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The Dems want DC statehood
But do they want a repeat of January 6?
There are good arguments for making the District of Columbia a state. The essential one appears on DC license plates: “Taxation without Representation,” which echoes the complaint that triggered the American Revolution and led to American self-government. Residents of DC pay federal taxes but have no representation in Congress. Statehood would remedy this.
The Democratic party has particular reason for wanting the District to become a state. Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered District voters by more than ten to one. Statehood for DC would give the Democrats two safe seats in the Senate and one in the House.
Yet the fact that the national capital of the United States is not a state, nor in a state, is no accident. It is the direct result of an episode in American history that bears an eerie resemblance to the storming of the Capitol on January 6.
For most of our national existence, Americans have taken the physical security of the national government for granted. Members of Congress might fight among themselves - using words, for the most part, but occasionally dueling pistols and canes. Yet they didn’t have to worry about attack by outsiders.
There were exceptions. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress was driven from Philadelphia, its place of meeting, by the British army. The members took great pains to get away ahead of the redcoats, for they had embarked on what King George defined as treason, the punishment for which was hanging almost to death, followed by drawing and quartering - that is, being hacked to pieces.
The national government was again driven from its home in 1814. The capital by this time was Washington, and the occasion was a raid by British troops as part of the War of 1812. The stakes were somewhat lower than in the earlier war: Congress was in recess, and President James Madison and other officials would simply have been taken prisoner, subject to exchange. Even so, the scattering was an embarrassment to the government and a black eye for the United States.
The security of the government was a central issue during the Civil War. One reason Abraham Lincoln at first refused to make the war a struggle about slavery - focusing instead on the authority of the national government vis-a-vis the states - was his fear of forcing the loyal slave states of the upper South into the arms of the rebels. If Maryland had gone over to the Confederacy, Washington would have been surrounded and the government would have had to evacuate. During the Gettysburg campaign, Lincoln laid contingency plans for evacuation, rightly supposing that Robert E. Lee had the Union capital in his sights. Only the Northern victory in that battle, which could easily have gone the other way, saved the day.
Yet it was danger of another sort that led to the creation of the federal district in the first place. At the end of the Revolutionary War, with the Continental Congress (or Congress of the Confederation, as it was often called after the 1781 adoption of the Articles of Confederation) back in Philadelphia after its earlier flight, elements of the Continental Army grew restive. The troops had not been paid, and many of the soldiers feared they would soon be mustered out and never get paid.
A group of the soldiers, mostly from Pennsylvania, decided to take their complaint to Congress. Marching to Philadelphia, they complained loudly against the members; some spoke of taking hostages.
James Madison was then in Congress, and he felt the peril personally. “Reports from the barracks were in constant vibration,” Madison wrote to a friend. “At one moment the mutineers were penitent and preparing submissions; the next they were meditating more violent measures. Sometimes the bank”—where government funds that might be used to pay the troops were held—“was their object; then the seizure of the members of Congress with whom they imagined an indemnity for their offence might be stipulated.”
Saloonkeepers in Philadelphia appreciated the business of the mutineers, but they made the situation only worse. “It was observed that spirituous drink from the tippling houses adjoining began to be liberally served out to the soldiers, and might lead to hasty excesses,” Madison noted.
Congress, lacking security protection of its own, relied on the Pennsylvania authorities. Congressional leaders petitioned John Dickinson, the president of Pennsylvania - effectively governor of the state - for protection. Dickinson, they said, should call out the Pennsylvania militia.
Dickinson conspicuously declined. He reckoned that defending Congress would score him few points with his Pennsylvania constituents, including the families and friends of the soldiers seeking redress. Congress was unpopular even then. On the other hand, siding, at least tacitly, with the Pennsylvania mutineers might win him grateful votes.
When the members of Congress learned that they would not be protected, they snatched up their papers and fled. They didn’t stop until they reached Princeton, New Jersey, safely across the Delaware River and beyond immediate reach of the mutineers.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the members forced to flee, called the performance of Dickinson “weak and disgusting.” Hamilton predicted that the members wouldn’t forget their peril and would hold it against Philadelphia. “They will not easily be induced to return.”
Hamilton certainly didn’t forget the experience; neither did Madison. And four years later, when the two persuaded many of their colleagues-in-flight (and others) to write a new constitution for the country, to replace the Articles of Confederation, the first article of that constitution stipulated that Congress would “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such a District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States.”
Siting the federal district took time and negotiation. It wound up straddling the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.
But more important than the location was the fact of federal control. The nation’s government was now responsible for its own security. Never again would Congress be at the mercy of state officials.
And so it has been ever since. Statehood for DC would change this. To be sure, the most popular proposal carves out a portion of the District to remain in federal hands. But consisting chiefly of the National Mall, Capitol Hill and the White House, this configuration would reduce the most powerful government in the world to the position of the Vatican in Rome, dependent for physical security on institutions and officials it does not control.
Democrats, currently in command of the federal government and expecting to dominate the government of the new state, see no problem with this arrangement. They would never abuse the power the new state would wield over the rump federal district.
But times change. And so do attitudes. Someday, possibly soon, Republicans will regain control of the federal government; they might feel nervous relying on a surrounding Democratic state for fire protection, police, water and the other essentials of urban life.
There might even come a time when Republicans win a majority in the new state, while Democrats hold the federal government. At this point, will Democrats be happy depending on the party whose president in January 2021 encouraged the demonstrators who assaulted the Capitol, whose members in Congress subsequently blocked an investigation of the attack, and whose rank-and-file shrugged their shoulders or even blamed the Democrats?
In politics, as in much of life, what goes around, comes around. Fans of DC statehood should think very carefully about undoing a part of the founders’ handiwork that has served the country well for more than two centuries.