An overlooked resource
The fire began, it is thought, in the workshop of James Green, a cabinet maker. His shop was on the east side of Royal Street, in the middle of the main square, bounded by Fairfax, Prince, Royal, and King Streets.It was just before 9:00 a.m. on that icy cold Thursday morning; the temperature, one contemporary account said, stood at 13 degrees.
It was the 18th of January 1827, and the City of Alexandria, Virginia, was on fire.
According to the Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, D.C., “the conflagration was awful, and the destruction of property very great, … from the raging fire in the thick of the town for five long hours, with a brisk North West wind-blowing.”1
More than 1,000 men — civilians and military, from both sides of the Potomac River — turned out to fight the fire, many responding to the plea from the city mayor sent by messenger to Washington. Before the fire was out, one man had died and another was injured when buildings collapsed, and many homes and commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed.2
Damages to homes and goods, the paper said, “could hardly have fallen short of two hundred thousand dollars.”3
The Alexandria Gazette reported that:
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, …; … every other house on the West side of Fairfax, and between Stabler’s and Prince-street, were almost simultaneously in flames, and were speedily consumed. … (The fire) crossed over Fairfax street to the East, consuming two three-story brick houses fronting thereon… (L)ighted shingles, borne by a powerful north-west wind, had kindled another, and a still more awful fire, in a separate part of town. … 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 directions, women and children were flying for safety, and houses that were not burst, were often on fire, sometimes a dozen at once.4
A town committee reported a total of 53 buildings destroyed and damages between $107,000 and $150,000.5
Faced with damages of that magnitude — well into the millions by today’s standards6 — the resident of Alexandria turned to the United States Congress for assistance and relief.
And they ran into a snag.Despite the fact that Alexandria was, at the time, part of the District of Columbia,7 and had no power of taxation or legislation of its own, some members of the House of Representatives expressed their doubts that Congress had the constitutional authority to appropriate public money for the aid of private citizens.
How do we know?
They said so.
And what they said was reported in the Register of Debates, a privately-published summary of congressional debates for the years 1824 through 1837.
Everything the representatives were concerned about, the facts marshaled to support arguments for and against the bill to grant the princely sum of $10,000 for the relief of Alexandria — it’s all there in the pages of these reports.
The simple fact is, there’s a wealth of information just waiting to be found in the volumes published over the years containing the debates of Congress — available in their entirety for the period from 1789 through 1875 — at the Library of Congress’ American Memory website.
This particular set of publications is described by the Library of Congress:
The Register of Debates is a record of the congressional debates of the 18th Congress, 2nd Session through the 25th Congress, 1st Session (1824-37). It is the second of the four series of publications containing the debates of Congress. It was preceded by the Annals of Congress and succeeded by the Congressional Globe.
There are fourteen numbered volumes in the Register of Debates series, resulting in a total of twenty-nine bound items. While each volume consists of an index, more complete access to the information may be obtained indirectly by using the indexes of the House and Senate Journals during the relevant session of Congress, which provide the dates on which action was taken. These dates can then be consulted in the Register of Debates. Appendixes include, but are not limited, to presidential messages and the text of laws.
The Register of Debates is not a verbatim account of the proceedings, but rather a summary of the “leading debates and incidents” of the period. It was published contemporaneously with the proceedings by a commercial printer, Gales and Seaton.
The Register of Debates and its successor, the Congressional Globe, overlap for a period of time (23rd Congress, 1st Session through 25th Congress, 1st Session; 1833-37).8
In the case of the Alexandria fire, you can read how the House itself adjourned on the 18th of January, when — in the midst of a debate over wool tariffs — one of the members “adverting to the conflagration at Alexandria, (expressed) his own inability to sit there in grave debate while such a scene was within view.”9
The House took up the relief bill as one of the first orders of business on Friday, January 19th, and the Register records the receipt of a letter from William Stabler of Alexandria, “giving a succinct statement of the extent of the loss suffered from the conflagration, and the amount that would be required to relieve the sufferings of those who had lost their homes … the number of Houses destroyed at between sixty and seventy, and the sum needed by the indigent portion of the sufferers, for their immediate relief, by food and clothing, at 20,000 dollars.”10
Over the pages that follow, there are accounts of the fire, accounts of other relief Congress had given in other cases, statements of constitutional interpretation by the members and much more.11
And that’s just on this one singular incident.
All told, the Library of Congress has all of the first set of debate reporters, the Annals of Congress, covering the first through 18th Congresses (1789-1824); the Register of Debates, covering the 18th Congress, 2nd Session through the 25th Congress, 1st Session (1824-1837); the Congressional Globe, covering the 23rd through 42nd Congresses (1833-1873); and the Congressional Record for the 43rd Congress.
The search function only covers the index to the debate reporters, so it’s not an every-name function except for the names of those members of Congress who actually spoke on a subject. But the subject index is decent — a search for the word “slavery” in the Register of Debates produced 100 hits; the word “piracy” produced 27; the phrase “lead mines” 11 exact hits.
The debates can be technical (only a law geek like The Legal Genealogist is going to appreciate whether the bill was laid on the table twice or not) but it’s easy to skim past the procedural details to the wealth of facts included in the arguments of the members. Give it a try. You never know what tidbits about your family, or about a situation your family might have faced, might be lurking in those pages.
And, by the way, the vote in the House on the final version of the bill, which provided $20,000 for the relief of Alexandria, was 109 to 67.12 It passed the Senate four days later by a vote of 27 to 17.13
Map, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
- “Awful Fire At Alexandria,” Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, D.C., 19 January 1827, p. 3, col. 3; digital images, GenealogyBank.com (http://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “The Late Fire,” Alexandria (Virginia) Gazette, 23 Jan 1827, p. 3, col. 1; digital images, GenealogyBank.com (http://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- “Discovering the Decades: 1820s,” City of Alexandria Virginia (http://alexandriava.gov : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- See generally Harold Henderson, “My ancestor had $1000 in 1860 — was he rich?,” Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 25 Jun 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- See Judy G. Russell, “Making a county a federal case,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 Mar 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- “Register of Debates” in “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- Register of Debates in Congress, … of the Second Session of the Nineteenth Congress (Washington, D.C. : Gales & Seaton, 1829), 751; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 19 Aug 2012). ↩
- Ibid., at 753. ↩
- Ibid., 754–773. ↩
- Gales & Seaton’s Register, 19th Congress, 2d Sess., House of Representatives, 19 Jan 1927, at 773. ↩
- Ibid., Senate, 23 Jan 1827, at 76. ↩