No taxation without representation!
Today, American students across the country learn those words at a young age. They refer, of course, to one of the chief grievances of the Thirteen Colonies: taxes like the Stamp Act and the Tea Act were unconstitutional since colonists had no say in the British parliament. This idea of illegitimate taxation helped lead to the American Revolution, and, ultimately, the founding of the United States.
It’s interesting that while that story is so popular, few people realize that today, several places in the country do indeed have taxation without representation. One of them is the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. In fact, in 2000, D.C. license plates even read “Taxation Without Representation.” Since that year, they’ve read “End Taxation Without Representation.”
To figure out why D.C. isn’t a state, we’re going to have to take a tour through history.
This land is my land
As we should do every time we look at U.S. history, let’s first remind ourselves that the English, French, and other colonial powers were not the first people to live in the Americas. Indigenous peoples occupied the continent for thousands of years before the first European caravel arrived.
Some modern experts estimate that as many as 100 million people lived across North and South America before Christopher Columbus arrived. (For a great deep dive into the pre-Columbian Americas, I recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.)
In the area that we today know as Washington, D.C., the Nacotchtank or Anacostan people lived and called it home. The region, abundant in natural resources, allowed them to create a thriving community that traded with places as far away as New York.
The Nacotchtank people’s first contact with Europeans was in 1608 with Captain John Smith from Jamestown. Although the first encounter was friendly, later interactions were not.
Less than 40 years later, only a quarter of the original indigenous people remained in the area. Europeans killed or drove off the majority, while many of the remaining people died from diseases brought by the foreigners.
A new capital for a new country
After displacing the natives, the colonies of Maryland and Virginia absorbed the area of D.C., and it remained a part of them until 1790. In that year, the new American Congress passed the Residence Act. This allowed the United States to create a capital on the banks of the Potomac River. President George Washington himself chose the exact location and signed it into law.
Virginia and Maryland donated land to help create the new federal district that measured in total “no more than 100 square miles”. The name of the new city honored the first president, while Columbia was a feminine and poetic version of Columbus common at the time.
The Framers hoped that such a setup would prevent single states from becoming too powerful. An isolated district that housed the federal government could help keep the various parts of the country in check.
One step forward, many steps back
Years later in 1865, the American Civil War ended and the country entered the Reconstruction era. For the first time in American history, the Constitution now (at least on paper) protected the rights of African Americans.
Unsurprisingly, the transition from chattel slave to American citizen was anything but an easy, simple, or fair process. Freed slaves continued to face discrimination all across the country, especially in the South. President Andrew Johnson (who had been a slaveholder himself) gave the former Confederate states the freedom to decide the rights of African Americans. As slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War, the southern states quickly made racial discrimination a priority.
Given the city’s location, African American residents of D.C. (who made up around one-third of the population) suffered heavily during this era. Black residents that managed to obtain local political positions were removed from power less than a decade later.
Many white politicians weren’t shy about why they were passing these restrictions. John Tyler Morgan, a U.S. Senator, said that Congress needed to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats…the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”
These “Jim Crow Laws” became codified into the U.S. legal system, which they remained a part of until the latter half of the 20th century.
A string of hard-fought victories (plus more setbacks)
For the next century, Washington D.C. voting restrictions remained in effect as the city’s demographics evolved. By the late 1950s, D.C. was the first predominately Black city in the country.
Around that time, years of activism and nonviolent protests led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. For the first time in history, D.C. residents could vote in presidential elections. That year, they voted overwhelmingly to support Lyndon B. Johnson, the sitting president who had pushed for the Civil Rights Act.
The city also gained three electors to cast votes in the Electoral College. On top of that, in 1973, the Home Rule Act gave D.C. residents the right to elect their city council and mayor. Yet while these victories were big, they were not without limitations.
The Civil Rights Act set the number of electors to a fixed number: three. If the city one day grows into a megacity with millions of people, its electoral power will remain the same—at least under the current legal framework. The federal government also heavily intervened in local elections in policy early on. many members of Congress doubted whether a predominantly Black city could govern itself.
The situation today
Over the past few decades, D.C. residents have continued to demand the rights that other U.S. citizens enjoy. Now, with the Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress, residents are hopeful that they might finally get the political representation they deserve. They believe that the best way to do this is by granting the District statehood.
In April of this year, a bill granting Washington D.C. statehood passed through the House. Although the bill would benefit more than 700,000 people, it’s unlikely that it will survive the filibuster and pass through the Senate.
Proponents of the bill argue that while D.C. has seen its rights expanded, it’s still not enough. The District needs congressional representation—namely in the form of senators and representatives (ones who hold actual legislative power).
Those against D.C. statehood cite two main arguments. The first is that a city of 68 square miles shouldn’t become a state. And while that might sound valid when looking at a map, it doesn’t hold up when looking at one that shows population.
A population of 700,000 might not sound huge, but it’s larger than the populations of both Vermont and Wyoming.
But regardless—whether those people are spread out across a massive state or reside in a tiny urban area, don’t they deserve the same rights as the rest of the country?
The second argument is that the Residence Act is clear: D.C. needs to be a separate federal district, independent from the states it ties together. This type of originalist thinking might seem legitimate, but again, it falls apart under even the quickest of examinations.
It’s true that the Constitution demands a federal district no larger than 100 square miles. But what about the land outside of that area? The area that houses government buildings and monuments could easily remain under federal control. At the same time, the other parts of the District could become a state—one that has the same rights as the other 50 states in the Union.
51: An odd number, but the right number
While tossing out old flags to buy updated ones might sound strange, it’s a change we should all be willing to accept. Having a say in the democratic process is the epitome of what it means to be an American. No U.S. citizens should be denied that fundamental right—no matter where they live.
For the United States to function as a democracy, it needs to treat all its citizens fairly. Granting Washington D.C. statehood is one step that can help the country get closer to achieving that goal.
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