DC Abolishes the Slave Trade

The United States Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia on September 20, 1850, as part of the legislative package called the Compromise of 1850. Since the founding of the District of Columbia in 1800, enslaved people had lived and worked in the nation’s capital. By the mid-nineteenth century, laws regulating slavery in the District were considerably more lenient than slave codes in the rest of the South, but slavery continued to exist in Washington until April 16, 1862. On that day, President Lincoln signed legislation freeing the 3,000 African Americans bound by the District’s slave code.

The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia… Washington: L. Towers, 1862. Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860. Law Library

Antebellum Washington was home to a thriving community of free blacks. The laws of Southern states commonly prohibited manumitted persons from remaining within state boundaries. Forced to seek a new life far from friends and family, many former enslaved persons migrated to Washington. By 1860, free blacks outnumbered the enslaved by nearly four to one in the city.

Certificate of Freedom of Harriet Bolling, Petersburg, Virginia, 1851. Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period. The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Carter G. Woodson Collection. Manuscript Division

Many Northern states abolished slavery and slave trading during the early national period. However, section 9 of the United States Constitution specified, “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight. Urging New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, revolutionary patriot and Federalist John Jay noted:

What is proposed to be done by England is already done in Virginia, Delaware, and Rhode-Island, and it is likely to take place in all the States of America. It will be an honour to this country, and the most glorious event in the present reign, if the example should be followed here.

Extract from an Address to the People of the State of New-York, on the Subject of the Constitution.” [New York: 1788]. Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

The United States banned further slave importation in 1808, as soon as the Constitution allowed. Essentially a dead letter by the end of the Civil War, the institution of slavery was permanently dismantled by passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Alexandria, Va. Price, Birch & Co., Dealers in Slaves, 283 Duke St.. William Redish Pywell, photographer, August 1863. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

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Otis and his Elevator

On September 20, 1853, Elisha Graves Otis sold his first “hoist machines,” or elevators, featuring an automatic safety brake that he had recently patented. His seemingly simple invention—guaranteed to stop a rising platform from falling if the ropes that held it broke—not only launched Otis’s business, but made possible the development of passenger elevators. Elevators enabled the modern high-rise building. Before 1850 most buildings were no more than six stories tall, but today’s skyscrapers range from fifty to more than one hundred stories in height.

New York Crystal Palace for the exhibition of the industry of all nations/ designed by Carstensen & Gildemeister, N.Y. Carl Emil Doepler, artist; Nagel & Weingärtner, lithographer; New York: Goupil & Co., c1852. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

Otis opened his small enterprise on the banks of the Hudson River in Yonkers, New York, in a space where he still worked as the foreman of a bedstead factory. At first few people, including Otis himself, recognized the full implications of his new invention. He only abandoned plans to join the California gold rush after receiving an unsolicited order for two freight elevators with safety brakes. To produce them, he went into business with his sons Charles and Norton.

In the elevator [of the Washington Monument]. 1887. Illus. in: Hutchins and Moore, A Souvenir of the Federal Capital. 1887, p. 86. Prints & Photographs Division

Lacking further orders, however, Otis arranged with P. T. Barnum to publicly demonstrate his device at the first American world’s fair in New York City. During May 1854, as the legend goes, Otis would mount an open elevator platform installed at the center of the Crystal Palace exposition hall, hoist himself to the ceiling, and with the dramatic flash of a saber, cut the rope. As the platform began to plummet toward the ground, Otis’ patented safety brake kicked in with a jolt and broke the elevator’s fall. “All safe, gentlemen, all safe,” became his famous refrain. This showmanship launched the elevator industry, so that by 1856 Otis’s sales totaled twenty-seven elevators.

Broadway: The Store of Messrs. E. V. Haughwout and Co. Illus. in The Illustrated London News, April 2, 1859. Prints & Photographs Division

The world’s first commercial passenger elevator was installed by Otis in 1857, at the E. V. Haughwout & Company department store in New York City. Powered by steam, it rose at a speed of forty feet per minute. Early passenger elevators featured posh decorations and seating and were controlled by conductors. Hotels such as the Occidental in San Francisco, the St. Charles in New Orleans, and Congress Hall in Saratoga Springs, were among the first structures to adopt passenger elevators. A Saratoga guidebook for 1872 reported of Congress Hall that “broad, commodious stairways, with the finest elevator in the country, render every portion readily accessible… The proprietors have endeavored to incorporate into this hotel everything that can afford comfort and pleasure, at whatever expense.” 1

The Chicago Building of The Home Insurance Co. of New York. William LeBaron Jenney, architect; Boston: L. Prang & Co., [1885]. Prints & Photographs Division

The passenger elevator paired with steel frame construction techniques made the development of the skyscraper possible. Generally considered the world’s first skyscraper, William Le Baron Jenney’s ten-story Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago was the first to incorporate steel as a structural material. Built in 1885, it was serviced by four passenger elevators. The 1913 Woolworth Building boasted twenty-six elevators; the 1931 Empire State Building required fifty-eight. The first fully automatic self-service elevators were installed in Dallas, Texas, in 1950. Twenty years later, elevators in Chicago’s John Hancock Center soared upward at 1,800 feet per minute and, until its catastrophic destruction on September 11, 2001, the 110-story World Trade Center in New York City operated 252 elevators and 71 escalators manufactured by Otis.

Idlewild Airport Arrivals Building. Escalator. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer for Mears Advertising Co., July 23, 1958. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
  1. R. F. Dearborn. Saratoga and How to See It. (Saratoga, NY: C. D. Slocum, 1872). p 72. (Return to text)

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Chester A. Arthur

On September 20, 1881, Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the twenty-first president of the United States, assuming the presidency upon the death of James A. Garfield. Eleven weeks earlier, Garfield had been shot by Charles J. Guiteau in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Depot in Washington, D.C.

The private swearing-in ceremony took place at 2:15am in the front parlor of Arthur’s home in New York City. The oath of office was administered by New York Supreme Court Judge John R. Brady. Two days later, Arthur was publicly sworn in by Chief Justice Morrison Waite in the Vice President’s Room at the U.S. Capitol. Among the attendees were former presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes.

The death of President Garfield–Judge Brady administering the Presidential oath to Vice-President Arthur, at his residence in New York, September 20th. Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated Newspaper, Oct. 8, 1881, p.81. Prints & Photographs Division

Chester A. Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont, on October 5, 1829. After graduating from Union College in Schenectady, New York, Arthur went on to become an educator and a lawyer. In 1859, he married Ellen “Nell” Herndon, who tragically died of pneumonia in 1880 at the age of forty-two.

During the American Civil War, Arthur served as an officer in the New York State Militia, rising to the rank of Quartermaster General. After the war, Arthur returned to his law practice and became active in New York Republican Party politics, working closely with party boss and U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling. With Conkling’s support, Arthur was appointed as Customs Collector of the Port of New York in 1871, the most financially lucrative patronage position in the United States.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Arthur was selected as James A. Garfield’s vice-presidential nominee as a reward to Conkling, who had initially championed Ulysses S. Grant’s failed renomination bid.

Our nation’s choice–Gen. James Abram Garfield, Republican candidate for President, Gen. Chester A. Arthur, Republican Candidate for Vice-President. New York: Published by Haasis & Lubrecht, 1880. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

As president, Arthur developed an independent streak, surprising his political friends by supporting civil service reform. In 1883, he signed the Pendleton Act, which established a merit-based system for hiring federal government employees.

On the threshold of office–what have we to expect of him? Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, artist; Illus. from Puck, v.10, no.238, (1881 September 28). Prints & Photographs Division

With an influx of immigrants arriving in the U.S. during the 1880s, Congress turned its attention to passing new immigration legislation. Arthur initially vetoed the proposed Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, believing the twenty-year immigration ban was too harsh. After the bill was revised and the ban lowered to ten years, Arthur signed the bill into law. Three months later, the first general federal immigration law was also enacted.

Early in his presidency, Arthur was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney ailment. With his health worsening, he made only a token effort to win reelection in 1884, losing the Republican nomination to James G. Blaine. On November 18, 1886, less than two years after leaving office, Arthur died of kidney disease at his home in New York City.

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  • The Chester Alan Arthur Papers consist of 4,400 items (7,667 images), most of which were digitized from 10 reels of previously produced microfilm. Spanning the years 1843-1960, with the bulk dating from 1870 to 1888, the collection contains correspondence, financial papers, scrapbooks, clippings, and other papers relating to Arthur’s presidency, his service as collector of customs for the Port of New York, and his work with the New York Republican State Committee.
  • Chester A. Arthur: A Resource Guide compiles links to digital materials related to Arthur such as manuscripts, broadsides, government documents, newspaper articles, sheet music, and images that are available throughout the Library of Congress website. In addition, it provides links to external websites focusing on Arthur and a bibliography containing selected works for both general and younger readers.
  • Staff of the Newspaper & Current Periodicals Division have created a research guide to the Chester A. Arthur Administration. This guide provides access to articles in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.