Washington’s Reconstruction Experiment

If you’ve ever wondered why Washington, D. C. did not have a permanent elected government until the 1960s, this post is for you.

Since Southern racism and violence against blacks were prominent characteristics of Reconstruction, modern historians provide abundant examples, to the near exclusion of other matters. The present standard Reconstruction textbook by Columbia’s Eric Foner, for example, makes no mention of the incident below beyond noting that the Freedmen’s Savings Bank made bad investments in Washington, D. C. He does not explain why the investments soured.

As an object lesson for the rest of the country, in January 1867 the Republican-controlled Congress granted African-Americans the right to vote in Washington City and mandated racially segregated schools in the town. Three years later the city was so impoverished that the mayor’s furniture was seized to pay municipal debts. In response, Congress organized a unified territorial District government, which became known as Washington, D. C.


After serving as Vice Chairman of the District’s Public Works Board, Republican Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to be territorial governor in 1873. Among Shepherd’s initiatives popular with voters who paid little in direct taxes was an ambitious spending program to modernize the capital city. Partly because of strong support among black voters Shepherd was able to get a bond referendum approved to finance the expenditures. Although a vote was not officially required, the victory enabled  Shepherd to proclaim that his program was consistent with the popular will. The District’s mostly white direct taxpayers and property owners, however, were horrified by the implications of the ballooning debt.

A year later the $6 million program had already exceeded $9 million. When local taxpayers complained of losing properties for tax deficiencies caused by the reckless and fraudulent spending, the House of Representatives formed a bi-partisan investigative committee. It learned that the program’s chief beneficiary was a ring of Shepherd business associates and real estate developers.

While Republicans were unwilling to perpetuate a censured government that might continue to be vulnerable to irresponsible manipulation of black voters by corrupted whites, they did not want to backtrack on African-American suffrage. Congress might otherwise be compelled as a matter of consistency to spread the retrenchment to former Confederate states thereby losing the Republican Party’s largest and most reliable voting block in eleven states. Consequently, the committee recommended unanimously that the District’s territorial government be abolished and replaced by a presidentially appointed board of commissioners. All voters were disfranchised.

The District went into bankruptcy after an audit revealed its bills were $13 million in arrears. Among the casualties was the Freedmen’s Savings Bank whose chief depositors were ex-slaves. In response to the temporary boom triggered by Shepherd’s unsustainable spending, the bank had invested heavily in Washington real estate. When its doors closed in 1874 it had only $31,000 to cover the deposits of 61,000 accounts. Boss Shepherd moved his family to Mexico in 1876 after declaring personal bankruptcy. The District did not completely repay the Shepherd era debts until 1916.

After the commission government was functioning, Congress agreed to pay half the District’s municipal operating expenses. Elected government would not return to Washington, D. C. until the 1960s civil rights era. Shepherd’s misgovernment, partly enabled by manipulation of poorly educated black voters, brought some of the evils common in Carpetbag regimes that Southern whites had been complaining about to the doorstep of congressmen from the rest of the country. The sobering experience was one factor that prompted Northern politicians to increasingly question the merits of Radical Reconstruction and to consider the potential merits of Southern home rule.


My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated



2 thoughts on “Washington’s Reconstruction Experiment

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Indeed “they” will.

      A good test for identifying a politically correct Reconstruction textbook is the absence of the name “Alexander Shepherd” in the book’s index.


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