2-96. How Slavery Tore DC Apart – Literally


Have you ever wondered why Washington, D.C. or the District of Columbia got its strange shape? It started with James Madison, and his Federalist Number 43. His argument was simple: the federal government needed a home that was not included in any state. But where? In the complicated world of politics, it’s unsurprising that it was a compromise.

Though the United States won the Revolution, the new country was nearly bankrupt. For some relief, some founding fathers proposed that the federal government assume the debt incurred by the states. This was great for the Northern states, who still had a sizable amount of unpaid debt, but the Southern states had paid most of their foreign debt, so this deal wouldn’t help them at all. In fact, as they were responsible for a share of the Federal government’s debt, it would cost them money.

While the merits of this plan were being argued, the idea came for two Southern states, Maryland and Virginia, to donate land on either side of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers for the new seat of Federal government. This would give the South more influence simply due to proximity, and the hope was that this would be considered fair compensation for the imbalance in debt assumption. And it was! The deal was struck, and the Federal Government created a neat diamond shape called Washington: The Territory of Columbia, separate from all states. It was later called the District of Columbia when in 1801, Congress was given jurisdiction over the area. Washington is the name of the one and only city within the district, taking up the same amount of land.

Why a diamond? The Residence Act of 1790 declared that the District take up not more than 100 square miles, and the easiest way to calculate that would be to make a square ten miles long by ten miles wide. Once the general area was decided through more political wrangling, the committee emphasized the navigability of the river, and thus a diamond was formed, with the river running through the center.

But if you look at a map today, you’ll notice that this neat diamond has broken in half, right where the river is. What caused this? The answer is: Virginians and the pro-slavery movement. Since its inception, the District of Columbia was controversial to Virginians, who had given up land owned by powerful people. Not the least of these was George Washington himself, who owned a large tract of land on the river. The aggrieved Virginian’s initial effort to reduce their losses was an amendment that prevented public buildings from being built on the Virginia side. This set the stage for what was to come later.

The bickering never stopped completely, but it was in those heady days in the mid-19th century where words became action. States were being divided into “slave” and “free,” and the federal government was in constant struggle over which side would take control. With the talk of abolishing slavery, the residents of Virginia became alarmed at what they saw as a threat to their economy, and joined together to lobby for the return of their portion of DC. This additional land would give them two more representatives and help tip the scale towards the pro-slavery side of upcoming legislation.

And they were successful. In 1846, Congress signed the “Retrocession,” granting back to Virginia all the land on their side of the diamond. But it was not through legislation that the United States would settle the issue of slavery. That took a horrific civil war. But the Virginians did further their cause in one small way: they “enjoyed” eight more months of slavery than the rest of the what was the District of Columbia. Eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation set all slaves free in Confederate states (but not Union states, oddly), slaves were freed in the District, a place in the United States that has always had a large African American population.

The end of slavery did not bring the District back together. What was given back to Virginia in the Retrocession remains part of Virginia. But the broken-diamond of our Capitol is a cartographical reminder of the scars that remain due to slavery’s legacy in our country.

The original plan, with diamond shape.

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