portions of Maryland and Virginia were ceded to the new Federal government to establish the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States (by Pierre L'Enfant, reprint of 1791 map)
During the American Revolution and the era of the Articles of Confederation, the members of 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, the Confederation Congress was meeting at New York City.
The new US Constitution included a clause that led to creation of the District of Columbia, with exclusive Federal jurisdiction:1
Creating a Federal district ensured that no single state would have special leverage over the Congress. That clause generated little controversy, but the risk was greater than zero. In 1800, when voters rejected a second term for Federalist President John Adams and elected Republican/Democrat Thomas Jefferson instead, the transition of power was not smooth. Electors cast 73 votes for Jefferson, but also 73 votes for Aaron Burr. That tie force the US House of Representatives to select the president, and the process dragged on for six days.
Jefferson suggested to the governor of Virginia, James Monroe, that the "middle states" should arm and Republican/Democrat governors might direct militia to march on Philadelphia. By force, the militia could prevent John Adams from remaining in office after the end of his term, or from appointing an ally of his (John Marshall) as acting president. The House of Representatives chose Jefferson as President before Monroe gave any direction to the Virginia militia.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison had noted the risk that any state retaining control over a national capital might apply inappropriate pressure, and:2
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
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Washington ordered that the boundary survey should 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.
Andrew Ellicott, assisted by Benjamin Banneker and others, marked the boundaries and placed stones one mile apart in 1791 (Virginia) and 1792 (Maryland). The first boundary stone was placed at Jones Point on April 15, 1791. It was replaced with a larger one in 1794, and that stone still remains at the site. All stones were made from Aquia Creek sandstone, which was also used to construct the Capitol and Executive Mansion.5
14 boundary stones marked the edge of the land ceded by Virginia to the District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia (by Fred E. Woodward, c.1906)
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.6
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)
When Virginia ratified the Federal Constitution in 1788, it proposed amendments to create a Bill of Rights. The ratifying convention also considered an amendment so Virginia would retain some control over the Federal district:7
Congress did ultimately propose twelve amendments to address the Bill of Rights concerns, but did not agree to limit its authority over the District of Columbia. Virginia did not pursue the issue, and 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 on December 19, 1791.
Since Maryland knew that Congress would not have time to create a new legal code immediately for the District, the state's cession act included a provision that the portion transferred to the Federal government would continue to use the laws of Maryland until replaced. That kept the Federal territory from reverting to a "state of nature," and allowed 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. President Adams first slept in the Executive Mansion in November 1800, when Congress first met in its new location.8
Virginia was slower to transfer its sovereign authority to the Federal government. By 1800, the division between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans extended to the powers of the Federal government within the new district. Federalists were advocates of a strong central government. The Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson supported limited Federal control, and giving Maryland/Virginia some responsibilities within the district. At the end of the administration of John Adams on February 27, 1801, the Federalists pushed an Organic Act through the US Congress establishing exclusive Federal jurisdiction with no remnants of state control.
Georgetown, Hamburgh, and Carrollsburg as well as Alexandria were incorporated into the new District of Columbia
Source: Library of Congress, Sketch of Washington in embryo: viz., previous to its survey by Major L'Enfant, 1792 (by E.F.M. Faehtz, F.W. Pratt, 1874)
The president was authorized to appoint a mayor for the District of Columbia. The Organic Act also organized local courts and created a municipal government for the District. That triggered Virginia's official cession, ending Virginia's authority over the lands it had ceded. As with the Maryland cession, the Virginia act stated that the laws of Virginia would be applied in the Virginia portion of the District until replaced.9
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.
largely undeveloped Alexandria County was a separate part of the District of Columbia, distinct from the town of Alexandria
Source: Library of Congress, District of Columbia
North of the Potomac River, Georgetown also retained its charter and the rest of the District was designated as Washington County. Maryland ceded its control over both land and the Potomac River within the District. In 1801, Congress chose to give both counties jurisdiction over the river, but the debate over the District and its boundaries did not stop.
the 1801 Organic Act gave authority over the Potomac River to both Alexandria County and Washington County
Source: Library of Congress, An Act Concerning the District of Columbia (February 27, 1801)
During the ratification time, North Carolina and Pennsylvania had also proposed limiting Federal power over the District of Columbia so residents would not be disenfranchised. Members of Congress proposed retrocession of all or part of the district in 1803, 1804, 1818, and 1822. Alexandria leaders had requested retrocession as early as 1803, claiming:10
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 at the Twn of Providence. The Fairfax County courthouse has been located there ever since, though the town renamed itself Fairfax. When the Town of Fairfax became an independent city in 1961, the area around the courthouse remained in the county.
since 1961, the Fairfax County courthouse has been within an island of county land surrounded by the independent City of Fairfax
Source: Fairfax County Static Map Gallery, Comprehensive Land Use (2017-26)
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, to govern the majority of the District not within a town boundary. 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.
all Federally-funded infrastructure was planned in the portion of the District ceded by Maryland
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the city of Washington (by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, c.1794)
In 1826, Congress relaxed its limits and did fund construction of a jail in Alexandria County. It was not until 1932 that the Federal government constructed its first building in Arlington, the post office at Clarendon.11
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. 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.12
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 of Alexandria County and the town of Alexandria voted on a proposal to rejoin Virginia. Over 40% of the voters supported retrocession to correct the imbalance of economic benefits with the former Maryland side of the District, but the majority chose to stay in the District in a 419-310 vote. In 1838, Georgetown residents also considered retrocession, but were unable to get Congress to allow a vote.
When part of the District of Columbia, Alexandria lost the competition for trade with the backcountry. It surpassed Colchester and Dumfries and attracted trade from Virginia's northern Piedmont, but Baltimore captured much of the trade from the Potomac River Valley.
Slaveowners in Alexandria did not encourage the development of a white working class. Those who desired to become skilled laborers chose the culture of Baltimore, where industrial development offered mechanics economic opportunity.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad penetrated into the hinterland and helped Baltimore boom, while to Potowmack Canal failed. Trade on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal reached Georgetown first. One early sign of the capacity of Baltimore in 1814 was that it was able to resist British attack, while Alexandria meekly surrendered.
In 1820, Alexandria had 8,218 people. In 1840, there were only 8,459 residents. George Washington's expectation that a seaport with access to the Chesapeake Bay would become the "entrepot" of the western lands had become reality, but that town was Baltimore rather than Alexandria.13
In 1840, the residents in the town of Alexandria debated retrocession in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser. Town residents then voted 537-155 in favor of returning the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia back to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The desires of Alexandria County residents did not align with town merchants, however. The Ball, Carlin, and Birch families feared dominance by the town, and did not experience directly the economic disadvantages of being within the district. When the Virginia General Assembly expressed support for retrocession, George Washington Parke Custis made clear at a meeting at Ball's Cross Roads that county residents objected to being treated "as so many swine in the market, without our knowledge, and most clearly against our expressed wishes."
Congressional refusal to recharter local banks reduced the local money supply and interfered with business. Merchants suffered, and one expressed a complaint that is still heard in the District of Columbia today:14
The white political leaders in Alexandria 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.
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, including Alexandria County and the town. Slaves might be able to escape simply walking across a political boundary with no physical barriers, connecting to the Underground Railroad, and fleeing freedom further north.
slave house of J. W. Neal & Co. in DC north of Potomac River (left); Franklin and Armfield's slave prison in Alexandria (right)
Source: Library of Congress, Slave market of America (1836)
It took six years of lobbying in Richmond before the Virginia General Assembly endorsed retrocession. The US Congress also concurred in 1846.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman R. M. T. Hunter led the effort to obtain concurrence. His original retrocession bill was ambitious, and included the Federal government repaying the $120,000 contributed by Virginia in 1791 for construction of public buildings in Washington. After hearing opposition, he dropped that proposal and limited the voter referendum to just the Virginia section of District.
Congress was busy debating the status of Texas and the war with Mexico, so Hunter kept the retrocession debate low-key and avoided discussion of the slavery issue. He focused on how voters had been disenfranchised and how Alexandria had been damaged economically, by inclusion within the District of Columbia.
States, but not the District, had provided financial support for banks to encourage commerce. States, but not the District, had invested in roads and other internal improvements to draw trade to their ports. Hunter portrayed Alexandria as a child of the Federal government, but "neglected by the foster mother."15
Alexandria town and county residents got to express their desire on September 1 and 2, 1846, in two days of viva voce voting. In that process, there was no secret ballot. Everyone knew how each individual white man who voted felt on the choice.16
Residents of the Town of Alexandria voted in favor by 734-116. Residents of Alexandria County opposed retrocession by a 29-106 vote, in part because taxes were predicted to rise to pay for the bonds sold to finance the Alexandria Canal. Voters in the county were swamped by the overwhelming support within the town. The combined vote was 763-222 in support of rejoining Virginia.
President Polk issued a proclamation transferring the territory to Virginia on September 7, 1846. The Virginia General Assembly met the following Spring, and officially accepted retrocession on March 13, 1847.
Another segment of the population also opposed retrocession, though they could not vote. 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.17
over 12% of the residents in Alexandria County were enslaved in 1860
Source: National Archives, Map of Virginia Showing the Distribution of its Slave Population from the Census of 1860
The land area of the District of Columbia was reduced by one-third. That portion of the Federal district returned to Virginia became Alexandria County, Virginia, and was not added back into Fairfax County. The boundaries stones set in 1791 to mark the Virginia-District border defined the boundary between Fairfax County and Alexandria County.
The General Assembly granted the town of Alexandria a city charter in 1852, but communities classified as "city" were not independent from the county until after the state adopted a new constitution in 1869.18
the boundary stone that marked the western tip of the District of Columbia is now in a park maintained by the City of Falls Church
After retrocession, Virginia purchased bonds and subsidized the debt of the Alexandria Canal. 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. The slave trade in Alexandria expanded.
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)
Retrocession led to the first Union invasion of a southern state. On May 24, the day following Virginia's referendum approving secession, Union soldiers floated on steamboats across the Potomac River to the wharf at Alexandria and marched into the city. Other troops came across the Aqueduct Bridge and Long Bridge that day. Over the next two years, they built a series of forts within Alexandria (now Arlington) and Fairfax counties to prevent a Confederate attack on Washington, DC.
the border between Arlington and Fairfax County (yellow line) was irrelevant to Union engineers who built a circle of forts to protect Washington, DC in the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, The National lines before Washington (published in the New York Times, 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:19
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 ducked the issue, and declined to intervene. It ruled 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.20
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)
In 1905, operators of gambling centers at the horse racetrack on Alexander Island (now Reagan National Airport) sued to block Alexandria officials from intervening. They were unable to convince a Federal judge that the 1847 retrocession was unconstitutional and the "pool rooms" were legally in the District of Columbia.
The legal argument followed one made by a property owner in Alexandria County in 1876, hoping to avoid paying Virginia taxes. The US Supreme Court chose to rule against the property owner without making a clear statement on the constitutionality of retrocession.21
After 1905, legal cases were based on the location of the shoreline rather than the constitutionality of retrocession. In a 1919 lawsuit, Herald v. United States, the Court of Appeals (District of Columbia Circuit) ruled that the high-water line on the south bank of the Potomac River was the Virginia-District of Columbia boundary. The boundary had been defined by Federal retrocession in 1846, at which time the 1632 charter for Maryland applied and the District owned to the "further Bank of the said River." That created a boundary at the high-water line.
In later decisions, courts ruled that the 1877 Black-Jenkins arbitration gave Virginia rights to the low-water line, based on prescriptive use - but Herald v. United States made clear that the 1877 decision did not affect 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. Taft's administration thought the success of the McMillan Plan, for redesigning the Mall, could be enhanced by protecting the shoreline from inappropriate development.22
President Taft proposed the Federal government acquire land (shown in green) along the Potomac shoreline in Arlington County
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Modern Rosslyn would not have been possible, if Congress had funded Taft's proposal to purchase an additional 7,300 acres. Virginia did not support the purchase, and did not concur with other attempts to alter the official boundaries of Virginia and the District of Columbia to undo the boundary created by retrocession.
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)
Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia between 1800-1847
Source: Library of Congress, Chart of the head of navigation of the Potomac River shewing the route of the Alexandria Canal (1838)