“The Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the state in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.”
Then In The Federalist No. 43, James Madison explained this clause and the need for a “federal district,” subject to Congress’s exclusive jurisdiction and separate from the territory, and authority, of any single state:
This plan for the seat of government made sense at the time. The founders did not want this seat of government to be too large so they limited it to 10 miles square. Oh but why then did these same wise founders decide to empower Pierre Charles L’Enfant and his team to maximize the seat’s size and not make it more along the lines of Vatican City? This was the crushing mistake that now exists in the form of over 670,000 American citizens that do not have full voting rights.
What is now the District of Columbia was originally a part of the state of Maryland. In 1791, the District of Columbia was created by the ceding land from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland and Alexandria, in Virginia. On February 27, 1801, only a few months after moving to the District, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 and incorporated the new federal District under its sole authority as permitted by the District Clause, making Congress the supreme source of all local laws. Since the District of Columbia ceased being part of any state and was not a state itself, the District’s residents lost voting representation in Congress, the Electoral College, and in the Constitutional amendment process — consequences that did not go without protest. In fact, in January 1801, a meeting of District citizens was held which resulted in a statement to Congress noting that as a result of the impending Organic Act:
“We shall be completely disfranchised in respect to the national government, while we retain no security for participating in the formation of even the most minute local regulations by which we are to be affected. We shall be reduced to that deprecated condition of which we pathetically complained in our charges against Great Britain, of being taxed without representation.”
The citizens’ plea remains unanswered today.
In 1802, the Board of Commissioners was abolished, the city of Washington was incorporated and a local government consisting of a locally elected 12-member council and a Mayor appointed by the President was put in place.
Efforts began immediately to return privately held land back to their original states. The effort in Virginia succeeded in 1847. The area that is now Arlington County and the City of Alexandria was ceded back to Virginia and removed from the District of Columbia. This process of retrocession can be used today to return Washington to Maryland.
Thankfully, but absolutely inadequately, in the 1950s, as part of the larger Civil Rights Movement, interest emerged in giving DC full representation. As a compromise, the Twenty-third Amendment was adopted in 1961, granting the District a number of votes in the Electoral College in measure to their population, but no more than the smallest state (and this is not necessarily proportional to the District’s present population, but no matter). This right has been exercised by DC residents since the presidential election of 1964. Unbelievably DC residents could not vote for their president until 1964!
In the summer of 1978 the “District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment” to the Constitution was passed in the US Senate and was sent to state legislatures to be ratified by three fourths of the States. The proposed amendment would have given the District of Columbia full representation in the United States Congress, full representation in the Electoral College system, and full participation in the process by which the Constitution is amended. It was ratified by only 16 states by the time of its expiration on August 22, 1985, 22 ratifications short of the needed 38 in order for the proposed amendment to have been adopted. The Constitutional Amendment method of providing full citizenship to the citizens of the District of Columbia was, for all intents and purposes, dead, for at least a generation.
Since the failure of the Amendment, the local Washington DC political establishment has failed to articulate this human rights issue and to solve it for its citizens. The political leadership of the District of Columbia has been exclusively focused on the city becoming the state of New Columbia, the 51st State of the United States. With two more senators, sure to be Democrats, the Statehood solution continues to crowd out all other solutions despite its widely recognized political mortality. It turns out that the enemy to our representative equality is ourselves. Those interested in a talking point and a rallying cry, as opposed to a solution, have successfully thwarted principled, pragmatic, and precedented alternatives. Douglass County, Maryland is the simplest way to articulate the only politically feasible solution.