District of Columbia Retrocession
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District of Columbia Retrocession

Territorial progression of District of Columbia

The District of Columbia retrocession was the process of returning to the U.S. commonwealth of Virginia a part of the land that had been ceded to the federal government of the United States for the purpose of creating its federal district for the new national capital of the United States, the City of Washington. The land was taken in 1790. It was returned, after many stages of federal and state approval, in March 1847.

Exactly 100 square miles (259 km2) straddling the Potomac was designated by the 1790 Residence Act as the District of Columbia,[1] ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia. The portion west of the Potomac, ceded by Virginia, consisted of 31 square miles (80 km2) in two parts: the city of Alexandria, Virginia, at the extreme southern shore, and its rural hinterland, short-lived Alexandria County, D.C. After decades of debate about the disenfranchisement that came with District citizenship, and tensions related to Alexandria's lucrative slave trade, this portion of the District was returned to Virginia in 1846-47.[2] The remaining District assumed its current boundaries and area of 68.34 square miles (177 km2) east of the Potomac[3] and 0.19 square miles (0.49 km²) of land on the west side of the Potomac River on what is now Lady Bird Johnson Park and what was formerly known as Columbia Island.[]

Twenty-first-century proposals to return the remaining portion of the District of Columbia to the state of Maryland are cited as one way to provide full voting representation in Congress and return local control of the District to its residents.[4]


Map of the District of Columbia in 1835, prior to the retrocession

The Organic Act of 1801 organized the District of Columbia and placed the federal territory under the exclusive control of Congress. The District was organized into two counties, Washington on the east side of the Potomac River, and Alexandria on the west side.[5][6] Following this Act, citizens located in the District were no longer considered residents of Maryland or Virginia, thus ending their representation in Congress.[7]

Almost immediately after the Organic Act of 1801, Congress took up proposals for the return of the territory to the states, all of which failed. Members of Congress proposed retrocession because they found disenfranchisement of the District's residents to be unacceptable. Other Congressmen were of the opinion that the District could not be immediately returned without the consent of the residents and the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia. Some representatives rejected the idea of retrocession entirely and concluded that the Congress lacked the constitutional authority to return the territory.[4]

Virginia retrocession

In the 1830s, efforts grew to reunite the southern portion of the District with Virginia. Besides the fact that District residents had lost representation in Congress, a number of additional factors aided the movement to return the area to Virginia:

  • Alexandria had gone into economic decline because of neglect of the area by Congress. Alexandria needed infrastructure improvements in order to compete with other ports in the area such as Georgetown, which was further inland and on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.[3] Members of Congress from other areas of Virginia used their power to prohibit funding for projects, such as the Alexandria Canal, which would have increased competition with their home districts. Returning Alexandria to Virginia allowed residents to seek financing for projects without interference from Congress.[4]
  • A 1791 amendment to the Residence Act specifically prohibited the "erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac."[8] The institutions of the federal government, including the White House and the United States Capitol were therefore located in Washington on the east side of the Potomac River. This made Alexandria less important to the functioning of the national government.[4]
  • At the time, Alexandria was a major market in the slave trade, but rumors circulated that abolitionists in Congress were attempting to end slavery in the nation's capital, which would have also seriously harmed the area's economy.[3][9]
  • There was also an active abolitionist movement in Virginia. If Alexandria were returned to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the move would have added two additional pro-slavery representatives to the Virginia General Assembly.[3]

One argument against retrocession was that the federal government did in fact use Alexandria: as a military outpost, signal corps site, and cemetery.[10]

From 1840 to 1846, Alexandrians petitioned Congress and the Virginian legislature to approve retrocession. On February 2, 1846, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to accept the retrocession of Alexandria if Congress approved.[11]

Following additional lobbying by Alexandrians, the 29th Congress passed legislation on July 9, 1846, to return all the District's territory south of the Potomac River to the Commonwealth of Virginia, pursuant to a referendum; President James K. Polk signed the legislation the next day.

A referendum on retrocession was held on September 1–2, 1846. The residents of the city of Alexandria voted in favor of the retrocession, 763 to 222;[12] however, the residents of Alexandria County voted against retrocession 106 to 29. Despite the objections of those living in Alexandria County, President Polk certified the referendum and issued a proclamation of transfer on September 7, 1846.[13]

The Virginia legislature, however, did not immediately accept the retrocession offer. Virginia legislators were concerned that the people of Alexandria County had not been properly included in the retrocession proceedings. After months of debate, the Virginia General Assembly voted to formally accept the retrocession legislation on March 13, 1847.[4]

Confirming the fears of pro-slavery Alexandrians, the Compromise of 1850 outlawed the slave trade in the District, although not slavery itself.[14]

At the start of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln attempted to have the Virginia portion re-annexed over security concerns, but this idea was rejected by the Senate.[15]


The constitutionality of the retrocession has been called into question. The contract clause found in Article One of the United States Constitution prohibits states from breaching contracts to which they are themselves a party. By annexing Alexandria in 1847, Virginia may have breached its contractual obligation to "forever cede and relinquish" the territory for use as the permanent seat of the United States government.[15] President William Howard Taft also believed the retrocession to be unconstitutional and tried to have the land given back to the District.[12]

The Supreme Court of the United States has never issued a firm opinion on whether the retrocession of the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia was constitutional. In the 1875 case of Phillips v. Payne the Supreme Court held that Virginia had de facto jurisdiction over the area returned by Congress in 1847, and dismissed the tax case brought by the plaintiff. The court, however, did not rule on the core constitutional matter of the retrocession. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Noah Haynes Swayne stated only that:

The plaintiff in error is estopped from raising the point which he seeks to have decided. He cannot, under the circumstances, vicariously raise a question, nor force upon the parties to the compact an issue which neither of them desires to make.[16]

Proposed Maryland retrocession

Satellite view of the current boundaries of the District of Columbia in relation to the states of Maryland (green) and Virginia (pink)

In order to grant the residents of the District of Columbia voting representation and control over their local affairs, some members of Congress, such as Rep. Dan Lungren,[17] have proposed returning most parts of the city to Maryland. These proposals go back at least as far as 1839, when some members of Congress proposed retrocession of the portion of the District west of Rock Creek to Maryland.[18] In recent years since at least 2001, several failed attempts, mostly supported by Republicans, have been made to return most of the District to Maryland and give them full voting rights: H.R. 810 & H.R. 381, both sponsored by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH); and H.R. 1858, H.R. 1015, H.R. 3732 and H.R. 2681, all sponsored by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). The proposals received little support from congressional Democrats.

If both the Congress and the Maryland state legislature agreed, jurisdiction over the District of Columbia could be returned to Maryland, excluding a small tract of land immediately surrounding the United States Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court building which would become known as the "National Capital Service Area".[19] The idea to retrocede all but the federal lands to Maryland dates back to at least 1848.[20]


One problem with retrocession is that the state of Maryland may not want to take the District back.[21][22] In the opinion of former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, discussing the matter in 1998, retroceding the District to Maryland without that state's consent may require a constitutional amendment.[21]

A second problem is that the Twenty-third Amendment, ratified in 1961, grants "[t]he District constituting the seat of Government of the United States" the right to appoint electors to vote for president. At least one bill proposed in Congress specifically tied retrocession to the Twenty-third Amendment's repeal.[23] If the Twenty-third Amendment were not repealed, it is possible that the remaining portion of the District (the National Capital Service Area) would still be entitled to select three presidential electors.

Alternative proposal

An alternative proposal to retrocession was the District of Columbia Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2004 (H.R. 3709), which would have treated the residents of the District as residents of Maryland for the purposes of Congressional representation. Maryland's congressional delegation would then have been apportioned accordingly to include the population of the District.[24] Those in favor of such a plan argued that the Congress already has the necessary authority to pass such legislation without the constitutional concerns of other proposed remedies. From the foundation of the District in 1790 until the passage of the Organic Act of 1801, citizens living in D.C. continued to vote for members of Congress in Maryland or Virginia; legal scholars therefore propose that the Congress has the power to restore those voting rights while maintaining the integrity of the federal district.[25] The proposed legislation, however, never made it out of committee.[24]

Political support

Most residents of Maryland and District of Columbia do not support retrocession. A 1994 study showed that only 25% of suburban residents polled endorsed retrocession to Maryland, and that number dropped to 19% among District residents. District residents' dislike was confirmed in a 2000 George Washington University study when only 21% of those polled supported the option of retrocession.[26] A 2016 poll of Maryland residents showed that only 28% supported annexing District of Columbia while 44% were opposed.[27]

Maryland's senators, both Democrats, co-sponsored a September 2014 D.C. statehood bill.[28][29] Republicans are thought to oppose statehood over retrocession, as it would most likely add two safe Democratic seats to the United States Senate.[29] Historically, District voters have been overwhelmingly voting for Democratic candidate with over 80% of the votes going to the Democratic Party in every presidential election since 1984.[30] Neither statehood nor retrocession is generally seen as a legislative priority by either party.[28][29]

See also


  1. ^ "Primary Documents in American History". Web Guides. Library of Congress. January 27, 2015. Retrieved 2015.
  2. ^ "Washington, D.C. History F.A.Q." Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Retrieved 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d "Frequently Asked Questions About Washington, D.C". Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Archived from the original on September 18, 2010. Retrieved 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e Richards, Mark David (Spring-Summer 2004). "The Debates over the Retrocession of the District of Columbia, 1801-2004" (PDF). Washington History. www.dcvote.org: 54-82. Retrieved 2009.
  5. ^ Crew, Harvey W.; William Bensing Webb; John Wooldridge (1892). Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. Dayton, Ohio: United Brethren Publishing House. p. 103. ISBN 0-217-96242-4.
  6. ^ "Statutes at Large, 6th Congress, 2nd Session". A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2008.
  7. ^ "Statement on the subject of The District of Columbia Fair and Equal Voting Rights Act" (PDF). American Bar Association. September 14, 2006. Retrieved 2008.
  8. ^ A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875. Library of Congress. pp. 214-5.
  9. ^ Greeley, Horace (1864). The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States. Chicago: G. & C.W. Sherwood. pp. 142-144. ISBN 0-8371-1439-X.
  10. ^ Casselman, Amos B. (1909). "The Virginia Portion of the District of Columbia". Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 12 (1909), pp. 115-141.
  11. ^ "Re-annexation of Alexandria to Virginia". The Baltimore Sun. February 6, 1846. p. 2. ProQuest 533094185.
  12. ^ a b "Recession Illegal: Lawyers Agree With Taft on Return of Alexandria". The Washington Post. July 25, 1909. p. 1. ProQuest 144886582.
  13. ^ "Retrocession of Alexandria". The Baltimore Sun. September 10, 1846. p. 4. ProQuest 533108245.
  14. ^ "Compromise of 1850". Library of Congress. September 21, 2007. Retrieved 2008.
  15. ^ a b Zoldan, Evan (2011). "The Permanent Seat of Government: An Unintended Consequence of Heightened Scrutiny Under the Contract Clause". N.Y.U. J. Leg. & Pub. Pol'y. 14: 163. SSRN 1657125.
  16. ^ "Phillips v. Payne, 92 U.S. 130". FindLaw. 1875. Retrieved 2008.[permanent dead link]
  17. ^ Pershing, Ben (July 15, 2010). "House panel backs bill that would place statues of Douglass, L'Enfant in Capitol". The Washington Post.
  18. ^ "Retrocession". The Baltimore Sun. January 28, 1839. p. 2. ProQuest 532845825.
  19. ^ "District of Columbia-Maryland Reunion Act (110th Congress, H.R. 1858)". GovTrack. 2007. Retrieved 2008.
  20. ^ "The Slavery Question---Resistance contemplated by the South---Proposed Retrocession of the District of Columbia, &c". The Baltimore Sun. December 27, 1848. p. 4. ProQuest 533230149.
  21. ^ a b "Q&A with Rep. Tom Davis". The Washington Post. March 3, 1998. Archived from the original on February 24, 1999. Retrieved 2008.
  22. ^ Meyers, Edward M. (1996). Public opinion and the political future of the Nation's Capital. Georgetown University Press. pp. 86-7. ISBN 978-0-87840-623-4.
  23. ^ "District of Columbia Retrocession Act". Retrieved 2009.
  24. ^ a b "District of Columbia Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2004 (108th Congress, H.R. 3709)". GovTrack. 2004. Retrieved 2008.
  25. ^ Rohrabacher, Dana (June 23, 2004). "Testimony before the Committee on Government Reform" (PDF). DC Vote. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 29, 2008. Retrieved 2008.
  26. ^ "Left with Few Rights: Unequal Democracy and the District of Columbia" (PDF). Retrieved 2016.
  27. ^ Giambrone, Andrew (April 25, 2016). "Poll: Marylanders Don't Want To Annex D.C." Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2016.
  28. ^ a b Davis, Aaron. "Congress takes up bill to make D.C. the 51st state". The Washington Post.
  29. ^ a b c McCartney, Robert. "Critics of D.C. statehood cite specious objections, such as Grave Snowplow Threat". The Washington Post.
  30. ^ United States presidential elections in Washington, D.C.

External links

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