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A decade of new enterprise-- and new concerns: The 1790s

June 7, 2003 1:07 am

Last of a 13-part series

THE MERCHANTS of Fredericksburg in the 1790s were enjoying the fruits of free enterprise. The merchandise for their stores arrived from England and Scotland and also American seaports and the West Indies. The newspaper made it possible to attract patrons as soon as a cargo arrived.

By 1790, there were two merchant wharves in addition to the public wharf (which was rented out)--James Somerville's at the foot of Frederick Street and William Glassell's below town. Some merchants collectively organized a wharf at the lower end of town (just below today's City Dock) and there would soon be more.

Council elections were held annually. On election day, property owners gathered at the Market House to drop their lists in the ballot box. The votes were instantly tallied. The top 12 vote receivers, none of whom had campaigned, were the next council.

Until the middle of the 1790s, the leaders who had served from the beginning remained on the top of voter lists and there was relatively little turnover.

In 1795, however, eight newcomers were voted into office in the spring election. Dr. Charles Mortimer, George French and James Somerville, all former mayors and leaders since the corporation was formed in 1782, did not receive a sufficient number of votes to rank in the top 12.

The newcomers were principally merchants. The domestic reforms enacted by the new council were not remarkable--more patrols to keep order in the streets, repairs to the Market House, a new ducking stool, and a quarantined house for infectious diseases. (Smallpox was still feared.) The problem of hogs running in the streets had never gone away. In 1798, the council made a count of hogs in the town; there were 244.

There was evidently a growing dissatisfaction with the haphazard disbursement practices that were a throwback to the old county "levy," tallying expenses and reimbursing them at the end of the year.

Further, the costs of welfare were spiraling upward, and the members assigned as Overseers of the Poor (a responsibility passed to the town from the Colonial church laws) were incurring ever larger personal outlays for which they had to be reimbursed.

Fredericksburg had an income problem from the beginning of its incorporation. But there was a deeper dissatisfaction, going back to the removal of the courthouse in 1780, which had been vigorously opposed. Now, there was a district court in town, which provided an alternative to the council's hustings court.

Town government was being viewed by some as a needless expense. Also, because of the welfare obligation assigned to the town in the charter, "the poor of neighboring counties easily obtain a residence," some complained, thus adding to the town's financial burdens.

In 1797, George Spooner, part of the "new blood" and now chamberlain (treasurer), organized the expenses and receipts in summary form, giving Fredericksburg its first financial statement. The expenses (about $900) outweighed the taxes and receipts by about $100.

Quite possibly prompted by Spooner's analysis, 185 petitioners (about three-fourths of all the property owners and tenants) formally sought to end Fredericksburg's status as an incorporated town. They requested the assembly to return Fredericksburg to its Colonial status as a precinct of the county, having only constables and trustees. Even James Somerville and George French, two former mayors, signed the petition sent to the assembly.

But their petition was ignored.

There seems to have been a strategy evolving by the council, however, to take a new tack. Clearly, revenues from rents, licenses and commissions would not produce much more income. What was needed was a broader tax base.

By 1790, Fredericksburg's population had been surpassed by many of Virginia's towns and cities--Norfolk, Richmond, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Alexandria and even Winchester.

A large proportion of Fredericksburg's 288 lots were still untaxed. This was principally a consequence of quadrupling the town size in 1759, for in both of the additions, many lots had gone untaxed or even unpurchased. A clause in the 1759 legislation (evidently forgotten by later generations) had even exempted buyers from the requirement to build within six months.

Also, the owners of the 30 acres purchased from Henry Willis' estate in the 1740s had successfully resisted inclusion in the new boundaries drawn in 1759, with a special exemption passed by the assembly.

With Fredericksburg's incorporation in 1782, the council fell heir to these realities. Especially at the lower end of town, property owners had tracts that covered several acres.

The new perimeters established in the 1759 expansion authorized by the assembly had primarily generated profits for the landowners without any obligations for county services.

But now, the incorporated town of more than 1,000 residents was obligated by its charter to supply more services than the county had supported. And still more services would be needed to promote the welfare and safety of the citizens. The old way of doing things would no longer suffice to keep the leaky new ship of state afloat.

Perhaps the new blood on the council in the closing years of the 18th century perceived the nature of their problem. The early years of the 19th century would see the first fruits of their efforts.

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