Picking the Brains of the Founding Fathers

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

The setting is Congress, the year 2007. But as lawmakers wrangle over the D.C. voting rights bill, they are turning the clock back to the 1700s, furiously debating whether the Founding Fathers intended to deprive District residents of a vote in the national legislature.

On one side: the Bush administration and other critics of the bill, who believe the framers created the current situation intentionally. On the other: supporters of the bill, including Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District's nonvoting congressional delegate.

It is "slander," she declared heatedly last week, to suggest that the founders would fight a war over voting rights "and then would turn around and deny representation to the residents of their own capital."

Who's right?

Leading historians say the record on the founders' intentions for the future capital is unclear in some respects. But there is little evidence they sought to deny the vote to what would eventually become hundreds of thousands of D.C. residents, the historians say.

Does it matter what a bunch of bewigged 18th-century revolutionaries thought about the District? It actually matters a lot: Their 200-year-old opinions could affect whether the current voting rights bill is deemed legal. The legislation, which seeks to give the District its first full seat in the House of Representatives, has passed the House and is now before the Senate.

The main argument advanced by the bill's opponents is that the Constitution reserves House membership for representatives from states. And the District is not a state, they note.

Supporters and opponents of the bill are delving into history to try to clarify what the framers intended in 1787, when they inserted 38 words into the Constitution allowing for the creation of a federal government district. The brief clause gives Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation" over a future seat of government.

Did the framers mean its residents couldn't vote in Congress?

Absolutely, said John P. Elwood, a Justice Department official who testified at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. "The framers and their contemporaries clearly understood that the Constitution barred congressional representation for District residents," he said.

Nonsense, retorted Richard P. Bress, a former assistant to the U.S. solicitor general. "I can't agree the evidence shows the Founding Fathers intentionally and permanently disenfranchised the people of the District of Columbia," he told the Senate panel.

Historians say early politicians disagreed about the nature of the future federal seat of government, with some wanting a strong, independent enclave and others fearing it would turn into a new imperial Rome. Political maneuvering colored the discussion.

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