District of Columbia

AuthorDennis J. Mahoney

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"If any of their officers, or creatures, should attempt to oppress the people, or should actually perpetrate the blackest deed, he has nothing to do but get into the ten miles square. Why was this dangerous power given?" The "dangerous power" to which GEORGE MASON objected so vehemently at the Virginia ratifying convention was that vested in Congress by the seventeenth clause of Article I, section 8, "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may ? become the seat of the government of the United States." That the power to legislate for the capital district should be controversial was a surprise to JAMES MADISON, who had proposed it in the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787. He defended the provision as the means by which the federal government might "be

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guarded from the influence of particular states, or from insults."

The district was established on the banks of the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia, at a site chosen by GEORGE WASHINGTON, and Congress assumed JURISDICTION over it on February 27, 1801. The location of the capital was agreed to by northern Federalists in exchange for southern acquiescence in federal assumption of state revolutionary war debts. But that location, south of Mason's and Dixon's line, resulted in the greatest national disgrace before the Civil War, namely, that the federal capital was a bastion of slavery and the home of a flourishing slave market. Not until the COMPROMISE OF 1850 was even abomination of slave trading extinguished.

Originally, the District of Columbia comprised one hundred square miles of land ceded by Virginia and Maryland, and three municipal corporations, Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria. Alexandria was retroceded to Virginia in 1846, at the request of its inhabitants, and the district has since comprised less than seventy square miles. Since 1871, there has been a single municipal corporation coextensive with the district. The 1980 population of over 600,000 was larger than the populations of each of four states.

During most of its history the district's lawmaking was done directly by Congress. There was a brief period of home rule, under a government like those of the TERRITORIES, from 1871 to 1874, during which the district plunged deeply into debt. From 1878 until 1974 the district was governed by three commissioners appointed by the President. Home rule was restored by passage of...

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