This article was originally published in the Georgetown Law Journal and outlines the case that the District of Columbia can be made into a state without a constitutional amendment. I find it interesting that nearly 60 years later residents of the District of Columbia chose to add “New” to the name of their future state.
In the great tide of Statehood which has flowed westward over continental United States there has been left on the Atlantic seaboard a small area which may be called a “back water” of American political life. From Canada to Mexico and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, all are sovereign States with the single exception of the District of Columbia. The City of Washington bears the proud title of the Capital of the greatest Democracy on earth. And yet how hollow is the sound of political liberty to the disfranchised inhabitants living in the very shadow of the dome of the Capitol!
This article will discuss the power of Congress without a Constitutional Amendment to erect a State out of the District of Colombia—THE STATE OF COLUMBIA.
The permanent seat of the Federal Government was authorized by Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution;
“Congress shall have power:
17. To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful buildings.”
The land for this purpose was ceded by the States of Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia became vested in the United States for this purpose in December, 1800. The land ceded by the State of Virginia comprised the county of Alexandria and was retroceded to that State by an Act of Congress of July 9, 1846. (9 Stats. 35, 1000) The political organization of the District of Columbia embraces the City of Washington and covers at the present time the land ceded by the State of Maryland.
The people of the District of Columbia are totally disfranchised. The government is in the hands of Congress which acts as a national as well as a local legislature. A Board of Commissioners appointed by the President is the executive head. The people have no representative or delegate in the Senate or House of Representatives, nor can they vote for the President or Vice-President of the United States, nor have they a voice or vote in the selection of their Board of Commissioners.
The District of Columbia has a population of 437,571 by the census of 1920, a number in excess of each of the seven States of Vermont, Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, Delaware, and Nevada, and it possesses all of the other qualifications of Statehood. It is conceded that a Constitutional Amendment could give Statehood or any modified form of government to the District. On the other hand, it has been questioned whether Congress can by a legislative act and without such amendment create the State of Columbia, even with the consent of the State of Maryland. An amendment to the Constitution would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and a subsequent ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States. An act of Congress creating a State government would require a majority vote of both Houses of Congress and the signature of the President.
REASON FOR EXCLUSIVE AUTHORITY
There were several reasons which induced the framers of the Constitution to provide for the power in Congress to exercise exclusive legislation over the seat of the Federal Government. During the Revolutionary period the Federal authority was feeble and, as there was no standing army, the Continental Congress had been forced to depend for protection upon the militia of certain of the States. On June 21, 1783, some armed and mutinous soldiers appeared before Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and insultingly demanded their overdue pay. The authorities of the state were appealed to but they made no sufficient attempt to afford protection. Congress moved its seat to Princeton, New Jersey, a few days after this incident occurred. In addition to the necessity for protection, the “Federalist,” No. 38, also urged in support of this clause, that the establishment of this federal district would free Congress from any imputation of awe or undue influence on the part of the State authorities. (Fort Leavenworth Railroad v. Lowe, 114 U.S. 529)
Needless to say, neither of these reasons has any force at the present time. The Federal government has grown sufficiently strong to protect its property wherever located. There can be no imputation of awe or undue influence on the part of a State today, as the United States through the concentration of federal powers in Congress and in the Executive branches of the government has reached a position of almost supreme authority. The transfer of jurisdiction to the State of Columbia would not prevent the Federal Government from protecting its property, nor could the State of Columbia of such limited area exercise a predominant influence over the affairs of the Nation by reason of its locality.
In Revolutionary days the danger was that the Federal authority would be too weak to coordinate and control the necessary functions of national life. The danger today is that this Federal authority has become so powerful that it threatens to smother the separate existence of the several States. In Story’s Constitutional Law, Section 1220, reference is made to a criticism urged in 1803 against the exclusive control by Congress over the District of Columbia as tending to foster an oligarchy and diffuse important changes through our democratic government. The growth of the Federal authority may be attributed in no small degree to its separate and independent existence in the District of Columbia. The creation of the State of Columbia would check further Federal growth along these lines and would add another Commonwealth to jealously guard State life.
POWER TO CREATE NEW STATES
The admission of new states into the Union is provided by Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1, of the Constitution:
“l. New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the consent of the legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
No limitations are placed upon the powers of Congress to admit new States except as provided in this clause. No other clause of the Constitution limits those powers. Nowhere is it stated that Congress can admit a new State only after it has fulfilled certain requirements. Nowhere is it stated that Congress can admit only States to be carved out of the then existing “Northwest Territory.” New States can be carved out of any territory or other property over which the United States exercises jurisdiction or control. An independent nation can be admitted in the Union as a new State by an Act of Congress alone, as was done in the case of Texas. (Acts of March 1, and December 29, 1845, 5 Stats. 797, 9 Stats. 108.)
There is no clause in the Constitution which expressly authorizes Congress to erect a State out of the land upon which the Federal city is located. There is, however, no clause which prohibits Congress from erecting the State of Columbia out of this area.
It may be considered that the grant of jurisdiction over the District is so absolute and unconditional as to empower Congress to erect out of the District any form of government, even a State government. The insertion of qualifying words in this sweeping clause would destroy the power of exclusive legislation.
It has been held by some that Congress is invested with a peculiar and high authority over the District and that this power is inalienable. This argument was unsuccessfully used before Congress in opposition to the retrocession of Alexandria County to the State of Virginia. If this authority is inalienable, no State can be erected out of the District without an amendment to the Constitution. If, however, Congress exercises political powers over the District similar to those which it exercises over the territory or other property of the United States, then a legislative act can create the State of Columbia.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE PARTIES
The construction which the parties place upon a contract by their acts and deeds at the time that they entered into it, is always considered of vital force in determining the meaning of the contract. The territory of the District was ceded to the United States by the States of Maryland and Virginia in accordance with the terms of the Constitution and contemporaneously with its adoption.
The State of Maryland under date of December 23, 1788, offered to cede territory for the seat of the Federal government. In the act of the general assembly of that State of December 19, 1791, ratifying the cession and fixing the boundaries of the ceded area, it was provided in clause 2:
“That all that part of the said territory called Columbia which lies within the limits of this State shall be, and the same is hereby, acknowledged to be forever ceded and relinquished to the Congress and Government of the United States, and full and absolute right and exclusive jurisdiction, as well of soil as of persons residing or to reside thereon, pursuant to the tenor and effect of the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution of Government of the United States.”
The State of Virginia on December 3, 1789, in the act of its general assembly ceding this territory to the United States enacted:
“That a tract of country, not exceeding ten miles square, or any lesser quantity, to be located within the limits of this State, and in any part thereof as Congress may by law direct, shall be, and the same is, forever ceded and relinquished to the Congress and Government of the United States, in full and absolute right and exclusive jurisdiction, as well of soil as of persons residing or to reside thereon, pursuant to the tenor and effect of the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution of the Government of the United States.”
The territory so conveyed was accepted by the United States in the spirit in which it was ceded. (Act of Congress, July 16, 1790, I Stats. 130.) No limitations were attached to the cession, certainly so long as it remained the permanent seat of the Federal Government. These States severally yielded all the political jurisdiction they possessed over this territory to the United States and the United States accepted this unconditional grant of sovereignty without qualification. One of the political powers so yielded and accepted was the right to erect a separate State out of this area.
The representatives of both the States of Maryland and Virginia had been most active in framing the Constitution!and these several grants show the interpretation all parties placed Clause 17, Section 8, Article 1. So far, as the original contemporaneous interpretation of this clause by the parties themselves affords a guide, there is no prohibition upon Congress to erect a State out of this area— particularly if the consent of the State of Maryland be secured.
COMPARISON OF CLAUSES
Comparison has sometimes been made between the clause conferring power on Congress of exclusive legislation over the District, and the clause giving Congress the power to govern the territory and other property of the United States. This latter clause is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2:
“The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.”
The power of Congress to erect a new State out of such territory is unquestioned. It has been argued that if these two clauses were intended to convey similar powers, they would have been framed in similar terms. This argument loses sight of the conditions under which each clause was inserted in the Constitution.
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution Congress had received by cession from all but two of the original thirteen States the unsettled lands which lay beyond their territorial limits. This was termed the “Northwest Territory” and Congress exercised the absolute right to and the exclusive legislative authority over the territory. Hence there was no need to insert in the Constitution a clause conferring such exclusive authority over the territory, as Congress was at the time actually exercising this exclusive authority. In fact the Ordinance for the Government of the Northwest Territory was passed by the Continental Congress in 1787 prior to the adoption of the Constitution. This celebrated ordinance is regarded, after the Declaration of Independence, as the most important act of the Continental Congress and furnished for a long period the model after which other territories were organized under the Constitution. The clause in the Constitution dealing with the territory of the United States simply confirmed in Congress the power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations” respecting this and other territory.
In the case of the territory to be occupied as the seat of the Federal Government, just as in the case of the forts, magazines, arsenals and dock yards, it was necessary for the Constitution to go further than in the case of lands actually under the exclusive authority of Congress. The seat of the Federal Government was to be formed out of land limited to 10 miles square to be ceded in the future by the States and which at the time was actually a part of those States and under their exclusive authority. It was necessary to provide that this exclusive authority should be taken out of the States ceding such lands and that it should become vested in the United States. A like necessity existed with reference to the land upon which should be erected forts, magazines, arsenals, and dock yards. The sweeping provisions of Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 17, were adopted for these purposes.
In each of these two clauses apt and appropriate words were used to carry into effect the intention of the framers of the Constitution. In the one case it was deemed proper to confirm in Congress the right to make needful rules and regulations over territory and other property owned by Congress. In the case of the district for the seat of the Federal Government, it was necessary to provide for exclusive legislative authority over land which would be ceded by certain States and which had, up to that time, been exclusively under State jurisdiction. In each case the effect is the same and Congress exercises exclusive jurisdiction over all such areas.
NO DELEGATION OF AUTHORITY
The case of Stoutenburgh v. Hennick; (1888) 129 U. S. 141, is sometimes cited as an authority which would prevent the delegation of legislative authority over the District by Congress. The erection of the State of Columbia would involve a surrender of jurisdiction and would not be a delegation of legislative authority. Moreover an examination of the opinion shows that the court went no further than to hold that Congress could not delegate the power to regulate interstate commerce of the Legislative Assembly of the District (10 Fed. Stats. Ann. 2d. ed. 469.)
Even if this transfer of jurisdiction to the State of Columbia could be considered a delegation of authority, the United States Supreme Court in 1878, in Welch v. Cook, 97 U. S., 542, decided that Congress could invest the District Legislature with that power. This case was decided only ten years before the case of Stoutenberg v. Hennick and was not overruled in this later case. The court said:
“It is not open to reasonable doubt that Congress had power to invest and did invest, the District (of Columbia) government with legislative authority, or that the act of the legislative assembly of June 26, 1873, was within that authority.”
JURISDICTION OVER FORTS
The clause empowering Congress to exercise exclusive legislative authority over the seat of the Federal Government, also confers a like authority over forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards and other needful buildings. The jurisdiction which the United States must exercise over its military and naval reservations is of necessity an exclusive one. The fact that the same clause confers a like authority in Congress over the District is strong evidence that no limitation upon this power was intended.
Where a State cedes certain land to the United States and reserves a reversionary interest in the property in case it is not used as a fort, the exclusive authority of the United States ceases when the property is leased for other purposes. The cession of such territory has been held to be of necessity temporary and to be exercised only so long as the place continues to be used for public purposes. When it ceases to be used the jurisdiction reverts to the State. The right reserved by a State to tax certain property in the reservation or to serve civil or criminal process has not been considered in violation of the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress.
These illustrations make it clear that this power of “exclusive legislation” is not of such a peculiar character nor of such high authority as to create separate and independent political areas forever under the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Territory or other property acquired by the United States, whether by conquest, purchase, or by cession of the legislature of a State, is subject to the exclusive legislative authority of Congress. This exclusive legislative authority can be surrendered and the property returned to the state which ceded it, or a new State can be erected out of such territory. The creation of a new State is subject to this limitation, that if erected out of land within the jurisdiction of any other State, it must be with the consent of the legislature of that State.
Story Constitution Law, Sec. 1127; Palmer v. Barrett, 162 U. S. 399; Fort Leavenworth Railroad Company, v. Lowe, 114 U. S. 525; 10 Federal Statutes, Ann. (ad. ed.) 841 – 845.
The power granted Congress to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever” over the District, does not confer any greater political authority than Congress can exercise over “the territory or other property belonging to the United States” or over places purchased with the consent of the State legislatures for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals and dock-yards. In each case there exists under the Constitution that jurisdiction, absolute, exclusive, unqualified, which is the sovereign authority to make, decide on and execute laws. (*1) Wedding v. Meyler, (192 U. S. 573).
There is no express provision of the Constitution which authorizes Congress to enlarge the national domain or acquire new territory by annexation, cession, conquest, or in any other manner. This power, has, however, always been considered as one of the attributes of sovereignty and as such has been continuously exercised by Congress. As an inevitable consequence of the right to acquire territory, there follows the power to govern the territory. (*2) Rassmussen v. U.S. (197 U.S. 516). The power to pass laws for the government so acquired has sometimes been asserted on the strength of Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2, (supra.) On whatever ground this authority to govern rests, there can be no doubt of its existence and of the fact that under it Congress has the right of exclusive legislation over such territory and can dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting it. This sovereign right of exclusive legislation is similar to that exercised by Congress over the District.
As has been said, if the title to property be absolute, the mode of its acquisition is unimportant. (*3.) Petition to Congress from Committee from town of Alexandria, Va., accompanying House Report 325, 29th Congress, 1st. Session. Whether it be by gift, purchase, conquest, or cession from a State, Congress possesses but a complete title to the area.
It might have been argued that because the Constitution authorized Congress to make “all needful rules and regulations” respecting the territory of the United States, Congress could never divest itself of that power. In other words, that Congress could never carve States out of such territory because by so doing it would surrender the power to make the “needful rules and regulations.” It is a sufficient answer to say that the Constitution has not been so construed. The admission of thirty-four States in the Union from such territory is ample proof of this fact.
The fact that the Constitution expressly confers upon Congress powers of exclusive legislation over the District does not thereby carry with it the implication that all other powers are denied, if there are any such other powers. A striking example of this rule of construction of the Constitution is found in the Legal Tender Cases, 12 Wall. 457. In this case the constitutionality of an act of Congress making paper money legal tender for the payment of debts was attacked because there was no express authority for such law.
It was contended that the clause of the Constitution which conferred upon Congress power “to coin money, regulates the value thereof and of foreign coin,” contained an implication that nothing but that which is the subject of coinage, namely, precious metals, could ever be declared by law to be money or legal tender. This argument was specious and persuasive. The fallacy of the contention, as the court observed, was that the Constitution has never been construed that way. The court held that the enumeration of certain governmental powers, did not thereby exclude the existence of other governmental powers not enumerated. The Court said:,
“XXXX. It is not claimed that any express prohibition exists, but it is insisted that the spirit of the Constitution was violated by the enactment. Here those who assert the unconstitutionality of the acts mainly rest their argument. They claim that the clause which conferred upon Congress power “to coin money; regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin,” contains an implication that nothing but that which is the subject of coinage, nothing but the precious metals can ever be declared by law to be money, or to have the uses of money. If by this is meant that because certain powers over the currency are expressly given to Congress, all other powers relating to the same subject are impliedly forbidden, we need only remark that such is not the manner in which the Constitution has always been construed.”
“XXXX. In most cases, if not in all, when it was intended that governmental powers, commonly acknowledged as such, should cease to exist, both in the States and in the Federal Government, it was expressly denied to both, as well to the United States as to the individual states. And generally when one of such powers was expressly denied to the States only, it was for the purpose of rendering the Federal power more complete and exclusive.”
In like manner, the enumeration in the Constitution of certain powers conferred on Congress with reference to the District of Columbia, does not by implication take away other governmental powers. One of the governmental powers which Congress exercises over all territory or land of the United States is the right to admit such area in the Union as a State. This power not having been expressly or by implication taken away with reference to the District of Columbia still exists in Congress.
In the case of the First National Bank v. Yankton County, 101 U.S. 129, the Court discussed the power of Congress to legislate for the territories. It was said:
“In other words it (i. e. Congress) has full and complete legislative authority over the people of the territories and all the departments of the territorial governments.
In discussing the relationship which Congress bears to the Territory of Alaska and to the District of Columbia, the Court of Appeals of the District in U. S. ex. rel. Humboldt S. S. Co. v. Interstate Commerce Commission 37 App. D. C. 274, held:
“Congress in the government of the territories, has plenary power, except as limited by the Constitution. The particular form of government it shall establish is not prescribed. It has for example, prescribed one form of government for New Mexico, another for the District of Columbia, and still another for Alaska. * * * While Congress in the government of the District of Columbia is limited by the provisions of the Constitution not applicable to other territory of the United States, the same power exists of establishing local government.”
In the case of the Corporation of Latter Day Saints v. U. S. 136 U. S. 32, 42, it was held:
“The power of Congress over the territories of the United States is general and plenary.”
While there may be some fundamental guarantees of life, liberty and property under the Constitution which are applicable to the District of Columbia and not to the territories nevertheless in political matters Congress exercises “plenary” power over both. (Employers, Liability Cases 207; U. S. 500.)
In the case of Callan v. Wilson, 127 U.S. 540, the Court held with reference to a trial by jury:
“We cannot think that the people of this District (of Columbia) have in that regard, less rights than those accorded to the people of the territories of the United States.”
The extent of the authority which Congress exercises of the District and over the Territories was clearly discussed in the case of Binns v. U.S., 194 U. S. 486. The Court held that Congress exercised plenary power, and Mr. Justice Brewer, in writing the opinion of the court, said:
“XXXX It must be remembered that Congress, in the government of the territories as well as of the District of Columbia, has plenary power, save as controlled by the provisions of the Constitution; that the form of government it shall establish is not prescribed and may not necessarily be the same in all the territories. We are accustomed to that generally adopted for the territories, of a quasi state government, with executive, legislative, and judicial officers, and a legislative endowed with the power of local taxation and local expenditures; but Congress is not limited to this form. In the District of Columbia it has adopted a different mode of government, and in Alaska still another. It may legislate directly in respect to the local affairs of a territory, or transfer the power of such legislation to a legislature elected by the citizens of the territory. It has provided in the District of Columbia for a board of three Commissioners, who are the controlling officers of the District. It may entrust to them a large volume of legislative power, or it may, by direct legislation create the whole statutory law applicable thereto. For Alaska, Congress has established a government of a different form. It has provided no legislative body, but only executive and judicial officers.”
In the Insular Tariff Cases after the Spanish War, Mr. Justice Brown, in writing the opinion of the Court in the case of De Lima v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 196, said:
“Under this power (to govern and control the Territories) Congress may deal with territory acquired by treaty; may administer its government as it does that of the District of Columbia; it may organize a local territorial government; it may admit it as a State upon an equality with other States; it may sell its public lands to individual citizens or may donate them as homesteads to actual settlers. In short, when once acquired by treaty, it belongs to the United States, and is subject to the disposition of Congress.”
Compare also Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U. S. 244.
In the great case of Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat, 265, there was involved the validity of a lottery law enacted by Congress with reference to the District. Daniel Webster was one of the counsel and argued, page 435, that the clause of the Constitution relative to the District conveyed powers so peculiar and specific that no other city in the Union could be given such a charter by Congress and if every Federal power granted in the Constitution were destroyed, this power over the District of Columbia would remain. But Chief Justice Marshall held that the power of exclusive legislation over the District was conferred on Congress as the legislature of the Union and that such powers could be exercised in no other way:
“In the enumeration of the powers of Congress which is made in the eighth section of the first article, we find that of exercising exclusive legislation over such district as shall become the seat of government. This power, like all others which are specified, is conferred on Congress as the legislature of the Union; for, strip them of that character, and they would not possess it. In no other character can it be exercised in legislating for the district, they necessarily preserve the character of the legislature of the Union; for it is in that character alone that the constitution confers on them this power of exclusive legislation.”
These decisions of our highest Court plainly show that the political power which Congress exercises over the District is plenary, that it is full and absolute, and is similar to that exercised over the territory or other property of the United States. Congress may in each case create a State out of such area.
RETROCESSION OF ALEXANDRIA COUNTY, VIRGINIA
The land secured from the State of Virginia was retroceded to that State by the Act of Congress of July 9, 1846. If Congress had the right to divest itself of the power of exclusive legislation over a portion of the District by this retrocession, Congress can erect the State of Columbia out of the remaining area. It was argued that this act was unconstitutional and that the exclusive jurisdiction over the seat of the Federal government could not be surrendered. The act was passed in spite of this objection and the retrocession has stood without successful challenge for a period of seventy-five years. As this is essentially a political question, it is very doubtful whether this act of retrocession can ever be considered by the courts. In the case of Phillips v. Payne, (1875) 92 S. U. 130, an attempt to raise this question was refused. (Wilson v. Shaw, 204 U.S. 24; Luther v. Borden, 7 How 1, 42).
In like manner the erection by Congress, with the consent of the State of Maryland, of the State of Columbia, would be a purely political question and the courts would have no jurisdiction to consider it.
From a study of the wording of the Constitution and of the original grants of this territory from the States of Maryland and Virginia; from an examination of the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States; and from the action of the political branch of the Government in retroceding a portion of this area to the State of Virginia; it must be conceded that the weight of precedent and authority is in favor of the proposition that Congress has authority, with the consent of the State of Maryland, and without a Constitutional Amendment to erect out of the District of Columbia a Sovereign State—THE STATE OF COLUMBIA.
FRANK SPRIGGS PERRY
Associate Professor of Constitutional Law