Oops! Without even realizing it was doing so, the D.C. City Council has wiped off the books what may be Washington's most historic public document. It repealed the 1820 City Charter, signed into law by President Monroe.

While the repeal will have little practical effect on the present-day governance of the District of Columbia, it was done by accident, according to Bruce Comly French, the council's legislative counsel.

The repealer was part of legislation enacted last month that chiefly is intended to change the rules for closing alleys. In order to make those changes, the council had to repeal old legislation dealing with the same subject. Some of the old legislation was contained in an 1848 law passed by Congress "to continue, alter and amend the 1820 charter of the City of Washington."

Rather than amending just the portions of the 1848 law relating to alleys, the legislation was unwittingly drafted to repeal the entire law--thus effectively erasing the 1820 charter. Only the council itself or Congress could override that action.

For the record, Congress first set up a District of Columbia government in 1801. The following year, it granted the first charter to the City of Washington, which occupied--and technically still occupies--only a small part of the District of Columbia's land area. MetroScene will explore this in the near future.