The first acts of Richmond’s city government involved building codes and a demand that the performing arts center management pay its taxes.
On July 3, 1782, the Common Hall, as it was called, declared that all houses on Main Street “shall be of the pitch of 10 feet in the lower story” and should stand 8 feet from the street. No shed could face Main Street at right angles, except those for which there were already contracts. It also was ordered that Mr. Ryan, manager of the theater in the city, render an account of the number of plays performed in Richmond since the last settlement and pay the tax due, pending suspension of operations.
Richmond ratified its city charter on May 6, 1782, and on July 2, the first municipal election among white men of property put forth 12 representatives to serve as the “Body Corporate.” No ordinary-keeper — that is, an inn or tavern owner — could serve on the Common Hall.
The new council met at the Henrico County Courthouse near 22nd and East Main streets. The first of three courthouses rose there in 1751. James Cocke sold the land to Henrico with the stipulation that should the courthouse be moved elsewhere “then the said lot shall revert and be the property of James Cocke and his heirs forever.” That matter wasn’t resolved until 1992 with an auction that divvied the proceeds among Cocke’s descendants.
The 1782 tax census reveal the holdings and ages of Richmond’s first administrators, most of whom owned enslaved African-Americans, the number of whom was dutifully recorded along with livestock and wagons or carriages (referenced as “wheels”).
1. Pottery manufacturer owner Isaac Younghusband, 55, (two slaves)
2. Merchant William Hay, 33, (eight slaves, one cow)
3. Merchant James Hunter, 35, (no property recorded)
4. Robert Mitchell, 35, (seven slaves, three cows, five horses, one mare, four wheels)
(Photo courtesy: Cook Collection, The Valentine)
5. Physician William Foushee, 31, (six slaves, two cattle, three horses, six wheels)
6. Mill owner, merchant and developer Richard Adams, 56, (18 slaves, eight cows, three horses, and six wheels)
7. James Buchanan, 45, merchant and older brother of renowned Episcopal minister John Buchanan, (no property recorded)
8. Chairmaker Samuel Scherer, 25, (four slaves, three cows, one horse)
9. Merchant and future mayor (1790) Robert Boyd, 30, (eight slaves, one cows, one horse)
10. Jacquelin Ambler, 40, Virginia treasurer, (nine slaves); Ambler also was called the “The Aristides of Virginia,” who, after catching an embezzling clerk, repaid the treasury from his own pocket
11. Attorney John Beckley, 25, (six slaves); Beckley was a child-indentured servant who bought a Richmond lot just four days prior to the election to qualify as a freeholder eligible for office. He would become the city’s second mayor, and was a radical anti-Federalist instrumental in blowing the whistle on Alexander Hamilton’s dalliance with Philadelphian Maria Reynolds. To ensure secrecy, Hamilton paid her husband, James, hush money.
12. Scots-born, Revolutionary War veteran and merchant John McKeand, 40, (10 slaves, 4 cows, 2 horses)
These men on July 3, 1782, voted Foushee as the city’s first mayor. That Foushee’s peers held him in some regard was evidenced by how he held every other public and private post in city and state civic life that John Marshall did not. A native Virginia descendant of French Huguenots, Foushee studied at, but did not take a degree from, the University of Edinburgh before service as a medical practitioner for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. He assisted in a charm offensive to encourage the switching of sides by captured British officers. Not everyone agreed with the cozy treatment of the enemy. In 1779, while Foushee showed Lt. Thomas Asbury around town, a street tough assaulted the doctor, attempting to jab out one of Foushee’s eyes with a thumbnail, grown long and hardened with wax. Anburey subdued the man while Foushee the physician pushed his own dangling eye back into its socket.
Foushee recovered his eye, solicitous character and all else to become a powerful Jefferson ally.
Richmond’s first administrators divided the city into wards and conducted a census of inhabitants and taxable property. A hustings (criminal) court first gaveled into session on Monday, July 15, 1782. No building yet existed for the Common Hall to consistently meet, and neither did a city jail, so a rent arrangement was made with Henrico County to use its courthouse and lock-up.
The Common Council was to run a city that by 1790 counted a population of 1,062 people — 563 whites, 448 enslaved people, and 50 free blacks. All the Richmond's of 1790 would today almost fill The Byrd Theatre.
One of the city’s first proposed massive public works projects was the construction of a stone bridge over the wide and flood-prone Shockoe Creek. The city’s budget wouldn’t cover the cost, though, and in November 1782, the Common Hall petitioned the House of Delegates for assistance. If funding wasn’t forthcoming, the administrators wrote, then the city requested permission to hold a lottery. Delegates granted neither. A make-do wooden bridge spanned the creek, which continued to stymie the city’s expansion and improvement. Eventually, Richmond turned the creek into a culverted drainage ditch.