Home Home Rule Testimony of Historians at D.C. Council Hearing May 13, 2009
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Testimony of Historians at D.C. Council Hearing May 13, 2009 E-mail

Testimony of Kenneth R. Bowling

Special Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination

13 May 2009

The exclusive jurisdiction of Congress over the District of Columbia and the denial of basic republican liberties to its residents—voting rights and self-determination—are an outgrowth of the constitutional politics of the American Revolution, a revolution whose primary purpose, ironically in this case, was to secure those liberties for British colonists in North America.  Often confused with the Revolutionary War, the Revolution spun out over the course of almost forty years, ending at last with the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801.

The First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia in 1774 and spent most of the war there; the city where it met was referred to as the residence of Congress, not as a seat of federal government, and certainly not as the federal capital.  During the war and under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, the states were supreme over a very weak federal government.  Even before the war officially ended certain leaders of the patriot movement, including such prominent names as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, became convinced that strengthening the federal government was essential to the success of the Revolution.  Their efforts resulted in the Constitution under which we live today.

 One of the ways that such centralists, as I call those leaders, thought the federal government could be strengthened was to give it its own territory, an idea that was discussed as early as 1779.  By 1782 some congressmen had come to believe that that territory—referred to as a federal town—should be independent of state jurisdiction.  Because the revolution was led by decentralists who opposed, and even feared, a central government such an idea had to remain a subject of private conversation.  It came out of the closet in the summer of 1783, in the wake of an armed demonstration by continental army soldiers in front of the building in which both Congress and the Pennsylvania state government met.  The soldiers had carefully chosen a Saturday for the demonstration because they knew that Congress did not meet that day.  They did not want to confront it because, since it had no source of permanent revenue, it could not meet their demands for back pay.

Pennsylvania on the other hand did and could.  When Alexander Hamilton learned where the soldiers were headed, he had his friend and fellow centralist, the president of Congress Elias Boudinot call an emergency session.  Many congressmen attended but not enough to form a quorum.  Despite all the references to the “Mutiny at Philadelphia” in the months afterward and all the United States Supreme Court cases that refer to it as the justification for exclusive jurisdiction,  the United States Congress was not surrounded by armed soldiers on 21 June 1783.

Claiming that Pennsylvania refused to protect it and appealing to the American People to support the honor and dignity of Congress, the centralists had enough votes to adjourn the body to small, remote Princeton, New Jersey.  While there, it appointed a committee to consider recommending to the states that Congress have a federal town over which it exercised exclusive jurisdiction.  Madison served on the committee and sought advice from two Virginians.  Thomas Jefferson told him that federal ownership of the land at any federal town, and exclusive jurisdiction over it, were unnecessary and would only create time-consuming problems for Congress.  The great Virginia jurist Edmund Pendleton hit the nail on the head: “to make Congress the Legislative for a people who are not concerned in their election, is a violation of fundamental rights, & introduces despotism.”  Despite Jefferson’s opinion the committee recommended exclusive jurisdiction.  It was easily defeated when it came to the floor because, with the removal of the British threat, the state delegations increasingly came under the control of men who believed in state supremacy and reflected the popular questioning about the continued relevance of the federal government.  They would only become stronger as centralists like Madison and Hamilton left Congress to argue their case for a strong federal government in the press and in the state legislatures.

In 1787 these centralists, having assumed the name “Federalists” for themselves, succeeded in calling a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.  Instead of doing that they tossed out the Articles—now on display at the National Archives for the first time—and produced an entirely new Constitution that made the federal government supreme over the states.  All three of the leading centralist members of the 1783 jurisdiction committee attended the convention and it is no surprise that Madison introduction its proposal.  Decentralists, soon to be known as Antifederalists, voiced their opposition but, unlike in Congress, they were a distinct and ineffective minority.  The Constitution as proposed and ratified declares in Article I, Section 8, paragraph 17, that Congress has the power to “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over . . . the Seat of the Government of the United States.

During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, the Antifederalists had a vastly more powerful voice and they made the jurisdiction of Congress over its seat an issue.  So much so that such an extreme Federalist as Hamilton proposed to the New York Ratification Convention that it ask Congress to amend the Constitution immediately to rectify an oversight: the denial of congressional representation to residents of the federal district.  His language assumed that those residents would remain citizens of the state that had donated the land for the federal district, and that only when the population reached a certain level would the district cease to be part of that state; at that time “provision shall be made by Congress for their having a District Representation in the Body.”  The construction of the latter clause indicates that Hamilton meant in both houses.  New York did not propose his language to Congress, but not because it was its intent to deny congressional representation to the residents of the District as present-day opponents claim.  It was because the Amendment it did propose, and which Hamilton was trying to alter to enhance federal power, assumed that the district would remain part of a state for purposes of representation.  Let me stress something here very strongly: anyone who argues that an original intent existed at the time of the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution has not studied the history of those events.  An original intent by definition implies a consensus.  There was none in 1776 and there was none in 1787.

The Residence Act of July 1790 that located the permanent seat of the government of the United States on the Potomac River declared that state law within that district would remain in effect “until Congress shall otherwise by law provide.”   Residents of the federal district were represented in Congress for more than a decade afterwards; indeed one, Uriah Forrest, served in Congress.  It was a decade of violent political rhetoric as more and more Americans became convinced that the Federalists who controlled the federal government intended to use fear to cower the people and a loose interpretation of the Constitution to diminish the states.  The consequence was the so-called “Revolution of 1800” that saw the Democratic-Republican Party take over both houses of Congress and place Thomas Jefferson in the executive mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Despite the fears of some Federalists, Jefferson and his party did not attempt to rescind the constitutional counter-revolution of 1787.  Instead it brought the Revolution to conclusion be establishing a majority consensus: the federal government was supreme but it would not seek to intimidate citizens or threaten the rights of the states.  Nor would Washington, D.C., be the great international capital, funded by the sale of thousands of residential lots, envisioned by George Washington, Peter L’Enfant and Alexander Hamilton.   The view of Jefferson and his party that it should be merely a seat of federal government would remain the paradigm until overthrown by the best friend the residents of Washington, D.C., have ever had in the White House, Ulysses S. Grant.  From 1870 to 1900 the new Republican Party, under and after his leadership, made the reconstruction of the city—both symbolically and physically—an important part of its agenda.  Time and again history has shown us that only when a president steps into the equation does Congress act aggressively on behalf of, as opposed to against, the needs of the residents of its capital.

On 27 February 1801 a lame duck Federalist Congress adopted “An Act concerning the District of Columbia.”  As William C. diGiacomantonio has pointed out in “To Sell Their Birthright For a Mess of Potage” [Coming into the City: Essays on Early Washington, D.C., Washington History 12 (2000): 31-48], his thought provoking article on the fight over the adoption of the so-called Organic Act of 1801 (1) there was no consensus about the need for such an act and (2) ultimately it only passed because the Federalists, having lost control of both Congress and the presidency, recognized that the Republicans, who had opposed it on the floor, would never implement the exclusive legislation clause of Article I, Section 8, paragraph 17. 

I believe the solution is clear for Americans who wish to grant to the residents of the federal district the same rights of self-determination that they hold dear and for which the American Revolution was fought: call for the repeal of the Organic Act of 1801 and the designation of Washington, D.C., as The National Capital Territory, constitutionally equivalent to the states in all but name.  (While “statehood” is a good organizational tool, it is a politically loaded term and supporters should be prepared to drop the term if full rights can be acquired with just a semantic change.)  The federal government in 2009 is not the weak government of the Revolution, when the myth of the need for an exclusive jurisdiction was generated in an attempt to empower it.  Today the federal government has all the power it needs to insert itself in the affairs of the states and the territories without having to rely on Article I, Section 8, paragraph 17.  Other nations, such as Australia and Brazil, who borrowed the concept from the United States Constitution found it unworkable and abandoned it as the twentieth century neared its close.  We should follow their example.

The question of representation is not as easily resolved.  But it was clearly not the intent of the revolutionary generation to deny residents of the federal district such a basic republican right.  To claim so is to call such men as Washington, Madison, and Hamilton two faced and disingenuous.  Whether it can be done by law, or whether it takes a constitutional amendment, as in the case of our right to vote for the president, will ultimately be decided by the federal courts.  Whatever approach we take the time to take it is now.  In no small part this is because the nation once again has a president who is sympathetic to our needs.

Thank you.  


Testimony: Public Hearing on the History of the District of Columbia


Its Impact on Voting Rights and Statehood,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009-1:00PM, Rm. 412

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, my name is C.R. Gibbs. I am an author, lecturer, and historian of the African Diaspora. I have also spoken extensively on various aspects of the District’s history and written on the subject as well for a variety of publications including “ The Washington Post.” In addition to several other books, I am also one of the co-authors of “Black Georgetown Remembered,” the first modern history of African Americans in that community. I also wrote “Black, Copper, & Bright: The District of Columbia’s Black Civil War Regiment,” the first full-length published work to chronicle the exploits of the First Regiment, United States Colored Troops which was organized in the nation’s capital in the spring and summer of 1863, fought nobly on several battlefields in Virginia and North Carolina, and became the first black unit to be received by the President at the White House.  I am also the winner of the 2008 Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation Public Education.

My task is to describe briefly relations between Congress and the city during three important historical periods:

The Mayoral Period, 1802-1871

During this period, Congress eliminated an early group of commissioners, incorporated Washington City, gave it a charter, and established restricted self-government. The President appointed the mayor who was then allowed to appoint city officials. There was also a 12-member elected city council which would later be divided into an upper and lower house.

In 1812, Congress permitted the election of the mayor by the council, created an eight-member Board of Aldermen, and then added 12-member Common Council. In 1846, Alexandria City and County retroceded to Virginia. In 1848, Congress permitted a Board of Assessors and several other minor city officials. In the spring of 1862, the most transformative political and social event occurred during the mayoral period, the abolition of slavery. The London Times said “…the 16th of April, 1862 was a day which will stand in American history as the greatest day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence-the day of this century which will be honored throughout all time….it has abolished Slavery on the National Territory.” The Times predicted that with bondage ended in the capital city, slavery’s “doom was plain is plain, and its strength broken.”

By 1867,when African American males received the municipal franchise, nearly a third of all black children were enrolled in the city’s racially segregated school system.

The Territorial Government, (1871- 1874)

The effects of the Civil War, significant population growth, the deplorable condition of the city’s infrastructure, and lobbying by civic reformers led the President and Congress to establish a territorial form of government, abolish the governments of the cities of Washington, Georgetown, and Washington County, and combine the jurisdictions. Executive authority resided in a presidentially-appointed governor. There was also a legislative assembly made up of a Council and a House of Delegates. A Board of Public Works was established. While members of the council were appointed, the members of the House and the non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives were elected by the voters.

The Commission Government Period, 1874- 1961 

Congress abolished the territorial government. The President was given authority to appoint a Board of Commissioners with an officer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1878, Congress passed an act that provided for the appointment of three commissioners, two of whom would be District residents, for at least three years prior to their appointment. The third member was a Corps of Engineers officer.  Two pillars of Jim Crow fell in the early 1950’s. In 1953, the Thompson Restaurant case essentially demolished racial segregation at public eating places. The following year, the District’s public schools were desegregated as a result of Bolling v. Sharpe which was decided by the Supreme Court at the same time as Brown v. Board of Education. The three-man commission form of government continued until the early 1970’s as the city moved forward to grapple with the complex problems of racial adjustments that the collapse of racial segregation revealed. 

The consistent thread in the rumpled fabric of the city’s relations with Congress is the desire of District residents for independence and political self-reliance.

                                                                                                                        C.R. Gibbs



Testimony of Samuel Jordan

Hearing on Statehood and Self-Determination

May 13, 2009 

Thank you and good afternoon.  I am Samuel Jordan, former Chair of the D.C. Statehood party.

If politics is the competition for the control of resources and the decisions that govern their allocation, then the purpose of the right to vote, is to put social resources under the control of the enfranchised. 

With this view, the struggle for the franchise has always cost - in ascending order of intensity and mass engagement - civil appeal, assertive negotiation, agitation, opposition, protest and finally rebellion.  Through its history, residents of the District of Columbia have matriculated through each of these stages in the campaign for self-government.  Nevertheless, we can say that the campaign is not concluded.  Furthermore, we can also say that this order of intensity has engaged District residents historically in a descending order of class position.  That is, the more genteel visits to Members of Congress to politely discuss the benefits of the franchise for DC residents have occurred early in D.C. history and were conducted by Washington’s elite who were close, if not identical, in race and class position to the Members of Congress they solicited.  They were often neighbors.

Whereas, following the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the rebellion in the streets, involved greater numbers of Washington’s poor and dispossessed as recorded in the arrest documents through the days of disruption.  It is also clear that the most rapid improvement in the District’s status and enjoyment of the franchise came within a relatively brief period subsequent to the events of that tragic April day in 1968.

The period 1961 to 1973 referred to in today’s hearing agenda as the Civil Rights Era in the campaign for suffrage in the District had important preparatory developments.  Among them are the organization of the New Negro Alliance in 1933, which sought employment of African Americans in white businesses in their neighborhoods, the Hamburger Grill “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign, whose leaders included Walter E. Washington, our first Mayor.  The Thompson Restaurant desegregation campaign led by Anne Stein and the inestimable Mary Church Terrell in 1949 to 1953.  That period also saw the integration of the old Uline Arena through mass, District-wide agitation.  These victories stand out in their perfection of the rallies, mass mailings, sit-in, picketing and selective patronage tactics that were used throughout the Civil Rights Era in varying combinations as dictated by the nature of the targeted discrimination against African Americans.

This era began with a 1960 national suffrage bill, the Keating-Randolph amendment to a proposed constitutional amendment that would also end the poll tax and give governors the authority to appoint members of their state congressional delegations in the event of nuclear attack, a proposal of Sen. Kefauver of Tennessee.  The original three-part amendment was reduced to a proposal to grant the residents of the District the right to vote for President and Vice President and fixed the electoral college complement at three - equal to that of the smallest state.  It passed Congress in June, 1960 and was ratified by the states by March, 1961.  The 23rd amendment’s promoters assured their own constituents and a national audience that, as Sen. Keating expressed it, “this is a right to vote amendment, not a self-government amendment.”  The new amendment was one of 70 separate national suffrage measures between 1960 and 1877, but the only one that reached the voting stage in Congress.  It is the opinion of many that a national suffrage proposal was an attention-diverting, substitute for the campaign for local autonomy.  

Categorical rejection of enfranchisement and self-government for District residents, particularly the District’s African American residents, according to contemporary accounts, characterized the 31-year tenure of South Carolina’s John McMillan, the Dixiecrat Chairman of the House District Committee (27 consecutive years 1955-1972). 

Upon the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961, the District was offered an elected Mayor and Council, with tax authority, a non-voting Delegate in the House of Representatives and a stable federal payment formula.  Congress and the President would retain ultimate legislative and veto authority.  Ironically, this was referred to as the “whole loaf” proposal.  His predecessor, President Eisenhower, offered a territorial form of government with a governor appointed by the president and a fifteen member legislature elected by the residents of the city with the retention of Congressional and presidential review/rejection authority - the “half loaf” plan. 

Kennedy’s proposals, the product of his support for some form of Home Rule for the District since his earliest days in the House of Representatives, were among a series of proposals that although supported by a significant number of Senators and Representatives continued to dismiss the wishes of the majority of the District’s residents for full, local self-government.  

It was this demand that shaped the agenda of District chapters of national civil rights organizations and local associations entering the fight for Negro suffrage in Washington, DC and elsewhere in a new national atmosphere conditioned by the growing successes of the civil rights movement, particularly in the south where the campaign for suffrage and its victories were headline grabbing and dramatic. 

The March on Washington in 1963 brought those primarily southern campaigns and their activist leadership to Washington, forming a base of support and training in tactics and organization for local civil rights leaders.  SNCC, CORE, SCLC, the NAACP were among the most important national organizations that assessed the state of the Negro in Washington, D.C. and committed resources, human and material, to the development of a long-term, local effort to win the right to vote and self-government.  “Free D.C.” was a demand of the 1963 march. 

While national and local civil rights organizations sought greater autonomy for D.C. residents, their support for the full franchise varied according to their mandates derived from the characteristics of their constituent membership and their own movement portfolios.  The more conservative organizations including the Urban League and the NAACP promoted step-by-step, limited Home Rule, while the Black United Front, SNCC and the DC Statehood Party, considered more “progressive” organizations, supported immediate and full self-government. 

The demand for national representation, for Home Rule and for statehood were in many ways quite distinct, nevertheless, the constant cross-pollination of personnel and mutual support for the long-term goal of self-government tended to minimize the divisions among the organizations.   As a result, Rev. David Eaton, the President of the Black United Front, was also active in the several statehood committees and supported the Emergency Committee for the Transportation Crisis, the ECTC.  Julius Hobson, was a member of the Black United Front and the leader of DC CORE and later, a co-founder of the DC Statehood Party.  In each organization, members of CORE, SNCC, the Urban League, the NAACP, the D.C. Congress of PTAs and labor representatives responded to calls for action on the picket lines, community forums and neighborhood door-to-door leafleting projects.  These organizations, for all their differences, were in great agreement on goals even when tactics were disputed.

While a mere chronology of the period 1961 to 1973 would serve neither the purpose nor format of this hearing, it is valuable to emphasize several developments that helped to give more concrete form to the nature of D.C.activism that cemented the demand for self-government in a broadening base of local support.

Passage of the 23rd amendment taught D.C. residents and activists that there was sympathy for the democratic principle in the nation at large if we would only reach outside our borders.  Within the city, however, there were several seminal events that contributed substantially to the long-term capacity for base building and mass activism.  We might site these events: 

(1). The 1966 boycott of D.C. Transit Company, led by SNCC and Marion Barry was and still is the largest, effective example of mass action protest of local conditions in Washington, D.C.  On a daily basis, for about three days, over 150,000 people organized alternative transit to and from workplaces and commercial centers on the model of the Montgomery bus boycott.  D.C. Transit, in defeat, altered its fare rate policies and strengthened its hiring program for African American drivers and garage mechanic. 

(2). The ECTC was a multi-racial, intergenerational, environmental, transportation and housing campaign, which stopped the construction of super highways through the city under the slogan, “No white man’s highways through a black man’s home.”  Not only did they win, but demonstrated by example that black and white Washington could implement a strategy that involved suburbanites in a victory for the long-term future of city planning and regional economic cooperation and development.  The ECTC victory led to the D.C. Metro Rail system and the abandonment of plans to crisscross the city with freeways.  Maryland and Virginia stayed with the highway lobby and lament to this day the absence of a modern, underground urban rail transit system.  The members of ECTC became the organizing core of the D.C. Statehood Party. 

(3). Rebellion, the last option in the social protest calculus, was triggered by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.  It was followed in less than three weeks, on April 22nd, by the approval of an elected school board.  A non-voting Delegate in the House of Representatives was seated in 1971, and the passage of the Home Rule Charter in 1973, established an elected Mayor, Council and ANC system.  20,000 people participated, 30 new fires were set per hour, 1200 buildings burned; 7,600 people arrested, and 5,000 jobs were lost permanently.  Smoldering discontent and resentment of race domination exploded into flames and a century of agitation for Home Rule was compressed into a period of five years. 

The work of this Committee, Mr. Chairman, provides an opportunity for the Council of the District of Columbia to take the lead in setting the compass for future gains by the people of the District toward the goal of full self-government.  A review of the period 1961 - 1973 when recounted in much greater detail than permitted by time limitations for the panelists, recommends:  (1). Clarity in message and mission.  In the same manner that Home Rule differed from national representation and statehood, so does statehood differ from the D.C. House Voting Rights initiative.  They are to be distinguished in tactic and vision for the city.  Such clarity in mission and message requires consensus among elected representatives;  (2). The residents of the city must have a grounding in the history, issues and methods of successful organizing as taught by a commission or other organizational grouping that would reach into each community in the city’s eight wards.  This commission or grouping will take its lead from the Council; (3). As in the campaign for national suffrage for the 23rd amendment, a national and international campaign must be designed with sufficient material and fiscal resources committed by the Council in the first instance and supported through solicitations from all residents of the District.

Mr. Chairman, in preparing my remarks, I did not intend to devote a significant amount of attention to Representative John McMillan of South Carolina, who ruled the District for a total 31 years until he was ousted in 1972, the result of a campaign organized by Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy with busloads of activists who traveled to McMillan’s district in South Carolina.  In that year, Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan became the Chairman of the House District Committee.  McMillan was the villain of the piece. 

With your permission, I’d like to put on the record an item that explains my disdain for speaking more about Mr. McMillan: On January 3rd, 1867, Congress enacted a law that extended the franchise to “all persons who have resided in the District one year, without regard to race, color or property holdings.”  Justifying his veto of the law giving blacks the right to vote, President Andrew Johnson said “It is within their power to come into the District in such numbers as to have supreme control of the white race and to govern them by their own officers and by the exercise of all municipal authority.”  McMillan had roots. Thank you.

(This is not a verbatim transcript)




Home Home Rule Testimony of Historians at D.C. Council Hearing May 13, 2009

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