Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) recently remarked that D.C.’s elected officials are “unfit to properly maintain our nation’s capital,” evoking a long and deeply troubling history.
Given that D.C. residents have long lacked political rights, and that many Washingtonians have fiercely fought for D.C. statehood, a serious proposal to eliminate political rights might come as a shock. But it exposes how without full rights, D.C. residents can easily lose the rights they do have. It also echoes the strain of antidemocratic and anti-Black politics from the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras that has haunted D.C. ever since.
On Jan. 8, 1867, Radical Republicans in Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto and pushed through a bill that gave Black men in D.C. the right to vote. The law made D.C. the first place in the country to enfranchise Black men. Within months, Black men became nearly 50 percent of registered voters. Although the city charter barred Black officeholders, and therefore there were no Black candidates on the ballot in June 1867, Black Washingtonians enacted significant political change, pushing Republicans into positions of power they never before held in the city.
This changing tide in D.C. politics, however, was short-lived. A movement to overhaul D.C.’s government quickly emerged, supported by both Democrats and moderate Republicans. This movement called for the integration of the municipal governments of Washington City, Georgetown and Washington County and the creation of a new government filled with presidential appointees. Its proponents argued that local mismanagement and a runaway debt demanded these changes.
Both the debt and mismanagement were legitimate problems warranting criticism. But the support for presidential appointees controlling D.C. signaled that these complaints were a smokescreen camouflaging the true motivation for supporters of consolidation — they disdained Black men having the right to vote and wanted to roll it back.
By 1871, local Republicans had become too politically divided to oppose the bipartisan consolidationists. The new Republican president, Ulysses S. Grant, also supported the consolidation movement, favoring its business-focused agenda. Accordingly, Congress passed the Organic Act, consolidating D.C.’s three municipal governments under a territorial government.
The new system included a locally elected lower House of Delegates and a nonvoting representative in the U.S. House, but the presidentially appointed governor, upper Legislative Council and Board of Public Works held the majority of power in the territorial government. Alexander “Boss” Shepherd ruled the territorial government as head of the Board of Public Works and then as appointed governor of D.C. Amid strikes and protests from Black Washingtonians, who had strongly opposed consolidation, the Shepherd regime launched an overly ambitious and excessively expensive redevelopment of the city.
In 1874, a joint, bipartisan congressional investigative committee exposed the excessive spending and outright corruption of the Shepherd-led territorial government. But rather than faulting the presidentially appointed officials, conservatives blamed the corruption and spending on the expanded franchise. They had long feared that universal suffrage would lead to social chaos and economic crises. The situation in Washington offered vindication, they believed.
In a swift response, Congress created a commission government for D.C. that eliminated all popular representation, and in 1878 they made it permanent. In the words of historian Kate Masur, this move conveyed Congress’s “lack of faith in the capacity of [D.C.] residents to govern themselves.” This lack of faith had a distinctly racist cast to it, one which built upon long-standing notions of political and economic fitness. Newspapers around the country observed that it was the “newly-emancipated and very ignorant freedmen” who burdened local government with corruption and economic woes. The Panic of 1873 and the retrenchment of Reconstruction policies exacerbated such sentiments, ensuring D.C.’s full disenfranchisement.
After the establishment of the commission government, Black Washingtonians spoke politically through mass meetings, in churches and parades, and by issuing demands through institutions such as the Bethel Literary and Historical Association (founded in 1881). Both the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the two leading organizations pushing for women’s suffrage by 1920, were based in D.C., but nobody in D.C. gained the right to vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Government chemist Harvey Washington Wiley, a longtime D.C. resident and architect of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, put into words the anger antidemocratic rule over the capital city provoked. He warned that if the “autocratic system” remained in place, eventually D.C. would “reissue the Declaration of Independence and set up a government of its own on the same lines as the Colonists did.”
Time proved Wiley somewhat correct. The commission government lasted for a century. Washingtonians also could not vote for president until 1961. Only when they refused to settle for the status quo in the middle of the 20th century did anything change. In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which provided for an elected mayor and city council. Congress also passed a constitutional amendment granting D.C. full congressional voting rights in 1978, but the states did not ratify it.
D.C’s loss of home rule in the 19th century, while a product of its unique political status, fit within a broader, national repudiation of Black and urban voters. Calls for restricting the franchise echoed around the North, while discriminatory Black Codes, and subsequently Jim Crow laws, disenfranchised Black Americans all across the South. D.C. found itself to be the most extreme casualty of this backlash.
In the 20th century, the undemocratic rule in D.C. allowed for the passage of many policies that hurt Washingtonians, especially Black Americans residing in the capital. City Beautiful planners, for example, demolished low-income housing in the first decade of the century without much concern for providing new housing options in the city. Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.) was able to deny the city funds for subways in the 1960s until he secured new highway proposals. Even in 2022, D.C. residents must participate in the responsibilities of citizenship, including taxation and Selective Service registration, without the full rights of citizenship.
Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Tex.) told the Daily Caller that it is unacceptable to allow Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to treat D.C. as her own “social experiment.” Yet, Congress has treated D.C. as an experimental site for centuries. Whether it was the elimination of home rule or congressional Republicans’ banning funding for a D.C. needle exchange program between 1998 and 2007 — which contributed to D.C.’s alarmingly high rate of HIV/AIDS — D.C. has remained at the mercy of Congress and other vested interests. Most perniciously, that means people with zero accountability to D.C.’s residents set policy, which they often base on the political sentiments back home in places with very different sensibilities from D.C.
The Republican threat to repeal the Home Rule Act of 1973 is not idiosyncratic or trivial. It represents a concerning antidemocratic strain in Republican politics. Not so unlike conservatives in the 1870s who desired a severely limited electorate, or, shockingly, no electorate at all, elected Republicans have engaged in continued voter suppression — especially of voters of color like those who predominate in D.C. and other cities — and many even supported overturning a presidential election in 2020.
Their behavior demonstrates that D.C.’s history is not an outlier, nor is the city divorced from the realities of American life. On the contrary, it often spotlights broader trends, precisely because D.C. has been repeatedly told that it is a city unfit to govern itself.