Plan of the city of Washington.

Happy Birthday to the District of Columbia!

The signing of the Residence Act on July 16, 1790, approved the creation of a capital district located along the Potomac River on the country’s East Coast. The U.S. Constitution provided for a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress and the District is therefore not a part of any U.S. state.

The states of Maryland and Virginia each donated land to form the federal district, which included the preexisting settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria. Named in honor of George Washington, the City of Washington was founded in 1791 to serve as the new national capital.

From its founding via the Residence Act in 1790 until the Civil War, the question of slavery in the district was often debated.

DEAR SIR: Having been frequently met by the assertion that in the cession of territory to the United States, by the States of Maryland and Virginia, for the seat of the United States Government, certain reservations were made in favor of the existing laws of those States, by which Congress is restricted from any action affecting the institution of Slavery in the District of Columbia, and having no authentic documents within reach, by which to repel that assertion, I beg leave to suggest whether it might not be profitable to insert in the Era a clause or two of the acts of cession referred to, as well as of the laws of Congress that confirm, or perpetuate, the existence of the laws of Maryland and Virginia over the territory of the District.

With great respect, your obedient servant,


There is no such restriction in the acts of cession. Alexandria having been retroceded to Virginia, it is needless to examine its act of cession. The sole reservation made in that of Maryland respected the rights of property in the soil. The following, from Snethen’s “Black Code,” shows that the jurisdiction of Maryland over the persons and property of individuals in the District terminated the moment Congress provided by law for its government.

“The jurisdiction of the laws of this State over the persons and property of individuals residing within the limits of the cession aforesaid (the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia) shall not cease or determine, until Congress shall, by law, provide for the government thereof under their jurisdiction, in manner provided by the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution of the Government of the United States.” Laws of Maryland, 1794, Dec. 19; Sec. 2. The 8th section of the 1st article of the Federal Constitution 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 of the United States.”

Congress by law, in 1790, provided for continuing in operation the laws of Maryland in the District, until it should otherwise provide:

“The operation of the laws of Maryland within the District of Columbia shall not be affected by the acceptance by the United States of the said District for the permanent seat of Government of the United States, until the time fixed for the removal of the seat of Government to the said District, and until Congress shall otherwise, by law, provide.” – Laws of the United States, 1790, July 16; Sect. 1. In 1801, Congress adopted the laws of Maryland then existing, reenacting them in the District, as follows:

“The laws of the State of Maryland, as they now exist, shall be and continue in force in that part of the said District (of Columbia) which was ceded by that State to the United States, and by them accepted, for the permanent seat of Government of the United States.” – Laws of the United States, 1801, Feb. 27; Sect. 1. The code of Maryland, thus reenacted by the Congress of the United States, so far as it relates to slavery and free colored people, the reader will find in Snethen’s late work on the laws of the District of Columbia. That part of the code which defines who shall be slaves, is as follows:

“All negroes and other slaves, already imported or hereafter to be imported into this province, and all children now born or hereafter to be born of such negroes and slaves, shall be slaves during their natural lives.” – Laws of Maryland, 1715; ch. 44, sect. 22. It is at once seen, that Slavery in the District of Columbia rests upon a distinct act of Congress, reenacting the laws of Maryland, among which were all her laws, establishing, defining, and regulating slavery.

Source: The National Era, November 30, 1848

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

Map Details: From Literary magazine and British review, Jan. 1793,  “Published as the Act directs Feb. 1, 1793 for the Proprietors by J. Good, Bond Street.” Includes latitude/longitude statement and coat-of-arms.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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