March 5, 2008

ALEXANDRIA, D. C. (Virginia) IN THE 1790s

Thomas Jefferson returned to the United States in March, 1790. The French Ambassador was welcomed at Wise’s Tavern (201 North Fairfax Street), Alexandria. In Mayor William Hunter’s welcoming remarks he stated: “As a commercial town, we feel ourselves particularly indebted to you for the indulgences which your enlightened representations to the Court of France have secured to our trade. You have freed commerce from its shackles…”

Jefferson replied: “Accept my sincere thanks for yourself and the worthy citizens of Alexandria, for their kind congratulations on my return to my native country. I am happy to learn that they have felt benefit from the encouragements to our commerce which have been given by an allied nation….”

During the 1790s Alexandria greeted ships from Spain, Britain, Portugal, the West Indies and the Caribbean, carrying precious cargoes of imported china, rum and molasses. Items were unloaded on “wharves (that) could accommodate the storage of large quantities of materials and the erection of large structures.”

In May 1790 the “French 500” disembarked at the wharf. These émigrés, escaping the French Revolution, included nobles with their families and servants. The nobles, planning to settle in Ohio, had purchased land from the French Scioto Company.

The émigrés were struck by Alexandria’s beauty. The Duc de la Rochefoucault (who arrived later) described the town as “beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia and indeed is among the finest in the United States.”

This “handsomeness,” and the novelty of the people, their customs and their manners, enchanted and excited the émigrés, helping them forget their long, perilous, confinement at sea. However, many being unable to speak the language. could only respond to the Virginians extended hands with a fervid pressure of the hand, and expressive expressiions indicating their deep feelings.

Greeted by Thomas Porter, they were settled in one of the inns—called “ordinaries—” and probably taken to dine at one of the taverns—perhaps Gadsby’s, City Tavern or Wise’s.


Jefferson’s sentiments presaged the town’s economic revitalization. On March 28, 1785, Virginia and Maryland had completed a trade and navigation agreement for the Potomac River. In 1789, both states donated land for a new federal capital city, and in 1790 George Washington chose Alexandria, Virginia, located along the Western bank of the river, to be part of the District of Columbia. On April 15, 1791 the District’s first cornerstone was laid at Jones Point.

By 1790, the city was the principal port on the Potomac. Ships of 300 tons easily entered. On April 28, 1792, Lund Washington, informed George Washington that Alexandria’s port “has seldom less than twenty square-rigged vessels in it and often more. The streets are crowded with wagons and the people all seem to be busy.” In 1799 nearly 1,000 vessels docked at the city wharves.

This growth was partly fueled by the grain trade. Thousands of wagons wended their way to the port of Alexandria with cargoes of wheat, flour, rye and corn, enormous quantities of which were shipped to the Caribbean, Iberian Peninsula and Europe. The port’s total exports rose from $381,000 in 1791 to $948,000 in 1795, when “Alexandria’s exports placed it second behind Norfolk among Virginia’s custom houses…Alexandria’s share of Virginia’s exports rose from 12% of the total value in 1791 to 29% in 1795.” By 1796 the port was the seventh largest United States port and the third largest flour exporter.

In 1791, the internal revenue legislation instituted an excise tax on whiskey—the only form in which grain from west of the Allegheny Mountains could be transported and sold in the east. The western settlers irately charged the government with enforcing “taxation without representation.” Mob violence directed against Federal officials in western Pennsylvania convinced the government that insurrection was a real threat to the nation’s security.

The biggest class of Alexandrian businessmen were tavern keepers. In 1800 the 34 licensed inns were needed for travelers, since main travel routes passed through the city.

A vast variety of goods and services were available in the depot—from ostrich feathers to pianofortes. Merchants/shopkeepers were Alexandria’s second largest class of businessmen. The streets and byways were dotted with silversmiths, saddlers, blacksmiths, furniture makers, bakers, whitesmiths, tanners, brewers, seamstresses and tobacconists to name a few. By 1800 there were several banks, tobacco warehouses, bread and biscuit bakeries, and a brewery. Merchant’s used the first floor of their house for their business. Their living quarters above included a double connecting drawing room called a ballroom.

One letter noted “[T]he situation of the town will soon make it a very important post… there are about 3,200 inhabitants; the houses are principally brick; the streets are not paved and being of clay, after rain they are slippery, it is almost impossible to walk in them.” In 1794, the City Council, trying to remedy the problem, passed an act to pave the principal streets with cobbles. By 1799, hundreds of carts, wagons and carriages clattered along cobblestone-paved streets. Wooden license plates, selling for 35 cents, dangled from the vehicles. Sidewalks were brick-laid. Night watchmen lit corner lampposts and called out the hours.

Old Town” was located on the Potomac River, in the eastern and southeastern areas of Alexandria, was laid out in 1749 with a grid plan having substantially square blocks. Sea Captain’s Row, the first block of Prince Street, was developed by sea John Harper, a captain/merchant. Tradition was that its paving stones were brought over as ballast on ships and were laid by Hessian mercenaries during the Revolutionary War. The houses were crowded together, with front doors opening directly onto the street and rooftops resembling giant steps leading from the river up the steep hill. Each house had a pocket-handkerchief size garden in the rear.

These houses, constructed in the formal Georgian style, had shining brass knockers and furnishings being imported luxury items—Venetian blinds and rich fabrics; walls with handsomely framed mirrors that reflected ancestral portraits, dinner tables covered with fine linen and laid with delicate china, glass and hand-wrought silver. Shining fireplace equipment and beautiful mahogany furniture gleamed in the light of beeswax candles in crystal chandeliers high above the carpeted floors.

Thomas Twinning wrote “What most struck me was the vast number of houses which I saw building… The hammer and the trowel were at work every where, a cheering sight.” The new architecture combined Georgian details with an independent streak. The new “Federal style” architecture shared many of Georgian elements, yet was more chaste, refined and attenuated.

The two Gadsby’s Tavern buildings (134 North Royal Street) contrast these styles. The smaller, south building, built ca. 1770, is clearly Georgian, with a center hall; a horizontal, heavy cornice; prominent jack arches and a water table. The large 1792 building has a much plainer facade; jack arches made of rubbed, gauged brick, and lacks a stone belt course between the stories. Although symmetry is still very important, it’s less rigid than the Georgian: the entry is off-center in a four-bay facade, the cornice and door surround are somewhat simpler and lighter, and the door is flanked by fluted neoclassical columns instead of engaged pilasters. The structure’s height reflects a different sense of proportion, the 1790s prosperity, and the need to accommodate more travelers.

Restrictive laws included the banning of wood chimneys, and free-roaming swine. The latter were required to be kept in enclosures strong enough to contain them at all times.

At the time of the first national census, in 1790, the town’s demographics were changing rapidly. During the decade its population grew by about 2000 individuals or 41%. The African American free-black/former slave population also increased. The Society of Friends founded the “Society for the Relief and Protection of Persons Illegally Held in Bondage” in 1796.

One European emigrant, unappreciative of Virginia’s culture, wrote to his London friend that “Alexandria is one of the most wicked places I ever beheld in my life; cockfighting, horse racing, with every species of gambling and cheating, being apparently the principal business going forward. As a proof of this you may judge of the extent of this dissipation when I inform you, this little place contains no less than between forty and fifty billiard tables….” echoing earlier reports from Verger, a member of Rochambaugh’s campaigns in the early 1780s. Verger described the fondness of Virginia’s people for horse races, on which they bet considerable sums, and cock-fighting.

However, many Alexandrians favored more refined pursuits, and some foreign travelers wrote glowing accounts of its excellent accommodations and good food. Balls, featuring fiddle music, were important social events. Featured in many houses were ballrooms created by opening a double drawing room.

Since Washington had no theater until 1800, performances at Alexandria’s Liberty Hall were popular. Patrons often ate at Gadsby’s, which many maintained, was the best in the U. S., superior to any in N. Y. In 1799, Thomas Wade West built the town’s first permanent theater at 406 Cameron Street.

The Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, formed in 1790, promoted literary and cultural awareness. It served as a precursor to the private organization which established the Alexandria Subscription Library, a private library company, in 1794. Card games included whist.

Fair and court days often coincided.

Due to its seaport location Alexandria was vulnerable to yellow fever and malaria epidemics. In 1793 Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, the health officer, set up a quarantine station at Jones Point to inspect ships, trying to contain these contagions. By January 1, 1794, he had placed 55 vessels in quarantine, preventing the contagion from reaching Alexandria.

After Louis XVI’s death Franco-American cooperation dissolved. Many Americans remained strongly pro-French. Others mistrusted the radical Jacobins and the consulate and the empire that followed. The rivalry between Britain and France continued unabated.

The French were highly critical and suspicious of the Jay Treaty, which was concluded between England and the U.S. in 1794. Congress passed an Act of Neutrality with respect to these great powers-over the objections of the French and a minority of Americans, who considered it a violation of the Franco-American military alliance signed in 1778 that was largely responsible for winning the Revolution. Relations deteriorated rapidly with a series of high-handed French diplomatic moves.

After the French started intercepting American shipping in the fall of 1798, the United States became involved in an undeclared naval war. Soon the town’s shipyards bustled. Privateers were being constructed for service against the enemy. At least twenty Alexandria registered ships were captured, although American ground forces (including the “Alexandria Blues”) and military installations (including the earth fort constructed at Jones Point by French engineer Jean de Vermonnet) saw no action. The Adams administration finally smoothed over differences with the French and signed a new commercial treaty.

The first fire company, Friendship, organized in 1774, had a little hand-pumper engine given to them by George Washington.

Some buildings had fire insurance, entitling them to a distinctive fire mark posted by the insurance company, enabling the volunteer fireman to know where to claim their reward after putting out a fire.

When the first alarm went off, firemen grabbed heavy linen bags, used to carry valuables from the burning building. Then they pulled their engine and equipment over the streets, racing to the fire. The first company reaching the scene had exclusive rights to extinguish the fire and collect the reward. Sometimes, following a tie, a heated argument broke out between rival bucket brigade members. When fist fighting took precedence over firefighting, the distraught homeowner stood by helplessly watching his property being reduced to a smoking ruin. A children’s chant highlights this problem:

The SUN is in the mud,

The STAR is in the mire,

But the good old FRIENDSHIP

Is putting out the fire

In 1791, Alexandria’s nearest bank was in Baltimore. The Bank of Alexandria, chartered in November 1792, provided the needed capital for investment and regional development. It was located at Fairfax and 305 Cameron streets.

The Apothecary Shop, about a block from the bank (107 South Fairfax Street), had two bay windows, flanking the double entrance doors, that displayed graceful apothecary jars filled with brightly colored water.

The Alexandria Gazette was first printed Feb. 5, 1784, was called The Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser. Little local news was published— advertisements and notices for ship arrivals and departures (with their merchandise) took precedence. An important local event might be mentioned. Notices of runaway wives, and of slaves, appeared on the front page with the advertising. Tobacco, corn, wheat, flour and ships’ bread were offered for sale. Stage and mail schedules were prominently printed. Fish in season was listed as acceptable in exchange for other commodities.

The original high-backed pews of old churches were built to cut off drafts. They also helped to keep inside each pew the little heat given off by the charcoal foot-warmers that the women brought with them.

Before bridges were built between Alexandria and Washington, D. C., a traveler followed a waterway until he could ford it. Or he crossed the river by ferry. The first ferries used for public transport were simply crude scows propelled by oars or pulled along a cable. Fees were separate for a passenger and his horse. One ferry at the island (just above the Lincoln Memorial) was an elaborate decked affair, big enough to take on tow loaded wagons. Horses stationed on the shore at each end provided the power. The island and ferry were owned by Georg Mason, official and unofficial Washington came to Alex via Georgetown and Mason’s Ferry.

The 1790s decade, and the 18th century, ended on a sad note with the December 14, 1799, death of George Washington. His funeral was virtually an Alexandria affair; perhaps a quarter of the townspeople participated in some fashion, and many streamed to Mount Vernon to pay homage their hero and beloved friend and neighbor. Washington’s death appropriately marked the end of the Revolutionary era and the beginning of the passing of the generation that had triumphed in that struggle.


  1. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Vol. I; Verger journal, Translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown

  2. Washington Walked Here: Alexandria on the Potomac, one of America’s first “new towns”; Mollie D. Somerville

  3. http://www.Alexandria, Virginia_filesAlexandria, Virginia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.html

  4. Alexandria,%20Virginia_files/Alexandria,%20Virginia.html



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