Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

“Square the box!”

That was the short-lived rallying cry of state Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun County) last month when he proposed a solution to the Republicans’ problem of a new Democratic majority in Richmond: Reunite Northern Virginia with the District of Columbia.

“Offload the liberal swamp of Arlington and Alexandria!,” LaRock said on Facebook. “Disgusted with liberals rushing to rob you of your ability to defend your family as they seek to release violent convicted criminals into our neighborhoods, to raise taxes and squander the monies to pay for late term abortion and gender mutilation surgery, to ban free speech and religious expression?…SQUARE THE BOX and let Virginia heal.”
Not to be outdone, state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Page County) on Jan. 31 offered a bill to recreate 19th-century geography and retrocede “pro-slavery” Arlington and Alexandria, as he said, back to D.C. (Parliamentary objections prevented him.)

Thus did the historic 1846 retrocession of Virginia land from the 100-square-mile box that was the original D.C. return to current news.

As Arlington marks the centennial of its name-change from Alexandria County, I thank the conservative solons for the chance to revisit retrocession.

The reasons the Virginia jurisdictions separated were manifold and slightly mysterious. Remember that District residents since 1790 had had no vote in Congress or in presidential elections. Alexandrians had long wanted federal funding for military installations and the Alexandria Canal (built from 1833-1843 to connect Old Town to the Aqueduct Bridge, now Key Bridge). But hopes faded. Remaining in the District was thought to mean higher taxes. And Alexandria, being a nationally recognized hub of slave trading (the Franklin and Armfield pen on Duke Street was recently acquired by city preservationists), feared a growing abolitionist movement in D.C.

First stirrings of retrocession began as early as 1804, when a proposal prompted a backlash led by newly arrived landowner George Washington Parke Custis (just starting construction of his Arlington House). He spearheaded a petition to Congress opposing separation as “injurious” to property.

But by 1846, the tide had shifted — mostly because of the canal and Alexandria’s struggles to compete with the port of Georgetown. The Alexandria Common Council received petitions. According to Carole Harrick’s history of Chain Bridge, Custis chaired a debate in a tavern at Balls’ Crossroads (now the Ballston Macy’s) of rural residents mostly in opposition. But Congress approved a bill requiring a new referendum, and President James Polk signed it into law July 9, 1846. Custis presided over a commission running the citizen vote, and retrocession passed in September by 763-222. (Custis himself abstained). In Old Town, townspeople celebrated with torches, flags and cannon, according to Michael Lee Pope’s history of “Alexandria, D.C.” The General Assembly the following year gave full blessing to its implementation.

Arlington historians display no consensus on the role of slavery. C.B. Rose cites claims that the Arlington area was a refuge for runaway slaves, which had to be curbed. But downtown writer Mark David Richards notes that the congressional vote did not break down on pro-slavery and anti-slavery lines.

John Richardson, an Arlington Historical Society stalwart currently doing fresh research on retrocession, told me that “very little of the argumentation for retrocession addressed slavery and why Alexandria’s slave dealers would be better off without Congress looking over their shoulder…. But slavery may have been the elephant in the room.”

To the landscapers of Virginia Hospital Center, I say, “nice try.”

For several appointments recently, I parked on N. Edison or 16th St. and walked straight toward the main entrance. That meant stepping through a nicely designed and mulched shrubbery bed.

Sticklers for the rules would have taken the longer route further down toward an actual break in the shrubbery aligned with a pedestrian zebra stripe.

But neither I, nor others I observed, took the time.