Home Constitution District Clause Myths about D.C.
Feb 03
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Myths about D.C. E-mail

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Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy
Mark-David Richards, Dupont East

I was told in journalism classes many moons ago that this should be the motto for journalists. I would also expect judges to consider accuracy important. Accuracy is not easy, especially under deadline. And, there is also the power of "myth" (in the "falsehood" sense). Once a myth is established, it takes on a life of its own as a fact. There are a couple of myths about the creation of the national capital that have been created and sustained for hundreds of years. These myths have been proven inaccurate by scholars such as Kenneth Bowling (The Creation of Washington, D.C. and Co-Editor, First Federal Congress Project at GWU) years ago. But the power of myth is just too much, I guess, because they keep getting repeated -- in nearly all tourist guidebooks, in our local press, and even -- of all places -- in Judge Oberdorfer's memo on the voting rights lawsuits. Historians know this, and even this sociologist knows it, but I'm going to repeat it again. The first myth is that D.C. was built on a swamp. In fact, George Washington didn't pick a swamp, but rather a "wavy" hilly area with lots of water for cleansing, some of which were wetlands. This was important for a healthy city -- most cities up to this time had been built on the coast, where they suffered from yellow fever. In my opinion, it is more accurate to say that Congress created a swamp. And that leads me to the next myth trumpeted in a front page history article in The Post recently.


This second myth was also repeated by Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer ("Opinion of Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer concurring in part -- dissenting in part," p. 8-9), where he cites -- in support of the myth -- the very person (Bowling) who disproved it. The myth as Judge Oberdorfer tells it is that, "In 1783, while meeting in Philadelphia, hundreds of angry Revolutionary War veterans surrounded the State House and demanded compensation for their services. Neither the city of Philadelphia nor the State of Pennsylvania acted to protect Congress from the disturbances. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, mindful of this so-called Philadelphia Mutiny, the Framers sought to ensure that the national government would be free from interference by any State government and from dependence upon any State for protection." I checked with Bowling about this. He said exclusive jurisdiction was put in the Constitution because of the mutiny. But the fact is the mutiny was aimed at the state government, and the federal government wasn't even in session that Saturday. The federal government involved themselves by calling an emergency session, going to "the mutiny," passing by the soldiers, and entering Independence Hall, which they shared with the state legislature. Hamilton and his clever centralist friends basically saw the event as an opportunity to argue that the federal government needed its own EXCLUSIVE jurisdiction (early spin doctors!). Evidence suggests Hamilton set the thing up -- the soldiers said they had been inflamed by three federal officials on Friday night before their Saturday demonstration when they apologized for their behavior; somehow, Hamilton had known about the timing. Centralists used the "mutiny" to muster support for a stronger central government -- a controversial idea at the time, thereby creating the myth that has been sustained for 200 years. The myth backfired in the short run, as many Americans thought this just showed that the central government was incompetent. But in the long run, as Bowling writes in a paper he presented to the German Historical Institute Conference comparing Berlin and D.C., "The centralists gained nothing in the short run..., but the residents of Washington, D.C., have suffered the consequences for two centuries because the event brought out of the centralist closet a new and important constitutional idea: a federal government should have exclusive jurisdiction over its seat of government as a means of protecting its authority and dignity vis a vis the states. The concerns of the people residing under such jurisdiction were generally ignored as the idea gained support in the 1780s. Fortunately few nations adopted the idea, and the most prominent, Brazil and Australia, abandoned it in the 1980s."

This information doesn't change the fact that D.C. residents have been disenfranchised by the federal government, which uses the Exclusive Jurisdiction (EJ) clause of the Constitution to make their case. That clause does not say that D.C. citizens should be stripped of political equality, but it gives Congress the right to take it from them (should they be so dishonorable!). The Mutiny/EJ Myth shows the founders used clever means to accomplish their goals. D.C. citizens have thus far not devised equally clever means. D.C. can celebrate 200 years of being host to the national capital. But it's hard to celebrate the lie that Congress needs EJ. Professor Charles Harris of Howard University ("Congress and the Governance of the Nation's Capital") says that "the
Constitution could be amended to allow Congress to intervene only to protect statutorily defined federal interests in the District. Currently, the federal interest consists of whatever a majority of
legislators are willing to say it is. A constitutional amendment would allow District officials recourse to the courts if they felt that Congress had overstepped the legitimate boundaries of the federal interest." Harris showed (before the Control Board) that since the home rule government has been in place, "the federal government intervenes most often for reasons other than to protect a legitimate national interest. Parochial interests motivate many of these intrusions." I like Tom Sherwood's point, and I think this will be the concluding remark of my dissertation in which I've tried to understand why D.C. doesn't have equal rights after 200 years (whether it was a majority white or black area): "The toughest problem is getting people to care who could do something about it. The power structure is happy with the status quo and feels no strong need to change. Democracy is a nice concept, not an imperative." That nicely sums up 200 years of D.C. history. Yes, some D.C. citizens have always had hope and struggled for political equality. But Americans are wearing federally sponsored rose colored glasses -- they have been induced into a state of delusion in which local D.C. is invisible. The key to the D.C.'s Bastille isn't lost. The question is
about who will use it.

 
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