In the 1760s, furious American colonists protested against “taxation without representation”—British-imposed taxes that didn’t come with any rights of self-determination for British colonies.
Centuries later, the phrase rings true for another group of Americans: The 705,000 residents of the District of Columbia. Though Washington, D.C., is the seat of the federal government, it’s also home to residents who, despite obeying U.S. laws and paying taxes, have had no voting representation in Congress since February 27, 1801.
Why not? The answer dates all the way back to the nation’s founding. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress had no permanent home. While penning the U.S. Constitution, the founders quibbled about the location of a permanent capital. They did agree on one point: they didn’t want to repeat the events of June 1783, when a group of drunken soldiers angry about back pay converged on the Philadelphia state house. Local authorities failed to act, and the mob chased Congress out of town.
To prevent a redux of the disastrous protest and establish the new nation’s control over the seat of government, statesmen agreed on the idea of a federal city. In Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, they gave Congress power to exercise legislation in a seat of government that didn’t exceed 10 square miles. But they tussled over which slice of land should become the capital—and who should benefit.
Northern states wanted the capital to be in the North and for the federal government to assume their debts from the Revolutionary War, but southern states that had already paid off much of their debt objected. The issue deadlocked Congress and provoked bitter arguments until then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hosted a pivotal dinner with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who sided with the northern states, and Virginia Congressman James Madison.
At the meal, the men made a deal that became known as the Compromise of 1790: In exchange for a capital along the Potomac River in the South, Madison agreed not to block the federal government’s assumption of northern war debt.
The result was the Residence Act, which set a permanent capital in what became Washington, D.C. The law gave the U.S. president, George Washington, authority to select the site. He chose a location next to Georgetown, and Maryland and Virginia ceded the land to the federal government. Congress took over jurisdiction in February 1801. (Here's how cherry blossoms came to the U.S. capital.)
People already living in the area were abruptly disenfranchised by the creation of Washington, D.C. Since residents of the bustling new district didn’t live in a state, they couldn’t vote on local or federal affairs.
This rankled, and for the last two centuries, Washington residents have pushed to rule themselves. Though they gained a municipal charter in 1802—which came with the right to elect a 12-member city council—it was abruptly dumped in 1871 when Washington was temporarily absorbed into a territorial government, then ruled by three presidentially appointed commissioners.
Washington residents continued to pressure the federal government for broader rights. In 1963, they gained the right to vote for president with the passage of the 23rd Amendment, and in 1973, the Home Rule Act granted them a representative local government with a mayor and city council. (These pictures reveal the real D.C.)
But Washingtonians still lack the self-governance and voting rights enjoyed by other Americans. Local laws in Washington still are subject to Congressional review. They have no Congressional representation aside from a nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives. And despite increasing pressure to become a 51st state, the District is still disenfranchised to this day.