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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
|| 7/3/2010 || 12:37 pm || 4 Comments Rendered || ||

After R. M. T. Hunter’s eloquent speech concerning the Retrocession of Alexandria in the District of Columbia to the State of Virginia, the bill was debated on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Below I have transcribed the entire debate of the day from the Congressional Globe, including the final vote tally. As I noted before, William Winter Payne, the representative from Alabama, was solidly against the bill and eventually took his issue to the Supreme Court of the United States, and while losing for employing the wrong legal strategy, there have been other legal opinions that have questioned the constitutionality of the aforesaid act.



house floor photo 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

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress


So the House resolved itself into Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union, (Mr. DOUGLASS, of Illinois, in the char;) and, on motion of Mr. HUNTER, proceeded to the consideration of the bill to retrocede the county of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia.

The bill was read as follows:

Whereas no more territory ought to be held under the exclusive legislation given to Congress over the district which is the seat of the General Government, than may be necessary and proper for the purposes of such a seat; and whereas experience hath shown that the portion of the District of Columbia ceded to the United States by the State of Virginia has not been, nor is ever likely to be, necessary for that purpose; and whereas the State of Virginia, by an act passed on the third day of February, eighteen hundred and forty-six entitled “An act accepting, by the State of Virginia, the county of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, when the same shall be receded by the Congress of the United States,” hath signified her willingness to take back the said territory ceded as aforesaid: therefore,

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That, with the assent of the people of the county and town of Alexandria, to be ascertained as hereinafter prescribed, all of that portion of the District of Columbia ceded to the United States by the State of Virginia, and all the rights and jurisdiction therewith ceded over the same, be, and the same are hereby, ceded and forever relinquished to the State of Virginia, in full and absolute right and jurisdiction, as well of soil as of persons residing or to reside thereon.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That nothing herein contained shall be construed to vest in the State of Virginia, any right of property in the custom-house and post office of the United States within the town of Alexandria, or in the soil of the territory hereby receded so as to affect the rights of individuals or corporations therein, otherwise than as the same shall or may be transferred by such individuals or corporations to the State of Virginia.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the jurisdiction and laws now existing in the said territory, ceded to the United States by the State of Virginia, as aforesaid, over the persons and property of individuals therein residing, shall not cease or determine until the State of Virginia shall hereafter provide, by law, for the extension of her jurisdiction and judicial system over the said territory hereby receded.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That this act shall not be in force until after the assent of the people of the county and town of Alexandria shall be given to it in the mode hereafter provided. Immediately after the close of the present session of Congress, the President of the United States shall appoint five commissioners, (any three of whom may act,) citizens of the said town or county of Alexandria, and freeholders within the same, who shall be sworn before some justice of the peace in and for the said town or county, to discharge the duties hereby imposed upon them faithfully, impartially, and to the best of their ability. These commissioners, or any three of them, shall proceed within ten days after they are notified of their appointment, to fix upon the time, place, and manner of taking the vote within the town or county of Alexandria, and shall give notice of the same by advertisement in the newspapers of the said town. And on the day and at the place so appointed, every white male citizen of the county and town of Alexandria, of twenty-one years of age, or more, and who shall have been a resident therein for two years or more next preceding the time when he offers to vote, and who shall not be insane or a pauper, shall vote viva voce upon the question of accepting or rejecting the provisions of this act. The said commissioners shall preside when this vote is taken, and decide all questions arising in relation to the right of voting under this act. Within three days after this vote is taken as aforesaid, the said commissioners shall make out three statements of the result of this poll upon oath, and under their seals. Of these, one shall be transmitted to the President of the United States, one to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and one shall be deposited in the clerk’s office of the county court of Alexandria. If a majority of the votes so given shall be cast against accepting the provisions of this act, then it shall be void and of no effect; but if a majority of the said votes should be in favor of accepting the provisions of this act, then this act shall be in full force, and it shall be the duty of the President of the United States to inform the Governor of Virginia that this act is in full force and effect, and to make proclamation of the fact.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That, in such case, the right of property in the half square in Alexandria, on which stands the court-house, bounded by Columbus, Queen, and Princess streets, and the half square on which stands the jail, bounded by Princess, St. Asaph, and Pitt streets, shall be conveyed to the Governor of Virginia and his successors, for the use of the county and corporation of Alexandria forever; and the Solicitor of the Treasury of the United States is hereby authorized and required, in the name and on behalf of the United States, to make all the proper and necessary conveyances for that purpose.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That the United States retain the right of property and jurisdiction over the Long Bridge across the Potomac river, and over so much land on the southern side of the river as may be necessary for the abutment of the said bridge.



Mr. Hunter addressed the committee, (in a speech, of which a full report will be given hereafter in the Appendix.) He explained generally the object of the bill, and urgently advocated its passage. He adverted to the many high considerations of public policy which justified and sanctioned the measure. He examined the constitutional objections which had been urged against it, answering them and refuting them. He spoke of the importance of the retrocession to the people of Alexandria; and depicted, in glowing colors, the blight that had fallen on that city by reason of her dependence on the General Government; her declining commerce; her premature decay; the desolation which had come upon her, not by the scourge of God , but by the hand of man. He believed that if the boon contemplated by this bill were granted, the blessings of the people of Alexandria, and of their posterity, would fall upon Congress. If this opportunity was neglected, Congress would be responsible for whatever evils might result.

The three first section of the bill having been read, and no amendment having been offered–

Mr. CULVER moved to amend the 4th section in the 17th line, by striking out the word “white.”

Mr. C. said he wanted every male citizen should enjoy the right of the elective franchise. He spoke of a great variety of shades of complexion, with so slight distinctions, that it would be difficult, under the bill which conferred this privilege only on white male citizens, to tell who were voters.

He wished the honorable gentleman who reported this bill would state in its preamble the whole truth concerning the causes which had tended to bring it forward, or that the preamble might be stricken out entirely. One reason which operated upon that gentleman might be that under the Constitution and laws, fugitive slaves– fugitive slaves from this District– could not be captured and retained. If so, this would be no very strong reason for voting for this bill.

He argued that Mr. Hunter, by taking the position that in case of the retrocession, Virginia could manumit the slaves in Alexandria, had virtually admitted the power of Congress to manumit them there, and in the whole District. For Congress now exercised exclusive jurisdiction over the District; and if the surrender of her power to the State authorized that State to abolish slavery, certainly Congress itself possessed that power while she retained this exclusive jurisdiction.

If the bill and preamble were so modified as to strike out the word “white” as much as he was opposed to putting back 1,000 or 1,500 slaves under the jurisdiction of Virginia, he should be very much opposed to the bill.

The question being taken, the amendment was rejected.

Mr. MORRIS rose to move an amendment; but, after some conversation, he yielded to

Mr G.W. JONES, who moved an amendment, to strike out from the word “every,” in the 16th line, to “paupers,” in the 20th line, and insert in lieu thereof “every while male citizen of the United States who shall have resided in the said county of Alexandria six months preceding the time when he offers his vote, insane persons and paupers excepted.”

After some conversation, in which Messrs. TIBBATTS, HUNTER, WENTWORTH, and other participated,

The question being taken, the amendment was adopted.

Mr. PAYNE moved to strike out in the 2d line, 4th section, the words “in the county and town of Alexandria,” and insert in lieu thereof the words “the District of Columbia” -(so to require the assent of the citizens of the whole District, instead of Alexandria merely, to the retrocession.)

Mr. P. said he had not anticipated the consideration and action upon this subject at this time, and he was not so well prepared to debate the subject now as he wished to be. But he would not disguise his true feelings in regard to the measure. He was opposed to the passage of this bill, and for reasons which were satisfactory to his own mind, whatever weight they might have with other gentlemen.

With regard to the argument which the gentleman from Virginia [Mr. HUNTER] had made, and most eloquently made too, he had but a word to say– and that was, that he attached some more importance than the gentleman seemed to do to the execution of the trust with which this Government was invested when the seat of Government was located in the District of Columbia. The power was given to Congress to receive by cession from particular States a tract of land not exceeding ten miles square, and there to locate the seat of Government. The Congress fully executed that power, and in his humble opinion, with its execution the whole matter stopped, and the power was exhausted; and more importance he conceived attached to this subject than the gentleman from Virginia thought proper to give it.

Mr. BOYD here addressed an inquiry to Mr. PAYNE, which, form his turning away, was entirely lost to the reporter.

Mr. PAYNE replied, if Providence interposed, and brought around a state of things wholly beyond the control of this Government, he assured the honorable gentleman from Kentucky “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” But if the gentleman himself and his friends voluntarily involved themselves in a difficulty of that sort, Mr. P. hoped they would not call on him to point out the means by which to extricate themselves. He thought the whole error in regard to this case resulted from the fact that the gentleman seemed to consider Congress omnipotent within the District of Columbia; that the clause giving it “exclusive legislation” made it an absolute despotism; that Congress could perform any act within this District it deems proper, independently of the limitations of the Constitution. That was an error. The Constitution gives to Congress “exclusive” power of legislation, but not unlimited power. It cannot within this District take private property except for public use, and on paying just compensation therefor; it cannot abolish the right of habeas corpus, of trial by jury, or do any of those acts prohibited by the Constitution. No; Congress must legislate exclusively within the District of Columbia- no other legislation can be admitted within it- but it must legislate under the provisions of the Constitution. Otherwise all the difficulties which the gentleman from Virginia seemed to anticipate would occur; but confining himself to the limitations of the Constitution, they would be obviated, and the bill under consideration will be excluded. Congress had the right to receive a district and exercise exclusive legislation. There its power stopped. It had no right to transfer.

With reference to the amendment which Mr. P. had offered. The District of Columbia, so far as the Government was concerned, was one. No sections, no divisions were known to the Government of the United States. They were politically one people; united in one political association; bound to submit to one authority; and their destinies, in fact, linked together in one common bond. It seemed to him, therefore, that whenever an attempt was made to alienate a part of that community, assent of the whole, at least, was necessary. If he was disposed to go into the question generally, he would deny the power of a Government to transfer its territory, and of this Government particularly; and the books would bear him out in the fact that no territory could be transferred, unless such transfer was necessary in order to preserve the whole. But no such necessity existed. This proposition of transfer was not founded on necessity, but on the will of a few individuals living in one part of the District. Now, before this retrocession was made, the question should be submitted to the whole people of the District of Columbia; and in case it was sanctioned by them, the case would at least be presented in a more favorable light than it is at present.

Another objection he had to the bill was, that we had paid a very large amount for that portion of the District of Columbia south of the Potomac river. Was it contemplated to refund this money? Did the Virginia Legislature, in its zeal to get back a portion of this District, think proper to provide for refunding that money- not less, he thought, than a million dollars? No; they ask you to give back Alexandria; the soil, too- a thing which this Government never had, but the jurisdiction only. But if they adopted a proviso to this bill declaring that we will not pay the debt of the corporation of Alexandria, amounting to somewhere in the neighborhood of one million dollars, it would very much change the state of vote when taken; and then the people of Alexandria will reject this proposition in this bill.

The true object of the bill was to saddle on the Government this debt; not only to give up every dollar that has been paid, but to bring forward an additional claim against the Government, amounting to a million dollars; for gentlemen had told him that unless this debt was paid by the Government, they preferred to remain as they are. He insisted, if this bill was to pass, it should be with the declaration that this Government was not going to pay that debt, so as to exclude the millions of petitions which, session after session would be presented to refund this debt.

There was another objection to this bill which did not come so immediately before this House; but, as it was not a party objection, he deemed proper to state it. They were aware that in Virginia there had been a conflict going on, he might say, almost from the beginning of that Government down to the present day, on the subject of the right of suffrage. This was not a party question, but an eastern and western question in Virginia; and that State was now on the very point of calling a convention, the object of which was to extend the right of suffrage and equalize the right of representation in the counties. As things now stand, eastern Virginia controls the political power of that State, with a population vastly inferior to western Virginia. This bill proposes to add 2,500 or 3,000 voters to the eastern side of Virginia, the influence of all whom would be thrown against western Virginia, whose object is to extend the right of suffrage, and have a convention, as she ought to have. Having been born and reared in that State, Mr. P. might be permitted to say he felt an interest in her institutions and her interests, and he hoped the day would yet come when Virginia, noble as she is in many respects, may yet take stand side by side with the enlightened States of the Union which have discarded all those old distinctions, and who now permit the right of suffrage to rest upon the freedom of the citizen, and not on the property he holds in his possession.

Mr. SEDDON interposed, and (Mr. P. yielding) was understood to call attention to the fact that the Virginia Legislature, by a unanimous vote, representing of course the eastern as well as the western portion of the State, had agreed to this retrocession of Alexandria. There was no objection, therefore, on the part of western Virginia to this measure.

Mr. JOHNSON, of Virginia, rose and appealed to the gentleman to allow a further explanation.

Mr. PAYNE. Certainly, sir. I wish to hear from western Virginia.

Mr. JOHNSON said his colleague [Mr. SEDDON] referred to the question of convention; he was in error. There was division of sentiment in Virginia; and western Virginia required a convention assembled on a basis of different from that which the eastern part was willing to accord to them, and they never would consent to meet their eastern brethren on that subject until they could meet them on the broad principles of equal rights.

Mr. PAYNE (resuming) said he was aware of the interest felt on this great question of a convention in the western part of Virginia. It was not a party question as between Whigs and Democrats, but was advocated by the friends of freedom, whether found marching under the Whig or the Democratic banners. On the great question of the right of suffrage, where party divisions had been laid aside to promote the great principles of liberty and the right of suffrage– in such conflict, what he desired was, that the Congress of the United States shall not throw its weight and influence against those who were battling for the right of suffrage.

Mr. J. McDOWELL (Mr. P. yielding the floor) said he should like to be informed by the gentleman- [the remainder of the sentence was lost to the reporter.] He should like to know, above all, whether the gentleman from Alabama does not admit, as a fundamental article of his own creed, that we are entitled to self-government. And furthermore, whether, as a special and particular article of his party creed, he does not go for the largest liberty of–

Mr. PAYNE. I must ask the gentleman to reduce his question to writing.

I should like to know, (continued Mr. McDOWELL,) on what general or particular doctrine it is that the gentleman desires the power of Congress to interfere with the local questions of Virginia. Furthermore–

Mr. PAYNE. (interposing) insisted on his right to the floor.

Mr. McDOWELL, (yielding.) Well, they are hard questions, and difficult for the gentleman to answer.

Mr. PAYNE. If the honorable gentleman over the way will submit his questions in writing, it will afford me much pleasure to answer them.

Mr. McDOWELL. I regret that the gentleman’s memory is so treacherous.

Mr. PAYNE continued. But inasmuch as they are numerous, I will not undertake to answer them all. Mr. P. had never sought to interfere, in the slightest degree, with the internal policy of Virginia. What he proposed was, to leave Virginia to fight her own battles; but he protested against this Government adding three or four thousand votes to eastern Virginia, which would go to aid in frustrating western Virginia in her efforts to extend the right of suffrage and the basis of political freedom. He presumed, as far as this Government was concerned, he had the right to remonstrate against this Government taking a side in this contest, and that against the extension of rights. He would say to the Government, in reference to this subject, “Hand off, and let not the Congress of the United States lend its power against a majority, now struggling for a great principle of liberty against the dominant power of the minority.” And he asked the gentleman if this could be called an interference with the internal concerns of Virginia? It was a refusal to interfere on either side.

He considered this the only important question the gentleman form Virginia had put to him; and he had but little more to add. He had discharged his duty on this floor- a duty which led him against his own inclinations; and he confessed, when he heard the honorable gentleman from Virginia [Mr. HUNTER] make his address on this floor, every feeling of his heart induced him to go with him; but in a great question of this kind, where fundamental right is concerned, and where the attempt is made by the action of this Government to retard the progress of freedom, he could occupy no other position than that of opposition to it. The accomplishment of this great measure- the extension of the right of suffrage- which was raised at the present time in Virginia, would be defeated or retarded for more than ten years by the passage of this bill. He trusted that the Congress of the United States would not give its sanction, at least until it had received a more complete investigation.

Mr. BAYLY said he had not designed to take any part in this discussion, nor should he now have risen to do so, were it not for the very extraordinary speech which they had just heard from the member from Alabama. This was now the third session in which he had been a member of this House. During that time, he had heard many speeches at which he was amazed; but among them all he had never heard one at which he was so profoundly astonished as that which they had just heard delivered from the gentleman from Alabama. If there was a member on this floor who had uniformly shown a greater degree of indignation- who had uniformly more constantly lashed himself into excitement, when members from other States had undertaken to interfere with the domestic concerns of the State which he has the honor in part to represent- if there was one who had signalized himself on such occasions, it was the gentleman from Alabama. And yet he undertook to come before the House of Representatives, to drag before it the domestic policy, the politics of our State, and Mr. B. took leave to say, utterly to misrepresent the feelings and opinions of that section in which he resided.

Mr. PAYNE, (in his seat.) I do not doubt that, sir. I do not doubt that.

Mr. BAYLY (continuing.) Who gave the gentleman from Alabama a commission to come here and invoke the Congress of the United States to take part in he local politics of Virginia? Where did the gentleman find his commission to come and invoke Congress to take part with the western portion of Virginia (as he is pleased to say) against the eastern? I deny that he has any such authority. Without meaning any personal offence to the gentleman, for whom I have no other than kind feelings, I say it is a most impertinent interference- an interference for which we do not thank him- an interference which my distinguished friend [Mr. JOHNSON] from the western portion of Virginia, with his statesmanlike devotion to that section, with an ability which I undertake to say that gentleman can never equal, does not thank him. That gentleman, here speaking for the western portion of Virginia, has repudiated the kindness of the gentleman from Alabama as emphatically as I repudiate his description of the feelings that actuate the eastern portion.

That gentleman says a contest is going on in Virginia between those in favor of the extension of the right of suffrage and those opposed to it, and has undertaken to say that these sets of opinions are geographically divided. I deny that fact. In eastern Virginia there are as zealous, and I beg leave to say, as able advocates of the extension of the right of suffrage as are to be found in the Commonwealth. Whence does the gentleman get his information? I do not come here to speak of my own opinions. This House has nothing to do with them. It is not the proper occasion for me to undertake to express these opinions, and still less to sustain them. I undertake to say, however, that there may be no mistake about it, that there is no more zealous advocate of the right of suffrage than I am.

But not one of the least astonishing portions of the gentleman’s speech was, that, whereas he was so anxious to extend the right of suffrage to all the people of Virginia, he is taking the course, and the only course, that can prevent the extension of that right to the two thousand and more voters of the city and county of Alexandria. If the gentleman would display his zeal for the right of suffrage, let him go to extend it to the citizens of Alexandria, to whom, under this bill, as wide an extension of the right of suffrage was made as anybody can ask for. That bill refers the question to all the male white inhabitants, without any exception, but paupers, lunatics, and felons. And I undertake to say, without fear of contradiction, that if this retrocession take place, every voter in the portion ceded of this District will be the ally of those who go for the extension of the right of suffrage.

But the gentleman undertook further to say, that, on the call of a convention, there was a geographical division. Mr. B. denied that fact. There was no such division. The county (Accomac) in which he lived voted at the last session of the Legislature of Virginia for a call for a convention. From time immemorial almost- for he supposed twenty or thirty years- had that old and venerated county uniformly voted in the same way. And yet the gentleman from Alabama, with these facts staring him in the face, undertook to tell this House that eastern Virginia is against a call for a convention to correct the errors in her constitution. The gentleman was mistaken; before he came here to talk about our local politics he had better learn something of them; and if well informed on the subject, he utterly denied the right of the gentleman to enter into it at all.

He had not risen to enter into the merits of the discussion. He had heard no answer yet to the argument of his colleague, the chairman of the Committee for the District of Columbia, [Mr. HUNTER.] Till that argument was answered, it seemed to him that they were not called upon to argue the question further.

But Mr. B. begged leave to state a fact about which, in the heat of the debate, there seemed to have been some misunderstanding. My friend [Mr. JOHNSON] denied the assertion of my friend from Richmond, [Mr. SEDDON,] that the Legislature of Virginia was unanimous on the subject of retrocession. My colleague did not mean to deny that fact, as I am informed.

Mr. JOHNSON (Mr. B. yielding) said it was proper to state that, owing to the difficulty of hearing in the Hall, he understood his colleague, [Mr. SEDDON,] when he said Virginia was unanimous on the subject, to allude to the subject of a convention. He learned, however, that in his remarks, he [Mr. S.] had reference to the vote on the retrocession of Alexandria. On that I was not informed, and when I said the vote had not been unanimous, my remark alluded to the question of convention.

Mr. BAYLY (resuming) said he would not go into the discussion with his colleague in reference to Virginia politics; but for the information of the gentleman from Alabama, who seems to take so much interest in the affairs of Virginia, it was a very singular fact, that in the late convention of Virginia, which formed our present constitution, there was but one solitary delegation which presented throughout an undivided front in favor of the West, and that delegation was from this very district- this very Loudoun and Fairfax district.

Mr. B argued that this small accession of population- the population of Alexandria town and county, all told, being but ten thousand, and of them only six hundred voters, (which was a large proportion for a southern population)- would be of no account in a contest of eastern and western Virginia, even if they all cast their votes in that way, which was not probable. The addition of these votes to those of a State numbering one and a half millions of inhabitants, would be a mere bagatelle, the merest trifle in the world in a political point of view.

In concluding, Mr. B. begged the House, (and he thought in asking this he was not asking what was not reasonable) in deciding this question to decide it on its own merits, with reference solely to national considerations, and without any sort of reference to the local influences or interests of Virginia.

Mr. McCLERNAND obtained the floor.

Mr. PAYNE appealed to him to yield, to allow an explanation.

Mr SIMS also wished the floor, in order to submit a motion, inasmuch as this bill was made the special order for one day, that the committee rise with the view of adopting a resolution fixing an hour to-day for terminating the debate.

Mr. McCLERNAND, stating that he would submit that motion if such seemed to be the sense of the committee, yielded to-

Mr. PAYNE, who said he had risen and submitted, when upon the floor before, a few observations, without having investigated the subject, and had spoken from his general information respecting it. The gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. BAYLY,] had thought proper to characterize his remarks as impudent.

Mr. BAYLY, (in his seat.) I said no such thing.

Mr. PAYNE, (continuing.) As impertinent, then! “Impertinent” to interfere in the legislation of this Congress! “Impertinent” to interfere with anything appertaining to Virginia! And are remarks which I make upon a subject thus coming directly before this Congress, to be characterized by the gentleman from Virginia as “impertinent?” I scorn that remark; and I hurl it back in the teeth of the source from which it originated. “Impertinent” to interfere in the follies of Virginia! Are they to sacred to be touched, because her citizens have grown old in them? Why, if twice as old, or if they had existed from the beginning of time, I would attack them, fearless of the imputations thrown upon me, or of the consequences which may flow from it.

I am asked where I got my commission to interfere in Virginia politics. My “commission!” That is a quotation from the other wing of the Capitol. I hold it by the will of seventy thousand freemen; and by the God who made me I will sustain it. There is where I got my commission, sir.

But, sir, (said Mr. P.,) I have not interfered in Virginia politics; I have not sought to interfere in Virginia politics; I have said nothing in regard to Virginia politics, or of the right of Virginia to govern herself. I said that a struggle was going on in Virginia between the eastern and western part to call a convention, on object of which was to extend the right of suffrage. The gentleman denies it. Now I appeal to the gentleman from the western part of Virginia whether that contest is not going on, and has been for years.

Mr. BAYLY. I denied no such thing.

Mr. PAYNE. I appeal to the House whether the gentleman did not say there was a contest going on about a call for a convention. This is what he did say; but the gentleman now has the right to take other ground if he chooses.

Mr. BAYLY. I denied that it was purely a sectional contest; and I now deny it.

Mr. PAYNE. The gentleman now puts it on the ground of sectionality; and I ask the gentleman from the western part of Virginia whether, whenever a convention has been defeated, it has not been defeated by eastern Virginia, and desired by western Virginia?

Mr. JOSEPH JOHNSON said it was with great reluctance that he interfered again in this contest between the gentleman. I can repeat what I said before, that we of the West are exceedingly anxious to assemble a convention to alter the fundamental laws of the State of Virginia; that there is but one opinion in that section of the State; that the whole western part of the State are looking anxiously to the time when we should be able to assemble a convention to reform the constitution of the State. The east, we understand there, are opposed to a convention.

Mr. PAYNE (interposing.) So do I.

At least so far as regards the basis of representation, (continued Mr. J.,) the eastern portion of the State have proposed to assemble a convention, but upon terms which we of the west do not think proper to accept. That is what I understand to be the true state of feeling.

Mr. PAYNE. That is precisely what I stated.

Mr. HOPKINS (Mr. P. yielding the floor) said the extension of the right of suffrage is one of the matters which has entered into the consideration of this question of a convention. But instead of being the question, as characterized by the gentleman from Alabama, [Mr. PAYNE,] which more than any other engaged the public mind, there has perhaps been a louder clamor for restricting, rather than extending the right of suffrage- so as to prevent the railroad or floating vote, which gives to the cities an undue influence over the surrounding counties.

Mr. PAYNE, (resuming) I said it was one of the questions, and an important question, as the right of suffrage is and always must be. I think I am sustained most signally in the position I took by the gentlemen from Virginia [Mr. JOHNSON and Mr. HOPKINS,] the gentleman from Accomac to the contrary notwithstanding.

The gentleman from Virginia (from the Accomac district) had told him he seemed to feel a peculiar interest in Virginia- and in western Virginia. And why should he not? Was it not natural? There his eyes had first opened upon the light of day; there it was that he had grown to manhood; there he had quenched his thirst from the rivulet bursting from the face of her hills; there he had laid the foundation of whatever knowledge of politics, or otherwise, that he might possess. It was true, he had spent a considerable portion of his life west of the Alleghanies; but he still had a deep and sincere interest in seeing his old State take her stand upon correct principles, in a great question of civil liberty.

But his object was not to interfere with the domestic affairs of Virginia, but to warn Congress against taking a part in that contest, and more especially on the wrong side, seeking to trample down the will of a minority by what is deemed a majority. He apprehended, hereafter, it would be wholly out of order to allude to Virginia under any circumstances; that the Virginia delegation would rise up and say, Do not interfere with us. There was a firmness of attachment to Virginia errors, on the part of her Representatives, which sickened him, (Mr. P.,) and must sicken others. It is high time that they should be exposed and corrected; and gentleman should not complain of interference, if, in this matter, he held the mirror up, that they might “see themselves as others see them.”

But, said the gentleman, western Virginia would repudiate his (Mr. P.’s) friendship. He did not feat that it would be repudiated by Democrats in any quarter. A life of twenty years’ consistent devotion to the Democratic principles insured for him favor, or at least a fair consideration, from Democrats. Had he been changing with the changes of power- a Whig to-day and a Democrat to-morrow- a mere weathercock, to indicate the variations of the popular will- he might not be able to flatter himself with this indulgence from the Democratic party.

Mr. McCLERNAND resumed the floor; but yielded, at request, to

Mr. BAYLY, who wished to make one remark, and but one, with reference to himself personally. The gentleman from Alabama, (he said,) with some violence of gesture, not unusual to him, had seemed to take offence when he (Mr. B.) had said that his (Mr. P.’s) interference on this floor with the domestic concerns of Virginia was impertinent, and he said he threw back the imputation in my teeth. I will inform the gentleman (said Mr. B.)- it is not necessary for me to inform this House- that I shall not notice the throwing back an imputation which I have before applied.

Mr. PAYNE, (in his seat.) I am very well satisfied. It is nothing I have to complain of.

Mr. McCLERNAND now resumed the floor, and proceeded.

He said he had risen to speak to the question of power involved, and not to take a part in the controversy- somewhat personal- which had occured. He had been anxious to vote for the bill, not only from a desire to gratify the wishes of the people immediately concerned, but also because his inclinations had been wrought upon by the eloquent and persuasive remarks which had fallen from the gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. HUNTER.] But upon investigation, an insuperable objection presented itself. The gentleman from Kentucky [Mr. BOYD] had asked the gentleman from Alabama [Mr. PAYNE] whether, if the District of Columbia had been sunk by an earthquake, it would not be competent for Congress to relocate the seat of Government. Mr. McC. answered, Unquestionably; first, from the necessity of the case, necessity rising above law; secondly, because the question of relocation was an entirely different question from that of the power of Congress to alienate an integral portion of the territory and the people of the District. Congress had full power to change the location of the seat of Government; and in that case, by operation of law, the District, including territory and people, would revert to the States ceding it.

The Constitution was quite clear upon the main point at issue. It declares that 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 Government,” &c..

The words are, “in all cases.” What cases? Cases in which the States themselves could not “exercise legislation?” No; certainly not. In all those cases in which it would have been competent for the States to have legislated? No; perhaps not even in these. But in all cases necessary and proper to the ends of a seat of Government, and to the enforcement of a civil police, or civil government; and in this lies the construction which secures the property of the people of the District.

Again: conceding, for the sake of argument, that the jurisdiction of the Government, under the clause quoted, is equal to what was the jurisdiction of the States of Virginia and Maryland before the cession, yet the Government cannot rightfully alienate any portion of her territory, or people the District, without their consent, or at least the consent of a majority. On this point Vattel says:

“Government has no right to traffic with their (its members) rank and liberty. * * * * They are united to the society to be its members. They acknowledge the authority of the States to promote in concert their common welfare and safety; and not to be at its disposal like a farm or a heard of cattle.”

Locke, in his Treatise on Civil Government, says:

“If the consent of the majority shall not in reason be received as the act of the whole, and include every individual, nothing but the consent of every individual can make anything to be the act of the whole.”

Judge Story, in his Commentaries upon the Constitution, says:

“No right exists, or is supposed to exist, on the part of any town or county, or any organized body within the State, short of the whole people of the State, to alter, suspend, resist, or disown the operations of the Constitution, or to withdraw themselves from its jurisdiction.”

Now, if the people of the District form one body politic, if they are a unit for civil purposes, it is not competent for a minority to withdraw themselves from the common jurisdiction of all; nor can anything less than the consent of a majority confer the power upon Congress, if it can take it all, to alienate any portion of them.

The bill under consideration proceeds upon the petition of the people of the county of Alexandria, to transfer their county and their jurisdiction to the State of Virginia; and yet the people of that county constitute but a small minority of the people of the whole District.

A case might be put, which would show the practical injustice of the principle declared in the bill. If the District, acting as a corporation under the law of Congress, had contracted a debt of several million of dollars, would it not be grossly unjust to the majority to allow the minority, upon their application, to escape a just share of the burden, by transferring themselves to another jurisdiction?

Mr. A. D. SIMS moved that the committee rise, remarking that his object was not to close the debate.

Mr. JAS. McDOWELL said the object would be better accomplished by a discussion at large. Our hands were now in the work, and our hearts were for it. It would be as well to carry it through to-day. He hoped the gentleman from South Carolina would withdraw his motion. He did not ask it as any personal favor, for he had not in view any intention of addressing the committee.

Mr. SIMS withdrew the motion.

Mr. JAMES McDOWELL then said, that without going into the question, he felt himself constrained, by a sense of duty, to make some remarks in regard to what had fallen from the gentleman from Alabama, [Mr. PAYNE.] He spoke of the devotion of his people to their own institutions and recollections, and deprecated the discussion which had arisen upon the internal concerns of Virginia, as unnecessary and out of place, and having no bearing on the question. He did not wonder that her institutions were open to the animadversion of Congress. While she gloried in the success and renown of those of her sons, who, like the gentleman from Alabama, [Mr. PAYNE,] had left her, she did not court their assistance or need their counsels. No one here felt a higher obligation resting upon him to support the principles of unrestricted suffrage than himself. He represented a constituency that was more undividedly attached to it than any other in his State- a district which had been gloriously distinguished as the Tenth LEgion of Democracy. His own convictions on this subject corresponded with those of the seventy thousand people whom he represented; but the subject had nothing to do with the discussion of this question, though it had been invoked as a reason against a retrocession of Alexandria. Those who advanced such an argument were alien to the habits and feelings of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She wanted justice to all; and her motto was, “Fiat justitia, ruat caelum.”

Mr. McD. then adverted, in an eloquent strain, to the situation of Alexandria, and appealed in a forcible manner to the House to disenthral her from her bonds.

[A report of Mr. McDOWELL's remarks is necessarily deferred.]

The question was then taken on the amendment offered by Mr. PAYNE, and it was rejected.

Mr. PAYNE said he was certain that the House did not understand the question. The object of the amendment was to subject the question of retrocession to the whole people of the District of Columbia, and not a portion of the people.

The question was again put on the amendment, and it was again rejected.

Mr. RATHBUN moved to strike out the 4th section. There was no difference of opinion among the people of Alexandria, as he understood, as to the policy of recession, and there was, therefore, no necessity for the expense and mockery of this section.

Mr. HUNTER remarked that the people of Alexandria were not unanimous on the subject, though there was a large majority in favor of the measure.

The question was taken on Mr. RATHBUN’s amendment, and it was negatived.

Mr. MORRIS moved to amend the 6th section, so as to strike out the word “return” and insert the word “cede” and to strike out “southern,” and insert “northern.”

Some conversation on this point arose between Mr. THURMAN, Mr. MORRIS, and Mr. GRAHAM, when the amendment was rejected.

Mr. HUNGERFORD moved to strike out the 6th section.

Mr. E. B. HOLMES said that if we ceded the territory, it was improper to reserve any part of the property.

Mr. BRINKERHOFF was in favor of equalizing the expense of keeping the bridge in repair between the two Governments.

The question was taken on the amendment, and it was agreed to- 76 to 50.

So the sixth section was stricken out.

Mr. PAYNE moved to add a new section to the bill, providing that in no event shall Congress hereafter assume to pay the debts of the corporation of Alexandria.

This was agreed to.

On motion of Mr. HOGE, the committee rose and reported the bill and amendments to the House.

Mr. G.W. Jones demanded the previous question; which was seconded.

And the main question (being first on concurring with the committee in its amendments, and then on ordering the bill to a third reading) was ordered to be now taken.

All amendments were concurred in.

And the bill was ordered to a third reading now.

And having been read a third time by its title-

And the question being, “Shall this bill pass?”-

Mr. G.W. Jones demanded the previous question.

There was a second; and the main question was ordered to be now taken.

Mr. DROMGOOLE asked the yeas and nays on the main question; which were ordered, and, being taken, resulted as follows:

YEAS- Messrs. Stephen Adams, Atkinson, Baker, Barringer, Bayly, Bedinger, James A. Black, Bowlin, Boyd, William G. Brown, Burt, John H. Campbell, Augustus A. Chapman, R. Chapman, Chase, Cobb, Cocke, Collin, Crozier, Cullom, Darragh, Dobbin, Douglass, Dunlap, Edsall, Edwin H. Ewing, Ficklin, Foot, Gentry, Gordon, Graham, Grover, Haralson, Herrick, Hilliard, Hoge, Elias B. Holmes, Hopkins, John W. Houston, Edmund W. Hubard, Hungerford, Hunter, Joseph R. Ingersoll, Andrew Johnson, George W. Jones, Seaborn Jones, Daniel P. King, La Sere, Lewis, Levin, Ligon, McClelland, McConnell, James McDowell, McGaughey, McHenry, Marsh, Miller, Morse, Moseley, Norris, Owen, Pendleton, Pollock, Ramsey, Rathbun, Reid, Rhett, Ritter, John A. Rockwell, Root, Sawtelle, Truman Smith, Caleb B. Smith, Stanton, Stephens, Stewart, St. John, Strong, Sykes, Thibodeaux, Jacob Thompson, Toombs, Towns, Trumbo, Vinton, Winthrop, Woodruff, Woodward, Yancey, and Yell — 96

NAYS- Messrs. Abbott, John Quincy Adams, Anderson, Arnold, Bell, Benton, Biggs, James Black, Blanchard, Brinkerhoff, Brodhead, Wm. W. Campbell, Carroll, Catheart, John G. Chapman, Clarke, Cranston, Culver, Daniel, Garrett Davis, Jefferson Davis, Delano, De Mott, Dillingham, Dromgoole, Erdman, John H. Ewing, Fries, Garvin, Goodyear, Hamlin, Harper, Henley, Hough, Samuel D. Hubbard, Hudson, James B. Hunt, Charles J. Ingersoll, Joseph Johnson, Kennedy, Preston King, Leib, Long, Lumpkin, McClean, McClernand, Mellvaine, McKay, John P. Martin, Barkley Martin, Morris, Moulton, Niven, Payne, Perrill, Phelps, Price, Roberts, Alexander D. Sims, Starkweather, Thurman, Tibbatts, Tilden, Vance, and Young – 65

So the bill was passed.

And the House (under the operation of the previous question) rejected a motion to reconsider the vote.

Mr. MORRIS asked leave to make a report.

Objections were made.

And the House adjourned.


SOURCE: Congressional Globe, 29th Congress, 1st Session, May 8th, 1846, p.778-781


Related Retrocession of Alexandria Entries:



Post Title: 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
Post Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in: Alexandria, DC, DC History, General, history, Legislation, Location, Retrocession, Suffrage, Virginia
Last edited by Nikolas Schiller on 7/14/2010 at 10:35 pm



  1. [...] In this act, passed December 3rd, 1789, the State of Virginia “forever ceded and relinquished to the Congress and Government of the United States,” a tract of land no larger than 10 miles square to be used for the seat of government of the United States. However, 57 years after the passage of this act, the Legislature of State of Virginia would pass a subsequent act requesting the land back with the assent of Congress and the people of Alexandria. [...]

    Pingback by Act of Cession from the State of Virginia – December 3, 1789 // The Daily Render by Nikolas R. Schiller — 7/6/2010 @ 6:41 pm

  2. [...] December, 1800. The land ceded by the State of Virginia comprised the county of Alexandria and was retroceded to that State by an Act of Congress of July 9, 1846. (9 Stats. 35, 1000) The political organization of the District of Columbia embraces the City of [...]

    Pingback by THE STATE OF COLUMBIA by Frank Sprigg Perry – Georgetown Law Journal, Vol 9, No. 3, April, 1921, p. 13-27 // The Daily Render by Nikolas R. Schiller — 7/15/2010 @ 2:47 pm

  3. [...] found that Col. Winter Payne, of Fauquier, then a member of Congress from South Carolina Alabama, had opposed it as unconstitutional, and many Democratic statesmen, but no Whigs. This newspaper article was transcribed from a scan [...]

    Pingback by RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA – The New York Times, August 17, 1873 // The Daily Render by Nikolas R. Schiller — 8/23/2010 @ 7:11 pm

  4. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA – A Speech by R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia, before the U.S. House of Representatives, May 8th, 1846 // The Daily Render by Nikolas R. Schiller — 9/16/2010 @ 9:57 am

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