Kennon (ed.), Ohio University Press, 2011, p.153, http://books.google.com/books?id=3e5HBAAAQBAJ (last checked September 2, 2014)
11. "Speech of Mr. R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, In the House of Representatives, May 8, 1846, On the subject of the Retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia," posted on The Daily Render blog by Nikolas R. Schiller, July 2, 2010, http://www.nikolasschiller.com/blog/index.php/archives/2010/07/02/6574/ (last checked September 2, 2014)
12. Mark David Richards, "The Debates over the Retrocession of the District of Columbia, 18012004," Washington History, Historical Society of Washington, DC, Volume 16 Number 1 (Spring/Summer 2004), pp.59-62, pp.72-74, http://www.dcvote.org/sites/default/files/documents/articles/mdrretrocession.pdf; William B. Hurd, "The City of Alexandria and Alexandria (Arlington) County," Alexandria History, 1983, p.5, https://alexandriahistoricalsociety.wildapricot.org/Resources/Documents/1983_AlexandriaHistory.pdf; A. Glenn Crothers, "The 1846 Retrocession of Alexandria: Protecting Slavery and the Slave Trade in the District of Columbia," in In the Shadow of Freedom: The Politics of Slavery in the National Capital, Paul Finkelman, Donald R. Kennon (ed.), Ohio University Press, 2011, p.167, http://books.google.com/books?id=3e5HBAAAQBAJ (last checked September 2, 2014)
13. Abraham Lincoln, "First Annual Message," December 3, 1861, in "The American Presidency Project," University of California - Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29502 (last checked September 2, 2014)
14. Phillips v. Payne, US Supreme Court, 1875, online in OpenJurist, http://openjurist.org/92/us/130 (last checked September 2, 2014)
15. William B. Hurd, "The City of Alexandria and Alexandria (Arlington) County," Alexandria History, 1983, pp76-78, https://alexandriahistoricalsociety.wildapricot.org/Resources/Documents/1983_AlexandriaHistory.pdf (last checked September 2, 2014)

Alexandria County was part of the District of Columbia in 1835, and largely undeveloped
Alexandria County was part of the District of Columbia in 1835, and largely undeveloped
Source: Library of Congress, District of Columbia


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