As a new congressional session opened at the end of 1874, residents of the District of Columbia looked ahead to a debate of great significance. The nation’s legislators would consider a bill to establish for the capital a government run by three commissioners appointed by the U.S. president. The legislation proposed to end permanently not only local self-government but also a brief period in which black men and white men alike had cast ballots and held elective offices and the Republican Party had been dominant in local affairs. “Have we come to the point where we find it necessary to undo what we have done; to tear down the house we have built?” asked the editors of Washington’s National Republican newspaper. Many found it remarkable that residents of the capital of a nation founded on the principle of local self-government might soon be denied the right to choose their own officials. It was even more surprising to consider that such disfranchisement might come at the hands of a Congress dominated by the Republican Party, the nation’s preeminent force in securing African American men’s right to vote.
Since the Civil War, Republicans in Congress had repeatedly used the nation’s capital as a laboratory for experiments with democracy and racial equality. It was, Senator Charles Sumner said, “an example for all the land.” The Constitution, which restrained Congress’s power in the states, gave the nation’s legislators virtually unchallengeable authority over the roughly seventy square miles of territory that was home not only to federal workers but also to long-standing local residents and thousands of newly arrived freedpeople. Republican-controlled Congresses had abolished slavery, established schools for black children, banned discrimination on streetcars and railroads, enfranchised black men, and forbidden racial discrimination in office holding and jury service. “It was in this District that the experiment of enlarging the elective franchise was first made,” the National Republican reminded readers. “It