Cincinnati’s Uncelebrated Bicentennial

In 1819, with a population not quite reaching 10,000 residents, Cincinnati became a city.
Cincinnati City Seal

Photograph from “The Citizens Book,” published 1916 by the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Throughout 2019, the Queen City is awash in commemorative activities. The Cincinnati Reds celebrate not only their 150th birthday but 100 years since their first World Series crown. The Art Academy marks 150 years and the University of Cincinnati and Bromwell’s both notch bicentennials.

And yet, there is one major landmark in our city’s history that will pass without fireworks or even a birthday cake. You see, 2019 also marks Cincinnati’s 200th anniversary as a city.

Sure, Cincinnati—or Losantiville, as it was called back then—was founded in 1788. There were people living here on a continual basis since that time. But Cincinnati was not incorporated until 1802, and then only as a town. In 1819, Cincinnati had grown up and took its place among the urban centers of America. In 1819, with a population not quite reaching 10,000 residents, Cincinnati became a city.

According to Charles Greve’s 1904 “Centennial History of Cincinnati,” this was a big deal:

With the year of 1819 begins Cincinnati’s life as a city. The act of the General Assembly of 1819 incorporating the city, vested the legislative power in a Council, composed of a president, recorder, and nine trustees. To the Council was given the power to make such ordinances and laws as they should think proper for the health, safety, cleanliness, convenience, and good government of the city and to impose and collect reasonable fines for breaches of the ordinances. This act was passed February 5. 1819, and by virtue of a curative act passed three days later, took effect on March 1, of the same year.

According to Edwin Henderson’s 1902 history of City Council, the first City Council of the City of Cincinnati consisted of Samuel W. Davies, Jacob Wheeler, David Wade, Oliver Lovell, John Tuttle, Richard L. Coleman, John Armstrong, Nicholas Longworth, Jesse Hunt, Peter A. Sprigman, William Oliver, and Isaac Hough. The first mayor of the new city was Isaac G. Burnet, who held the office of mayor until 1831. According to Greve:

Mayor Burnet was for many years a cripple as a result of which he was obliged to use crutches. Although physically weak, he was possessed of great force of character, and did not hesitate to display the firmness required by the duties of his position. It was his presence of mind and great courage that saved the city from serious riots on more than one occasion.

There was no City Hall in 1819. Council met in a rather humble structure near the Public Landing. According to Henderson:

Now, on the Common, south of Front and east of Main Street, was a brick house of two stories, the first story being partially basement, of which the town had for some time the ownership before its occupation as a Council chamber. Here for a number of years was kept stored the public life-saving apparatus which was used in rescuing people from drowning in the river and in resuscitating them.

Among the first actions passed by the new council was the adoption of a city seal, the well-known device displaying a set of scales, symbolizing justice, above the crossed images of a sword, for security, and a caduceus, representing health and safety. Overall is that arcane and mysterious Latin phrase, “Juncta Juvant.”

At the time, this motto was far from obscure. It was known to every attorney, and Cincinnati had a lot of attorneys, many on council. “Juncta Juvant” is part of a common legal adage, “Quae non valeant singula, juncta juvant.” Or, in English, “Things which do not avail singly, when united have an effect.” No one has ever agreed on a single translation of the city’s motto, but it is usually rendered as “Things joined together are a help.”

So there are two municipal bicentennial observances this year: Cincinnati’s status as a city, and the city seal, which decorates not only municipal documents, but our city flag, and the seal of the University of Cincinnati, which started life as a city university.

Do not mourn the lack of enthusiasm this year. The great Edwin Henderson, who not only served as Clerk of Council, but penned historical articles under the pen name of “Conteur,” noted a similar blasé attitude in 1919. His March 14, 1919 column in the Enquirer opened with this:

The first of this month marked the centennial anniversary of Cincinnati’s emergence from town life to that of the actual city under the statutes of Ohio. As we have had no public celebration of the occasion let us talk about it informally.

“Conteur” spent the rest of his column mining the 1819 city directory, Cincinnati’s first, for facts about the brand new city. That antique tome, published by Oliver Farnsworth, contains the results of a census taken in July of that year, revealing a total population of 10,283, including 410 African Americans. The city comprised 1,890 buildings, with 432 of these built of brick or stone.

The Farnworth directory describes the new City Council and outlines its duties, singling out the anticipated problems caused by puppets:

They have the exclusive power of licensing and regulating all taverns and ale-houses within the city; and on cause shown, to suspend such licenses; to regulate or prohibit all puppet shows, or other exhibitions within the city.

Well, puppet-beset or not, let’s raise a toast in a licensed tavern or ale house to the 200-year-old City of Cincinnati. Juncta Juvant!

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