A short history of DC home rule

Sam Smith, 2007 – Even before there was a District of Columbia, home rule was a problem. The Nacostins, a peaceable tribe that lived on the banks of the Anacostia were constantly in danger of being annexed by Chief Powhatan’s confederation. The Nacostins turned to the new English settlers as allies in keeping Powhatan at bay. It didn’t work. In the end, they not only lost their home rule to the newcomers, but their homeland as well.
Thus began a controversy that continues to this day: just who should run this place? The answers have varied remarkably over the years. Since Washington was chosen as the site of the capital, its affairs have been managed, in whole or part, by the states of Maryland and Virginia, appointed and elected mayors and city councils, elected boards of aldermen, appointed governors and an appointed governor’s council, an elected house of delegates, an appointed board of public works, appointed commissioners, a superintendent, chairs of various congressional committees and even justices of the peace.

At times it has been hard to keep straight. The astute Walter Washington, chief executive in the period before the 1974 home rule government, even had three letterheads labelled “Mayor,” “Mayor-Commissioner” and “Commissioner” which he used according to the power and politics of the recipient. Just about everything has been tried short of a prince regent as successive congresses and administrations have sought to reconcile the ironies of a democracy being headquartered in a colony.

The oscillations of our political status have now, after two hundred years, essentially brought us back to where we were in 1820, which is to say we once again have an elected mayor and city council, but no voting representation in Congress. So much for the progressive imperative of history.

[Thomas Tredwell at the New York convention to ratify the US Constitution]
The plan of the federal city, sir, departs from every principle of freedom, as far as the distance of the two polar stars from each other; for, subjecting the inhabitants of that district to the exclusive legislation of Congress, in whose appointment they have no share or vote, is laying a foundation on which may be erected as complete a tyranny as can be found in the Eastern world. Nor do I see how this evil can possibly be prevented, without razing the foundation of this happy place, where men are to live, without labor, upon the fruit of the labors of others; this political hive, where all the drones in the society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land. How dangerous this city may be, and what its operation on the general liberties of this country, time alone must discover; but I pray God, it may not prove to this western world what the city of Rome, enjoying a similar constitution, did to the eastern.

[FEDERAL FARMER, NBR 18] “If a federal town be necessary for the residence of congress and the public officers, it ought to be a small one, and the government of it fixed on republican and common law principles, carefully enumerated and established by the constitution. It is true, the states, when they shall cede places, may stipulate, that the laws and government of congress in them, shall always be formed on such principles; but it is easy to discern, that the stipulations of a state, or of the inhabitants of the place ceded, can be of but little avail against the power and gradual encroachments of the union. The principles ought to be established by the federal constitution, to which all the states are parties; but in no event can there be any need of so large a city and places for forts, etc. totally exempted from the laws and jurisdictions of the state governments.
“The city, and all the places in which the union shall have this exclusive jurisdiction, will be immediately under one entire government, that of the federal head; and be no part of any state, and consequently no part of the United States. . . Neither the laws of the states respecting taxes, the militia, crimes or property, will extend to them; nor is there a single stipulation in the constitution, that the inhabitants of this city, and these places, shall be governed by laws founded on principles of freedom. All questions, civil and criminal, arising on the laws of these places, which must be the laws of congress, must be decided in the federal courts. . .

“To avoid many of these intricacies and difficulties, and to avoid the undue and unnecessary extension of the federal judicial powers, it appears to me, that no federal districts ought to be allowed, and no federal city or town, except perhaps a small town, in which the government shall be republican, but in which congress shall have no jurisdiction over the inhabitants, but in common with the other inhabitants of the states. . .
“Such a city, or town, containing a hundred square miles, must soon be the great, the visible, and dazzling center, the mistress of fashions, and the fountain of politics. There may be a free or shackled press in this city, and the streams which may issue from it may overflow the country, and they will be poisonous or pure, as the fountain may be corrupt or not. But not to dwell on a subject that must give pain to the virtuous friends of freedom, I will only add, can a free and enlightened people create a common head so extensive, so prone to corruption and slavery, as this city probably will be, when they have it in their power to form one pure and chaste, frugal and republican.

James Madison: “He [Patrick Henry] next objects to the exclusive legislation over the district where the seat of government may be fixed. Would he submit that the representatives of this state should carry on their deliberations under the control of any other member of the Union? If any state had the power of legislation over the place where Congress should fix the general government, this would impair the dignity, and hazard the safety, of Congress. If the safety of the Union were under the control of any particular state, would not foreign corruption probably prevail, in such a state, to induce it to exert its controlling influence over the members of the general government? Gentlemen cannot have forgotten the disgraceful insult which Congress received some years ago. When we also reflect that the previous cession of particular states is necessary before Congress can legislate exclusively any where, we must, instead of being alarmed at this part, heartily approve of it.”

“Mr. George Mason thought that there were few clauses in the Constitution so dangerous as that which gave Congress exclusive power of legislation within ten miles square to augment the congressional powers. But here there was no need of implication. . . What chance will poor men get, where Congress have the power of legislating in all cases whatever, and where judges and juries may be under their influence, and bound to support their operations? Even with juries the chance of justice may here be very small, as Congress have unlimited authority, legislative, executive, and judicial. . . Now, sir, if an attempt should be made to establish tyranny over the people, here are ten miles square where the greatest offender may meet protection. If any of their officers, or creatures, should attempt to oppress the people, or should actually perpetrate the blackest deed, he has nothing to do but get into the ten miles square. Why was this dangerous power given? . . .”

The tale of DC’s status wanderings, bleak and somewhat obscene as it is, is also odd and fascinating. One can not help wondering how the same men who wrote the Constitution and its Bill of Rights could have bungled so badly on the relatively simple matter of integrating the last ten mile square of their capital into their lofty ideals.

The fact is, they didn’t think much about it at all. In the Federalist Papers one finds only Madison’s faulty assumption that a local legislature would surely be granted the people of the Federal District.

Presumably, many of the residents of the new district thought the same thing. After all, between the selection of Washington as capital and the adoption of a city charter in 1802, they continued to vote in Virginia and Maryland. For about a decade, the two states continued to write laws for the District and there was local representation in the state legislatures. There were also three commissioners appointed to deal largely with building the new city, although their powers were subsquently expanded to include, among other things, the licensing of liquor sales. For a brief time the commissioners were replaced by a superintendent.

President Adams upon moving to the new capital in 1800, piously declared, “In this city *** may self-government which adorned the great character whose name it bears be foreever held in veneration.” He then proceeded to tell Congress that “It is with you, gentlemen, to consider whether [the Congress’s constitutional powers over the District] shall be immediately exercised.”

Congress proceeded, as it would many times thereafter, to get itself tied up over the question and by Jefferson’s inauguration had passed only one major act on the matter: a law providing for a single judicial system with a circuit court that would base its decisions on applicable Maryland or Virginia law depending on which part of the District a case was tried — thus establishing a dual legal system for an area only ten miles on a side.

When Congress finally put a city charter together, it contained little of Madison’s assumptions and Adams’s ideal. It stripped the citizens then residing in the city of their basic rights as American citizens (a distinction since reserved for minorities, felons and traitors), granting them only an elected council but no vote for mayor or in national affairs. Washington had been declared a colony of the US.

The franchise at that time was limited to white males with property and eight of the original councilmembers were involved in real estate. The council dedicated itself to matters such as the act of 1808 requiring “that every proprietor of any dwelling house or storehouse shall provide as many fire buckets of leather as there are stories to such house.”

Washington City consisted then only of the area south of what is now Florida Avenue and Benning Road. Alexandria and Georgetown, in existence before the District, continued to have elected local governments and the rest of the District — the County of Washington — was vacant enough to be handled by justices of the peace convened in levy court.

By 1812, things were going well enough from Congress’s point of view that it permitted the city’s mayor to be elected by the council and then, in 1820, by the voters. This system — despite the popular perception of Walter Washington as the city’s first elected mayor — continued for fifty years. In 1846 the city got smaller, with the retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia; and in 1848 the franchise got larger: any white male willing to pay the $1 school tax could vote.

And so things might have remained had it not been for the growing pressure for black enfranchisement, an anathema to the white electorate of the District. In an referendum on the issue in the mid 1860s, 99.1% of the city’s voters opposed the idea. In Georgetown only a lone citizen cast a ballot in favor. Mayor Richard Wallach opposed suffrage just as he earlier had opposed emancipation. And behind the scenes was prominent business leader W.W.Corcoran, so southern he fled the city during the Civil War, turning his house over to the French Embassy so it wouldn’t be seized by the Union.

Congress approved black suffrage anyway in 1866. With the change in the local electorate, Sayles Bowen, sympathetic to blacks, was voted into office as mayor. He was attacked for being concerned more for their employment than improving the city, including the charge that he used men with pen knives to cut the grass between the cobblestones on Pennsylvania Ave. It is true that during his term the city’s debt rose by a third.

Added to the arguments over government waste were the voices of urban reform. Here, as elsewhere, there was growing interest in city consolidation. Thus, as in the future, constituencies of prejudice and perceived governmental efficiency blended their causes to the city’s detriment. With little local opposition in 1871, the District once again lost its franchise, this time in favor of an appointed governor and council, backed by a weak elected house of delegates.

DC’s territorial government was short-lived, but misconceptions about its nature thrive to this day. Many of these center on the powerful Board of Public Works. This body was not part of the territorial government at all, but a separate entity reporting directly to Congress. Its chair was actually the governor, but Henry Cooke was not interested enough to attend meetings, so power devolved on the vice chair, the famous Alexander Shepherd who functioned as CEO. Shepherd, the single most interesting political figure in DC history, had an instinctive flair for the use of power, with or without the law to back him up. With a combination of style, chutzpah, political instinct, decisiveness, charm, friendship with President Grant, amorality and arrogance, he would become the father of modern Washington planting thousands of trees, laying miles of sewers and paving more miles of streets over them.

Governor Cooke had the title but lacked the inclination to compete. A joke at the time said the governor was like a sheep because he was led around by “A. Shepherd.” Boss Shepherd’s persuasive skills were such that upon being called to account by the president of a railroad whose tracks on the Mall had been torn up one night by 200 of Shepherd’s men, he left the meeting with an offer to become the line’s vice president. His cunning was such that when he heard reports of a planned injunction against the removal of what he called a “wretched old market building” on Mt. Vernon Square, he got a friend to take the one judge currently in the city out for a long ride in the country while the Boss accomplished his mission. He not only makes Marion Barry’s later efforts at urban manipulation seem amateurish, he with at the top of American city bosses. As the Cincinnati Enquirer of the time put it: “Boss Tweed and his gang, to whom Shepherd’s enemies are so given to comparing him, were vulgar villians [sic], stupid sneak thieves, by the side of this remarkable man.”

Cooke eventually resigned as governor and Shepherd took his place. Shortly thereafter, in 1874, Congress replaced the territorial government with a system of absolute non-democratic control under three appointed commissioners.

Once again, the proximate cause of this change involved the coalescing of issues of purse and prejudice. To be sure, the city had run up a cost overrun of $13 million — Shepherd said he assumed the federal government would take care of it — and the national financial panic of 1873 had put everyone on edge. But Shepherd had also demonstrated the considerable nascent political clout of black Washingtonians with a referendum on the right of the territorial government to issue bonds. The vote wasn’t necessary — the courts had already given the territory authority — but Shepherd encouraged the referendum anyway. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor, to the displeasure of the city’s white property owners. Just to be on the safe side, according to later recollections by the boss’s own secretary, blacks were brought in from Prince George’s County to add to the tally. The secretary said that despite their ignorance of the issues involved, the seconded voters had done the city a great service. “The darkies were always good friends of mine,” Shepherd boasted to the New York World.

The local white establishment, however, felt otherwise and while only a few — such as the Georgetown newspaper — would say so publicly, many felt that loss of enfranchisement was a necessary price to pay for what a southern senator would later describe as getting “rid of this load of negro suffrage that was flooding in.”

The hundred years that followed are the great gray era of DC government, directed by mostly unremembered men, running the city in a corporate fashion as commissioners. There were a few exceptions such as the conscientious and skilled Louis Bownlow, a pioneer city administrator. When Brownlow was a 35-year-old newspaperman, he was named by President Wilson to encourage a little honesty on a commission where, according to one congressman, a tour of duty should net the occupant a million dollars.
On the other hand, there was also George Allen, a hotel manager who submitted an application for a commisioner’s slot as a joke, who rose to be known in the public prints as “Harry Truman’s poker-playing buddy” and who bragged to a group of guffawing New Dealers at his retirement dinner that the city’s death and destitution rate had climbed during his term of office.

Of the three commissioners, the engineer commissioner (a plum assignment and promotion to general in the Corps of Engineers) had the most power.

But it was essentially a bureaucratic job free of the pressures of constituencies who expected and demanded that something actually happen. When I was working as a radio newsman here in the 1950s, the engineer commissioner’s job was relaxed enough that he would personally call the station so his announcement of snow emergencies could be taped and broadcast to the people of the District. And none of the commissioners did much without checking with the director of the Board of Trade, who many consider the real mayor of Washington. As one of the last commissioners wistfully put it: “The army and tradition and the Board of Trade — put this all together and it’s pretty difficult for the other blokes.”

Which is not to say that the people weren’t restive. Forced to rely on civic organizations to plead their case before the District Building and Congress — perhaps the roots of DC’s strong neighborhood politics — the citizens clearly wanted more. In four referenda, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of home rule, by margins of seven to one in 1938 to 30 to one in 1968.

And the city was not without friends in Congress. Six times between 1949 and 1965, the Senate passed self-government measures only to have them killed in the House, five times by the omnipotent House District Committee. This body, as with much of Congress, was strongly in southern hands. It not only didn’t like home rule legislation; it was leery of any legislation that smacked of social welfare. Faced with a bill to deal with the city’s rat problem, longtime DC-basher Rep. Joel Broyhill said, “This sets up possibly a commissioner on rats or an administrator of rats and a bunch of new bureaucrats on rats. There is no question but there will be a great demand for a lot of rat patronage.”
It was the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson that finally broke the jam. In the 1950s DC had become a majority black city and its fate was inexorably intertwined with that of blacks nationally. Johnson responded by using his powers to do away with the three commissioner system, replacing it with an appointed mayor and council. During this same period, the city gained an elected school board. For the first time in a hundred years the voice of local suffrage was heard once more. Among the voices was a school board member named Marion Barry.

It was a tumultuous time in the city. With the rise of black power, increasing peace demonstrations (at one, 12,000 people were illegally incarcerated, the largest such roundup in American history), and the aggravations of Nixonian politics, DC was ripe for change. A small group of us got together in the fall of 1970 and and started the DC statehood movement. The statehood goal, among other things, combined into one cause the national representation long favored by the city’s more conservative elements and the home rule desired by progressives.

More conventional home rule advocates concentrated on self-government legislation in Congress. By 1974 we had retrieved the ground lost 1871; DC once again had an elected mayor and city council.

For many years thereafter, the city’s establishment threw its weight behind a misbegotten constitutional amendment to give the city voting power in the Senate and House without either the permanence or authority of statehood. This effort — led by the bumptious non-voting delegate Walter Fauntroy (who initially ridiculed statehood) was finally doomed when only 16 out of the needed 38 states had ratified it by the 1985 deadline.

With no place else to go, and with a referendum on statehood about to be on the ballot, the city’s politicians underwent a sudden political conversion and statehood became the city’s cause of first resort. Its difficult course hampered by the bungling of Fauntroy (now a convert and self-proclaimed leader) as well as the lackluster support of other elected officials, statehood stumbled along until the vagaries of Jesse Jackson’s political career brought him to town. Jackson quickly recognized what statehood advocates had long claimed: that DC statehood could be an important national issue, of relevance to all the nation’s minorities, women, union members and city dwellers. In 1990, the city — after years of legislative obstacles from an often hypocritical city council — finally elected surrogate senators and a representative in the manner of many territories that had sought statehood. They had no powers, no pay and no vote, but by DC status standards it was a another step forward. And given the whole history of DC’s struggle to join the union as other than a colony, any occasion when you’re not moving backwards has to be considered the best of times.

–An abridged version of this article appeared originally in City Paper.

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