Discovering the Decades: 1820s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1820s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Feb 20, 2020 at 10:34 AM

Points in Time

  • 1820: Missouri Compromise; New York is largest American city; only six percent of Americans live in cities
  • 1821: Santa Fe Trail opened; American Colonization Society establishes African colony of Liberia; Saturday Evening Post founded
  • 1821-1826: U.S. recognizes republican governments in Spain’s former Latin American colonies
  • 1821-1827: Half of the decade’s annual best selling books are novels by James Fenimore Cooper, including three of his “Leatherstocking Tales”  
  • 1822: Planned slave revolt crushed in Charleston
  • 1823: Monroe Doctrine declared  
  • 1824: Henry Clay defends higher tariff protection and funding for internal improvements to develop American economy; policy of Indian removal from the East begins about this time; beginning of religious revival movement known as the Great Awakening and schisms within established churches
  • 1825: Erie Canal opens
  • 1826: Internal combustion engine patented  
  • 1828: Highest U.S. tariff duties yet: John Calhoun writes treatise on state nullification of federal laws; C & O Canal begins construction; B & O Railroad chartered; Audubon publishes first volume of Birds of America
  • 1829: Andrew Jackson inaugurated as President and introduces “spoils system” on an unprecedented level

The early 1820s were a period of relative peace at home, the "Era of Good Feelings." Perhaps the greatest U.S. foreign policy initiative was the opening of relations with Spain's former American colonies and the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, a toothless warning to Europe that the New World was to be off limits to future colonization.

Meanwhile, the seeds of future upheavals were being planted. The organization of the work place was rapidly shifting from a home/shop environment to one of "operatives" in a mechanized factory setting. Among the political and social consequences, were the formation of unions and the indirect encouragement of numerous religious revivals, sometimes known as the "Second Great Awakening." Kentucky Senator Henry Clay  advocated high tariffs to protect America's young industries, while South Carolinian John C. Calhoun decried the tariff as unfair to the agrarian South, importers of finished goods. The "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828, passed largely due to a miscalculation by Andrew Jackson supporters in Congress, was answered by a Calhoun treatise which put forward the doctrine of state nullification of federal laws and helped set the stage for the Southern secession to come.

Also foreshadowing the conflict of mid century, of course, was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The facile trade-off admission of Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state would not be possible in the aftermath of the Mexican War  of the 1840s and would lead to virtual civil war in Kansas and a true Civil War that would rock the nation.

Even in Virginia, there were diverse opinions about slavery at this time. Opposition to slavery in the North began to make slave holders more defensive and intransigent. But segments of Alexandria society vigorously opposed slavery as a terrible blight upon society. Most, however, saw no solution but to return blacks to Africa and, in 1823, organized a local chapter of the American Colonization Society  to raise funds to resettle African Americans in Liberia. Although this seems now to have been hopelessly unrealistic, many people worked tirelessly to ruin the institution of slavery-before the experiences of the next three decades destroyed all hopes.

In 1820 Alexandria, D.C. was a town of 8,218 inhabitants of whom 5,515 were white and 2,603 were African American, including 1,168 free blacks and 1,435 slaves. Visitors’ accounts vividly describe the town.

Females amongst them uncommonly intelligent, uncommonly courteous and polite in their behaviour with each other and especially with strangers. Polite and courteous conduct of the youth of Alexandria does much credit to parents, to the teachers, to the clergy and to human nature itself. Again the inhabitants of this town are uncommonly industrious, uncommonly moral; but above all their excellencies, the disposition of benevolence stands conspicuous.... The women dress too fine and also appear too often in the streets. [Alexandria Gazette 3/6/1823]

Even as many "uncommonly moral" Alexandrians were campaigning to resettle African Americans, the firm of Franklin and Armfield  opened their slave market at 1315 Duke Street (now Freedom House Museum) for the purpose of selling surplus northern Virginia slaves in the deep South. Indeed, most observers probably saw no need even for reform. "The slaves of this place bear every mark of good treatment; they look happy and are comfortably clothed, though not half so fine or richly dressed. [Ann Royall, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States  (1826), reprinted in Pen Portraits of Alexandria, Virginia, 1739 - 1900, courtesy Sarah Revis; edited by T. Michael Miller, Heritage Books, Inc. 1987]

An English visitor was complimentary about the inhabitants, but criticized the appearance of the town:

Alexandria is built precisely on the plan of Philadelphia and is indeed frequently called Philadelphia in miniature... The houses have a mean appearance. There is ...scarcely one handsome mansion in the place. A great many of the habitations are of wood and are called frame houses from their being built in a frame on a moveable foundation: They are capable of being moved from one part of the town to another, a transition which frequently takes place; and it is no uncommon thing for a man who does not like his situation. This is done by loosening the earth from the foundation and hoisting them by means of levers upon a strong and low machine, something like our brewers' drays but square instead of oblong; in this manner they are carried to any part of the town which the owner deems more eligible.... The trade was destroyed by pirates during Mr. Adams administration along with the yellow fever which raged there very virulently a few years... ["The Confessions of a Rambler," The Repository (London, 1824), vol. III, No. VIII, p. 278.]

In 1826, an extensive social description of Alexandria was published by Ann Royall, an itinerant travel writer, who penned a detailed description of its people and physical environs. She had doubts about the town's future prosperity, but commented that the Corporation maintained spacious, well-paved, well-lighted, kept clean and safe streets. She praised the handsome market house and bank buildings and the availability of good seafood and exotic fruits and vegetables. [Ann Royall, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States (1826), reprinted in Pen Portraits of Alexandria, Virginia, 1739 - 1900, courtesy Sarah Revis; edited by T. Michael Miller, Heritage Books, Inc. 1987]

Alexandria's Economy

The economic panic of 1819 severely hurt Alexandria, and a malaise hovered over the community. Numbers of Alexandrians mortgaged their houses and businesses and were forced to sell them at public auction. Bankruptcy records for the period vividly record this turbulent epoch.

By the mid 1820s, however, the economy had dramatically improved. Among the new industrial concerns was T.W. Smith and Co., an early manufacturer of steam engines. The town's recovery, however, was led by flour exports. Flour inspector James Cloud estimated that more than 200,000 barrels would have been inspected here between the October 1, 1825 and October 1, 1826-a number which was expected to "exceed the inspection of Richmond and consequently entitle Alexandria to rank as the fifth flour market in the Union." [Alexandria Gazette, 7/3/1826] Some observers pointed out that the town was making little forward progress depending on this single oar and failing to organize to effectively extend its commercial sphere to the mountains and beyond.

Even the founding of the Franklin and Armfield slave pen to buy up surplus slaves for shipment south was a tacit acknowledgment that the soil of the countryside was largely played out.

Alexandrians largely blamed their commercial condition on the District of Columbia and the government's favoritism toward Washington City. "There seems to prevail amongst the citizens of Alexandria, a deep rooted enmity against the Federal city; they sigh to be reunited to the state of Virginia. They are now engaged in an attempt to separate themselves from the District of Columbia by a petition to Congress...." [Ann Royall, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States]

And then, a disaster occurred which probably affected Alexandria more adversely than any other single event-the tragic fire of January 1827.

The fire originated, by accident in the workshop of Mr. James Green, cabinet maker, which stood in the interior of the square bounded by Fairfax, Prince, Royal, and King Streets and near the intersection of the two last.... The back buildings of several houses on Royal Street were consumed, as was also a frame dwelling fronting on the alley, and immediately south of Mr. Green's work shop. The fire soon reached Fairfax Street where it was checked on the North by the three story fire proof, occupied by Messrs. Edward Stabler and Sons as a drug store, but every other house on the West side of Fairfax Street south to Prince Street was simultaneously wrapped in flames and speedily consumed. From Fairfax and Prince Streets the fire jumped to the corner of Water [Lee] and Prince. In a few minutes, both sides of Prince-Street, between Water and Union, together with a warehouse on the east side of Water Street-four others on the West side of Union Street south of Prince, and three others on the same side of Union, north of Prince-were all in flames, and every house except two was destroyed-many of them with their whole contents.... For five hours the flames were rushing from house to house with increasing fury-furniture and goods, were scattered in every direction, women and children were flying for safety, and houses that were not burnt, were often on fire, sometimes dozens at once. [Alexandria Gazette 1/23/1827]

A town committee calculated the destruction at "53 buildings consisting of dwellings, ware and storehouses, exclusive of a number of stables and other outbuildings; all of which are valued at sixty thousand nine hundred and twenty dollars; and personal property which we have estimated at forty-six thousand, three hundred and fifty-seven dollars; making an aggregate sum of one hundred seven thousand, two hundred and seventy-seven dollars." Other damage estimates ranged as high as $150,000.

Alexandria was so prostrated by this conflagration that the U.S. Congress appropriated funds for disaster relief. Several representatives, however, questioned the constitutionality of providing such aid to a private corporation.

There was hopeful news, however. The new Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company commenced a canal along the Potomac in 1828, intended to reach the markets and the raw materials of the Ohio Valley. Alexandrians were soon itching to hitch their wagons to this star.

Social Life and Cultural Organizations

Not every aspect of Alexandria society was dominated by business and commerce. All was not work without play. Alexandrians enjoyed many amusements including the theater and musical performances. The local theater was situated on the north side of the 400 block of Cameron Street. In February 1821, among the many performances staged, the Alexandria Thespian Society presented a tragedy in 5 acts called "Broken Faith" for the benefit of the town museum. Another playwright, George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson, also staged a number of plays in Alexandria. In 1827, his play the "Indian Prophecy" was staged in Alexandria, and its principal character was George Washington. The next year "The Railroad and the Canal"-prescient about the success of the railroad-was presented both in Alexandria and Washington and featured the first use of a railroad locomotive in a theater production.

On the musical scene Alexandria boasted its own amateur symphony orchestra as early as 1820, led by Signor Masi from Boston. In May 1820, a Signor Muscarellis agreed to teach vocal music and piano. By 1826, David Martin informed the public of his classes for the study of sacred music which would be offered at Mrs. Muir's School at the corner of Prince and Washington Streets. These gentlemen were just a small number of the many artists who taught music, performed and sold musical instruments in Alexandria during the decade.

Undoubtedly the social event of the decade was General Lafayette's visit to Alexandria during his 1824-1825 Grand Tour of America. The General was received with great affection and stirred feelings of nostalgia for the idealized golden era of the Revolution. The Alexandria Gazette of October 19, 1824, vividly described the scene:

Between twelve and one o'clock General LaFayette entered the line from the Potomac Bridge, under a salute of artillery from Capt. Williams's company. Here he was met by General Walter Jones and suite.... LaFayette then entered a splendid barouche, drawn by four fine greys, [and escorted to Alexandria].... The procession entered the town through Columbus Street, went through a part of King into Washington Street. During the passage of the procession, the windows of the houses were filled with ladies, who, as they waved their handkerchiefs, told the General that he was welcome.... About three o'clock, Gen. LaFayette, accompanied by the residue of the procession, passed through the Grand Arch under a national salute of 24 guns.

After Gen. LaFayette had been conducted through the Arch, he passed the line of troops in King Street who were at presented arms. On his arrival at Royal Street, an impressive ceremony occurred which, in sublimity and moral effect, surpasses all: one hundred young girls and one hundred boys from seven to twelve years of age were arrayed in lines extending to the Reception room.... In the reception room [at Clagett's Tavern] the General was met by [Mayor Roberts] who spoke as follows: "In behalf of the Common council and my fellow citizens, I have the honor to bid you a cordial and affectionate welcome to the town of Alexandria." When the ceremony was concluded the Mayor and General Jones conducted him to the house which had been secured for his accommodations at 301 South St. Asaph Street.

Alexandria supported a private library company and several circulating libraries which catered to the literary tastes of the community. Thomas Mountford operated a town museum on the third floor of the Market House which housed many interesting relics including Revolutionary War memorabilia and mementos which belonged to George Washington, Alexandria's favorite son. This institution was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1871, but some of the museum’s collections are now at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial [T. Michael Miller, Portrait of A town - Alexandria District of Columbia [Virginia] 1820-1830].

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.