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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
|| 9/29/2010 || 3:49 pm || + Render A Comment || ||

Thus far I have republished R. M. T. Hunter’s speech and the House of Representatives subsequent debate on the proposed retrocession of Alexandria County. Almost two months later, on July 2nd, 1846, the United States Senate took up the debate. Unlike the previous two entries which came from the Congressional Globe, this transcription comes from the Abridgment of the Debates of Congress. I’m curious as to how much debate was shorted for the abridgment.


daniel webster senate 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

Print from the Library of Congress


Retrocession of Alexandria.

On motion of Mr. ARCHER, the Senate proceeded to the consideration of the bill for the retrocession of the city and county of Alexandria to the State of Virginia.

Mr. ARCHER observed that he was willing that the vote should be taken upon the bill without discussion, provided the opponents of the bill offered no remarks upon it which would force them into a discussion.

Mr. BENTON said this was a case in which he desired to vote with a majority of the inhabitants of that portion of the District which it was proposed to surrender to the State of Virginia; but he did not at present know what the wishes of that majority were.

Mr. ARCHER observed, that one of the clauses of the bill now before the Senate provided that the bill should not take effect until the wishes of the inhabitants were ascertained by a vote, to be taken in the manner provided for in another clause of the bill, to wit: the vote of the white inhabitants of six months’ residence.

Mr. HAYWOOD said the bill had been referred to the committee of which he had the honor to be chairman, and it was perhaps proper, therefore, though he had no intention of making a speech upon the subject, that he should draw the attention of the Senate to the fact that the bill provides for taking the sense of the people of the county and city of Alexandria before the bill should go into effect. The committee, however, thought it worthy of consideration, whether it was not the desire of change which prompted the introduction of this innovation, rather than the necessity for the innovation. If there was any particular evil to be remedied by diminishing the extent of the ten miles square, the committee had not been apprised of it; if any particular good to be obtained, they were not apprised. When the retrocession was first suggested to the consideration of the Senate, doubts were entertained by many how far it was competent for Congress to recede what the constitution had for a particular purpose authorized them to accept. The States of Maryland and Virginia had ceded this territory to Congress, to be taken under its exclusive jurisdiction for the seat of Government; and Congress, in the execution of that intention, solemnly declared by enactment its acceptance of the grant, and that this District should be perpetually the seat of Government. Individual citizens of the District, a minority, if they chose to assume that they were so, had purchased property and become residents of the county under this pledge; and unless there was some evil to be remedied, or decided advantage to be gained by the change, which would compensate those citizens, where was the propriety of violating that pledge? He had been unable to see any necessity for it. It was equally the duty of the Government to protect minorities and majorities; and a majority could have no absolute right or authority to compel retrocession if additional burdens were to be imposed as a consequence upon the minority. He spoke not in reference to any constitutional objection, but merely in reference to the act of Congress constituting this District the perpetual seat of the Federal Government.

There was another difficulty which the committee found somewhat embarrassing, and, it was, whether the State of Virginia or of Maryland owned the Potomac River at the time of the cession. If the county of Alexandria were ceded to Virginia, it might possibly be the means of reviving the contest, and making it a contest between Virginia and the District. This would be a matter of very considerable importance to the city of Georgetown. If the bill was to be passed, he thought it ought at least to be amended so as to make it more definite, and that the river should be kept within the United States jurisdiction. It might be of importance that the jurisdiction of the United States should not be limited at all. He believed the Senator from Massachusetts had expressed a desire to offer some remarks upon this question. He did not perceive that Senator now in his seat; for his own part, he would be perfectly willing that the vote should be taken without discussion.

Mr. MILLER said he was inclined to think that the subject was of more importance than he had at first view supposed. His first impressions were in favor of the bill, for he supposed that the whole matter depended very much, upon the wishes of the people of Alexandria and Virginia. But, upon an examination of the subject, he found himself in great doubt as to whether Congress had the power to pass such an act; and, even if they had the power, he was perfectly convinced that it would not be good policy to do it.

Mr. M. then went into an argument upon the subject of the power of Congress in this matter, contending that if Congress had the power to cede away any part of the District, they had the power to cede the whole, and thereby entirely defeat the intention of the constitutional provision in regard to the seat of Government. Instead of doing this, he hoped that Congress would, by a wise and liberal policy, make it the interest of the residents of all parts of the District to continue within the same jurisdiction.

Mr. PENNYBACKER replied to the arguments of the Senator from New Jersey, and maintained that Congress possessed the power to cede a portion of the District to the State of Virginia. He contended further that the portion proposed to be ceded did not, in contemplation of the first law that was passed on the subject, constitute a portion of the ten miles square at all.

Mr. JOHNSON, of Maryland, moved that the Senate adjourn; which was disagreed to—ayes 16, noes 18.

On motion of Mr. BENTON, the Senate, not having come to any vote upon the bill, at about half-past three o’clock proceeded to the consideration of Executive business, and, after some time spent therein, the doors were reopened, and the Senate adjourned.


Thursday, July 2.
Retrocession of Alexandria.

Mr. ARCHER moved that the prior orders of the day be postponed, and that the Senate resume the consideration of the bill for the retrocession of the town and county of Alexandria to the State of Virginia; which motion was agreed to.

The bill was then considered as in Committee of the Whole, when

Mr. R. JOHNSON rose and stated that, as a member of the Committee of tho District of Columbia, and as having voted in committee in favor of this bill, he desired to state the grounds on which he had formed his opinion. He went into a review of the constitutional provision relative to the establishment of a seat of Government, and to the proceedings of Congress with regard to its location within this District, and insisted that there was nothing in either to prohibit a retrocession of tho ten miles square to the States from which it was taken, or any portion thereof. He supposed that an absolute necessity might arise for the removal of the seat of Government, from the possession of this District by an enemy. Could not Congress fix on another seat for its deliberations? and, in that case, could it not cede this District back to the States to which it originally belonged? He stated that Alexandria complained of having been neglected by Congress, and he presumed she had good reason for this complaint; for it was only reasonable that Congress should be more favorable to the portion of the District which was more immediately the seat and scene of its labors.

Mr. MILLER briefly replied, maintaining that Congress had no power to receive a cession of the soil and sovereignty, except for a specified object; and that the object of this cession being the establishment of the seat of Government, it could not be retroceded without the abandonment of that object. He thought a great number of the citizens of the county, being out of the city of Alexandria, were opposed to retrocession.

Mr. HANNEGAN made a few remarks in favor of the bill. The citizens desired to be restored to their original rights, and we have no right to refuse them.

Mr. CALHOUN then rose, and said that he had not been able to discover any valid reason why the retrocession should not be made. The first and great point for consideration was, whether, by this retrocession, the object of the cession would be impaired? He could not see how any evil result could possibly follow. It was a detached portion of the District, lying on the other side of the river, and in no way calculated to facilitate the legislation of the General Government. Nor did he see how any acquired rights could be injured. He did not see how the retrocession could injuriously affect the county of Washington, as he believed it was called, or Georgetown. The next question then was, Was there any serious constitutional objection? According to his judgment there could not be any such, unless there was somewhere in the constitution a prohibitory clause. It was in the power of the Government to remove its seat if it thought proper, unless there was some express provision to the contrary. Now, he saw no such provision in the constitution. It belonged to gentlemen to prove that the retrocession would be unconstitutional. If they had a right— which he held to be incontestable— to remove the seat of Government, the right of parting with any portion of it was apparent. Nor was there, in his opinion, any violation of a pledge on the part of Congress as argued by the Senator from North Carolina, (Mr. HAYWOOD.) The act of Congress, it was true, established this as the permanent seat of Government; but they all knew that an act of Congress possessed no perpetuity of obligation. It was a simple resolution of the body, and could be at any time repealed. Although be thought that Congress had the power to remove the seat of Government, yet he was not to be understood as supposing that it would ever be expedient or wise to remove it. He could not concur in the views presented by Mr. Madison on the subject of the location of the seat of Government, and read yesterday by the Senator from Virginia, (Mr. PENNYBACKER) Mr. Madison made an elaborate argument in favor of the position that the seat of Government ought to be in the centre. As far as the seats of government of the States were concerned, that might be a just argument; but the history of the world would show that the seats of national government never were, or scarcely ever were, situated in the centre, and there was reason for that general arrangement. They were always situated on the frontier the most exposed. Where was London, the seat of the British Government? On the south-east frontier of the kingdom, looking towards the continent of Europe. That of France, Paris, was in the most exposed position. So with regard to the seat of Government in Russia, and so, indeed, with regard to the capitals of all the chief nations of the world. In the nature of things it must be so. Now, if that was true in the general, it was pre-eminently true of this Confederacy; for the Federal Government looked almost exclusively to their foreign relations. And here it had been wisely located; and here, in his opinion, it would continue, so long as the institutions of the Republic endured. If the seat of Government was ever changed, it would be in consequence of some other cause than the retrocession of Alexandria, which could not possibly in any way affect that matter. There might be a change from disruption, or in consequence of some strong local interest prevailing, though under their equal system of Government, that was hardly to be feared. If great inconvenience would arise to members at distances extremely remote, murmurs might originate, and produce such a change. Yet, even on that score, there was not much ground for apprehension, as the equitable arrangement of mileage had placed members on a perfect equality, those farthest removed, and whose home and family associations and affections were most interfered with, receiving appropriate compensation. As it was evident from the temper of the Senate that the bill would pass, he would not longer detain them by any remarks.

Mr. ASHLEY inquired what effect would be produced by the retrocession with regard to the debt of Alexandria?

Mr. CALHOUN said there were abler lawyers than himself in the body; but he supposed that not the slightest effect on the debt would be produced.

Mr. PENNYBACKER expressed the same opinion.

Mr. ALLEN expressed his regret that the discussion had passed beyond the bill, and added, that he rose only for the purpose of dissenting from the views expressed by the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. CALHOUN) in regard to the location of the seat of Government. He (Mr. A.) had no intention to agitate the question of changing the seat of Government. It might not be proper to do so at the present time; but the general reasons urged by the Senator from South Carolina would give it an eternity of location at this point, and it was to that idea that he (Mr. A.) objected. The Senator had alluded to the example of other nations of the world— to those ancient monarchies where the location of the capital was a matter dependent upon the caprice of the court, and not the convenience of the people. Was it to be supposed for a moment that such examples were proper for the imitation of this Confederacy? No. He thought that the United States should on that very ground adopt a different policy. The location of the seat of Government near the seaboard in the vicinity of the commercial cities, gave to those cities a preponderating influence in the counsels of the Congress of the United States, five hundred fold to one over the influence exerted by a corresponding number of people situated in the vast interior. They had no committees from the banks of the Missouri, the Mississippi, or even of the Ohio, “lobbying” in these halls to regulate tariff duties. No. They had no companies of individuals in those western regions, and delegated to the Capitol with the view of obtaining laws to meet tho wishes of individual and sectional interests, instead of tho wants and wishes of the great mass of the nation. The whole tendency of the Government since its foundation had been to place itself exclusively under the control of the commercial interest: and this pernicious tendency had been produced by the location of the seat of Government near the great influential commercial cities on the seaboard. He might present many illustrations of this fact. Before the telegraphic communication was established, when a bill was introduced into Congress, Wall-street had notice of it, if necessary, in fifteen hours, and in fifteen hours more the cars brought a delegation from Wall-street to regulate the details of the bill. Thus had their tariffs been formed— thus had the commercial interests overruled all others from their proximity to the Capitol. The great mass of the people— four-fifths of them— lived on the soil, and obtained from it subsistence. It was in their centre that the seat of Government should be located. These were his opinions, and he stated them not as having any immediate bearing on the bill before the House, but in opposition to the views expressed by the Senator from South Carolina, whose remarks were always entitled to high consideration, and carried with them great weight.

Mr. CALHOUN again rose, and stated that it happened, that at the Memphis Convention— a body composed of six hundred members, possessed of great intelligence, and representing almost exclusively the interests of those who lived upon the soil— a resolution was offered recommending a change of the seat of the General Government. A most extraordinary sensation was produced, and when the resolution was submitted, there was one loud-toned, overwhelming “no” opposed to the solitary voice of the mover.

Mr. ALLEN. Where was that?

Mr. CALHOUN. At the Memphis Convention.

Mr. ALLEN. Ah! that proves nothing. The only difficulty has been the choice of another site, and the contesting claims have been so numerous, that the change has not been, ere this, seriously mooted.

Mr. WESTCOTT was in favor of the bill, because it relieved the people of Alexandria from a galling disfranchisement, of which he knew something by experience.

Mr. ARCHER advocated the bill in a long and able speech.

Mr. HAYWOOD opposed the bill, and in an eloquent manner contended for the sacred immunity of the constitution, and the wise arrangement of the sages of the Revolution. He also argued the constitutional question at considerable length, and with characteristic ability.

Mr. PENNYBACKER replied.

Mr. BREESE regarded the bill as unconstitutional.

The bill was then reported to the Senate; and the yeas and nays being called for on the question of ordering it to be engrossed for a third reading, they were ordered, and, being taken, resulted as follows:

YEAS.— Messrs. Allen, Archer, Ashley, Atchison, Atherton, Barrow, Benton, Calhoun, Cameron, Chalmers, Cilley, Thomas Clayton, John M. Clayton, Corwin, Crittenden, Davis, Dayton, Fairfield, Greene, Hannegan, Jarnagin, Johnson of Maryland, Johnson of Louisiana, Lewis, Morehead, Pennybacker, Rusk, Sevier, Simmons, Turney, Westcott, and Yulee— 32.

NAYS.—Messrs. Brecse, Bright, Dickinson, Dix, Evans, Haywood, Houston, Huntington, Mangum, Miller, Niles, Phelps, Semple, and Sturgeon—14.

So the bill was ordered to a third reading.

Mr. ARCHER asked that the bill be put upon its third reading now.

No objection being offered, the bill was read a third time, and passed.

The title of the hill as passed is as follows, viz.: “An act to retrocede the county of Alexandria, in the District of Columbia, to the State of Virginia.”


This Congressional Debate was transcribed from a scan from Google Books. It is being republished here in order to continue my advocacy for full representation for the American citizens of the District of Columbia.



Post Title: 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
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Posted in: Alexandria, DC, DC History, history, Location, Retrocession, Virginia
Last edited by Nikolas Schiller on 10/4/2010 at 5:05 pm



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