The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. elected its own mayors in the 1800s — until Congress stepped in

Matthew G. Emery, the last elected mayor of D.C. in the 19th century, before home rule was partially and then more fully revoked. (Brady-Handy photograph collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
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Tuesday’s primary elections in D.C. mark nearly a half-century since Congress extended home rule to the District in 1973. But there was an earlier, mostly forgotten chapter when local residents — some of them, at least — voted in local elections until Congress yanked that right away in the 1870s.

Back in 1820, Congress amended the D.C. charter to allow White men who owned property to vote for mayor, and it lifted the property-owning requirement in 1848. As a young congressman, Abraham Lincoln drafted a bill to end slavery in the District, but in an early nod to home rule, he made the legislation contingent on winning approval of a majority of White male residents. (Women didn’t get the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.)

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The beginning of the end of District home rule probably came in 1867, when Congress made it meaningfully more democratic by extending the vote to Black men in Washington. President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Black enfranchisement, vetoed the bill, but both houses of Congress overrode him by large margins during the height of Reconstruction. As Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) hopefully put it, D.C. was to be “an example for all the land, and most especially for the South.”

Testifying last year in support of a D.C. statehood bill before the U.S. House Oversight Committee, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) described the local government that followed Black enfranchisement as a brief success story:

The city’s biracial government desegregated the municipal bureaucracy, provided jobs to a burgeoning Black middle class, implemented massive public works projects, and supported the expansion of what became the nation’s best Black public school system. Yet that very success triggered a backlash from White conservatives and business leaders who persuaded Congress to retreat from biracial democracy.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, radical Republicans in Congress pushed through civil rights measures including the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people, and the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote — three years after extending that right in D.C.

When Matthew Gault Emery, the city’s last mayor from this period, took office in 1870, he inherited a government that had run up large debts. While criticizing his predecessors’ extravagant expenses, Emery announced more spending would be needed to meet the debt and fund public works projects. He built schoolhouses and cleared the streets of hogs, goats and geese.

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At the time, Congress was looking to chip away at home rule, including a proposal to make the city a territory, which Emery, not surprisingly, opposed.

“If the people in the District are not capable of self-government, popular government will be considered a failure in the nation’s capital. I am not ready to make such an admission,” Emery said. Congress voted for the proposal anyway, and in 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law.

The resulting hybrid form of government significantly eroded local control, with the president appointing a new governor and legislative council, while residents could vote for members of a new House of Delegates and for a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House. But it didn’t last long: Congress abolished this system in 1874 after a congressional investigation uncovered cost overruns, no-bid contracts and other problems under the presidentially appointed head of the Board of Public Works, Alexander Shepherd.

“Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd’s massive public works projects had bankrupted Washington’s short-lived territorial government that was elected by black and white voters,” Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood wrote in their 1994 book, “Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C.

In its place, Congress came up with a temporary plan to have the city run by three presidentially appointed commissioners.

The Nation, a magazine founded by abolitionists in 1865, condemned the removal of home rule, writing: “Under this bill, not a vestige is left of popular municipal government: aldermen, common councilmen, mayors, boards of works, school boards, police boards, primaries, conventions, all are swept away, and the entire government is handed over to three men, appointed by a foreign authority, responsible not to their fellow citizens, but to the President and Senate.”

In 1878, Congress — which was now divided after the return of Southern Democrats — made this system permanent.

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“District men, white and black, rich and poor, lost their right to vote. They would not cast another meaningful vote for a century,” Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove wrote in their 2017 book, “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”

If there was any doubt about the role that race played in the denial of home rule less than a decade after Black men were given the vote, a U.S. senator from Alabama and former Confederate general named John Tyler Morgan made the connection explicit. On the Senate floor in 1890, he compared Congress’s decision to abolish self-government in D.C. to slaughtering animals in Kansas to prevent the spread of a disease afflicting cattle.

Sen. John Ingalls (R-Kan.) continued the metaphor: “To burn down the barn to get rid of the rats.”

“Yes, to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats,” Morgan replied, explaining, “The rats being the Negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”

Morgan, a plantation owner, said that after Black people had “flocked” to Washington, Congress had no choice but to take away everyone’s vote in D.C.:

In the face of this influx of Negro population from the surrounding states, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in order to preserve property rights and the decency of administration in the central government of the United States here around the very footwalls of the Capitol, found it necessary to disfranchise every man in the District of Columbia, no matter what his reputation or character might have been or his holdings in property, in order thereby to get rid of this load of Negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them.

Nearly 70 years later, D.C. residents received the right to vote in presidential elections following ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1961. But it wasn’t until Christmas Eve in 1973 that President Richard M. Nixon — in the throes of the Watergate scandal — signed a law giving home rule to D.C. that Washingtonians could vote for their own city leaders.

“As the nation approaches the 200th anniversary of its founding, it is particularly appropriate to assure those persons who live in our capital city rights and privileges which have long been enjoyed by most of their countrymen,” Nixon said in a statement.

The president said he had voted for a home rule bill as a congressman in 1948 and called himself a “longtime supporter of self-government for the District of Columbia,” although a Washington Post story at the time said the White House didn’t actively lobby for the bill.

The next year, the city’s presidentially appointed mayor, Walter E. Washington, became D.C.’s first modern elected mayor. He was sworn in on Jan. 2, 1975, by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.