When you look at the map of Washington, the beautiful symmetry of the diamond shape has an ugly bite taken out of the Southwest quadrant. In that bite lies a story, and it’s not the polite history you might expect from the Old Dominion.
George Washington engages in self-dealing! The city surrenders to the British while the Capitol burns! Slave traders wrest Alexandria back into Virginia!
A new book by Michael Lee Pope isn’t quite so breathless, although that’s too bad for readers in this history-obsessed burg. In workmanlike prose, “Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.” probes the nearly forgotten story of how Alexandria and Arlington became part of, then left, the District in the the late 1790s and early 1800s. Pope takes readers through the stacks and archives of libraries to find that “the history of Alexandria is a tale full of vice and moral turpitude.”
Some of the information he uncovers is stunning.
For example: George Washington, who owned nearly 20,000 acres along the Potomac, sought to make his home town the capital of the United States, quietly obscuring his role in the establishment of the D.C. boundaries and, as president, disregarding the advice of the Virginia General Assembly and Congress.
“His behind-the-scenes manuevering to place the capital where it would be most financially beneficial to himself may be the first smoke-filled-room decision in American history,” Pope writes.
Three cities made up the original District of Columbia in 1801 — the federal city Washington, rival Georgetown and thriving seaport Alexandria, which included what would later become Arlington County. Alexandria, D.C., lasted until 1846, and few artifacts remain as testimony, but two of them are stamped on drainpipes on the side of buildings at Fairfax and Prince streets.
With its near-constant duels, outrageous political insults, an inhuman slave trade, an ill-timed municipal bet on a canal project and a criminal charter so outdated that minor criminals were routinely hanged for small thefts, the Alexandria of the past wasn’t the proper shop-and-tea sort of place visitors expect today. Those quaint cobblestones and homes tourists love to photograph were saved during the War of 1812 because Alexandria allowed itself to be occupied by the British, while the White House and Capitol burned. Out-of-town newspapers reviled the city for its cowardice, but its citizens were more offended by the notion that they had no representation in Congress, nor could they vote for president.
The effort to retrocede, or remove themselves from the District and rejoin Virginia, started in 1804 but became serious in the 1820s and 1830s. Thomas Jefferson had imposed an embargo on some commercial shipping that nearly destroyed Alexandria’s economy, Georgetown blocked an effort to extend the Cheseapeake and Ohio canal to its southern neighbor and “Alexandria wanted out of the ‘ruinous evil’ that was the District of the Columbia,” Pope writes.
But the real reason for retrocession might have been “shackled in the basement of the slave-trading operation on Duke Street” but largely unspoken in official transcripts, Pope writes. The slave trade was a major industry in Alexandria, and city fathers feared that Congress would outlaw it in the District, which is exactly what happened in the Compromise of 1850. By rejoining Virginia in 1846, Alexandria assured itself of another decade or so of the unfettered sale of humans beings.
But it’s not just politics that Pope addresses. Fires were staples of early Alexandria, and in one, members of a traveling circus performed “heroic feats of daredevil theatrics” to help extinquish the flames.
“The fire left many homeless during the coldest month of the year,” he writes. “The wealthy were reduced to begging for food as sorrow and despair became the order of the day. Many lost everything they had in the destruction, which vaporized their financial status and rendered them paupers. In the smoky ruins of the fire, bleary-eyed Alexandrians wandered the streets in search of charity with a jaundiced eye toward the future.”
Alas, Pope isn’t a Stephen Ambrose or a Jared Diamond, and the book cites sources in a bibliography but has no footnotes. Pope, 36 and a resident of Alexandria since 2006, raced through the research and writing of this 154-page history in seven months, although he had a head start: He works as a journalist for Connection newspapers and WAMU radio and has led ghost tours in Alexandria. He found a story that was underexposed and wrote a strong addition to local history.
George Combs, director of the Alexandria Library’s special collections, helped Pope find some of his source material and said that this is the first book primarily about retrocession.
“There’s been a lot of essays and articles,” Combs said. “Books tend to be very specific, about flounder houses in Alexandria, or George Washington in Alexandria . . . probably half of the books written about Alexandria are about Washington or Robert E. Lee.”
Someday, someone is going to pull all those hundreds of histories together — from pre-Revolutionary War to the life of labor leader John Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black — and write a whale of an Alexandria history.