Discovering the Decades: 1780s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1780s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2020 at 3:05 PM

Points in Time

  • 1781: The Fourth of July is made a state holiday in Massachusetts and is celebrated with fireworks the first time in Newport, Rhode Island
  • 1783: The first true daily newspaper is published in the U.S.; the Purple Heart medal is created
  • 1784: The state of Franklin (western North Carolina) is denied admission to the Union
  • 1785: The dollar-based system of money is adopted (the motto "E Pluribus Unum" was adopted the next year); first U.S. agricultural society founded; a company is established to build the first U.S. turnpike, the Little River Turnpike, from Alexandria to Snicker's Gap, Virginia
  • 1786: The first spinning jenny for cotton is invented
  • 1787: The U.S. Constitution written
  • 1787: James Fitch successfully tests a steamboat on the Delaware River
  • 1788: First water powered wool yarn factory established in the U.S.; first dictionary published in the U.S.
  • 1789: U.S. Constitution is adopted
  • 1789: George Washington is elected first president  
  • 1789: First tariff legislation in Congress

The 1780s: The Revolution ends

Alexandrians entered a new decade after five years of war. The town had prospered from sales of grain and foodstuffs to the French and to the Continental Army. Alexandria and its environs were bustling as soldiers dug fortifications, performed commissary duties, hauled sick soldiers, and guarded the Potomac River to prevent the British from plundering the countryside.

Revolutionary War pension papers document that Alexandria served as a prisoner of war camp for Hessian mercenaries hired to fight for the British. Particularly in early 1781, British presence on the Potomac and periodic raids caused the militia to make occasional sorties to Mt. Vernon to protect General Washington's home from privateers and led to the construction of a new battery by the town's citizens. One raiding party actually attempted to cut a Baltimore vessel out of Alexandria harbor, but was driven off. [Donald Shomette, Maritime Alexandria; Ethelyn Cox, “Alexandria, Virginia May 1774—Dec. 1783;" Virginia Calendar of State Papers]

Alexandria's mayor, James Hendricks, a former army officer, was instrumental in encouraging the construction of additional defenses and in cajoling the local merchants and millers to accept the credit or inflated scrip of the Continental Army in exchange for provisions. His efforts were particularly valuable as the allies prepared for what would be the decisive battle of the war.

Failing to achieve a final victory in the northeast or the middle colonies, the British concentrated more of their efforts in the South. In early 1781, a British army led by the turncoat Benedict Arnold took Richmond and Portsmouth and routed the Virginia militia under the Baron von Steuben. Lord Cornwallis arrived with another army in May and insisted that Virginia should be the main theater of war. Major General Sir Henry Clinton refused to send reinforcements to Cornwallis but ordered him to remain to establish a base. As Cornwallis's men dug in at Yorktown, the Americans and French decided to capitalize on their temporary numerical advantage and attack.

The Compte de Grasse's French West Indian fleet bottled up the vaunted British fleet, and the armies of Rochambeau and Washington forced the trapped Cornwallis to surrender his command on October 19. Although the formal peace was more than a year off, all sides recognized that the outcome of the war on the American continent had been settled.

In the spring of 1782, Rochambeau's army marched north to depart for France. On July 19 they encamped on a plain north of Alexandria. During the troops' stay it was reported that:

the most elegant and handsome young ladies of the neighborhood danced with the officers on the turf, in the middle of the camp, to the sound of military music and ... the circle was in great measure composed of soldiers who from the heat off the weather, had disengaged themselves from their clothes, retaining not an article of dress except their shirts which in general were neither extremely long nor in the best condition nor did this occasion the least embarrassment to the ladies many of whom were of highly polished manners....[T. Michael Miller, ed., Pen Portraits]

After eight years of conflict the American colonies had secured their freedom from Great Britain, and Alexandria emerged from the tortuous ordeal virtually unscathed. In September 1783, Alexandria was favored by a visit from the renowned General Nathaniel Greene, hero of the campaigns in New Jersey and the Carolinas. The Marquis de Lafayette  appeared the following year. But by the end of the revolutionary struggle, George Washington had emerged as the pre-eminent hero of the conflict. His prestige could not have been any higher than the day he trotted into Alexandria on December 31, 1783, having recently resigned his commission at Annapolis, Maryland. His arrival was announced by the discharge of thirteen cannon after which a reception was tendered by the town's leading citizens at DuVall's tavern, 305 Cameron Street. [Theodore Thayer, Nathaniel Greene, Strategist of the American Revolution; Fireside Sentinel, September 1987; Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser]

Local politics and the Constitution

With the 1779 Act of Incorporation, Alexandria began its first decade of elected government. Each February, white male property holders twenty-one years of age and older who had been residents of the town for at least three months could choose by ballot, twelve "fit and able serve as a mayor, recorder, aldermen and common councilmen...the persons so elected shall within one week after their election, proceed to choose out of their own body, by ballot, one mayor, one recorder, and four aldermen and the remaining six shall be common councilmen..." The mayor, recorder and four aldermen also functioned as a Court of Hustings with authority to try civil and criminal actions whose penalty did not exceed ten pounds or one thousand pounds of tobacco. In addition, they appointed constables, clerks, a town sergeant and a surveyor of the streets; issued tavern licenses; and probated wills and deeds. Robert T. Hooe, a successful merchant, became the first mayor in 1780. [T. Michael Miller, "A Brief History of the Mayoralty and City Council of Alexandria, Virginia"; James R. Caton, Legislative Chronicles of The City of Alexandria; Fireside Sentinel, April 1987]

In November 1785, former Mayor Richard Conway and 74 Alexandria merchants presented a memorial to the Virginia General Assembly containing what is still a familiar complaint:

...the present situation of the United States with regard to their commerce with Foreign nations... is carried on upon very unequal terms and under many disadvantages.... Foreigners of all Nations are freely admitted into the American Ports and to export therefrom any commodities whatsoever, subject to scarcely an other restrictions or duties…. [William & Mary Quarterly, Series II, Vol. I]

To remedy the situation, Alexandria merchants advocated that the "Confederation Government should be modified so that Congress should be vested with certain rights over foreign Trade..." Undoubtedly, this petition gave impetus to the Maryland/Virginia Conferences of 1785. On March 20, George Mason and Alexander Henderson of Virginia met in Alexandria with Daniel Jenifer, Thomas Stone and Samuel Chase of Maryland to discuss navigational and boundary disputes on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. At the invitation of George Washington, the meeting adjourned to Mount Vernon on March 28th where a compact was signed by the two states guaranteeing free navigation of the Potomac. This conference precipitated the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which in turn led to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. It was no surprise that Alexandrians, who were Federalists to a man, supported the ratification of the Constitution. In 1789, Alexandrians gathered at Wise's Tavern to drink the first libation to the new government and to give the newly elected President Washington a proper send-off.

A political compromise had determined that a new national capital would be located in the South. Maryland and Virginia offered land bordering the Potomac River for the new federal city, and a committee of ten men from Alexandria and Georgetown, including John Fitzgerald, Robert T. Hooe and George Gilpin, published a broadside extolling the commercial advantages of the Potomac region.

Physical development

The year 1785 was an important one for local proponents of "internal improvements" in transportation. The General Assembly granted a charter for the construction of the "Little River Turnpike" west from Alexandria to Snicker's Gap. It was also in 1785 that the gentry of Virginia and Maryland met in Alexandria at Lomax's Tavern on Princess Street to organize a company to improve navigation of the Potomac. Known as the Potomac Company, it was spearheaded by George Washington who served as its first president. The enterprise was formed to construct a lateral canal around Great Falls and to improve navigation as far northwest as Cumberland, Maryland. By this time Alexandria was connected to Baltimore and Richmond by stage coach lines and packet boats. [William F. Smith & T. Michael Miller, A Seaport Saga]

The sound of the broad ax, saw and hammer were heard throughout Alexandria as many new houses, wharves and warehouses were built. In 1785 traveler Count Luigi Castiglioni described the town as "having 300 houses and a population of about 3,000 persons.... The public buildings included two churches (a Presbyterian and an Anglican), a Quaker Assembly and the municipal building. Alexandria then had various factories for the manufacture of bricks which, as the surrounding land was of soft, strong clay, could be made very cheaply." The first free school was established for orphans on the third floor of the new Alexandria Academy in 1785. [T. Michael Miller, ed., Pen Portraits]

The town again extended its boundaries in 1785 and 1786, largely because of the sales of additional tracts from the Alexander family's adjoining holdings. Unlike the streets laid out in the 1760s and early 1770s, new streets were not named for heroes of the French and Indian War — like Wolfe and Montgomery — but for heroes of the Revolution, Virginian patriots, and Englishmen sympathetic to the American cause, including Nathaniel Greene, LaFayette, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Washington, George Wythe, and John Wilkes. [Alexandria Gazette; Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser; Henings Statutes at Large]

Commercial development

In response to a 1779 petition, the Virginia General Assembly made Alexandria an international port of entry with its own customs officer, Charles Lee, and customs house, 305 Cameron Street. From 1781 to 1783, a minimum of 85 vessels annually cleared and entered the harbor of Alexandria. Tobacco and flour exports rose dramatically at the end of the war. By 1783, trade patterns had largely been re-established with Europe with about half of Alexandria's export tonnage being transported there and most of the rest to the West Indies. [Joseph A. Goldenberg, "Virginia Port" in Chesapeake in the American Revolution]

Post-Revolutionary Alexandria witnessed a period of economic growth and development exhibited by the establishment of the town's first newspaper, the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, which was primarily a business and commercial paper but carried brief items of the nation and the world.

Alexandria had truly come of age; all manner of items from anywhere in the world could be had here if the price was right. In close proximity one might find Dutch wholesalers, French dry goods dealers, sellers of Barbadian rum and Madeira wine, and exporters of flour and wheat for the European and West Indian markets.

All was not rosy, however. A postwar recession depressed trade late in the decade. The local tobacco trade had also dropped considerably because of soil exhaustion, continuing low prices, and the widespread cultivation of wheat. Some of the towns which had depended on the shipment of tobacco — towns like Colchester, Virginia and Bladensburg, Maryland — nearly disappeared. Alexandria's shipbuilding was also curtailed, possibly by a lack of suitable local timber and because of the existence of more profitable uses to which to put prime waterfront lots.

A Place in Time

Little survives of Alexandria's maritime heritage. Most eighteenth century buildings gave way to termites and industrialization. But more than one building still remains from the town's golden years as an international port. Stand at the intersection of Union and King Streets, and you will immediately notice its distinct character. Now the home of a Thai restaurant and a Starbucks, Fitzgerald's warehouse at 6 King Street is one of few surviving eighteenth-century warehouses in Old Town.

A "dashing" and "agreeable broad-shouldered Irishman," John Fitzgerald served as colonel of the Virginia militia and an aide- de-camp to Washington. He had moved to Alexandria in 1769 and returned after the war, purchasing, with Valentine Peers, the south side of the 200 block of King Street in 1788. The town council also granted him the sunken ground to the east of this lot. He proceeded to bank out 400 feet from the shoreline at King and Water (Lee) Streets, creating Fitzgerald's Wharf. On the wharf he constructed three brick warehouses. The uppermost stories of the buildings were joined to provide a 42 x 73-foot sail loft "all under one roof." [Fireside Sentinel, August 1991; Ethelyn Cox, Historic Alexandria Street by Street].

Colonel Fitzgerald served as mayor and collector of the port, but perhaps his most lasting contribution was his organization of fundraising for Alexandria's first Catholic church. He resolved to raise the necessary money on St. Patrick's Day, 1788 while at his home entertaining George Washington and others, debating the ratification of the Constitution and other matters of the day. Fitzgerald provided his home for Sunday Mass for Alexandria's Catholics until the edifice was finished. Constructed on land donated by Thornton Alexander (near the present Washington Street entrance to t. Mary's Cemetery), the church was not completed until 1795. Fitzgerald passed away at his home about four years later, twelve days before the death of his old friend, George Washington. [St. Mary's Catholic Church, St. Mary's: 200 Years for Christ]

Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.

Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.