Thursday, December 3, 2015
December 3, 2015: AmendmentStudying: Washington DC and the 23rd Amendment
[December 6th marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of perhaps the most important amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for five other amendments, leading up to a special weekend post on the 13th!]
On how the 1961 amendment echoes the city’s complex history, and how it helped shift it.
From its earliest origins, the federal capital of Washington, DC has had a complex, contested identity, both within the American government and as a geographic entity. The capital was created out of both an informal political arrangement (the Compromise of 1790, in which Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson agreed that the federal government would pay all remaining state Revolutionary War debt in exchange for establishing a national capital in the South) and a couple of subsequent Congressional laws (the Residence Act, also of 1790, which formalized a 10-year plan to construct the capital; and later the Organic Act of 1801, which officially designated the newly constructed city as part of the federal government and thus its citizens as part of neither Maryland nor Virginia). And the political and geographic evolution did not end there: in 1846, for example, the Virginia General Assembly (fearing that slavery would soon be abolished in the capital) voted to accept the area known as Alexandria (which had been incorporated into DC when the capital was officially organized) back into the state; Congress agreed, and with its July vote for this “retrocession” changed all those Alexandrians from citizens of DC (and thus without Congressional representation or electoral votes for president) to Virginians.
The 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which passed Congress in June 1960 and was ratified in March 1961, culminated more than 70 years of Congressional efforts to address some of the political inequities captured in my first paragraph’s final parenthesis. As early as 1890, a proposal was introduced to Congress to grant DC voting rights in presidential elections; the bill did not pass, but thanks to the efforts of Washington Evening Star journalist and editor Theodore Noyes and his Citizens’ Joint Committee on National Representation for the District of Columbia, activism of behalf of this political change for the capital continued throughout the 20th century. Yet while the 23rd Amendment did indeed grant electoral votes to the District, it did not provide Congressional representation for the city, an issue that remains contested to this day (as illustrated by DC’s tongue-in-cheek license plate slogan). Moreover, as of 1961 Washington, DC still did not have “home rule,” meaning that residents of the city could not elect their own mayor or city council. Although this had been the case throughout the city’s complex history, the rapidly increasing percentage of African American residents during the mid-20th century made the issue part of the Civil Rights Movement by the 1960s—a connection brought home vividly and painfully during the April 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Five years after those riots and twelve years after the 23rd Amendment was ratified, Congress finally passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, giving DC residents the ability to elect both a mayor and a 13-member city council. In 1975, the city elected its first mayor, African American housing and civil rights leader Walter Washington; to date, seven of the city’s eight mayors have been African American, with the other, Adrian Fenty (who served from 2006 to 2010), having a mixed-race heritage. Each of these mayoral administrations deserves individual attention and analysis, of course; yet taken as a whole this history represents one of the most consistent and potent African American presences on the American political landscape. And I believe it’s fair to say that without the passage of the 23rd Amendment, and the national attention its ratification campaign brought to the issue of DC’s political representation and voice, the move toward Home Rule and the subsequent rise of the city’s African American political establishment might never have taken place (or at least have had far less visibility and effect). The 23rd Amendment is likely one of the least-remembered of the 27 current amendments, but its impact shouldn’t be underestimated.
Next amendment tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?