The District of Columbia

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Podcast Transcript

From the very founding of the United States, there was a debate that took place amongst the representatives from the 13 states. Where should be the capital of the new country be located?

A compromise was eventually reached where the states of Maryland and Virginia would donate a total of 100 square miles of land along the Potomac River for the new Federal Capital. 

Learn more about Washington DC, its past, present, and possible future, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In 1783, the Continental Congress was in session in Philadelphia when they were besieged by Revolutionary War veterans who hadn’t been paid. Known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, it highlighted to congress the need for the Federal government to have its own area which it could control which wasn’t reliant on any particular state government. 

James Madison echoed this sentiment in Federalist paper number 43 and spoke of the need for a separate area outside of the states which the federal government could control directly.

When the constitution was finally passed, article one, section eight gave congress the right to establish a “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”

It didn’t say where such a district was to be, nor did it mandate that such a district be created. It only said that it could be created. 

It should be noted the odd language used in the passage. It says “not exceeding ten miles square”. The current area of the Federal District is 68 square miles which seems to be in violation of the constitution at first glance. That is because ten miles square isn’t the same thing as ten square miles. More on that in a bit.

The establishment of the federal district along the Potomac came about as a result of the Compromise of 1790.  Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists wanted the national government to assume state debts from the war, and the southern states were against it. 

The compromise allowed for the new capital to be located in the south in exchange for the assumption of debt. 

The exact location was selected by George Washington who had his plantation, Mount Vernon, nearby along the Potomac River in Virginia.

The original district was a square 10 miles on a side, aka 10 miles square. Approximately ? of the land was donated by Maryland and ? by Virginia. 

There were two towns that already existed in the area which became the new federal district: Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. 

The new district was named Columbia, which is a feminized version of Columbus. If you remember back to my episode on the name of the United States, Columbia was one of the names floated.

The district became official with the Residence Act of 1790 and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 which organized the district.

Within the federally controlled district, a new city was created just east of Georgetown called Washington, named after George Washington.

At the time, Washington DC was distinct from Georgetown DC or Alexandria DC, all of which were separate cities within the District of Columbia. 

The district was also divided into two counties. Washington County consisted of all of the land given by Maryland on the east bank of the Potomac River, and not in Georgetown or Washington City. 

Alexandria County consisted of everything west of the Potomac, not including the city of Alexandria. 

There was nothing in the place where the new capital city of Washington was to be located. That meant that everything had to be created from scratch.

The general plan for the new city of Washington was developed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was a Frenchman who came to the US to fight in the Revolutionary War. 

L’Enfant laid out a design for the city which is still used today. The design, called the L’Enfant Plan, put the entire city on a grid. The center of the grid is the US Capitol Building. There were then also major boulevards that went diagonal through the grid. 

The city is today divided into quadrants with the capital building at the center. 

The War of 1812 actually saw the city sacked by the British. They burned the White House, the Capitol Building, and many other important structures for the fledgling federal government. This caused a vote in congress to move the federal district north, but it failed on an 83-74 vote in the house. 

Several times so far I’ve mentioned that the district was on both sides of the Potomac River, and the district isn’t that way today. Today it is only on the eastern side of the river. 

Because the capital was on the east bank of the river, all of the development was taking place there. The west bank, formerly part of Virginia, was neglected. 

Also, as with almost everything in the early 19th century in America, the big issue was also slavery. The people on the west bank were concerned that slavery would be abolished in the district, so they petitioned to be returned to Virginia. 

In 1846, the Virginia legislature formally requested that their land be returned, and on July 9, 1846, congress agreed. The part which was returned is now known as Arlington County, Virginia, and it looks like the missing puzzle piece to make Washington DC a square. 

This return was known as retrocession and I’ll be talking more about it in a bit.

This is why Washington DC today looks like a square cocktail napkin with about ? of it torn off. Today, only the parts given by Maryland make up the district. 

In 1850, the sale of slaves was outlawed in the district, while owning slaves was still legal. 

The location of Washington proved important in the Civil War. With the secession of the southern states, Washington found itself literally bordering a foreign, hostile country. 

Much of the Union and Confederate effort during the war was expended in and around Washington. 

With the southern members of congress no longer present, slavery was formally abolished on April 16, 1862, which made it an attractive place for freed slaves to settle. 

After the war, the district exploded in population. By 1870, there were 132,000 residents in the district, 75% more people than in 1860. 

Washington was poorly managed. The streets were not paved, and basic sanitation was lacking. 

There was a movement to move the federal district somewhere west, to reflect the movement of the US population westward. One idea was to move the capital to St. Louis, which at least from a geography perspective, actually made sense. The city could be reached by most of the major waterways in the country at the time. 

Instead, the Organic Act of 1871 was passed. This totally reorganized how the district was managed. 

There was no longer a separate charter for the cities of Georgetown and Washington. Now there was just one government for the whole district.

Moreover, the act specified “that portion of said District included within the present limits of the city of Washington shall continue to be known as the city of Washington”.

So, technically speaking, there is no separate city of Washington within the District of Columbia anymore. However, by law, the area formerly known as the City of Washington is still called the city of Washington, and informally, the entire district is called Washington. 

Georgetown, formerly a separate city, is today just a neighborhood within Washington, DC. 

For the most part, federal office buildings stayed within the boundaries of the district, although later on this was abandoned as there simply wasn’t enough room. Today you’ll find many federal offices located in nearby Virginia and Maryland. 

Almost since the district was founded, there have been questions about its status. 

The District of Columbia is unique in the United States. It isn’t a state and it isn’t a territory.

I think its fair to say that the founders never really envisioned a federal district with hundreds of thousands of people living in it. Nonetheless, that is exactly what happened. 

The problem is very straightforward: the residents of the District of Columbia are American citizens, yet they do not have any voting representation in Congress. Also, unlike the citizens in US territories, they are taxed as if they lived in a state. 

In 1871, as part of the Organic Act, the District was granted a non-voting representative in Congress, but the position was eliminated in 1875. It wasn’t brought back until 1970. 

The Washington DC representative can do everything any other member of congress can do, except for voting on bills on the house floor. They can also vote in a committee, just not for the final vote. 

The problem of representation was partially addressed with the 23rd amendment which granted the Federal District, it never mentions Washington by name, votes in the Electoral College the same as the smallest US state. 

In 1978, Congress approved the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment and it was sent to the states for ratification. It wouldn’t have made Washington DC a state per se but would have treated the district for all purposed of representation as if it were a state, and it would have repealed the 23rd Amendment, which would have then been redundant. 

However, only 16 of the 38 states need for ratification ever approved it. 

The issue of DC statehood is one that has been around for a long time. 

The problem that the District of Columbia has is that it is not a territory. Puerto Rico, for example, has a much easier path to statehood because it can do exactly what Hawaii, Alaska, and almost every other state have done. 

The district, however, is hardcoded into the constitution, especially with the 23rd Amendment. For the whole district as it is defined today to become a state would require some sort of constitutional amendment. 

There have been several ideas to get around this issue, but they all have their own problems. 

One would be redefining the boundaries of the Federal District. The proposal here is just to shrink it down to the area around the capitol building, White House, and the National Mall. Everything else would then become the new Territory of Columbia. 

This new territory could then just apply for statehood like any other territory. 

The problem with this is the 23rd amendment, which would give the new tiny district, probably consisting of just a few dozen people, three full electoral votes. In fact, the only people who might actually live in that area, depending on where the boundary is drawn, might be the Presidential family.  So even this would require some sort of constitutional amendment unless you want to give the sitting president three free electoral votes every election. 

The other idea is retrocession. A third of the district was returned to Virginia already. The idea here would just be to give the rest of the land back to Maryland and not have a federal district at all. 

This would give everyone in the city of Washington representation in congress, but it would be done through Maryland. The 23rd amendment could still exist, but it would be rendered moot if there wasn’t a federal district to apply it to. 

However, pretty much everyone in the district is against retrocession, and polls in Maryland also don’t show support for retrocession. Likewise, most people still want to have some sort of Federal District, even if it doesn’t have the exact same boundaries as the current one.

If DC did become a state, another issue would be what to call it. The name Washington is already taken. Suggestions for the name of the state have included Columbia, New Columbia, Potomac, and Douglass, named after Frederic Douglass who lived there for 18 years. 

The District of Columbia is a unique place in the geography of the United States. It is a sui generis entity that isn’t a territory or a state, yet has some aspects of both, without really the benefits of either.