Article I, section 8, clause 17 of the Constitution authorizes Congress to create a seat of government ten miles square and grants exclusive jurisdiction over it. The states of Virginia and Maryland donate the land for a District of Columbia, and construction soon begins on the White House, Capitol, and other federal buildings.
Meeting first in New York City, and then in Philadelphia, officials of the federal government move to the Washington, D.C., in 1800. Congress convenes there in December. When established, the District has a population of only five thousand residents, far fewer than the thirty thousand specified for the size of congressional districts. Many are temporary residents, living in the district only for the few months the Congress is in session and returning to their home states to vote.
After Congress takes up residence in the new capital, it passes the Organic Acts of 1801, taking direct control of the District. Under the law, people living in the District are denied the right to vote in either Maryland or Virginia, the states from which the District has been created.
The original government buildings constructed are all on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. People living in the portion of the District on the other side of the Potomac seek to rejoin Virginia. In 1846, Congress votes to give back to Virginia thirty-two square miles of land that Virginia donated to the government in 1790. Residents of Alexandria and Arlington counties again become Virginia citizens and are entitled to vote in that state.
The District of Columbia receives its first democratically elected government, which consists of a governor, a bicameral legislature with an appointed eleven member upper house, and an elected twenty-two member lower house. District residents also elect a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives after Congress establishes this territorial government.
In response to charges that the District government is corrupt and nearing bankruptcy, Congress creates a commission form of government to run the city. For the next century, three Presidentially appointed commissioners run the district. The position of the nonvoting delegate is abolished.
Congress directs the appointment of a three-member board of elections to oversee the District’s election of local political party officers, party committee members, and delegates to political parties’ national conventions.
For the first time, under the new Twenty-third Amendment, residents of the District of Columbia vote in a Presidential election. The District overwhelmingly supports President Lyndon Johnson over his Republican challenger, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appoints Walter Washington to fill the new post of mayor commissioner of the District of Columbia. Washington accepts the post as a first step toward home rule for the District. The following year, rioting and looting erupt in the capital following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., making the need for a stable local government all the more urgent.
The U.S. House of Representatives restores the position of nonvoting delegate from the District of Columbia. The Honorable Walter Fauntroy is elected to the position in 1971.
Congress passes the District of Columbia Self-Government Reorganization Act, which provides for an elected mayor and city council for Washington, D.C. Walter E. Washington becomes the city’s first elected mayor under the new system.
Although it receives overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, a constitutional amendment granting voting rights to residents of the District of Columbia is approved by only sixteen of the thirty-eight states necessary for ratification. After seven years, the amendment expires.