1. Governance
May 19, 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 3:22pm

The seat of democracy doesn't get a vote – and seven other ways in which Washington, DC is constitutionally weird

By Jonn Elledge

“This is a weird town,” an American friend of mine told me a few years ago, after he moved from New York to Washington, DC.

He was referring to the company town aspect of the American capital: the fact a substantial chunk of its population works in or around the government, and stands apart from the rest of the city. The disproportionately white Beltway Bubble even looks different from the largely African-American city that surrounds it.

But Washington is weird in its very form and structure, too: in its boundaries, its politics, and its relationship to the country that surrounds it. Consider.

Washington, DC was created to make it less likely that revolutionary politicians would get shot by their own troops.

When, in 1776, the 13 colonies first declared their independence from Britain, their representatives met in a succession of different cities, and their most frequent meeting place was Philadelphia. That didn’t last, though. In 1783, a bunch of soldiers, pissed off by the fact they hadn’t been paid recently, besieged Independence Hall, and the governor of Pennsylvania refused to call in the militia to clear them out.

This had two results. One was that Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey, thus putting a sizeable dent in Philadelphia’s claim to be the natural seat of the US government. The other was that its members started to think that maybe they could do with being based somewhere where they weren’t dependent on the goodwill of an individual state government.

So the constitution included provision for the creation of a city governed directly by Congress. Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution permits the establishment of 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”.

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Washington is where it is because of a row over debt.

The constitution, though, didn’t specify where the new city should be located. This inevitably became a matter of some debate, with several different states coming forward with their own proposals.

The northern states generally felt the new capital should be located inside one of the new country’s existing urban centres – Boston, New York, Philadelphia – all of which, oddly enough, were in the north. The southern ones, by contrast, wanted something in the south to ensure the new government understood and appreciated their specific economic interests – in short, farming and slavery.

The latter won out. The “Compromise of 1790” saw the federal government assume the states’ debts from the War of Independence. In exchange, the southern states, which had largely already paid off their debts – were, in effect, agreeing to bail out the north – got the capital.

We may not think of DC as southern now, but both Maryland and Virginia – the two states it was originally carved out of – were slave-owning states. It was founded as, in effect, a new southern city.

DC used to contain Washington; now Washington contains DC

The land set aside for the new city was a square, 10 miles on each side, carved out of Maryland and Virginia on either side of the Potomac River.

Two communities already existed in this space: Georgetown, Maryland, slightly to the north west, and Alexandria, Virginia, at the southern corner. The new Washington City was to sit between them on the Maryland side of the river. 

In other words, Washington was originally a small city in the much larger landmass of the District of Columbia. But the city has since grown rather a lot: its urban area now holds 5m people. Today, while the city of Washington and the District of Columbia are officially contiguous, DC is effectively just a small part of the functional city of Washington.

It’s three levels of government in one

This isn’t that unusual, of course. London used to be a city in Middlesex, a county it’s long since swallowed entirely. New York City, meanwhile, used to be a town on the southern tip of Manhattan; but the island has long since been just one part of the city.

But DC’s peculiar constitutional status – a city without a state – has a knock on effect. In most of the US, responsibility for public services is split between several different layers of government (city, county, state). In DC, though, one body has to do everything.

Its modern boundaries are ludicrous

The Virginian half of the District always felt a bit neglected. The federal government, you’ll recall, was on the other side of the Potomac – had, in 1791, amended the law to ensure that no public buildings could be constructed except on the Maryland bank of the river – and had been less than enthusiastic about making necessary investments on the side of the river it didn’t use much. 

But as the US began its long slide towards civil war the issue became rather sharper. Alexandria was not only poorer than Washington: much of the economy it did have was dependent on the slave trade. As calls for abolition became louder, the Alexandrians started to panic that Congress would ban the trade within the District altogether, thus wiping out their livelihood.

And so, they petitioned the state of Virginia to take them back.

Yep: the reason the District of Columbia is today a square with a huge bite taken out of it is in large part because those who lived in the southern bit really, really lived slavery.

The territorial progression of the District of Columbia. Image: EpicAdam/Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, however unpalatable this is in the 21st century – or, y’know, to anyone with basic humanity – it worked. In 1846, the 31 square miles of DC territory that had once been part of Virginia were returned to it, in an event known to history as the Retrocession.

Today, several of the things you probably associate with Washington, DC – Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, even the Pentagon – aren’t actually there at all, but on the other side of the Potomac in Virginia.

So, incidentally, is the suburb of Roslyn, which you may remember from that West Wing cliffhanger in which someone gets shot.

The middle isn’t the middle

What’s left of DC is divided into four quadrants (NE, SE, NW, SW). These are used as geographical markers, in the same manner as postcodes, but they’re more important than that, because of the way the street grid works.

In DC, numbered streets run north-south, while those with letters run east west. But the counting starts at the centre point – and there are two 14th streets, for example, one to its east and one to its west. There are two D Streets, too, one north and one south. Each quadrant effectively has its own street grid: ignore the letters telling you which quadrant you’re heading for, and you’ll get very, very lost.

Given the fact DC was once a square you’d be forgiven for assuming that the centre point of the grid system was the centre of the square. But you’d be totally wrong: it’s actually the Capitol Building which is slightly to the south east. This, combined with the retrocession, means that the four quadrants are of radically different sizes. NW is by far the largest; SW is tiny.

The quadrants as seen from space and coloured in. Image: Postdif/USGS satellite image/Wikimedia Commons.

It has taxation without representation

The District of Columbia is home to around 670,000 people – that’s more than two states (Vermont and Wyoming, since you ask).

But its residents didn’t get a vote in the electoral college which elects the president until the 23rd Amendment to the constitution – which didn’t pass until 1961. Its mayor was appointed by Congress until even later: the mayor of DC, and its 13 member legislative council, have only been elected since 1974.

Even today, DC is not represented in Congress: its residents get no say in who gets to make federal law. In other words, despite being the seat of government for a country that prides itself on its commitment to democracy, DC’s history has mostly characterised by the complete absence of it.

It’s not empowered to solve its own problems

The result of all this – the odd constitutional status; the under-bounding; the conflation of county and city and state – is that DC has a vast range of responsbilities and remarkably few tools to tackle them. To get anything done it needs the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the support of Congress.

It’s unlikely that this problem will get fixed any time soon – but it’s not impossible. Two options are on the table. One is the campaign for DC Statehood, under which DC would become the 51st state of the Union. The main objections to that are political: each state automatically gets two Senators, regardless of size; DC is reliably Democratic; no Republican is ever going to vote two create two more Senate seats which they know they are never going to win. God bless America.

The other option is a second retrocession, with the remainder of DC folding neatly back into Maryland. This would avoid the Senate problem, though it would still add another Democratic Congressman or two to the House of Representatives, which could be a barrier for Republicans. (Statehood would do this too, of course.)

In some ways it seems silly to deliberately redraw the boundaries so the urban area of DC – one jobs market, one transport system, and so forth – is divided down the middle into two separate states. 

But the functional areas of other US cities are divided between multiple states (New York, Chicago, Kansas City). And it’s no crazier than the current situation: less crazy, indeed, since DC is currently divided into three – and then deprived of a vote in Congress.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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