The 8,000+ word speech below is, without a doubt, one of the most important speeches in the history of the District of Columbia. It was given before the House of Representatives on May 8th, 1846 as Representative Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, of Virginia, introduced H.R. 259 – An act to retrocede the county of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia. Following this speech there was a heated discussion on the floor of the House (which I will also republish) concerning the political factions of Virginia and the constitutionality of this act, but the ultimate result of this speech and subsequent votes was the truncation of George Washington’s ten miles square to the boundaries we know today, and, of course, the continued disenfranchisement of District residents.
In preparing this transcription, I did a fair amount of research regarding Mr. R. M. T. Hunter and discovered some very interesting facts about his political life. First and foremost, at the ripe age of 30, he was, and still is, the youngest person ever elected to be the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Secondly, the following year in 1847, he was elected to the Senate (note: before the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution, Senators were elected from state legislatures) and served until 1861 when he was one of the 14 senators expelled from Congress for supporting the Confederacy. Third, he became the second Confederate Secretary of State, and ironically, as the man who truncated the 10 miles square, his portrait was added to the Confederate $10.00 bill. Indeed, he shaped the history of the United States in ways he never could have predicted, but the results are still felt today.
I have more comments concerning the speech, but I plan on publishing them at a later date.
RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA
SPEECH OF MR. R. M. T. HUNTER,
In the House of Representatives,
May 8, 1846,
On the subject of the Retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia.
Mr. CHAIRMAN: The bill before us proposes to recede and relinquish to Virginia the county of Alexandria, with the assent of that State, the assent of this Government, and the assent of the people of Alexandria, to be taken in the mode prescribed by the bill itself. Thus, we shall comprehend more than all the parties to the original compact, for the people of Alexandria were not then consulted. The assent of Virginia has been already given in advance, by the unanimous act of her Legislature at its last session; the assent of the people of Alexandria will be given, I doubt not, most eagerly and gratefully, should this Government afford them an opportunity, as I trust it will, by expressing its assent and enacting this bill. The object of the clause in the Constitution which allows Congress to obtain by cession a district not exceeding ten miles square, over which they might exercise exclusive jurisdiction, was to give them a seat of government, which they might hold in their own right, and to put them in a position in which they might be independent of State hospitality and State legislation for a place of meeting, and the means of securing the departments of the government from lawless violence and intrusion. The limit upon this power was, that they should not take more than ten miles square, but the quantity within this limit was left entirely to their discretion. As Mr. Madison said, they might have taken only one square mile, if they had seen proper to do so. This is the only constitutional limitation upon the power; but there are high considerations of public prudence and policy which should regulate the exercise of this discretion. It is obvious that they ought to have taken or keep no more territory or people under their exclusive jurisdiction than may be necessary and sufficient for all the purposes of a seat of government. Considerations of economy, in relation to the public time and money, obviously suggest the expediency of retaining no more territory than may be enough for such purposes. When you exceed this limit, and increase unnecessarily the territory, people, and interests, to be provided for by our legislation, to that extent you increase and waste the time and money which must be bestowed upon them.
There is yet a higher consideration, which should restrict the exercise of this discretion within the limits which I have mentioned- a consideration which must weigh deeply with every American statesman, which appeals to all that is most cherished in American sentiment: I mean the obvious propriety of depriving no more of our people political rights and privileges than may be indispensable for the purposes of safety and security in the seat of government. To this extent the evil is unavoidable, but there can be no higher obligation than that which rests upon American statesmen, to deprive no more of our people of political rights and privileges than may be actually necessary. We owe this to all that is most cherished in the political sentiment of our country; we owe it to true political sentiment of our country; we owe it to true American feeling, to the estimate which we ourselves place upon these privileges; and we owe it as an example of mankind. We have been proud to believe that it was a great object in our mission to enjoy these rights ourselves, and by our example to increase the value placed upon them by the residue of mankind. It is the great lesson we were sent to teach, that political rights and privileges are amongst the highest and noblest objects of human aspiration. It is our glory, that to a great extent our example has taught it; but how shall we answer for our mission, if without necessity we deprive a portion of our own people of these very rights, which in the face of the world we have declared to be inestimable?
But, Mr. Chairman, there is another consideration which should induce us to contract the sphere of our exclusive jurisdiction, to so much only as may be necessary for the purposes I have mentioned. This grant of exclusive jurisdiction here, and some omissions in the Constitution, place this Government in an anomalous and, in some degree, dangerous position towards the States. It was organized as an agent of the people of the States. This is its grand characteristic; and yet as the local legislature of this District, it stands in an entirely different relation towards the States- a relation not only different, but possibly hostile to the great end of its institution, if the district under its control should comprehend large and various interests. There are certain provisions in the Constitution designed to secure equal benefits and international comity, if I may call it so, amongst the States, which apply to all the State governments and yet do not in terms apply to us as the Legislature, the government of a separate people in this District. “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.” This provision does not apply in terms to the citizens of the District going to the States, or the citizens of the States removing to the District. The provision in relation to fugitives from justice, which applies to the States, does not embrace this District. The provision forbidding preferences to be given to the ports of one State over those of another, does not embrace this District in terms, although I incline to think that by construction the same prohibition exists in relation to the District. But still it is a matter of doubt. When we reflect, Mr. Chairman, that, as the government of this District, we stand in some respects, though not in all, towards the States as a State government, we can readily see how great might be the difficulties arising from these omissions, if controversies should ever arise between this Government and that of any of the States. But there is yet another and greater danger to the reserved rights of the States in this power of exclusive jurisdiction in the District. Under the pretense of exercising an undoubted power, as the District government, how great is the temptation and the facility for exercising powers within the States which the Constitution has denied to the General Government. We are all familiar with instances of the kind. There have been those who believed that we have no power to charter a United States Bank, and yet were of opinion that we might exercise this power within the District as a local legislature, and extend its operation within the States. So, too, the subject of education in the States has never been confided to this Government, and yet it has been maintained that an institution might be established here, and its operations so extended as to bring the subject of education within the States, in some degree, under the control of Congress. In relation to internal improvement, difficulties may arise out of the double character in which we act, which might embarrass the straitest sect of the strict construction school. We have three cities in this District, each aspiring to be great, and all desiring to open up communications to the sources of their trade. In discharging the duties of a local legislature towards their interests, how seriously might we embarrass our relations with the States, and easily slide into connexion with their system of internal improvements. It is easy to perceive that in this way we might be led into the exercise of powers within the States, which many of us believe to be forbidden by the Constitution. To some extent these dangers must exist so long as we have a seat of government at all; but they are manifestly diminished as we diminish the population, and the variety, and magnitude of the interests for which we legislate by separate laws, and over which we have exclusive jurisdiction. As these people and interests are diminished, the opportunity for these conflicts will decrease, the temptation to abuses will diminish, and any attempt at usurpation of power within the States, through District legislation, will become more palpable and manifest to the vigilant amongst our people. These evils were foreseen and feared by some of the wisest men of their day at the time of the adoption of the Federal Constitution. In the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Grayson, expressed their apprehension in relation to the District which was to be the seat of government. These men had been admonished by experience to watch and guard against every opportunity for usurpation. They were more familiar with the evils of such things, and they looked more cautiously to the future. But does it not become all wise to look carefully ahead, to guard against every possible innovation upon their rights and liberties. Have we not some duties to perform in this respect, unless our value for these blessings has diminished with the length of time for which we have enjoyed them. All parties in this country have expressed fears in relation to the dangers of usurpation. Some have feared that the General Government would usurp the rights of States; others have thought that the Executive Department would usurp the powers of the others, and finally swallow up the rights of the people themselves. All who have studied such subjects must be aware that the most dangerous and successful usurpations have been those which were accomplished by easy and insensible stages. Where, I ask, are these easy and successive gradations for usurpation, whether we look to the General Government or to the Executive alone, so readily to be found as in the abuses of this very power over this District? If there be these dangers in the right of the exclusive jurisdiction here, do we not owe it to high public considerations to diminish them, by exercising it over as few people and interests as may be indispensable to the ends for which the power was granted?
Mr. Chairman, there is yet another consideration which should induce us to restrict this District within the smallest limits compatible with the ends for which it was given to us. One of the great objects in giving us our power over the District in which the Government is located, was to secure Congress against violence, and any attempts to overawe its deliberations. But there may be a question whether we have not been subjected to a far more dangerous bias from the nature of the influence likely to be exercised over us here, when this District shall have been increased as much in wealth and population as may reasonably be expected. When regrets have been expressed at the denial of political rights to this District, the answer has been, that if they had no political rights, they would have much political influence. But what, Mr. Chairman, is likely to be the nature of that influence? Will it be salutary to us, or may it not, when it extends, prove to be most corrupting and dangerous to the purity of our legislation? The influence of the people of a metropolis upon the Government, has been felt and recognized. In despotic governments, the public opinion of the metropolis is almost all of the public opinion which is felt or known by the rulers. In all old countries, where the seat of Government has been long established, the influence of its metropolitan population, refined, wealthy, intelligent, and voluptuous, has always been deeply and dangerously felt in the conduct of the Government. Organized from position, and skilled from long training in all the arts of persuasion, seduction, and blandishment, the influence of such a population has always proved to be exceedingly dangerous to the purity of Government, and often it is almost irresistible. It has been frequently said that Paris was France; and for a long time, so far as the Government was concerned, Paris was France: for its public opinion was all that was known or felt by the ruling powers. We all know the influence which is exercised here at home by the people at the seat of Government in the States. It is true that this influence is much less in the States than that of which I have been speaking, but it has always been a subject of jealousy, even in the smaller degree in which it has been exercised there. And yet how much purer must that influence be in a population trained to the exercise of political power, accompanied by responsibility, than with such a people as must be gathered here in this District when it shall number one, two, or three hundred thousand souls, (as may not be impossible) without political power or privilege, and dependent upon secret influence alone for the means of being felt in the government by which they are ruled. I know of nothing more purifying or elevating to human character than the exercise of political power and a due sense of responsibility. I mean that sort of responsibility which is enforced by the necessity of sharing himself in a just proportion, in all the consequences, good or ill, of his own political action. It begets a feeling of independence and self-respect, which is the more cherished the longer it is enjoyed, and it tends to elevate public sentiment above the use of low arts or secret influences. On the other hand, Mr. Chairman, I know of nothing better calculated to debase public character than to train a people to believe that they must depend upon secret arts and indirect influences for all the political weight they do enjoy, unless, indeed, it might be the still more degrading idea that a greater share of the incidental benefits flowing from public disbursements could compensate them for the loss of political rights and privileges. And yet these are the circumstances under which the public sentiment of this District is to be formed; these are the views to which its people are to be trained! If this District should be kept together, and should become as populous as there is reason to believe, who can measure the extent of these debasing causes upon their character, or who can estimate the probable ills of the sort of influence which they will exercise over the Government? Every one must perceive that the influence will be great, of a people, numerous, wealthy, and intelligent, refined and skilled, too, as they will be, in all the arts of persuasion and blandishment. Numerous and wealthy and refined they must become, too, not only from their natural advantages, but from the Government disbursements, and that disposition so natural to every people, to adorn, embellish, and aggrandize their metropolis. This disposition is as common to all nations as is the desire to improve and adorn the homestead to individuals. There would be yet another temptation to increase the public expenditures upon them. The power to do so is ample, and there is a belief that they ought to have, in appropriations for their benefit, some compensation, inadequate as it may be, for the loss of political privileges. As we grow more wealthy and powerful, and they become more numerous, and perhaps corrupt, there is every reason to fear that they may habitually consider themselves as dependent upon the public bounty as pensioners upon the treasury. What must be the public opinion thus reared under influences so debasing that they must be more than men if they long resist their depressing tendencies? What, too, will be the nature of the influence of public opinion so formed upon the Government itself? Will it not be exerted in favor of large appropriations and against economy? They have a direct interest in large public expenditures, for the proportion which they contribute towards them, must always fall short, far short, of the greater share of the benefits which they will derive from them.
In contests between the General and State Governments, will not this influence be exerted in favor of the General Government, and against the States? It is the Government here which they know, and none other. They have no other Government to claim their affections. This Government will engross their respect and affections, and to increase its powers, its functions, its revenues and expenditures, would be the best mode of aggrandizing and enriching themselves, if they were to view the matter in a selfish sense, and look to their own separate interest alone.
In what direction is it probable that this influence will be exercised when questions arise in relation to popular rights and privileges? Is it not altogether probable that it would be hostile to the people in all such contests? Enjoying none of these rights and privileges themselves, they will either envy their possession by others, or else place no value upon them. Education, habit, and interest, would all induce them to take sides with this Government, as against the States and the people. As you concentrate power in this Government, you increase their control over public affairs; and as you remove it from the subjection to popular will in the States, you place it more and more under their influence. If I am right as to the direction which this influence may hereafter take, is it not manifest that it will be hostile to the great ends of our institutions? Must it not become large enough to be formidable when this District is crowded with a population great in wealth and numbers? And if so, do we not owe it to ourselves and to them to diminish it as far it can safely be done? I can conceive of nothing worse than to increase unnecessarily the influence of a public opinion which is alien to the spirit of our institutions, to enlarge beyond necessity the boundaries of its abiding place, to increase without reason the numbers who entertain it; and to strengthen, whilst you isolate it, would, as it seems to me, be folly in the extreme. If ever the career of usurpation should be commenced, whether by one or all of the departments of this Government, it is here, if any where, they must look for the public opinion and the separate interest which are fully to sustain them. And is there nothing formidable in the prospect of such an influence, if wielded by all the wealth, intelligence, and people that can be concentrated within these ten miles square? May it not be far more dangerous to the purity of our legislation than the open outbreaks of lawless force? A Lord George Gordon riot, a Parisian mob, or a mutiny as at Philadelphia, are insults which are keenly felt and bitterly resented by the people themselves. But the influence of which I have been speaking is far more dangerous. It operates constantly and invisibly; it steals into the citadel whenever it is unguarded, and saps the very foundation of public virtue.
But it may be said, Mr. Chairman, that these dangers are inevitable, and result necessarily from the establishment of a seat of Government. This is true to some extent: the evil is inevitable, but we may diminish it very much by contracting the limits of our exclusive jurisdiction, so that this District may comprehend no more interests and people than are indispensable for the seat of Government. By thus contracting it, its people would be more the influence of the sound public opinion of the States. The infusion by those who come from the States to fill offices, and upon public business, would be proportionally larger, and the separate interests being smaller, would be less exclusive, and its influence not only smaller but purer. In making these remarks, Mr. Chairman, I trust that I shall not be misunderstood. I hope no one will consider me as intending, in the smallest degree, to disparage the character of the people of this District. On the contrary, I believe that they will compare not disadvantageously with the same number of people in any of the States. I trust that they may continue to do so, but this can only be done, if at all, by confining the District within proper limits, and limiting the tendencies towards an exclusive, a separate and dangerous state of public opinion here. Should the whole of this District be kept together, and should it grow in wealth and population, as there is reason to expect, time must eventually develop these effects of which I have spoken, upon the public character of its people, and the nature of their influence upon the Government.
If I am right, Mr. Chairman, in the views which I have taken in relation to the propriety of contracting the area of this District, there can be no doubt, I think, as to the expediency, so far as this Government is concerned, of returning Alexandria to Virginia. The county of Alexandria contains but thirty square miles, and we should still retain seventy square miles on this side of the Potomac. We should thus have enough, and perhaps more than enough, for the public grounds and buildings, and for all that can be desired in a seat of Government.
But I have said that the transfer of Alexandria to Virginia would be advantageous to the portion of the District which we should still retain. Whoever will look into the causes of the inefficient legislation for this District, and become acquainted with the divided state of public opinion here, must, I think, arrive at the same conclusion. It is not to be concealed that there is, and always has been, a feeling of section opposition between the people of the two portions of the District, divided as the Potomac divides them. They live under different codes of laws, one founded on the Virginia, and the other on the Maryland system of laws, as they existed at the time of cession, and in addition to this cause of difference, they have shared unequally in the appropriations. All attempts to harmonize these systems with each other, have hitherto failed, and Congress have not the time or means of establishing a new code which might be uniform and satisfactory to both. Local jealousies and divisions would have defeated the attempt, if we could have the time and disposition for the work. The consequence is, that the state of the laws in this District, is disreputable to our Government. Whoever feels an interest in this subject, may find in the report of Mr. Powers to the House of Representatives in 1830, a description of the then existing state of the laws (and I am informed that they have been but little amended since) which would be ludicrous for its strange contrast with the public sentiment of the day, if it were not that they affected things so sacred as the lives and property of our fellow-beings. The same report also exhibits the difficulty of establishing laws which would be satisfactory to those for whom they were intended. A difficulty arising in part from the two different codes, which have each their advocates, within the District, in comparison between the two. Letters are published in this report from many of the most intelligent citizens of the District, and none of them agreed. Some thought that great changes ought to be made in the laws; some thought that there should be one uniform code for the whole District; others were of opinion that there should be two codes, and that each required revision. No, Mr. Chairman, if Alexandria were returned to Virginia, we should have but one code to attend to, and fewer people and interests to provide for. All would be better cared for, and I believe, that for the remaining portion of the District, we might do all, or nearly all, that is necessary to be done.
But, Mr. Chairman, it is to the people of Alexandria that this measure is especially important. They have everything at stake upon it- they have moral, political, and pecuniary interests, all involved in it. From their connexion with us, they have lost political rights and privileges, and all the social progress which the exercise of these rights can give. They have thus lost, too, as they and I believe, great results from the natural advantages of their position. It is commonly supposed, I know, that they are compensated by local appropriations for the loss of their political franchises. Does any man really believe that public disbursements could compensate a people for such a loss as that of disenfranchisement? The exercise of political power, when accompanied with responsibilities, is, as I have said before, the highest task, and the most elevating occupation, in which a human being can be engaged. Deprive a society of these high and noble springs of human action, and it is difficult to measure the extent of the depressing and demoralizing influences of such a loss. But in point of fact, the appropriations for Alexandria have been less than is generally supposed. It may indeed be doubted, whether anything more has been appropriated than she has contributed, directly or indirectly, to this Government. I hold in my hand a statement of the appropriations to Alexandria by this Government, made by an intelligent officer in the Senate, who is familiar with such subjects, by which it appears, that the entire amount from the time of cession, up to this date, has been$920,554. He informs me that these are all the appropriations of which he knows, although it is possible that there may be more. Now, I find in this report of Mr. Powers, a letter signed by Ed. I. Lee, R. I. Taylor, and Thompson F. Mason- men distinguished for character and intelligence- in which it is asserted, that up to that date, Alexandria had contributed to the General Government, from the post office, from direct taxes, and duties, and by advances made by the banks during the war, $669,540. This does not include what they have paid directly as consumers of dutiable goods, nor what has accrued since that time from the post office. But as these advances were of more ancient date than the heaviest of the Government appropriations, which were for their canal, I doubt whether a master commissioner would bring that city much in debt to this Government, if interest were allowed upon the items, on both sides of the account.
I have said, sir, that in my opinion, she had lost by her connexion great results from the natural advantages of her position. Can any man doubt this, who will compare what she is, with what she might have been? I hold in my hand a statement of her exports, imports, and tonnage, from which it appears that all have been declining since 1815. Her imports, which during the three years from ’17 to ’19 inclusive, averaged $568,869, have been steadily and rapidly declining until now; and in the five years, from 1840, they have averaged but $68,447.
Her population has been nearly stationary since 1820. These results must have been produced by her separation from Virginia, and her connexion with us. She was not considered by the former in her system of improvements, and she was either neglected, or injured by our legislation. One of these early acts of this Government, after the cession of Alexandria, was to throw a mole across from Mason’s Island to the south bank of the Potomac, and thus cut off the channel for boat communication between Alexandria and the water of the upper Potomac. An intelligent merchant of Alexandria told me that from the time this was done, up to the completion of the canal, scarcely a boat was ever seen in Alexandria from the upper Potomac. Her system of laws has been utterly neglected by us. A well-informed lawyer of that place assures me that they are now living under English and Virginia statutes, which have been long repealed in the countries of their origin. Is it not reasonable to suppose that her condition would have been far different if she had never been separated from Virginia? She is placed at perhaps the nearest point to the Alleghanies, to which sea-going ships of the largest class can approach from the Atlantic. 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. Inexhaustible supplies of coal and iron destined to be, perhaps, the cheapest in the world, and the products of an extensive and fertile agricultural region, would probably have found an outlet from this place to the coast and the ocean. It is not an unreasonable supposition, that by this time, she would have commanded enough of this trade, if she had not engrossed it, to have been a large and flourishing place. With the command of coal and iron, which she will have on the completion of the Cheaspeake and Ohio canal, together with her fine water-power, her manufacturing facilities would of themselves justify the most cheering expectations. Her aspirations for a more distant trade that of which I have been speaking, were not considered extravagent by our Virginia statesmen at the time of the cession. There is no doubt that General Washington, and Mr. Madison, and other distinguished statesmen of that day, regarded the Potomac and Ohio as the great natural line of trade and intercourse, which was to connect the eastern and western portions of our Confederacy. Mr. Madison expressly asserted the probability, that this was to be the line of intercourse, in the debate as to the place of the seat of Government, and adverted to some information which he had received as to the close proximity of the headwaters of the Potomac and Ohio.
Had she remained an integral portion of Virginia, it is not extravagant to believe that, by this time, she would have been the flourishing depot of commerce of the western portion of that State- the keystone in a great arch of commercial interests which would bind eastern and western Virginia together- a common bond, perhaps the golden link, which, to a great extent, would have united the interests and healed the divisions of the two sections of that State.
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? Has she had the facilities and assistance which were necessary to develop her energies and resources?
Mr. Chairman, she has been treated like a child separated from the natural, and neglected by the foster mother. After a long and bitter experience of the fruits of a connexion with us, she asks to return to her ancient allegiance. She asks to be restored to right and privileges, the very names of which are sacred to American feeling, and dear to every American heart. She asks to leave you in one capacity, to return to you in another and a better. She asks to leave you as a dependent, and return to you as an equal; to leave you as a subject, and come back to you as free; to leave you as a burden, and return to you as a support. She begs to be permitted to return to her natural mother, from whom, in an evil hour, she was separated; and she is willing to share in the cares, the burdens, and responsibilities of the political family to which she will belong, if she can partake also of their privileges and their blessings. She begs you, in the name of all that is dear to American feeling, to put an end to the days when her sons tread their native soil, not like Antaeus, to gather new energies from the touch, but to lose the best strength of man, in losing the rights and privileges which add so much to his moral power and his elevation in the scale of intellectual being. Are not these right feelings and noble desires? Are not these the aspirations which of all others especially demand American respect and enlist American sympathy? If we have enough for a seat of Government, without them, how can we justify it to our consciences to refuse their request?
But I am told that this petition cannot be granted without a violation of the Constitution. I trust, Mr. Chairman, that I should be amongst the last, knowingly to violate the provisions or overstep the limitations of this instrument. I am bound, too, to respect the opinion thus pronounced, on account of the sources from which it has emanated- men who characters and abilities challenge all my respect. The authority of names, too, has been given, I know not how justly, to which I bow with all the respect due to superior intellect, but not with submission. For truth and candor compel me to declare, that I have never met with a constitutional objection which I was so little able to comprehend, to realize, to enter into. The positions taken, if I understand them, are, that the power in relation to selecting the seat of Government having been once exercised, is executed and exhausted; and that even if it were not exhausted, it could not again be exercised, because we have no power to transfer this District, or any portion of it, to the States, and having already ten miles square at this place, we could not get another territory for another seat of government, without violating the limitation which confines us to the ten miles square. The provision of the Constitution in relation to this matter is, that Congress shall have power “to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District, (not exceeding 10 miles square,) as may by cession of particular States and acceptance of Congress, become the seat of Government of the United States; and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the Legislature of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.” Now, I am told that this power in relation to the seat of government, having been once exercised, is executed and exhausted. But why? It is contained in the long list of enumerated power, in the 8th section of the 1st article of the Constitution. That instrument does not declare in terms that this power when once exercised, is executed and exhausted. Nor is there more reason to suppose that when once exercised it is exhausted, than in the case of any of the other powers specified in this section of the Constitution. I might be told that the power of declaring war, when once exercised was exhausted. I could not show that the Constitution declared in terms that when once exercised it should be considered as exhausted. I could only show that if there was any reason for exercising it once, there were reasons for exercising it more than once. So in relation to the power of selecting a seat of government, it may be shown, that the same reasons which exist for once exercising right, exist for using it more than once. Suppose that through mistake the seat first selected should have proved to be so sickly as to be unsafe to the officers and members of the Government: will any man venture to say that there ought not to be in Congress a power to change the location to some more salubrious spot? Or, suppose that it had turned out to be exposed to foreign invasion, and from that cause an unsafe location for the agents of Government: will it not be admitted that in such an event there ought to be a power to change it? Or, it might be, that a change in the centre of population, and the right of the whole Confederacy to a due share in the facilities of intercourse with the metropolis, would require a removal of the seat of government: ought there not reason for believing that the framers of the Constitution contemplated that very case? Mr. Madison, in the debated upon the proper place for a seat of government, advocated the present location, upon the ground that the centre of population was taking a southwestern direction. The preamble to the Virginia act of cession declares the convenience of access, from its proximity to the centre of population, to be the great reason for locating the seat of government where it now is. Our forefathers could not and did not foresee the wonderful improvements in the facilities of intercourse which have placed the most distant parts of our Confederacy in near proximity, compared with what they then were. The history of the day shows that they regarded the proximity of the centre of population as a consideration which ought to affect the location of the seat of government, and if so, they must have regarded the right to change this seat of government as essential to justice and harmony of our people. But there are other considerations which demonstrate this position still more clearly. The powers in relation to the seat of government and forts, arsenals, and dock-yards, are contained in the same terms. No one has ever pretended that the power in relation to forts and arsenals, when once exercised, was exhausted, or that there was no right to recede the site of a fort to a State, when it had been taken and found to be useless. Such an idea is repudiated, not only by its manifest absurdity, but by the constant practice of Government. Now it is obvious that the same reasons and the same construction apply to both cases.
If, then, Congress has the right to remove the seat of government and of exclusive jurisdiction, may it not for considerations connected with the purposes of a seat of government, change the limits of the District thus set apart, as well as remove it? If it can remove the seat of government from this place to the Mississippi, may it not remove the limits of its exclusive jurisdiction from the southern boundary of Alexandria county to the banks of the Potomac? If they have the major, the minor must be included.
But, Mr. Chairman, I will admit, for argument’s sake, that the Constitution had expressly required the seat of government to be permanent when once located- I say for argument’s sake, because I believe, as Mr. Madison must have believed, when he moved to strike out the word permanent the act establishing the seat of government, because it was nowhere to be found in the Constitution- suppose, then, that the word permanent had been thus applied to the seat of government in the Constitution: I should still maintain that we had the right to diminish the limits of our exclusive jurisdiction, within less than ten miles square, if less should prove to be sufficient for the purposes of a seat of government. The Constitution provides that the territory ceded for this purpose shall not exceed ten miles square. Mr. Madison, in the debates upon the Federal Constitution in the Virginia Convention, said that Congress might take one square mile or ten miles square, as they saw best. The quantity was within their discretion, provided they did not take more than ten miles square. I need hardly have quoted his authority for so plain a position. Now, suppose, Mr. Chairman, that they had taken at first only one square mile, and that had proved insufficient: will any man doubt but that they might have taken more by a subsequent cession, provided they did not exceed the quantity limited by the Constitution? If this be true, would not the converse inevitably follow, that if they had taken more than was necessary for the purposes of a seat of government, they might relinquish to the ceding State or States the surplus, in accordance with the high consideration of private right and public policy, to which I have before adverted? If they had taken less than enough for a seat of government, they might acquire more; and if they had taken too much, they might relinquish the surplus, so as to contract the District within the limits proper for the end contemplated in the Constitution.
But it is said that this cannot be done, because there is no power in Congress to transfer territory thus acquired. Any assertion may be made, but it must be supported by reason before it can command assent. Should a legitimate reason exist for changing or diminishing the site of our exclusive jurisdiction, the power to transfer it, in whole or in part, has been derived from various clauses in the Constitution. Different minds as they have been trained in different schools of construction, have derived the power of transfer from different clauses in the Constitution. Some have derived this right from the power to dispose of territory of the United States, (2d clause, 3d section, 4th article, Constitution of the United States) others from the power of exclusive jurisdiction over this District; and others again have believed that it would revert to the ceding State from the very nature of the compact as provided for in the Constitution. My own opinion is, that when the jurisdiction of the United States is removed from the whole or any part, that it reverts to the ceding State or States. The United States have the power to take the territory be cession, for the purpose of a seat of government. It is for this purpose that the United States have power to hold it, and it is for this consideration that the States have ceded it. When it ceases to be the seat of government, the right of the United States to hold it has terminated, and the consideration of the cession has failed. Upon any fair construction of the Constitution, or of the compact, it must then revert to the ceding State or States. The right of the United States is determined when it ceases to be the seat of government. This construction is strengthened by another consideration. If has the right to remove the seat of government as I have maintained and believe, it was manifestly proper that they should be enabled to exercise this right without the consent of any State, and especially of those which surrounded the seat of government. I specify those surrounding the seat of government, because it is improbable that they would ever consent to any act necessary for the removal of the seat of government, if their assent were indispensable. Their interests would tempt them to refuse their assent. If the Constitution contemplated a recession of the District to the ceding States, in the event of a removal of the seat of government, then it could remove this seat without a dependence upon any will but their own right- a high consideration of convenience, which must have been contemplated, if the power of removal was designed to be given. But if the territory could only be transferred by cession, under the power of “disposition,” then the assent of some other government would be necessary; and, upon every principle of fair construction of the compact, the assent of the ceding State would be requisite. The ceding States would scarcely assent, and the attempt to coerce them, by transferring the territory to other States, not contiguous, would be attended with the most serious difficulties. We cannot hold more than ten miles square for a seat of government, under the Constitution. We now hold that quantity, and we could not acquire another inch for that purpose, unless we could transfer the whole or portion of that which we now have.
If we suppose that upon the withdrawal of our exclusive jurisdiction from any portion of this District, it reverts to the ceding State, then we may exercise the power of removing the seat of government, if it exists at all, independently of any will but our own, but otherwise we must be dependent upon that of State Governments, which would probably refuse. Now, if the power exists, as I think is demonstrable, it must have been intended that its exercise should be dependent upon the will of Congress alone. This intention can only be attained by the supposition, that in the event of a removal of the seat of government, the District would revert to the ceding State. Still, Mr. Chairman, I am aware that there is a different of opinion as to the clause in the Constitution, from which the power of transfer is derived. To meet this difference of opinion, more than one term of conveyance is used in the bill. As in deeds at common law, more than one word of conveyance is used, so as to be certain of using that which is precise, technical, and proper, so this bill proposes to “cede, and relinquish,” so as to meet all the different views as to the power under which we convey.
But, Mr. Chairman, it has been said that the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia, would be a violation of compact. How can this be, if we have the assent of all the parties to that compact? The act of cession was a compact between the United States and Virginia. These were the only parties. Now we do not propose to recede except with the assent of Virginia, the United States, and the people of Alexandria themselves. If then, there be no objection to this bill, arising from the Constitution, or the compact of cession, can any man oppose it upon considerations of expediency? If Congress holds an exclusive jurisdiction over any portion of the country which is not needed, for the purpose of a seat of government, do they not owe it to justice, to policy, to patriotism, to every American feeling, to restore the political rights of those, who, without necessity, are now deprived of them. Virginia is ready to receive those people back into her bosom, and they are ready and anxious to return. They desire to enjoy the right rights of men, the privileges of freemen. Can an American Congress fail to respect such a feeling? Will they not use every proper opportunity to encourage and gratify it? Do not our sympathies follow such aspirations, even to those most distant lands? And who, sir, are these, who now ask for this sacred boon at our hands? Are they aliens to our blood, or strangers to our tongue? Or are they not our brethren to whom we are bound by all the ties of kindred, of a common language and descent, of common and kindly associations, and of common interests, hopes and aspirations? Nay, more, sir, are they not bound to us by a still nearer tie? Have they not, like political orphans, been committed to our peculiar care and guardianship? And how, sir, have we discharged the trust? Go look to her declining commerce, her deserted buildings, and her almost forsaken harbor! Look to the waste of natural advantages and opportunities in that town, suffering not from the blight of God, but the neglect of man. Look to her statute book, cumbered as it is with the remains of an antiquated legislation, nowhere else to be found in the world: a legislation which seems to have been curiously contrived to keep these people stationary as a fixed point, from which we could estimate the progress of the residue of mankind. Look, sir, to her emigrating sons, shaking the dust from their feet, on the paternal threshold, not because the mansion is inhospitable, but because they cannot enjoy within it, the rights of men or privileges of freemen. Year by year, and day by day, they are leaving the home of their youth, because it is a scene of death to the noblest of human aspirations, to seek in other lands, a free competition for those prizes which are awarded to the mastery in the struggles of life. Mr. Chairman, I do not pretend to hold this Government responsible for this state of things. It resulted in part from circumstances, beyond our control; from her separation from Virginia, from the nature of our exclusive jurisdiction with its attendant disabilities; and from our inability to bestow the necessary attention, not only to the affairs of the Confederacy, but to the various interests of this District. Still I fear that we have not done all that might have been been done for those, who depend upon us for the necessary care which this Government alone can bestow. Heretofore we have not been entirely to blame; but if we refuse to restore these people to political rights and the paternal laws of a State Government, we shall be responsible for all that they have suffered or are yet destined to endure. In speaking this freely, Mr. Chairman, I speak for myself, and not for the people of Alexandria. I have never heard them speak in terms of complaint or reproach against this body. They appreciate the difficulties under which we are placed, and they are grateful for every kindly disposition which has been manifested towards them. I speak for myself, because I am a member of this body, and I take a full share of the blame and responsibility. But the occasion has now offered, and I wish to rid myself of the sin of holding them in their present condition, by voting for this bill. I say from sin, for it is a sin, to retain them unnecessarily in this state of quasi bondage. Let us, then, restore them to Virginia, to their political rights and privileges, and awaken in them the energies of freemen. Let us pass this bill, and neither you nor they will ever repent of it; but, on the contrary, you will receive for it the blessings, not only of themselves, but of their most distant posterity.
Speech obtained from the Appendix to the Congressional Globe, 29th Congress, 1st session, p. 894-898.
Click here to read the Congressional debate that followed this speech.
Related Retrocession of Alexandria Entries:
- Letter from Hannis Taylor to Honorable Thomas H. Carter, United States Senator, Rendering An Opinion As To The Constitutionality of the Act of Retrocession of 1846 - January 17, 1910
- Debate in the U.S. Senate Concerning An Act to Retrocede the County of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia - Thursday, July 2, 1846
- GAMBLERS MAY GET ALEXANDRIA FOR US - The Washington Times, October 16, 1905
- PLEA FOR RESTORATION OF ALEXANDRIA COUNTY - The Washington Times, April 13, 1902
- EARLY SECESSION DAYS - The Washington Times, August 12, 1900
- Act of Cession from the State of Virginia - December 3, 1789
- Debate in the U.S. House of Representatives Concerning An Act to Retrocede the County of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia, Friday, May 8, 1846
- RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA – A Speech by R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, before the U.S. House of Representatives, May 8th, 1846
- A Shower of Proclamations: Arlington Heights - The New York Times, May 9, 1861
- Phillips v. Payne, 92 US 130 – Supreme Court - October Term, 1875
- RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA – The New York Times, August 17, 1873
- S280 - A Bill To Repeal an Act Entitled ''An Act to Retrocede the County of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia" - United States Senate, April 23, 1866
- ALEXANDRIA AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA - The Alexandria Gazette, June 9, 1909
- STILL AFTER ALEXANDRIA - The Alexandria Gazette, June 5th, 1909
- A Bill To Extend The Limits of the District of Columbia - The Alexandria Gazette, June 1, 1909
- Anxious To Come Back - The Washington Post, July 24, 1890
- Does Virginia Own Alexandria County? - The Washington Herald, January 18, 1910
- Text of H.R. 259 - An act to retrocede the county of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia