topic index History of

It would be a mistake to assume that the District of Columbia has only recently become a topic of concern. From its inception as a special zone for the nation's capital, it has been the center of controversy, turmoil, and, unfortunately, of racial tensions. Until well after WWII, it was under the thumb of "unreconstructed" Southern Senators who were insensitive to the plight of its black residents. It became fertile ground for racial activists in the 1960's, and that flavor remains today. Some interesting highlights follow:


The following is a verbatim copy of a short (no attribution) "box" in the Washington Post of March 25th, 2007, reproduced here solely for the education of NARPAC's readers. NARPAC has added nothing to the content:

"The debate over DC voting rights dates back more than 200years. Here are some of the key events in the Distrrict's pursuit of a congressional vote:

1788 Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison states that the citizens in the federal district "will become willing parties" to having their land annexed to the federal government because they "will have had their voice in the election of the government which is to exercise authority over them."

1800 District residents cast their last ballots for the House and Senate as voters of neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

1801 Congress annexes the District, leaving residents without elected representatives.

1888 US Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire introduces the first constitutional amendment that would give DC congressional representation.

1915 Legislation is introduced that would allow Washingtonians to vote for president and have representation in Congress. Over the next six years 16 more bills would be introduced none of them are passed.

1952 President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks about the evils of taxing DC residents and making them serve in the armed forces without letting them vote.

1960 Congress passes a proposed constitutional amendment that would give DC three electoral votes in presidential elections, but no representation in Congress.

1961 States ratify the 23rd Amendment.

1964 DC residents are able to vote for President for the first time.

1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson urges Congress to enact a constitutional amendment that would give the District a vote in the House and enable Congress to enlarge DC representation in the House and Senate, but the move stalls.

1971 Congress gives the District the right to elect a nonvoting member of the House.

1973 Congress passes the Home Rule Act, giving DC residents the right to elect their own mayor and council. Congress retains the right to review and overturn any locally passed laws.

1976 The House calls for a floor vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to give DC voting representation in Congress. Although the amendment wins a majority of the vote (229 to 181), it fails to reach the two-thirds super-majority required to move forward.

1978 The House and Senate approve a proposed constitutional amendment giving full voting rights to the District. The amendment requires ratification by three-fourths of the states within seven years to become law....

1980 Advocates launch an unsuccessful bid for statehood.

1985 ....The constitutional amendment backed by the Congress in 1978 dies because not enough states ratify it. "We are still enslaved", Mayor Marion Barry says.

1993 The House defeats a bill sponsored by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) that would have granted statehood to the District.

1998 Two groups of residents file lawsuits demanding voting rights, and the DC government joins one of the lawsuits.

2000 A special three-judge panel rules against both groups, saying the Constitution only grants voting rights to people living in states. New DC license plates say: "Taxation Without Representation".

2003 US Rep Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va) introduces a bill that would add two House seats one for the District and one that probably would go to Republican-leaning Utah. It never comes to a vote.

2006 Norton joins Davis as a co-sponsor of the bill.

2007 New Democratic majority pledges to pass the bill. It clears two House committees before stalling on the floor."

( be continued, until successful!)


For those interested in a thorough discussion of the origins of our nation's capital city and questions about "exclusive jurisdiction" over it, there is probably no better source than Kenneth Bowling's authoritative 300-page book on the arguments and discussions that preoccupied the Founding Fathers from the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774 through the tortuous compromise finally reached in New York in 1790. It is enlightening to read the extent to which the choice of a site was influenced by a) centrality between the differing interests of the northern and southern blocs of states--including the matter of slavery; b) the great importance given to rivers as the main transportation lines for the opening of the interior of the county; and c) the potential economic gains to be made by various large landowners, including George Washington himself.

It is also interesting to note that the final compromise decision (some 40-odd sites had been suggested at one time or another) involved a major financial bargain over the assumption of the debts accumulated by the states in fighting the war of Independence. A slim majority of the Congress went along with a "Permanent Seat of the Government" (PSOG?() along the banks of the Potomac in return for federal assumption of those state debts. It was not until some 14 months after the Seat of Government Bill was passed and signed by President Washington in July of 1790 that a name emerged for the federal city and the defensive district around it--as part of an early real estate deal

While George Washington may not have been quite as successful as the earlier settlers than bought Manhattan Island for $40 and some beads, the following passage may be of interest:

"At the end of March, (1990) Washington called the rival proprietors (land owners in the area involved) together at Suter's Fountain Inn at Georgetown to impress upon them the past trials and future challenges to the Potomac capital. Their jealousies might deprive the federal government of the only means available to raise funds for the buildings. They need not be rivals, for the lands of both groups were necessary to provide the United States with a capital equal to its importance. The proprietors reached an agreement with Washington on March 30th: they would deed to the public all the land which the president wished to include within the federal city and he would have complete control over its disposition. Once L'Enfant completed a city plan, the proprietors would receive half of the lots platted on their former holdings as well as $66.67 an acre for as much land as Washington wamted for public buildings and reservations. The federal government would retain half the lots and all the land designated for streets. The United States thus acquired10,136 lots and miles of streets at no cost to itself and over 500 acres of public reservations for $36,099. With the land acquired, Washington instructed L'Enfant to prepare a plan, stressing the importance of including as much of the proprietors' holdings as possible."

In general, the book paints a rather realistic picture of the Father of Our County. For instance, he notes Washington's problem with owning slaves:

Philadelphia provided a special problem for southerners. Pennsylvania law stated that any slave who remained in the state six months became free. The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery had agreed not to insist on enforcement against members of Congress and federal officials, but nothing prevented individual citizens from informing slaves about their rights. Thus Washington, for example, made certain that his slaves left the state once every six months--if only for a few hours--so that he would not become embroiled with the state's judiciary.

Bowling devotes an entire chapter to the issues surrounding the controversial matter of "exclusive jurisdiction" by the Congress over the District--an issue that concerned the framers of the Constitution from an early date:

In May, 1787, the Convention to Revise the Articles of Confederation, which centralists had sought since 1780, convened in Philadelphia. Americans know little about the 30- year Revolution which resulted not only in independence, but also in a federal government with a capital over which it exercised jurisdiction exclusive from the states which composed it....The most remarkable achievement of the Federal Convention was finding the means by which the constitution it proposed could evolve over time: the original intent was that the document be flexible and amendable enough to adapt to significant changes in American society...

The necessity of ratification of its decisions prevented the Convention from including certain things in the Constitution, Thus the document did not state the manner in which the Congress should pay the federal debt, or explicitly grant it the power to charter a bank to assume the revolutionary war debts of the states....Similar political considerations kept the convention from selecting a location for the American capital....The issue of the location of the capital briefly came to the Convention floor twice (but without resolution)...

The Convention devoted even less debate to the idea of the capital. This was because the issues, other than size, had been resolved during the four preceding years in favor of one permanent residence over which Congress would exercise exclusive jurisdiction.... Exclusive jurisdiction--the concept that a federal government should have power over a territory of its own, independent from the states which composed it--was born out of the American Revolution, and has been adopted by younger nations throughout the world....

Prior to 1783, only a few Americans supported exclusive jurisdiction, and always privately, for the concept was alien to the nature of the decentralist Revolution.... In 1779 when Congress first debated the creation of a federal town, some members talked privately about purchasing a few square miles of territory at Princeton, New Jersey , on which to erect buildings. This suggestion is the earliest known mention of a district for Congress. The amount of jurisdiction Congress would exercise was not specified. Such discussion continued among congressmen. In September 1782 the French ambassador reported that frustration with the problems Congress encountered at Philadelphia had convinced some members of the necessity of removing to an isolated district where Congress would be sheltered from such influences and independent of the states. He doubted however that such a plan could ever be accomplished.... .:

The Baltimorean, George Lux, Jr., while privately recommending Annapolis for the seat of federal government to several prominent friends in November 1782, advocated exclusive jurisdiction. He stated his conviction that the place chosen should become "a distinct independent territory totally under the government of ,Congress," but recognized that "so narrow in that respect are the "prejudices of most of the States" that he doubted such a measure 'would meet with approval. It was probably also he who leapt on the !opportunity of the 21 June 1783 military demonstration at Philadelphia to bring the issue out of the closet for public debate... The concept gained support quickly during the competition over the location of the federal town in the summer of 1783 as states escalated their offers of jurisdiction in attempts to outdo each other. In addition, the peregrination of Congress during the year and a half between its leaving Philadelphia and its arrival at NewYork City bolstered the concept. Soon after reaching Princeton in 1783, Congress had appointed a committee to recommend the degree of jurisdiction it should exercise over its seat...Committee members included three formidable centralists, whose contributions to American constitutional thought during the 1780s had few rivals: James Madison, James Wilson and Oliver Ellsworth...

. The issue facing them involved two questions. What should be the relationship between the federal government and the residents of its seat? Congress had no precedents to follow and only its experience at Philadelphia for guidance. Secretary at War Benjamin Lincoln turned to his lawyer son for advice, reporting in late July that talk about jurisdiction for Congress over a few miles about its seat had become common and that many people considered it a necessity. The major question he raised was, simply, did Congress have power under the Articles of Confederation to exercise such jurisdiction. Lincoln thought not and neither did his son whose reply delved into the legal ramifications at some length...

. The complexities of the issues proved puzzling even to Madison, who sought advice from Virginians. His request prompted Jefferson to draft a series of proposed congressional resolutions, rejecting both ownership of the land by the United States and the idea of an exclusive jurisdiction for Congress, on the grounds that both would cause unnecessary and time-consuming problems....

Most public comment often referring to the military demonstration at Philadelphia, supported the concept of a "supreme local jurisdiction in the spot" where Congress sat. "As we have made our way to empire solely by our union. ..ought not, then, the representatives of that union be so securely and commodiously placed, that the business of the continent may not, by local circumstances, be interrupted," observed a widely reprinted newspaper editorial...

.. Emboldened by the increasingly generous offers Congress received from the states during the summer of 1783 and by the public discussion of the issue in the aftermath of the demonstration at Philadelphia, congressional centralists openly advocated an exclusive jurisdiction over an independent territory...

The jurisdiction committee reported in September 1783 that Congress should have exclusive jurisdiction over a district not more than six miles square (thirty-six square miles) nor less than three miles square (nine square miles). The report mentioned nothing of the rights of the inhabitants of the district, but Madison expected them to share with Congress the powers the federal government would exercise over them...

The dual residence compromise of October 1783 handled the unresolved question by declaring that Congress should own the land and exercise an exclusive or such other jurisdiction as it determined in the future. The very mention of the concept in the resolutions, however, reflected how rapidly it had gained political credibility. The Ordinance of December 1784 ignored the issue, implying that the states retained jurisdiction...

Several members of the 1783 congressional committee on jurisdiction attended the Federal Convention and heard James Madison offer the proposition that became Article I, sec 8, Paragraph17 of the Constitution of the United States. He proposed that Congress have "exclusive legislation"--a less politically sensitive phrase than "exclusive jurisdiction," but no different in meaning over a stationary seat of government and a district surrounding it...The final wording authorized Congress "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 acceptances of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States."...

Beginning in the press in November 1787 and climaxing in the New York Ratification Convention in June 1788, Antifederalist leaders such as Mercy Warren of Massachusetts, George Clinton of New York and George Mason of Virginia publicly attacked what they saw as the inexorable result of a one hundred square mile district under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress and distant from the eyes of the people...

Antifederalists envisioned a city larger and potentially more corrupt than Philadelphia or even London. Indeed, they, not the Federalists, gave currency to the new term, "federal city. " One hundred square miles was an enormous area to an agrarian people whose largest city, thirty-six square mile Philadelphia, had a settled area of less than two square miles, and whose second largest city ,New York, lay more than a mile south of Greenwich Village...

. Antifederalists projected a population at the federal city of perhaps two or even four million people, either directly attendant on the federal government as employees or lobbyists, or indirectly dependent on it as family members of the attendants..

. It is also interesting to learn the extent to which President Washington "twisted" his mandate to select the site for the capital city to suit his own preferences:

To the surprise of many, Washington did not announce the location of the federal district when he addressed Congress in December 1790. Early in January he was still exploring the best way to run the lines so that the maximum amount of land could be included about Alexandria, allowing the town to grow westward as well as northward within the federal district. Finally, on 24 January, he issued a proclamation announcing the chosen site. Washington not only included Alexandria--four miles south of the lower limit specified in the seat of government act of 1790--but also named a point within the town as the starting place for the survey of the district's boundaries. The proclamation stated that only the area north of the lower limit specified by the act be accepted for the district at first. In a letter to Congress, Washington suggested that it pass a supplemental act to enable him to complete the full ten mile square to his liking, by taking in Alexandria and land south of the Anacostia in Maryland. By his placement of the district and his .request for a supplemental act, Washington courted not only renewed sectional tensions and a confrontation between Congress and the president, but also attacks upon himself...

. That the president had chosen the southern limit specified by their act did not surprise congressmen,despite the clear implication of the Virginia act of cession and the southern argument during the residence debate of 1789 that an upriver site was desired. Instead, the stunned congressmen complained of his proposal to include land in both Maryland and Virginia south of the limit established by Congress. Rep. Theodore Sedgwick's observation that Mount Vernon bordered Alexandria exaggerated only slightly. He had no way of knowing that Washington owned almost 1,200 acres along Four Mile Run within the proposed district or that George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson and the president's ward, owned the 950 acre plantation that became Arlington Cemetery. Rep. William Smith of Baltimore did not believe se1f-interest had the smallest conscious influence on Washington, but he knew nevertheless "that almost all men form their opinions by their interest without always knowing the governing principle of their motives or actions." ...But to attribute the choice only to a desire to raise the value of Mount Vernon, or family lands within the district lines, belittles Washington's vision. He had more important reasons for his choice than lining his pockets....

The author does not describe how Washington, DC got its name. For a separate account of this see the the following article.

return to the top of the pageHOW THE PSOG GOT ITS NAME

In a light-hearted article in the Washington Post on Feb 22, 2001, Linda Wheeler explains how Washington, DC got its name in 1801--and how George Washington himself tried to make a buck in real estate. Liberally editted excerpts follow:

"If some American patriots had prevailed, tourists in the District might be sending postcards from Washingtonople or visiting a White House that was located in Washingtonapolis. These names were suggested more than 200 years ago to honor not only the Revolutionary hero and the nation's first president but also the man who picked the site for the new Federal City. Congress decided that the capital would be located along the Potomac River, but it was left to George Washington to select the exact site.

"The Father of Our Country settled on a 10-square-mile tract that included the ports of Alexandria and George Town, as it was then known, as well as wooded tracts and farmland east of the river with such names as Widow's Mite, Jamaica and Hogpen Enlarged. Washington planned to market the federal city by creating building lots and then auctioning them to developers and perspective home builders. A plat map showed the location of the White House and Capitol, and the president was hopeful that buyers would fill in the empty spaces between the city's two most important buildings. But the capital didn't have a name. Federal city planner Pierre L'Enfant called it the "Permanent Seat of the Government" on his first map -- but that didn't have much of a ring to it. Newspapers encouraged an informal competition by printing suggested names sent in by readers. One anonymous writer suggested "Washingtonople", while others suggested "Columbus" and "Washingtonapolis".

"As with most things in the new capital, a group of men got together to settle the matter. They met on Sept. 8, 1791, in George Town. There were a lot of items on the agenda, but eventually Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Rep. James Madison and three commissioners appointed by Washington to sell lots in the federal city got around to what it should be called. Some in the group supported naming it Washington. Others argued for naming it Columbia, after Christopher Columbus. Scott said there was great interest in Columbus because the 300th anniversary of his famous voyage was coming up the next year. A compromise was struck: the federal enclave would be known as the city of Washington, and the general area would be called the District of Columbia. There was no public proclamation of the new name, however. It appeared in print for the first time in a Sept. 17 George Town Weekly Ledger notice about the death of an assistant to federal city surveyor Andrew Ellicot. The man had been killed when a tree fell on him.

"That same day, the city commissioners held their first auction of federal property. There were few buyers and the lots went for much less than expected. Among those who got property cheap was Washington, who bought four lots at First and U streets SW along what is now the Anacostia River.

Bob Arnebeck, in his book "Through a Fiery Trial," said Washington would later claim he had no plans for how to use the lots. But he bought the land, Arnebeck said, knowing that James Greenleaf planned to build a commercial center at that location. The Greenleaf project fizzled, and there is no indication that Washington built on any of those properties.

"For his city residence, Washington selected a lot at 25th and E streets NW near a small community known as Hamburg. Washington did, however, build on Capitol Hill. After he left office, he purchased land in the fall of 1798 along North Capitol Street between B and C streets NW, according to Arnebeck, with the intention of speculating on two houses. When members of Congress arrived in two years, he figured, there would be a huge demand for living space near the Capitol. But even former presidents can't make workmen hurry or builders stick to the contract. When Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799, neither house was close to being finished and his contractor was demanding an extra $1,000 to complete the job!"

return to the top of the page PRESIDENTIAL CHAMPIONS FOR DC

On the eve of the presidential State of the Union address for 2002, DC's outstanding young historian, Mark David Richards, Jr. prepared a summary of what prior presidents have said on the subject of DC home rule, for publication in 'themail', the twice-weekly e-mail discussion forum of DC's local watchdog organization,DC Watch. NARPAC has edited that summary only slightly for ease of reading:

Since President George Washington established Washington City, Presidents have played an important role in advocating for or against the permanent residents of DC. Washington spent most of the 1790s preparing for the arrival of federal officials from Philadelphia in 1800.

General Washington died eleven days after President Adams announced DC was ready for the 131 federal government officials to join the 14,093 residents of the areas of the District of Columbia. On December 14, 1799, Adams expressed the national sentiment toward the General: "For his fellow-citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal."

In addressing Congress in 1800, President Adams said, "You will consider it (DC) as the capital of a great nation advancing with unexampled rapidity in arts, in commerce, in wealth, and in population, and possessing within itself those energies and resources which ... will secure to it a long course of prosperity and self-government."

In 1828, President Andrew Jackson urged Congress to allow DC residents to elect a nonvotingDelegate to that body "with the same privileges that are allowed to other territories of the United States."

President Martin Van Buren asked Congress to give "liberal and even generous attention to the interests o the District and a thorough and careful revision of its local government."

President William Henry Harrison championed DC in his Inaugural address on March 4, 1841. He said, "The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens. . . . [T]he legislation of Congress should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests."

In his 1843 message to Congress, President Tyler urged a parental relationship: "The seat of government of our associated republics cannot but be regarded as worthy of your parental care."

President James Knox Polk told Congress, "I shall be ever disposed to show a proper regard for their [the people of this District] wishes and within constitutional limits shall at all times cheerfully cooperate with you for the advancement of their welfare."

In 1921, President Taft expressed a new sentiment in expressing his strong opposition to giving DC citizens the franchise and local self-government: "The truth is this is a city governed by a popular body, to wit, the Congress of the United States, selected from the people of the United States who own Washington."

In 1952, President Harry Truman expressed an opinion more typical of Presidents: "I strongly believe that the citizens of the District of Columbia are entitled to self-government . . . the right and the responsibility of free men. The denial of self-government does not befit the National Capital of the world's largest and most powerful democracy. . . . [T]he structure of the District government has become so complicated, confused, and obsolete that a thorough reorganization cannot be further delayed."

Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both asked Congress to grant DC Home Rule. The Senate was favorable, but powerful members of the House of Representatives opposed DC Home Rule, and

President Johnson was a strong champion for DC. In this third State of the Union address in 1966, he said, "I urge the House of Representatives to complete action on three programs already passed by the Senate -- the Teacher Corps, rent assistance, and home rule for the District of Columbia."

President Nixon in 1969 said, "The District's citizens should not be expected to pay taxes for a government which they have no part in choosing -- or to bear the full burdens of citizenship without the full rights of citizens."

In 1981, President Jimmy Carter said that DC had gained a greater degree of Home Rule than under the previous administration, he said, "Yet, despite the close cooperation between my Administration and that of Mayor Barry, we have not yet seen the necessary number of states ratify the Constitutional Amendment granting full voting representation in the Congress to the citizens of this city. It is my hope that this inequity will be rectified. The country and the people who inhabit Washington deserve." Time to get approval for the amendment ran out under President Reagan.

President Clinton endorsed DC statehood and worked with Congress on the 1997 revitalization plan, but he wasn't a champion for DC in his State of the Union addresses.

Will President George W. Bush mention DC on Tuesday Jan 29th, 2002?
NARPAC Commentary: No, he didn't.

return to the top of the pageDC HISTORY BUFFS GO ONLINE

The Humanities & Social Sciences On-line Service of the Michigan State University, H-NET, has recently added a List on the History of the District of Columbia. H-Net is an international network of scholars in the humanities and social sciences that creates and coordinates electronic networks, using a variety of media, and with a common objective of advancing humanities and social science teaching and research. H-Net was created to provide a positive, supportive, equalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas and scholarly resources.

"H-DC" is, according to their announcement, "a refereed, multi- and inter-disciplinary discussion list, providing a means of communication and interaction for those who research, write, read, teach, collect, curate, and preserve Washington, DC history and culture and for those who work in cultural institutions located within DC, regardless of discipline. H-DC serves as a forum for serious discussion; a bulletin board for news of newly opened collections, upcoming conferences, exhibits, public programs, etc.; and as a cabinet for the storage and retrieval of materials (syllabi, reading lists, helpful hints) useful in classroom teaching at every level. It will be a means for sharing around serious reference inquiries, relating to location of sources and materials -- collaborative for suggesting possible institutions and sources -- to provide an on-line community which authors, researchers, and others interested in these topics can turn to when seeking guidance on available resources on specific topics.

H-DC will post reviews of books, exhibits, audio-visual materials, and electronic presentations; notices of the publication of new books, and citations to appropriate articles in current newspapers, magazines, and journals. It invites the participation of everyone--whether professional, para-professional, or volunteer--who cares deeply about the legacy of Washington, DC's past. This list includes (without being limited to) academics, librarians, curators, folklorists, independent scholars, preservationists, archivists, museum docents, public historians, writers, consultants, and students.

H-DC is a moderated internet discussion forum. The editors are Matthew Gilmore, (formerly) Washingtoniana Division,D.C. Public Library ( and Gail Redmann, Historical Society of Washington, D.C. ( It is advised by a board of field experts. Logs and more information can also be found on the H-Net Web Site.

A detailed chronology of events since the founding of Georgetown in 1751 has been reproduced from the informative D.C. INDICES.

A fascinating analysis of the ups and downs in local DC governance is also available in a GUPPI Backgrounder

An interesting summary of the decline of the District since the inception of home rule by one of its strongest proponents Katherine Graham of the Washington Post. Her remarks were prepared for an award ceremony of the Greater Washington Board of Trade in May, 1997. This page was last updated on Apr 5, 2007



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