1840s

Mary and Elizabeth Edmonson

The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria: Legends in the Fight Against Slavery

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.

1835 map showing Alexandria as part of original District of Columbia. (Source: Library of Congress)

The Alexandria Retrocession of 1846

We have the states of Maryland and Virginia to thank for the land that created Washington, D.C. It was through their cession of territory — 69 square miles from Maryland and 31 square miles from Virginia — that Congress was able to establish a permanent home for a federal government on the banks of the Potomac River in 1801. However, almost from day one, Virginia was looking for a way to get its land back. Four decades later, it finally did.

William Henry Harrison (Source: Library of Congress)

President Harrison's Fateful Inauguration

Sometimes, the most memorable thing someone can do is die. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States was the first U.S. president to die in office, and, having died only a month in, that's about all he did in office. Harrison's other claim to fame, his lengthy inauguration speech, is also what killed him.

March 4, 1841 was an wet, overcast day with a cold wind. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that the celebrations of the day were the biggest seen in the country since 1789. Harrison, nicknamed “Tippecanoe,” had run a campaign on an image of log cabins and hard cider and his supporters were a boisterous sort. A magnificent carriage had been constructed and presented for Harrison to ride to the Capitol. The old general declined and instead rode a horse along the avenue.

In her later years, socialite Marian Campbell Gouverneur wrote a memoir, which provides an interesting glimpse into early Washington. (Photo source: Project Gutenberg)

Impressions of Washington: Marian Campbell Gouvernuer, 1845

Marian Campbell Gouvernuer was a New Yorker who made her life in Washington in the second half of the 19th century. Her memoir As I Remember covers a period of eighty years, much of it taking place in Washington, but of particular interest is the chapter describing Gouvernuer’s first visit to Washington in 1845.

Gouvernuer gives a snapshot of the capital in very distinct time of the city — still a young city and still immersed in that peculiar institution of slavery. This description, especially concerning the haphazard city planning, falls well in line with previous Impressions of Washington we've posted on the blog. She also gives an enlightening summary of the commercial life in Washington.

Horatio Greenough's classical George Washington sculpture. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

Horatio Greenough’s Near Naked Washington

The nation’s capital is chock full of statues, memorials, monuments, historic markers, and museums. As the seat of the United States government, Washington has a unique niche as both a repository of history and as a tourist spot. Some monuments are world-famous, some now reside in hidden corners, some are the centers of conspiracy theories (as Dan Brown and National Treasure fans will know), and some have been forgotten altogether. One statue in particular has been all of these things – and more – since it was first created: Horatio Greenough’s George Washington.

After the Pearl was captured and returned to Washington, many of the slaves on board were sold to the deep South. Emily and Mary Edmonson (above) had a better fate when their freedom was purchased with funds raised by Henry Ward Beecher's Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

The Pearl Incident

1848 was a busy year for the residents of Washington, D.C. The Washington monument was under construction and Congress was hotly debating the question of slavery in the new territories.  Closer to home, most white Washingtonians favored slavery though many had objections to actual slave-trading taking place in the capital. D.C.’s large free black population, which contained a great many marriages between enslaved and free, sought freedom for those who didn’t yet posses it, and were spurred by an increasing number of abolitionists flocking to the city.

To put it mildly, Washington was a tense place in April 1848, and it was about to get even moreso. Enter the Pearl.

Impressions of Washington: "The head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva"

When Charles Dickens visited Washington in 1842, he had a lot to say. But, perhaps nothing caught his eye -- and ire -- as much as Washingtonians' obvious love of chewing tobacco.

As Washington may be called the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.