The Constitutional Struggle for Voting Rights in Washington, D.C

Article excerpt

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

--Abraham Lincoln

These words of Lincoln form part of the long historical debate about the meaning of the founding principles of this country. They speak to the fundamental conception we must have about democracy in America--that it is not simply a matter of individual rights, but also a matter of the collective relationship of citizens to each other. The denial of democracy to any one group of citizens within the United States denies the reality of democracy to the entire citizenry.

Throughout the history of the world's oldest democracy, the ideal has been that all citizens will play a role in the management of public affairs, either through direct participation or by voting in elections to select leaders. From the founding of the republic, however, there has been a gap between the intentions expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the reality of daily life as experienced by millions of citizens.

As we know, the original voters of the new nation included only white men with property. Women would not have the vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, more than 140 years after the Constitution was written. African Americans would wait another 45 years before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. It is difficult to imagine that for all the lives devoted--and even sacrificed--to secure the right to vote in this country, there could still be more than a half million American citizens who lack this right.

But Washington, D.C., continues to be denied a voice or a vote in Congress, even though its residents are taxed and drafted and governed like other American citizens. The history of its disenfranchisement is one of the most important issues surrounding the District of Columbia's complicated history, and yet is one of the least known and understood.

Origins of the National Capital

The American Revolution ended the colonial era of United States history. With peace declared in 1783, the thirteen coastal colonies were proclaimed free and independent of Great Britain. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states," he was in effect announcing the birth of a new nation.

However, the new nation had a weak government and no capital city under the Articles of the Confederation. Although Philadelphia met all the requirements for a capital site, jealousies between the states prevented Pennsylvania--as well as New Jersey, New York, or either of the Carolinas--from becoming the choice for the nation's capital. Placing a permanent capital within the jurisdiction of any one state was seen as imperiling the influence of every other. The surest way of avoiding that risk was for Congress to impose "exclusive legislation" over the capital and a small Federal District around it.

Representatives agreed on the overriding importance of a central location for the seat of government. But whereas some defined central as geographically half-way between southern Georgia and northern New Hampshire, to others the term meant the center of population, a point considerably north of Virginia, even when slaves were counted. (Apparently, no speaker mentioned the drawbacks of locating the capital in slave-holding territory.) In the end, neither geography nor demography as much as political bargaining fixed the location of the capital.

But an event in June 1783 highlighted some of the difficulties facing the new national government. Pennsylvania veterans not yet discharged from the army had prepared to march to the State House in Philadelphia where Congress was in session to demand the pay long overdue them for service during the Revolution. Earlier petitions had elicited no answer from Congress (perhaps because the national treasury was bankrupt due to the war). …