An Experimental Station for Lawmaking: Congress and the District of Columbia, 1862-1878

By Harrison, Robert | Civil War History, March 2007 | Go to article overview

An Experimental Station for Lawmaking: Congress and the District of Columbia, 1862-1878


Harrison, Robert, Civil War History


The District of Columbia, said a late-nineteenth-century historian, "has always been a kind of experimental station, from law-making to rain-making, for the country." Although most nineteenth-century readings of the Constitution considered that the federal government possessed only a limited authority over domestic policymaking, there were no restrictions on its sovereignty within the boundaries of the federal District. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution allows Congress to "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever" in the territory that houses the seat of government. There it holds plenary power, serving as national, state, and municipal authority all in one. Unencumbered by the rival claims of other governmental authorities, it is free to formulate its own social and municipal policy. Although Congress has not always troubled itself greatly with the management of local affairs, the policy decisions that are made, or not made, for the federal District have more than a local significance. The social and political institutions that are established there might be said to carry the imprimatur of the United States. That means the affairs of the District are, at least potentially, the business of all Americans, and at certain junctures in the nation's history that has mattered a great deal. (1)

The changes brought by the Civil War and Reconstruction gave congressional policy for the District of Columbia an added significance. Repeatedly, Republican congressmen tested reforms in Washington before applying them to the Southern states. Washington's few slaves were emancipated in April 1862, months before the general Emancipation Proclamation and years before the Thirteenth Amendment. Black suffrage came to the District months before it was imposed, through the Military Reconstruction Acts, on the South and years before the Fifteenth Amendment ruled out racially discriminatory voting qualifications throughout the nation. Racial distinctions were eliminated from local charters and ordinances, segregation was eliminated on the city's street railroads (though less consistently in other public places), and Congress waged a relentless and ultimately successful struggle to create a system of public schools for African American children. (2) "The District of Columbia" declared the New National Era, an African American newspaper published in Washington, "is the place where all the great reforms of the war have begun. It is the experimental garden and nursery where all the generous plants have been tried." The metaphor was used as often to condemn innovative lawmaking. Thus, the chairman of the city's Board of Aldermen complained in 1868 that the District had been "specially set apart by the Government as a sort of experimental garden for the propagation of political hybrids of every conceivable description." (3) Whatever the interpretative slant, the idea that the District might be employed to carry out experiments in lawmaking for the benefit of the nation as a whole was part of the common currency of political discourse during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The peculiar status of the District forced Republican congressmen to consider, early and unequivocally, the implications of emancipation and the attributes of citizenship. "The war ... has made a new slate in many things relating to law as well as politics," observed Pennsylvania representative M. Russell Thayer in January 1866. And their deliberations led them, with surprising rapidity, to quite radical conclusions. Most Republicans concluded that freedom meant more than the mere absence of slavery but brought positive entitlements, and they found it difficult to define those entitlements in terms that fell short of full citizenship rights. They could not easily identify an intermediate stage between emancipation and enfranchisement. In the District of Columbia the Republicans, untroubled by the competing jurisdictions and political calculations that applied elsewhere, could work through the implications of their political ideas and carry them through to their logical conclusions. …

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