“When Theodore Noyes began the expression of such aspirations, he almost stood alone. His series of articles published in The Washington Star in February and March 1888, entitled “Some of Washington’s Grievances,” and particularly the fourth of the series [below], aroused considerable interest on the subject in the local civic groups. The fourth of the series, published March 10, 1888, bore the headline: “No Votes, Yet No Grievance? Washington Needs no Elective Franchise in Municipal Affairs, But Right to Vote for Representative, Senator and President.” Apparently the immediate effect was a letter by a civic leader, Appleton P. Clark, Sr. dated March 19, 1888, requesting Senator Henry W. Blair of New Hampshire to introduce in the Senate an enclosed draft of an amendment to the Constitution conferring representation in Congress and the electoral college upon the people of the District of Columbia. This appears to have been the first time that a proposed amendment for such purpose was presented in Congress.” — James Waldo Fawcett, pages 20-21, from the biographical sketch of Theodore W. Noyes in his posthumously published book “Our National Capital and its un-Americanized Americans” (1951).
Some of Washington’s Grievances
NO VOTES, YET NO GRIEVANCE?
Washington Needs no Elective Franchise in Municipal Affairs–No Repeal of "Exclusive Legislation" Clause–But Right to Vote for Representative, Senator, and President.
From the Washington Evening Star, March 10, 1888.
[via The National Capital – Newspaper Articles and Speeches Concerning the City of Washington by Theodore W. Noyes, 1893]
The idea of withdrawing from state power and the control of its residents a portion of territory to serve as the seat of government under the exclusive jurisdiction of the people of the whole Union, as represented by Congress, seems to have obtained a strong hold upon the minds of the founders of the Republic. Many desired to strengthen the notion of a Union by giving the general government an exclusive territory, a center of federal action, controlled by it alone. State jealousies had some influence in the matter. The jurisdiction of any one state over the seat of government would, it was thought, give that state, to some extent, control over the general government itself. Exclusive jurisdiction and the power to call out the militia would also, it was considered, enable Congress to protect itself in case of riot or other disturbance. The fact, now worn threadbare by constant allusion, was remembered, that Congress, while meeting at Philadelphia, October 21, 1783 [actually June 21st, 1783], had been insulted and forced to adjourn to Princeton. The opposition to the plan of giving Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the seat of government seems to have been feeble. No debate upon the clause is reported to have taken place in the Constitutional convention. Objection was made in the Virginia ratifying convention that the District might become an asylum for political criminals or violators of states’ rights. But the clause was adopted without much opposition. By its terms Congress was given the power of exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over this national territory. The legislature of the Union has an authority over the District incompatible with the exercise of the full elective franchise by its citizens. Without an amendment to the Constitution Washington can never vote for President or Senator or Representative. If there is a political grievance, the Constitution is responsible. The city’s complaint against Congress is not that it has deprived residents of the right to vote, but that it has failed to take this disability sufficiently into consideration in its treatment of the city. If the United States had attempted to assume no particular control over the capital, and the seat of government as a city of Maryland had legislated for itself, and had improved and developed itself only in proportion to the means of its citizens, then the indifference of Congress, and the frantic efforts of legislators to avoid a few hours’ consideration of its affairs might have some ground of justification. But Washington protests against the application of a theory and practice which, in combination, have denied it the privileges while burdening it largely with the responsibilities of independence.
In the performance of its duties as guardian of the capital’s welfare, four courses are open to Congress. First, it may leave the relations between the District and the general government unchanged, but give more time and consideration to the capital and its affairs, remodeling its laws in accordance with the wishes of its citizens and providing liberally for the improvement of its appearance, for its general development and for its relief from the heavy debt inequitably imposed upon it. Congressmen should look upon themselves as the representatives of a national district as well as of their own local districts. It should be remembered that the so-called congressional appropriations for the capital’s ordinary expenses are not gifts or beggar’s alms, but merely a disbursement of the District revenues, one-half coming from individual tax-paying citizens, the remainder from the United States as the untaxed holder of one-half of all Washington property, and much should be done by the government beyond the contribution of this quota. If the capital is to be deprived of privileges which would belong to it as the city of its citizens, it should be made worthy of admiration as the city of the United States, representing in miniature its growth in population, wealth and power.
Secondly, Congress may give to the District local sovereignty and the elective franchise to the limited extent which the Constitution will permit. It has been urged by many that Congress has the ability to delegate its power of general legislation; that the exercise of exclusive authority does not forbid a choice of agencies; that the government provided for the District should be assimilated to the theory of republican institutions; and that the natural right of men to govern themselves should be recognized as far as that is possible. And to show that it was never intended by the framers of the Constitution to deprive any portion of the people of the United States of local representative government, the words of Madison in the 43d number of the Federalist are quoted. The other side of the question has been argued with equal ability, and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia have adopted it. In Roach et al. vs. Van Riswick (Washington Law Reporter, November 10, 1879), it was decided that Congress has no capacity under the Constitution to delegate its delegated powers by bestowing general legislative authority upon the local government of the District, and an act of the so-called legislative assembly of the District, upon which the suit was brought, was declared inoperative and void. For the present, then, in the absence of an overruling decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, such a delegation of power is unconstitutional, and only the unsatisfactory privileges of a municipal corporation can be conferred. But experience has taught that if the decision in Roach against Van Riswick were reversed, and if the most extensive powers of voting were bestowed, which any reasonable construction of the Constitution can grant, the gift would be not merely valueless, but objectionable. The judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, in a report made June 1, 1874, stated the following truths: "In a strict legal sense there can be said to be no such thing as a local government of the District of Columbia, for there can be no government within the District independent of that of the federal government, and whatever local authority there may be now existing, or which may hereafter be set up within the District, it can only be regarded legally as an agency of the federal government, and whatever authority this local government may exercise, it must be regarded as the act of the United States through their delegated representative." The District legislature would in any event act under the restrictions suggested by these words. Its general laws would be mere petitions, void without the assent, express or implied, of Congress. A delegate without a vote has little weight in a "log-rolling" body like the House of Representatives. The other officers would be petty town officials, and a voice would still be denied the city in the choice of the executive and legislative officers of the nation. In short, the exercise of suffrage thus limited would be an expensive farce. Without representation suffrage is of no value; and, shut out from the bodies which make its laws and impose taxes upon it, representation of the District under the Constitution in its present shape can be only a sham.
It is extremely doubtful whether popular suffrage is desirable in the choice of those who are intrusted with purely municipal functions, even in cities where its adoption is not opposed by the peculiar objections which confront it in its application to the affairs of Washington. Experience and observation do not teach that a municipality which is reasonably well-governed will display wisdom by demanding a change of system in order to assimilate itself to ordinary American cities. The latter are notoriously misgoverned. Incompetent and dishonest officials have been too often chosen in partisan contests, immense municipal debts have been contracted, and excessive taxation has been imposed. Statistics show that while state indebtedness has decreased between the last two censuses, municipal indebtedness has vastly increased, far more rapidly than population and valuation, and its amount in American municipalities is now estimated at a billion dollars. The deplorable financial condition of so many of our large cities is due, in the main, to unlimited popular suffrage, which has given to non-taxpaying, irresponsible voters
the money supplied by tax-payers. It has placed the contributors and non-contributors to a fund upon an equal footing in the matter of deciding how and by whom the fund shall be disbursed. It has enabled the latter, under the guise of taxation, to make a division of the contributions of the former. It has legalized the virtual confiscation of accumulated wealth by aggregated paupers. Under its workings, robbers at the head of organized bands of destitute and desperate followers, have been permitted to seize, through mere force of numbers, the purse of more than one city, and to spend its contents at pleasure. The intolerable misgoverment of many American cities has not only caused the suggestion of such schemes of reform as the limitation of suffrage to tax-payers, and minority representation, but it has led even to the bold proposition that all power of self-government be withdrawn from these municipalities, and that the management of their affairs be intrusted to the state legislature–a plan which, if adopted, would place them in respect to their internal administration in a condition similar to that of Washington. In theory the powers exercised by the officers of cities are by delegation from the people of the whole state, in whom the ultimate sovereignty, as modified by the Constitution of the United States, resides. In New York, from 1777 to 1821, the officers of municipal corporations were appointed by the governor and four senators chosen every year by four subdivisions of the assembly. Instances of the intervention of the state government into the affairs of cities, amounting in some cases to indirect disfranchisement, have not been lacking in later years. There are serious objections, however, to the plan of granting exclusive control over cities to the state government, and it is not likely that the proposition can muster many advocates. But the mere fact that the suggestion has been made indicates that the evils which our municipalities endure are so great that the condition of Washington is viewed by some as preferable. The capital may well hesitate before it demands a privilege which its possessors are eager to resign, before it seeks to bind upon its own shoulders the burden of which other cities are making desperate efforts to relieve themselves, before it asks, as a boon, the main source of municipal woes. If the doctrine were generally accepted that universal suffrage is demanded by republican principles only in the choice of those officers who exercise purely governmental functions, and not in the selection of agents by municipal corporations to perform duties affecting private property interests, and if Congress might be depended upon to grant to the tax-payers of the District the financial administration of the capital, some of the objections against an elective system would be removed. But there is no probability of such action by Congress. The same spirit which would force republican forms of government to be observed in the District, though republican rights are not granted therewith, would deny a property qualification for voters. The municipal affairs of the city are now managed by a Commission appointed by the President, and compared with the manner and cost of the performance of similar duties in other cities the work is well and cheaply done. If this method of government should be abandoned, and the universal-suffrage system adopted, there is no reason to believe that Washington would escape the maladministration which prevails in other large cities. The conditions which cause popular suffrage to be baneful in the latter exist to a considerable degree at the capital, and in one or two respects
with which to contend. The character of the voting population of the city, though it would not be a proper ground of objection if it were proposed to invest the residents of the District with the full rights of American citizenship, may be noted when the evils of suffrage are offered without its substantial benefits. About one-third of the inhabitants of Washington are colored, and this number includes thousands of the worst as well as the best specimens of the race. In addition to the permanent colored element an army of recruits would be attracted by elections to the city from the farms of Maryland and Virginia, to be used as voting material by political "bosses," and to be supported as loafers, partly by the wages of politics, partly by charity and partly by jail nourishment. The floating population of non-tax-payers will always be large at the capital, where office-seekers most do congregate, but with the accessions that elections bring the solid citizens would almost certainly be overwhelmed.
An objectionable result of the choice by general vote of minor officers only, with insignificant powers, is the small-bore politician developed by small-bore elections. In the states the politician may hope to rise, step by step, to the governorship of a wealthy, populous and powerful community, to a seat in the national legislature, or to the presidency. In Washington he must confine himself to petty affairs and limit himself by petty ambitions; and, naturally, few able and upright men would be tempted by the prospect.
The commission government, which a sham representative system would displace, has the advantage of bringing the United States and the national capital into those close relations which were anticipated in the plans of our forefathers. The members of the commission are appointed by the President, to whom they report, and the nominations of two of them are approved by the Senate. The Treasurer of the United States is treasurer of the District. Congress alone is responsible for all general legislation. The true relations of Washington to the general government are thus suggested at every turn. If the city were permitted to elect local officers and pass local laws it would remove itself to that extent from national consideration, members of Congress would be permitted fewer opportunities of learning their full responsibilities in respect to the nation’s ward, while the privilege gained would have no compensating advantage.
It is true that commission governments are not unobjectionable, but it is believed that the most serious of their evils may be avoided more readily than those of the alternative system. Among the possible dangers of such a government for Washington are two that are prominent: First, that the executive may appoint as commissioners, not bona fide citizens of the District, interested in its welfare alone, but his own favorites, on the score of personal friendship, or as a reward for political services. Secondly, that such commissioners, when appointed, will use the minor positions under their control as similar political rewards to aid the party or the political "boss" in whose interests they have been given office. If the city’s government is ever debased into a mere political machine, a death blow will be given to the interests of the District. The capital is the ward, not of a party, but of a nation; it requires the friendly legislation of both parties; and to obtain such legislation its government must be non-partisan. The affairs of Washington are in certain respects confided to the President and commissioners appointed by him as trustees. If President or commissioner takes advantage of this position to benefit himself, or a clique, or a political party, and is not influenced solely by a consideration of the interests confided to his protection a sacred trust is betrayed.
Thirdly, Congress may propose an amendment to the Constitution
and placing the residents of the District upon the same footing in regard to all elections as the citizens of the several states. The prosperity of Washington as the national capital would be endangered by the grant of local sovereignty to its citizens. Even if the nation might be induced to surrender the control of its property interests in the District entirely to the residents, which is hardly conceivable, it would not be willing to pay one-half of the expenses of the capital with no power of management in respect to its affairs, and with not even a voice in its government. But it is absolutely essential to the welfare of the city that its present financial relations to the United States shall be preserved. The manner of Washington’s development renders it utterly unable to meet, unassisted, the expense of sustaining itself as a magnificent national capital. What was said in 1878, when the question was whether the government should pay a fixed proportion of District expenses, might be repeated if under any circumstances the attempt were made to withdraw the support then provided: "As in the beginning the federal city was without population or resources to which its founders could look for its development and improvement, so also at the present time it is wholly without the means either in property, commerce or manufactures, to meet the enormous outlays which the magnificence of the plan requires. One-half of its property, and the best half, is owned by the United States, and pays no taxes, and the other half is mortgaged for one-fourth of its value by a debt contracted in exhausting and paralyzing efforts to make it what its patriotic founders designed it to be–a national capital, worthy of the name it bears." If deprivation of suffrage is the only condition upon which citizens of the District are partially relieved from their heavy burdens, they evidently prefer to remain "political slaves" rather than become bankrupt freemen.
The arguments, already recited, which led to the establishment of an exclusively national district must also be weighed when it is attempted to reverse the decision then made.
The sentiment which identifies the fate of the Union with that of the capital should not be disregarded. Washington has planted the roots of its existence and prosperity in the spirit of American nationality. It has flourished in proportion as this spirit has been strong. The grand designs respecting it were neglected by those, not its enemies, who resented the substantial embodiment of a power superior to that of the state. It again revived when civil war developed the patriotic national sentiment, and Americans learned that the Union is a substantial something to love, to live for, and to die for. The bloodshed of the Revolution gave birth to the spirit of nationality and created the city; the bloodshed of the civil war revived the spirit and regenerated the city. The imagination may conceive that the soul of the Union is enshrined in this exclusive territory, and that if ever its peculiar existence shall be extinguished the event will be a forerunner of the dissolution of the Union.
Fourthly, retaining exclusive jurisdiction, Congress may propose
in the bodies which legislate for it and tax it, a voice as to the President, who is to appoint the commissioners to manage its local affairs, and, in general, except as to the privilege of choosing town or county officers, to place the residents of the District upon the same footing as the citizens of the several states.
A minor discrimination against inhabitants of the capital which needs to be thus remedied is that which denies them the right of bringing suits in the federal courts in those cases where the privilege is given to the citizens of a state, and which puts them before the national judiciary in a less favorable attitude than that of aliens. (Hepburn vs. Ellzey, 2 Cranch., 445.)
While the District is not a state, and while its citizens, in addition to the denial of the benefits of the federal courts, are forbidden representation, it is subject to direct federal taxation, although the Constitution says that "representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states of the Union according to their respective numbers." These words are held to furnish merely a rule of apportionment, and not to limit the power of taxation. (Loughborough vs. Blake, 5 Wheaton, 317.) The District paid its proportion, some $50,000, of the twenty-million direct tax of August 6, 1861, the last of the four direct taxes. It has also paid into the national treasury from the commencement of the excise-tax law in 1862 $6,454,907.03, a larger amount than that derived from Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina or Vermont. "Taxation without representation" thus prevails at the capital. It is alleged, in justification, that the District (when nearly uninhabited) voluntarily resigned its right of distinct representation, and irrevocably adopted the whole body of Congress (including its bitter enemies and its lukewarm friends) as the representatives of its interests. Washington was in existence only a few months when its residents began to bemoan their prospective disfranchisement, their exclusion from participation in national elections. In a pamphlet concerning the "government of the territory of Columbia," published in 1801 by A. B. Woodward, it is said: "This body of people is as much entitled to the enjoyment of the rights of citizenship as any other part of the people of the United States. There can exist no necessity for their disfranchisement, no necessity for them to repose on the mere generosity of their countrymen to be protected from tyranny; to mere spontaneous attention for the regulation of their interests. They are entitled to a participation in the general councils on the principles of equity and reciprocity." From the beginning of the century, too, members of Congress who have viewed the condition of the capital with other emotions than that of indifference have either "felt their hearts bleed" over the enslaved condition of the people, or have denounced the disfranchised as selling their republican birthright for a mess of pottage. In a debate in the House, December, 1800, Representative Smilie said: "Not a man in the District would be represented in the government, whereas every man who contributed to the support of a government ought to be represented in it; otherwise his natural rights were subverted and he was left not a citizen but a slave. It was a right which this country, when under subjection to Great Britain, thought worth making a resolute struggle for, and evinced a determination to perish rather than not enjoy." In 1803 the "unrepublican" condition of the District was again a matter of comment, and it was proposed to recede to Maryland and Virginia jurisdiction over the parts of the District originally ceded by them. John Randolph, Jr., in February of that year, said in the House: "I could wish, indeed, to see the people within this District restored to their rights. This species of government is an experiment how far freeman can be reconciled to live without rights; an experiment dangerous to the liberties of these states. But inasmuch as it had been already made, inasmuch as I was not accessory to it, and as at some future time its deleterious effects may be arrested, I am disposed to vote against the resolution." A proposition to recede the territory of Columbia outside of the limits of Washington, caused Representative Clark to say, in 1805, that he spoke of the inhabitants whenever he had occasion to allude to them with pity and compassion, and he most devoutly wished to see them placed in a condition more congenial to his own feelings, and the feelings of every true lover of civil and political freedom. Alexandria was retroceded in 1846, her "galling disfranchisement" being referred to in debate. Georgetown had sought retrocession in 1838, but unsuccessfully.
Many of those who favored the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress over the District on the same grounds that caused such a District to be established were yet
when the proper time should come, in order to give the people of the capital a representation in Congress, the body which, in theory, constitutes their legislature. As early as December, 1800, Representative Dennis said: "If it should be necessary the constitution might be so altered as to give them a delegate to the general legislature when their numbers should become sufficient." A territorial delegate, which did not then exist, could not have been intended. The time suggested by Mr. Dennis seems to have now arrived. The difficulty of providing Congressional representation for an isolated collection of people, insufficiently numerous in themselves to be entitled to a representative, is no longer to be met. The population of the District is increasing with extraordinary rapidity. In 1880 it numbered 177,638, and in 1885, 203,459. The census of 1880 was the first enumeration which showed it to have acquired a population that would entitle it to ask admission as a state if it were upon the footing of an ordinary territory. The number of persons to be represented by each member of the House of Representatives is, according to the last apportionment, about 152,000. The House committee on territories reports in favor of granting representation to Montana, which, it thinks, will have 170,000 population next November; to Washington territory, which is expected to contain 160,000 people at that time, and to New Mexico, which had 134,131 persons in 1885. One representative in the House and one, at least, in the Senate, should be granted the District. This arrangement is found to be equitable when the population and growth of the several states are considered. The District, by the showing of the census of 1880, already surpassed in point of numbers Nevada (62,265), Delaware (146,654), and Oregon (174,767); and the advantage over Delaware and Nevada is likely to be retained. In addition to these three states, Colorado (194,649), Florida (267,351), Rhode Island (276,351), Vermont (332,286) and New Hampshire (346,984), had less than double the District’s population, making the assignment of one Senator to the latter equitable.
In view of the comparative rate of increase and other considerations, the District is likely to be found in the future ahead of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, and, perhaps, Connecticut, of the original states, and Vermont and Nevada of the new states.
The adoption of the fourth plan by Congress would be a compromise between granting only local, qualified suffrage, which is highly objectionable to the District, and consenting to absolute self-government, which involves a surrender of national control over the capital, and to which the United States, as the owner of one-half the city, and the virtual payer of one-half its taxes, would never consent. The wisdom of this course is sustained by all the arguments which go to show that the constitutional power of "exclusive legislation" by Congress should not be hastily yielded, and also by those which maintain that taxation without representation and inequality of citizens before the law should not be allowed to exist. The District would be placed in certain respects on a level with the states. Taxed like them, it would have like them a voice in the disposition of the general taxes. It would not, however, stand upon precisely the same footing with them, for the states are subordinated to the general government only in certain defined particulars, whereas the District would be subordinate in all respects. This inferiority would be indicated, it has been suggested, by giving the District
and by a corresponding reduction in its electoral vote. Enjoying representation in Congress and participation in the choice of the President, who appoints its local officers, Washington would resemble in its municipal government a city which, after voting for the governor and legislature of a state, is managed by a commission appointed by the former and approved by the latter. Under this fourth plan the suggestions made in respect to the duty of members of Congress as the exclusive legislators for the capital would still be applicable; the present financial arrangements between the District and the general government would be maintained; the expensive transportation of office-holding voters to the states from Maine to Florida and from New York to California would, after the abolition of the office-apportionment system, be avoided; the rights of residents of the District as American citizens would be recognized in a manner which would inflict the smallest possible injury upon the interests of the city as capital of the United States, and this spot of national territority with all its patriotic associations would be preserved to the Union.
If at the time of giving the District the substantial representation suggested it should also be decided that Congress can manage the minor concerns of the District more satisfactorily by modifying in details the present form of municipal government, such changes may then be conveniently made. But every alteration should be based upon a full recognition, first of the absolute necessity of a retention by the general government of such representation in and control of the management of city affairs as will enable it to protect its vast interests here; second, of the frightful warning from the experience of other large cities against recourse to unlimited popular suffrage as a factor in the decision of purely municipal and financial matters; and, third, of the vital importance to the District that its local government shall be non-partisan.
It is conceded that the best method by which Congress can regulate the capital as a city may vary somewhat in details, with altering circumstances, but there is no urgent, present necessity for a change in this respect. The more important question is, Shall not the people of the District, who now largely exceed the number of persons represented by each member of the House, be
as citizens of a quasi-state, and be granted representation in the national legislature, and the privilege of voting for President? Without disputing for the present the proposition, proved absurd by experience, that they do not need, as citizens of the District, distinct representation in Congress as a local legislature because they are represented in that capacity by all Senators and Representatives, do they not, as citizens of the United States, assembled in sufficient numbers in a limited space and paying national taxes, require representation in the body which imposes and disburses these taxes?
The people of Washington do not wish an unlimited elective franchise in municipal concerns or a repeal of the "exclusive-legislation" clause, with a change of the financial relations between the city and the United States, and many of them, in view of the dangers to be faced in the discussion by Congress of changes of any description in the present government, will continue to favor the first or do-nothing policy on the part of Congress, which was unquestionably wisest as long as the fixed population of the District, not in government employ, was insufficient to entitle it to a representative in Congress, and which is still wisest so far as the municipal government is concerned. These citizens will doubtless for the reason suggested hesitate to ask the additional fights to be secured by this constitutional amendment. But while the asking and granting of these fights may be in various ways reasonably delayed, they can not be indefinitely postponed. Though representation in their national and local legislature, which alone makes laws for them and taxes them, and may send every man of them to war to be wounded or killed, be denied to the 225,000 District residents of the present, will the same denial be given to the half million of the near future, or to the prospective million toward which figure as a goal the District’s population is pressing?
This newspaper article was obtained from the The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, ca. 1600-1925. It is being republished here in order to continue my advocacy for full representation for the American citizens of the District of Columbia.