Guest Essayist: Peter Roff


During the Second Continental Congress’ debate over whether to sever ties with Great Britain, Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said that revolutions “come into the world half improvised, half compromised.”

It may be that he never said it yet if he had he might have just as easily been talking about just how the United States of America came to locate its permanent seat of government on a plot of land, ten miles square on the banks of the Potomac River.

Officially it all came about as the result of the Residence Act of 1790 – officially “An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,” signed into law by President George Washington on July 16, 1790 at a time when the federal government, such as it was, operated out of New York City.

The act transferred the capital, temporarily, back to Philadelphia, the city where independence from Great Britain had famously been declared and in which the new Constitution had been written, in secret, by many of the nation’s greatest minds. Those men, by and large, now occupied positions of prominence, either in the new federal government or in their states and almost all had opinions about where the permanent capital should be located.

The machinations behind the scenes that resulted in the Residence Act are perhaps the first great compromise of the new Republic. The northern states did not want the capital in the South. The southern states did not want it in the North. And no state wanted it located within the confines of any other, thinking it would give that state an unfair advantage in the affairs of the new nation.

The logjam was broken by an agreement brokered by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the capital in the South, and New York’s Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the federal government to assume the remaining debt incurred by the states during the War for Independence. The compromise, they reached, presumably blessed by President Washington, placed the permanent capital just a few miles upriver from his Mt. Vernon estate.

In the original configuration, the land which made up the capital was ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland and formed a diamond, ten miles square. In 1846 the area given by Virginia was returned. This includes the independent city of Alexandria, which existed before the district was assembled, as well as the area now called Arlington County.

What makes the District of Columbia truly unique, though, is not that it was formed from land belonging to other states. The Constitution provides for that possibility so long as the legislature or legislatures of the state or states affected consents. Maine, for example, comes from territory once a part of Massachusetts and was admitted as an independent state when a free state was needed to balance the admission of one where slavery would be legal. No, what makes Washington D.C., different from the other states and territories is that the founders intended it would always be run by the federal government.

In Federalist 43, Madison writes:

“The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy.”

“This consideration has the more weight,” he goes on to say

“as the gradual accumulation of public improvements at the stationary residence of the government would be both too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single State, and would create so many obstacles to a removal of the government, as still further to abridge its necessary independence.”

As they saw it, the independence of the capital city from the governments of the other states was an additional safeguard of our liberties and of the new system of government created by the U.S. Constitution based on checks and balances of power not just between the three branches of the federal government but between the federal government and the states.

That system held well into the 20th century. The protests of what has become known as the civil rights era gave impetus to the viewpoint the structure of governance within the District of Columbia was antiquated and discriminatory. In 1961 the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving the District three votes in the Electoral College for the election of the president and vice president. In 1973, Congress enacted the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, giving the city an independently elected mayor (to replace the city’s chief executive officer who, under different titles had been an appointee of the President of the United States) and a 13-member city council.

Home rule, however, is not complete. The actions of the mayor and the city council are still subject to congressional review and can be overturned by an act of Congress. Additionally the District lacks representation in the United States Senate (it does elect to “shadow senators” whose purpose is to lobby for statehood) its residents to elect a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives who, at different times, has been both a voting and non-voting member of the body.

There are some who believe the District should be granted statehood. They’ve adopted and, in a nod to the chief slogan of the War for Independence managed to get onto the city’s vehicle plates the unofficial motto, “No Taxation without Representation.” There are others who believe the original constitutional construct of having the capital city run by the federal government to, for various reasons, be a good one that should be returned to as originally envisioned. It is not an issue that will be settled easily or, one must believe, soon.

Peter Roff is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist and commentator who serves on the Constituting America advisory board.

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Guest Essayist: Peter Roff


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