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Why Isn't Washington, D.C. Already a State?

U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. travis1776/Pixabay

On Friday, June 26, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed historic legislation that would transform the District of Columbia into the nation's 51st state. The bill would give the district's 705,749 residents the opportunity to elect a Congress member and two senators with full voting rights for the first time in the nation's history, though it still faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate.

The bill would shrink the federal capital to a small area encompassing the White House, Capitol building, Supreme Court, and other federal buildings along the National Mall. The rest of the city would become the 51st state.

"For more than two centuries, the residents of Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia, have been denied their right to fully participate in their democracy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., explained, according to Politico. (Washington, D.C. has a nonvoting delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who introduced the statehood legislation but has no say in its passage, as well as two shadow senators who similarly can't vote on legislation.)

Pelosi said that the importance of giving Washington, D.C., full voting rights was demonstrated earlier in the month, when the administration of President Donald Trump deployed federal law enforcement agents and National Guard troops against protesters in Washington, D.C., without residents' approval.

"This is not just an issue of local governance and fairness, it is a major civil rights issue as well," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., added.

At this point, the legislation is largely a symbolic statement that few expect to pass, at least for now, because it would have to get through the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., previously has indicated that he would deny it a vote, according to the Washington Post. Even if the Senate approved it, Trump most likely would veto the measure.

"Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen?" Trump asked the New York Post in May. "No thank you. That'll never happen," he said.

DC Statehood
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks during a news conference on D.C. statehood in the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

But the current controversy raises another question. Why didn't the nation's founders make Washington, D.C., a state in the first place? When they decided to create a new national capital, why did they choose to deny residents the same representation in the national government that the rest of the nation's citizens have?

As historians explain, Washington's lack of full representation has partly to do with some of the founders' desire to have a strong federal government that wasn't overly influenced by having its headquarters in a state that it was dependent upon for services and protection. But it also has something to do with Southern slaveholders' desire to have a national capital in their territory with weak self-governance, so the so-called "peculiar institution" wouldn't face any local resistance. Even after the Civil War, segregationists in Congress fought for many years to keep control over the district's administration and deny any power to the city's heavily African American population.

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How a Military Mutiny Helped Keep Washington, D.C., From Statehood

Initially, Philadelphia served as the nation's capital. But the Confederation Congress, the predecessor of the present legislative branch, found itself in a difficult situation in June 1783. That's when Pennsylvania militiamen who'd been furloughed after the Revolutionary War decided to march to Philadelphia to protest the government taking away their jobs and not paying them what they were owed, as this account from the House of Representatives website details. When the mutineers arrived in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania government began negotiating with them. But rumors started to spread among the nervous national legislators that the soldiers might loot the government-chartered Bank of North America if they didn't get their money.

A committee of delegates led by Alexander Hamilton demanded that Pennsylvania's state government put down the rebellion, but it declined, saying that the protesters weren't violent.

In the view of one historian that actually was just fine with Hamilton. The future treasury secretary "played a central role in casting the Philadelphia Mutiny as a greater danger to the young republic than it was, thus advancing his demand for a strong, central government with police powers over its domain, i.e., not subject to any state's authority," explains J.D. Dickey via email. He's the author of the 2014 book "Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC."

According to Dickey, Hamilton then persuaded his ally, President of Congress Elias Boudinot, to convene a session on a weekend, even though there weren't enough members around to reach a quorum, so that it would create the impression that they were menaced by the protest. Hamilton then chastised state leaders for failing to protect the federal government against the soldiers and putting it in a "weak and disgusting position." The handful of legislators then fled to New Jersey to add to the drama.

A few years later, the Constitution's framers specified in Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 that the national capital should be located in a district "not exceeding ten miles square" that would be controlled by the federal government, and not by any state. That meant that members of Congress wouldn't be dependent upon local or state officials to protect them from future mobs of aggrieved citizens. And as future President James Madison noted in Federalist 43, by not being dependent upon a state, Congress would avoid potential for corruption — "an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy."

Southerners and Northerners in the new government worked out a compromise, in which the capital would be located in the South, in exchange for Southern Congress members dropping their opposition to the federal government paying off northern states' debts from the Revolutionary War. The location along the Potomac River was attractive to George Washington because it was less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) from his Mount Vernon estate, and because he had a vision of turning the capital into a prosperous river port and commercial hub.

In 1801, Congress passed the Organic Act, which took away district residents' right to vote for congressional representatives, and the following year granted a charter to a portion of the district, the City of Washington, which was allowed to elect a 12-member city council. The mayor initially was appointed by the U.S. president, though in 1820, the law was changed to allow a mayoral election as well, according to the Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections.

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Race as a Factor in Washington, D.C.'s Disenfranchisement

Washington, D.C., was conveniently nestled between two slave states, Maryland and Virginia, which helped protect the slavery there from Northern interference.

"That District became a bulwark of Southern legislative power, and slave trading and human bondage became legion there," Dickey says. "And so, with the population in the District largely made up of slaves and disenfranchised citizens, the only people who could vote federally or hold federal power of any kind were congressmen elected by voters who didn't live there."

In the first half of the 19th century, Washington became a center for the domestic trade, home to one of the busiest markets involved in the sale of human beings, as this article from the National Archives website details. It was the sort of place where a free Black man such as Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of the film "12 Years a Slave," ran the danger of being kidnapped and thrown into the slave pen located at the present site of the Federal Aviation Administration's headquarters at 800 Independence Avenue, S.W.

The practice of slavery there left a persistent stain upon the city's character, according to Chris Myers Asch. He's the co-author, with George Derek Musgrove, of the 2017 book "Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital."

"It developed as a Southern city, not a Northern one," Asch explains via email. "Slavery was embedded into the fabric of the city from its inception, and the slave trade quickly became a major industry. After emancipation and a brief flowering of interracial democracy, the city lost its self-government and city leaders embraced Southern-style segregation. In customs and social relations, D.C. was a Southern city until the late 20th century."

The issues of self-government and statehood in Washington, D.C., are intertwined with race, Asch says. Though Washington had limited self-rule for much of the 19th century, in the 1870s, Congress took that away. For the next century, Washington was run largely by Southern segregationists such as Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippian who had the unofficial title of "Mayor of Washington." He once warned in a speech that if voting rights were granted in Washington, Blacks "would soon have control of the city."

Eventually, Washington residents did get some rights. In 1961, The 23rd Amendment gave them the right to vote in presidential elections, and in 1973, they regained the right to elect council members and the mayor. In 1978, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would have given Washington residents representation in Congress, but it had a seven-year window for ratification, and by the time that expired in 1985, only 16 states had approved it.

In 1993, another effort to pass a bill in the House to grant statehood to Washington failed by a vote of 277 to 153, as this article from the Brookings Institution details. But statehood advocates didn't give up. The current legislation, whose 225 co-sponsors include Speaker Pelosi, is on a path to pass on a party-line vote. The new bill gets around the Constitution's Article I by carving out a space in the capital for government buildings, which would remain under federal control, while converting Washington's mayor to the equivalent of a state governor.

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