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Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate at the National Archives (Record Group 46)


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Chapter 8. Records of the Committee on the District of Columbia, 1816-1972


Records of the Committee on the District of Columbia, 1816-1972 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States


Committee records discussed in this chapter:
Records of the Committee on the District of Columbia 1816-1972 (554 ft.)

8.1 The Committee on the District of Columbia was established on December 18, 1816, following approval of a resolution proposed by Senator Armistead T. Mason of Virginia, who was then appointed chairman. Jurisdiction of the committee grew from consideration of matters relating to the District of Columbia generally to include such specific subjects as public health, regulation of sale of intoxicating liquors, adulteration of food and drugs, taxes and tax sales, insurance, wills, divorce, municipal and juvenile courts, incorporation and organization of societies, and the municipal code and amendments to criminal and corporation law.

8.2 The committee met during each Congress thereafter until the 95th, when it was terminated by S. Res. 4, 95th Cong., on February 11, 1977, and its responsibilities were reassigned to the newly created Committee on Government Affairs, which had a subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

8.3 In addition to the records of this committee, the National Archives holds records of five joint committees and two Senate select committees that were established to consider legislation on or investigate subjects specifically related to the District of Columbia, namely the Joint Committee on a Code of Laws for the District of Columbia, 1832-33 (22d Cong.); the Joint Committee to Inquire into the Affairs of the District of Columbia, 1874 (43d Cong.); the Joint Committee Investigating the Ford's Theater Disaster, 1894-97 (53d-54th Congresses); the Joint Committee on Fiscal Relations Between the District of Columbia and the United States, 1915-16 (64th Cong.); the Joint Committee on Washington Metropolitan Problems, 1957-60 (85th-86th Congresses); the Select Committee on Banks in the District of Columbia, 1857-58 (35th Cong.), and the Select Committee on the Potomac River Front of Washington, 1881-83 (47th Cong.). For more information see the descriptions of the records of select committees and joint committees, respectively.

8.4 There are no published histories of the committee.

8.5 Between 1817 and 1946, there are four series of records: Committee papers and reports, 1817-1845 (7 in.); committee papers, 1849-1946 (40 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1817-1942 (41 ft.); and legislative dockets, 1901-11 (4 vols., 6 in.). The committee papers and reports include correspondence, original committee reports and printed material, and other papers related to specific bills, resolutions, and petitions, arranged by Congress and thereunder chronologically. Committee papers include similar papers (legislative case files and miscellaneous papers), except that original committee reports are filed in a separate series, and architectural drawings and blueprints are occasionally found. From 1901 to 1946, committee papers do not include papers relating to specific bills and resolutions, but consist largely of original House and Senate documents, often executive communications that were printed as part of the Congressional Serial Set. Also, part of the committee papers are small subject files, including the chairman's and clerk's correspondence, which begin in 1925 and are significantly expanded in the 1930's and early 1940's. The petitions and memorials are arranged for each Congress either chronologically or by subject and thereunder chronologically, and in the 19th century this series sometimes includes supporting correspondence, printed matter, and other papers. After 1946, the volume of records increases dramatically, with the largest series being the legislative case files, general correspondence, nomination case files, and investigative subcommittee files. These series are described fully below.

8.6 The records in their entirety document several aspects of the unique and close relationship between the Senate and the local government (including the towns of Georgetown and, until 1846, Alexandria), the business community, and local social institutions and citizenry.

Records of the Committee on the District of Columbia, 1817-79

8.7 There are committee papers and reports, 1817-45 (7 in.), except for the 21st and 27th Congresses; committee papers, 1849-79 (3 ft.), except for the 32d, 33d, and 37th Congresses; and petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures referred to the committee, 1817-79 (7 ft.).

8.8 The administration and form of government of the District of Columbia--as reflected in the ongoing relationship between the Senate and local officials, competition among the three towns within the District (Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria), local government finances and the legal system, and public works projects--are documented by many records of the committee.

8.9 Some of the earliest records documenting this relationship are petitions from the District mayor and council protesting a recently passed law (15A-G3) and requesting financial assistance for public improvements (17A-G3, 20A-G3). As early as 1820, the committee reported on the expediency of allowing the District of Columbia representation in Congress (16A-D3). Fifteen years later, in response to what a petitioner referred to as the city's "pecuniary embarrassment," Senator Samuel Southard of New Jersey described in great detail the District's financial problems and recommended Federal spending to support local government because the National Capital was a national concern (23A-D4, 23A-G3.1, 24A-G3.1).

8.10 Dissatisfaction with the legal status and financial problems of the District and a belief that Washington City received a disproportionate share of appropriations, combined with the natural commercial competitiveness among Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, led to several petitions for the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia (18A-G3, 29A-G4), which was approved in 1846, and of Georgetown and Washington County west of Rock Creek to Maryland (26A-G4), which was not approved.

8.11 In the 1870's, the District government underwent a series of major changes in government organization, first becoming a territory in 1871. Upon the failure of this system, a government of Presidentially appointed commissioners was established. Among the committee papers are records relating to the conduct of officials of the powerful Board of Public Works during the territorial phase (42A-E4) and numerous communications between local government officials and the committee chairman on a variety of matters (44A-E4, 45A-E5). In 1878, Congress finally agreed on a formula to determine the amount of Federal financial support for the District government and to strengthen the authority of the commissioners.

8.12 The courts and the criminal justice system also attracted the interest of the committee. Shortly after the committee was established, Richard Bland Lee, a judge on the Orphans' Court, petitioned for changes in that judicial body (16A-G3, 17A-G3). Later records concerned such matters as the reorganization of local courts (31A-E3) and the condition of local police protection and the use of the federally financed supplementary force known as the auxiliary guard (34A-E3). Records relating to public concern about the local prison conditions and administration include petitions (16A-G3, 36A-H3, 40A-H5.1) and an unprinted transcript of a hearing on an investigation of contracts let for the construction of a new jail (40A-E4).

8.13 Among the concerns of local citizens and interest groups were public improvements, such as bridge construction over both the Potomac River and its eastern branch (the Anacostia River), and street improvements and extensions (both subjects in numerous Congresses, 19th Cong. and later). Proposals for and petitions favoring improvement of the District's water supply systems (21A-G5, 45A-H5) also include one from noted architect and engineer Robert Mills (33A-H5). The District's citizens were also concerned with public health, especially among the destitute (24A-G3.1, 26A-G4, 30A-H4, 37A-H4) and lotteries to raise funds for public projects and other purposes (19A-G4, 24A-G3.1, 27A-G4).

8.14 Many of the public's concerns about the effectiveness of local government grew from social conditions in the District. One area where local government commitment was weak was public education. Petitioners representing private efforts to educate the poor, including church-sponsored asylums and Lancasterian schools, sought incorporation and, later, financial aid for their free schools (20A-G4, 21A-G5, 22A-G4.2, 24A-G3.1). Funds for public education were sought from Congress with little success as early as 1840 (26A-G4). On the other hand, Columbian College, forerunner of The George Washington University, was able to obtain aid in meeting its heavy indebtedness after several years of petitioning. The records include the college's financial statement and other exhibits supporting its memorial (18A-D4, 18A-G3, 19A-D4, 19A-G3, 20A-D3). Due to the efforts of Amos Kendall and others, education of the deaf and blind at the Columbia Institute for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind (now Gallaudet University) was also funded by Congress (34A-H5, 35A-H5, 43A-E4).

Abolutionist William Lloyd Garrison
William Lloyd Garrison, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (U.S. Army) from NARA's Online Catalog.  

8.15 The records also document several aspects of race relations in the District. In the 1830's, abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison (24A-G3), inundated the Senate with petitions demanding an end to slavery in the District (21A-G5, 22A-G4, 23A-G3, 24A-G3) until finally the Senate tabled all such petitions, effectively terminating any further consideration of the matter. This procedural move was followed by petitions seeking a motion to reconsider tabling the antislavery petitions (31A-H4). The Senate also received petitions decrying the District's practice of arresting and then selling undocumented "persons of color" for jail fees (28A-G3). During Reconstruction, the Senate, controlled by the Radical Republicans, became concerned with freedmen's rights, but generally the local public did not share this concern. At the same time the Senate was defending the right of one of its black employees, Kate Brown, to ride with whites on the Alexandria, Georgetown, and Washington Railroad (40A-E4, 41A-E5), voters in Georgetown were rejecting nearly unanimously a referendum on a proposal to permit black suffrage (39A-H4). During this period, blacks were also asserting their rights by petitioning the Senate for their fair share of work on public works projects (40A-H5.1) and a uniform school system under one board of management instead of the existing dual system (41A-H5.2) and by protesting appropriations to white-only charities, such as the Industrial Home School and the Women`s Christian Association that had discriminatory admission policies (41A-H5.2). There are also several petitions requesting aid for charities, such as the National Freedmen's Relief Association, which aided destitute former slaves (40A-H5.1, 41A-H5.2).

8.16 The abolitionists' campaign to eliminate slavery from the District was the first of several national reform movements to focus on the District of Columbia. After the 1869 National Woman Suffrage Convention was held in the District, many petitions supporting woman suffrage in the District were received (40A-H5, 41A-H5.2). The temperance movement sought to end the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors in the District, beginning in 1870 and continuing well into the 20th century (41A-H5.1, 42A-H6, 44A-H5, 45A-H5).

8.17 Records relating to local business development and activity often resulted from the implementation of the power of Congress to grant articles of incorporation and renew charters. During this period, the records concern banking institutions, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, and other business endeavors.

8.18 Many bills and petitions from 1817 to 1863 concern the formation and growth or demise of banks and the emergence of local banking regulations. Requests for bank incorporation and charter renewal are numerous (16A-D3, 16A-G3, 23A-G3.1, 24A-G3.1, 26A-G4, 27A-G4, 34A-H5); sometimes, as with the 1819 petition of the directors of the Farmers Bank of Alexandria (16A-G3), the requests are accompanied by lists of investors. The Panic of 1837 brought failure to numerous District banks and led the committee to accumulate detailed records relating to the financial conditions of these banks (25A-D4, 26A-D4). Petitions and memorials document public opinion regarding bank issuance of small currency notes (27A-G4, 30A-H4) and improved regulation of banks (37A-H4).

8.19 Transportation was a major, if not the major, concern of the committee into modern times. The earliest records relating to transportation concern toll roads, particular road tolls, and compensation for road construction work (18A-G3). One document that illustrates economic competition between types of transportation is an 1831 petition from the Columbia Turnpike Company, which operated a toll road between Baltimore and Washington and sought an indemnity for any injury to it resulting from railroad competition (21A-G5). Also from this early period are some records relating to the U.S. assumption of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company's Dutch debt in 1836 (24A-D4, 24A-G3.1). After the Civil War, there are several records, including drawings, that relate to improving the Washington Canal (38A-H4, 40A-E4, 40A-H5.1, 41A-E5, 42A-E4, 42A-H6).

8.20 Railroads, including the street railways, had by far the greatest impact on the local environment. This impact is reflected in both the committee papers and in the petitions and memorials. From the 32d Congress (1851) onward, there are many petitions by railroad companies, such as the Baltimore and Ohio and the Metropolitan, requesting incorporation and permission to extend lines into the District (32A-H5, 33A-H5, 34A-H5, 35A-H5). By the 1870's, however, local citizens began to protest the proliferation of track through the city, and on The Mall in particular, where the B & O depot was located (42A-E4, 42A-H6, 45A-H5).

8.21 The records also partially document several efforts to establish manufacturing in the District. Among those seeking incorporation were the Washington Manufacturing Company, which proposed to make engines, arms, tools, and furnaces (32A-H5), and the Pioneer Cotton Manufacturing Company of Georgetown (33A-H5).

8.22 Utilities, particularly gas companies, also petitioned for incorporation beginning in 1837 (24A-G3.1, 28A-G3, 30A-H4, 34A-H5, 35A-H5, 38A-E4). Although apparently competitive at the outset, gas rates after the Civil War became an important issue to local residents, who demanded an investigation (40A-H5.1, 41A-H5.2, 42A-H6). Outraged consumers also petitioned for legislation requiring coal dealers to certify the accuracy of their measurements (45A-H5).

8.23 Bills, petitions, and memorials were referred to the committee on such other businesses as local food markets (36A-E3, 43A-E4), Potomac fisheries (36A-E3), insurance companies (33A-H5), and hotels (33A-H5).

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.
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