Are there notes by the Founding Fathers which indicate why DC citizens were denied a vote in Congress?

Are there notes by the Founding Fathers which indicate why DC citizens were denied a vote in Congress?


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Are there any records from the Constitutional Convention that establish why the District of Columbia was denied voting representation in the Senate and the House? Was there even any expression of concern that in DC there would be taxation without representation?


Such concern likely existed, and there is evidence of some cursory discussion to that effect during the proceedings of the Continental Congress. The rationale for creating a federal district with sole jurisdiction of the Congress was probably laid out best (among the surviving documents) by James Madison:

The indispensable necessity of complete authority at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every legislature of the Union, I might say of the world, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it, not only the public authority might be insulted and its proceedings interrupted with impunity; but a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy. This consideration has the more weight, as the gradual accumulation of public improvements at the stationary residence of the government would be both too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single State, and would create so many obstacles to a removal of the government, as still further to abridge its necessary independence.1

The issue of representation is mentioned a little bit further in the document, and is basically pointing out that the importance of federal holdings to the nation runs counter to resident governance.

Nor would it be proper for the places on which the security of the entire Union may depend, to be in any degree dependent on a particular member of it. All objections and scruples are here also obviated, by requiring the concurrence of the States concerned, in every such establishment.2

While Madison is referring most directly to military installations, the inference is likely one that can be extended to the seat of government. To understand the connection between security and seat of government, the context of the decision-making process about locating the proceedings of the Congress is important. The bulk of the debate took place around October of 1783, and was in part precipitated by Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Under the Articles of Confederacy, the Congress relied on the Pennsylvania militia to provide security. The Pennsylvania Council chose not to do so, and allowed an angry mob to march on the Congressional proceedings. Also, the role of being able to come to a compromise on where the seat of government should be located was likely a big part - on October 6, 1783 motions to house the Congress in each of the 13 states were voted down.3

About the only mention I can find from around this period is again from Madison, this time in a letter to Edmund Randolph dated September 20, 1783:

Among other subjects which divide Congress, their constitutional authority, touching such an establishment in time of peace is one. Another still more puzzling is the precise jurisdiction proper for Congress with the limits of their permanent seat. As these points may possibly remain undecided till November, I mention them particularly that your aid may be prepared.4

Outside of that, it doesn't appear to have been one of the considerations. Not only did the Congress have a much more pragmatic outlook on the subject, the area under consideration with only a few square miles. Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan summed up the record of discussions regarding the jurisdiction for the federal district in writing about the response to recommendations presented to the Congress for its establishment:

This report was referred to the committee of the whole, but there is no record that any further action was taken. In the papers of the continental congress there are two documents evidently intended as amendments, but their place and purpose are not indicated in any way. In one of the papers the principle is laid down that such a district "ought to be entirely exempted from the authority of the state ceding the same, and the organization and administration of the powers of government within the said district concentrated between Congress and the inhabitants thereof." The other paper prescribes that the state or states ceding the territory "should give up all jurisdiction whatsoever… that the appointment of judges and the executive power within the said territory shall vest in Congress;… that the citizens should enjoy the privilege of trial by jury and being governed by laws made by representatives of their own election." 5

Beyond that, there doesn't appear to me anything other than a general consensus that Congressional authority over the District, as it was incorporated without much modification as the beginning of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such 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…

1 Madison, James. The Federalist No. 43, p. online

2 Ibid.

3 United States Continental Congress. Journals of the American congress: from 1774 to 1788 - Volume 4, p. 283-6

4 Madison, James. The Papers of James Madison, Volume 1, p. 573

5 Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart. A History of the National Capital, Volume 1, p. 15


The right opposes DC statehood, arguing that it would be contrary to the founders’ vision and that Democrats support it in a partisan attempt to gain additional Senate seats.

“It’s not by accident or oversight that the nation’s capital isn’t a state: The Founding Fathers wrote it into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 provides explicitly for a national capital that would not be part of a state nor treated as a state, but rather a unique enclave under the exclusive authority of Congress — a neutral ‘district’ in which representatives of all the states could meet on an equal footing to conduct the nation’s business… Congress cannot change the status of the capital district simply by redefining it…

“Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom or fairness of the framers’ plan, but the only way to change it is to amend the Constitution. That’s exactly what happened in 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was ratified and D.C. residents were granted the right to vote in presidential elections and participate in the Electoral College… [Moreover] A Gallup survey last summer found that 64 percent of Americans opposed D.C. statehood vs. just 29 percent in favor. Previous polls on the question have had similar results… Most Americans don’t see a problem with [the current] arrangement, and they’ve got the Constitution on their side.”
Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

“DC’s median household income varied from 95.6 percent to 107 percent of the national average between 1990 and 2007. Today, it is 136.9 percent, higher than that of any state. There is nearly one federal job for every four residents in D.C., and much of the District’s private employment is in satellites of federal power. D.C.’s suburbs are now the wealthiest places in the nation, and uniquely recession-proof. The District was more than 70 percent African American as recently as 1980, and racial justice is often cited as a reason to grant it statehood. In the past decade, however, it has ceased to be majority-black…

“It is difficult to see how the people of D.C. are oppressed, easy to see how their influence is already disproportionate, and easier than ever to see why the federal government would be imperiled by subjecting its physical security to District authorities. True, the Founding Fathers did not anticipate a time when the federal district would have more residents than Vermont. But early Americans also never conceived a time when the federal government would spend 4.5 trillion dollars a year and employ more people in D.C. alone than the entire populations of Syracuse or Dayton.”
The Editors, National Review

“If admitted to the Union as a state in its own right, [DC] would not only be far and away the smallest state in geographical terms it would have the third lowest population but the highest median household income and unprecedented influence over the workings of the federal government… It would also be the only state with no rural population. It would be, constitutionally speaking, a freak, an arbitrary creation that would forever alter the meaning of statehood itself…

“Moreover, it would leave us with no answer to the question of why we should not grant statehood to New York City or Los Angeles or Houston, with their vast GDPs and enormous, ever-expanding populations. Surely in a strict utilitarian sense these municipalities have more of a right to direct federal representation than North Dakota or Wyoming. It would lead us inexorably to the conclusion that regions of the United States without economic influence or dense concentration of citizens should be denied power on precisely these grounds.”
Matthew Walther, The Week

“The renewed push for Washington, D.C., to become a state is couched in the language of enfranchising voters, but the primary objective is adding two safe Democratic Senate seats… If Democrats were serious about the representation of D.C. residents, then the conversation would be about the retrocession of the city back to Maryland. Democrats know Republicans will resist D.C. statehood, and this compromise would solve the problem they claim they are fighting — but it’s the senators that Democrats really want…

“In their desire to centralize government power, Democrats have our federalist system backward. Rather than view the country as a collection of states who delegate a few select powers to the federal government, they see states only as outposts for the federal government to delegate to. Therefore, you see a wealth of nonsensical arguments such as Frum’s about population numbers that are completely irrelevant to the point of the Senate and have been since the Constitution went into effect. D.C. statehood isn’t about enfranchising voters. It’s a cynical play for power in an institution that they claim is illegitimate because it hasn’t given them power yet.”
Zachary Faria, Washington Examiner


The Secret History of Guns

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.

The eighth-grade students gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.

It was May 2, 1967, and the Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement.

The text of the Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous. It merely says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet to each side in the gun debate, those words are absolutely clear.

Gun-rights supporters believe the amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control. Hard-line gun-rights advocates portray even modest gun laws as infringements on that right and oppose widely popular proposals—such as background checks for all gun purchasers—on the ground that any gun-control measure, no matter how seemingly reasonable, puts us on the slippery slope toward total civilian disarmament.

This attitude was displayed on the side of the National Rifle Association’s former headquarters: THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED . The first clause of the Second Amendment, the part about “a well regulated Militia,” was conveniently omitted. To the gun lobby, the Second Amendment is all rights and no regulation.

Debating the Second Amendment
From satires to investigative reports, four decades of Atlantic authors weigh in on gun control

Although decades of electoral defeats have moderated the gun-control movement’s stated goals, advocates still deny that individual Americans have any constitutional right to own guns. The Second Amendment, in their view, protects only state militias. Too politically weak to force disarmament on the nation, gun-control hard-liners support any new law that has a chance to be enacted, however unlikely that law is to reduce gun violence. For them, the Second Amendment is all regulation and no rights.

While the two sides disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment, they share a similar view of the right to bear arms: both see such a right as fundamentally inconsistent with gun control, and believe we must choose one or the other. Gun rights and gun control, however, have lived together since the birth of the country. Americans have always had the right to keep and bear arms as a matter of state constitutional law. Today, 43 of the 50 state constitutions clearly protect an individual’s right to own guns, apart from militia service.

Yet we’ve also always had gun control. The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

Opposition to gun control was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police.

Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale decided to fight back. Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.” Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.”

Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley. In time, the Panther arsenal included machine guns an assortment of rifles, handguns, explosives, and grenade launchers and “boxes and boxes of ammunition,” recalled Elaine Brown, one of the party’s first female members, in her 1992 memoir. Some of this matériel came from the federal government: one member claimed he had connections at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, who would sell the Panthers anything for the right price. One Panther bragged that, if they wanted, they could have bought an M48 tank and driven it right up the freeway.

Along with providing classes on black nationalism and socialism, Newton made sure recruits learned how to clean, handle, and shoot guns. Their instructors were sympathetic black veterans, recently home from Vietnam. For their “righteous revolutionary struggle,” the Panthers were trained, as well as armed, however indirectly, by the U.S. government.

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.

The Panthers, however, took it to an extreme, carrying their guns in public, displaying them for everyone—especially the police—to see. Newton had discovered, during classes at San Francisco Law School, that California law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible, and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way.

In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,” he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.

The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the “baddest motherfucker in the world.” Newton’s message was clear: “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice.

Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city. When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.” Seale was incredulous. “The Capitol?” Newton explained: “Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.” Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers “loaded down to the gills,” to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control.

The Panthers ’ methods provoked an immediate backlash. The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal. Mulford himself pledged to make his bill even tougher, and he added a provision barring anyone but law enforcement from bringing a loaded firearm into the state capitol.

Republicans in California eagerly supported increased gun control. Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

The fear inspired by black people with guns also led the United States Congress to consider new gun restrictions, after the summer of 1967 brought what the historian Harvard Sitkoff called the “most intense and destructive wave of racial violence the nation had ever witnessed.” Devastating riots engulfed Detroit and Newark. Police and National Guardsmen who tried to help restore order were greeted with sniper fire.

A 1968 federal report blamed the unrest at least partly on the easy availability of guns. Because rioters used guns to keep law enforcement at bay, the report’s authors asserted that a recent spike in firearms sales and permit applications was “directly related to the actuality and prospect of civil disorders.” They drew “the firm conclusion that effective firearms controls are an essential contribution to domestic peace and tranquility.”

Political will in Congress reached the critical point around this time. In April of 1968, James Earl Ray, a virulent racist, used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle to kill Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s assassination—and the sniper fire faced by police trying to quell the resulting riots—gave gun-control advocates a vivid argument. Two months later, a man wielding a .22-caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver shot Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. The very next day, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the first federal gun-control law in 30 years. Months later, the Gun Control Act of 1968 amended and enlarged it.

Together, these laws greatly expanded the federal licensing system for gun dealers and clarified which people—including anyone previously convicted of a felony, the mentally ill, illegal-drug users, and minors—were not allowed to own firearms. More controversially, the laws restricted importation of “Saturday Night Specials”—the small, cheap, poor-quality handguns so named by Detroit police for their association with urban crime, which spiked on weekends. Because these inexpensive pistols were popular in minority communities, one critic said the new federal gun legislation “was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.”

Indisputably, for much of American history, gun-control measures, like many other laws, were used to oppress African Americans. The South had long prohibited blacks, both slave and free, from owning guns. In the North, however, at the end of the Civil War, the Union army allowed soldiers of any color to take home their rifles. Even blacks who hadn’t served could buy guns in the North, amid the glut of firearms produced for the war. President Lincoln had promised a “new birth of freedom,” but many blacks knew that white Southerners were not going to go along easily with such a vision. As one freedman in Louisiana recalled, “I would say to every colored soldier, ‘Bring your gun home.’”

After losing the Civil War, Southern states quickly adopted the Black Codes, laws designed to reestablish white supremacy by dictating what the freedmen could and couldn’t do. One common provision barred blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing black communities. In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had “seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen” in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.

In response to the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen’s constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns. General Daniel E. Sickles, the commanding Union officer enforcing Reconstruction in South Carolina, ordered in January 1866 that “the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed.” When South Carolinians ignored Sickles’s order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms.”

That same year, Congress passed the nation’s first Civil Rights Act, which defined the freedmen as United States citizens and made it a federal offense to deprive them of their rights on the basis of race. Senator James Nye, a supporter of both laws, told his colleagues that the freedmen now had an “equal right to protection, and to keep and bear arms for self-defense.” President Andrew Johnson vetoed both laws. Congress overrode the vetoes and eventually made Johnson the first president to be impeached.

One prosecutor in the impeachment trial, Representative John Bingham of Ohio, thought that the only way to protect the freedmen’s rights was to amend the Constitution. Southern attempts to deny blacks equal rights, he said, were turning the Constitution—“a sublime and beautiful scripture—into a horrid charter of wrong.” In December of 1865, Bingham had proposed what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Among its provisions was a guarantee that all citizens would be secure in their fundamental rights:

The key phrase, in Bingham’s view, was privileges or immunities of citizens—and those “privileges or immunities,” he said, were “chiefly defined in the first eight amendments to the Constitution.” Jacob Howard of Michigan, the principal sponsor of Bingham’s amendment in the Senate, reminded his colleagues that these amendments guaranteed “the freedom of speech and of the press,” “the right to be exempt from unreasonable searches and seizures,” and “the right to keep and bear arms.”

Whether or not the Founding Fathers thought the Second Amendment was primarily about state militias, the men behind the Fourteenth Amendment—America’s most sacred and significant civil-rights law—clearly believed that the right of individuals to have guns for self-defense was an essential element of citizenship. As the Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar has observed, “Between 1775 and 1866 the poster boy of arms morphed from the Concord minuteman to the Carolina freedman.”

The Fourteenth Amendment illustrates a common dynamic in America’s gun culture: extremism stirs a strong reaction. The aggressive Southern effort to disarm the freedmen prompted a constitutional amendment to better protect their rights. A hundred years later, the Black Panthers’ brazen insistence on the right to bear arms led whites, including conservative Republicans, to support new gun control. Then the pendulum swung back. The gun-control laws of the late 1960s, designed to restrict the use of guns by urban black leftist radicals, fueled the rise of the present-day gun-rights movement—one that, in an ironic reversal, is predominantly white, rural, and politically conservative.

Today, the NRA is the unquestioned leader in the fight against gun control. Yet the organization didn’t always oppose gun regulation. Founded in 1871 by George Wingate and William Church—the latter a former reporter for a newspaper now known for hostility to gun rights, The New York Times—the group first set out to improve American soldiers’ marksmanship. Wingate and Church had fought for the North in the Civil War and been shocked by the poor shooting skills of city-bred Union soldiers.

In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”—a title he earned by winning three gold medals in pistol-shooting at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.)

Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales.

The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms. Frederick, however, said in 1934 that he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Milton A. Reckord, told a congressional committee that his organization was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” According to Frederick, the NRA “sponsored” the Uniform Firearms Act and promoted it nationwide. Highlighting the political strength of the NRA even back then, a 1932 Virginia Law Review article reported that laws requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon were already “in effect in practically every jurisdiction.”

When Congress was considering the first significant federal gun law of the 20th century—the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a steep tax and registration requirements on “gangster guns” like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns—the NRA endorsed the law. Karl Frederick and the NRA did not blindly support gun control indeed, they successfully pushed to have similar prohibitive taxes on handguns stripped from the final bill, arguing that people needed such weapons to protect their homes. Yet the organization stood firmly behind what Frederick called “reasonable, sensible, and fair legislation.”

One thing conspicuously missing from Frederick’s comments about gun control was the Second Amendment. When asked during his testimony on the National Firearms Act whether the proposed law violated “any constitutional provision,” he responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” In other words, the president of the NRA hadn’t even considered whether the most far-reaching federal gun-control legislation in history conflicted with the Second Amendment. Preserving the ability of law-abiding people to have guns, Frederick would write elsewhere, “lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action. It is not to be found in the Constitution.”

In the 1960s, the NRA once again supported the push for new federal gun laws. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, who had bought his gun through a mail-order ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, Franklin Orth, then the NRA’s executive vice president, testified in favor of banning mail-order rifle sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Orth and the NRA didn’t favor stricter proposals, like national gun registration, but when the final version of the Gun Control Act was adopted in 1968, Orth stood behind the legislation. While certain features of the law, he said, “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

A growing group of rank-and-file NRA members disagreed. In an era of rising crime rates, fewer people were buying guns for hunting, and more were buying them for protection. The NRA leadership didn’t fully grasp the importance of this shift. In 1976, Maxwell Rich, the executive vice president, announced that the NRA would sell its building in Washington, D.C., and relocate the headquarters to Colorado Springs, retreating from political lobbying and expanding its outdoor and environmental activities.

Rich’s plan sparked outrage among the new breed of staunch, hard-line gun-rights advocates. The dissidents were led by a bald, blue-eyed bulldog of a man named Harlon Carter, who ran the NRA’s recently formed lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. In May 1977, Carter and his allies staged a coup at the annual membership meeting. Elected the new executive vice president, Carter would transform the NRA into a lobbying powerhouse committed to a more aggressive view of what the Second Amendment promises to citizens.

The new NRA was not only responding to the wave of gun-control laws enacted to disarm black radicals it also shared some of the Panthers’ views about firearms. Both groups valued guns primarily as a means of self-defense. Both thought people had a right to carry guns in public places, where a person was easily victimized, and not just in the privacy of the home. They also shared a profound mistrust of law enforcement. (For years, the NRA has demonized government agents, like those in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that enforces gun laws, as “jack-booted government thugs.” Wayne LaPierre, the current executive vice president, warned members in 1995 that anyone who wears a badge has “the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.”) For both the Panthers in 1967 and the new NRA after 1977, law-enforcement officers were too often representatives of an uncaring government bent on disarming ordinary citizens.

A sign of the NRA’s new determination to influence electoral politics was the 1980 decision to endorse, for the first time in the organization’s 100 years, a presidential candidate. Their chosen candidate was none other than Ronald Reagan, who more than a decade earlier had endorsed Don Mulford’s law to disarm the Black Panthers—a law that had helped give Reagan’s California one of the strictest gun-control regimes in the nation. Reagan’s views had changed considerably since then, and the NRA evidently had forgiven his previous support of vigorous gun control.

In 2008, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the government cannot ever completely disarm the citizenry. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court clearly held, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a gun. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court declared unconstitutional several provisions of the District’s unusually strict gun-control law, including its ban on handguns and its prohibition of the use of long guns for self-defense. Indeed, under D.C.’s law, you could own a shotgun, but you could not use it to defend yourself against a rapist climbing through your bedroom window.

Gun-rights groups trumpeted the ruling as the crowning achievement of the modern gun-rights movement and predicted certain victory in their war to end gun control. Their opponents criticized the Court’s opinion as right-wing judicial activism that would call into question most forms of gun control and lead inevitably to more victims of gun violence.

So far, at least, neither side’s predictions have come true. The courts have been inundated with lawsuits challenging nearly every type of gun regulation in the three years since the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts have issued more than 200 rulings on the constitutionality of gun control. In a disappointment to the gun-rights community, nearly all laws have been upheld.

The lower courts consistently point to one paragraph in particular from the Heller decision. Nothing in the opinion, Scalia wrote, should

This paragraph from the pen of Justice Scalia, the foremost proponent of constitutional originalism, was astounding. True, the Founders imposed gun control, but they had no laws resembling Scalia’s list of Second Amendment exceptions. They had no laws banning guns in sensitive places, or laws prohibiting the mentally ill from possessing guns, or laws requiring commercial gun dealers to be licensed. Such restrictions are products of the 20th century. Justice Scalia, in other words, embraced a living Constitution. In this, Heller is a fine reflection of the ironies and contradictions—and the selective use of the past—that run throughout America’s long history with guns.


How states evaded the Constitution’s voter protections

In the Reconstruction era, political life opened up in the South. Though women were still unable to vote, as were many immigrants and Native Americans, Black men gained power in some parts of the South. Mississippi even sent two Black men to the U.S. Senate as representatives of the Republican Party, of which Black men formed an overwhelming majority in the South. (For Black women, the 19th Amendment didn't end their fight to vote.)

White Democrats chafed at this loss of control. In 1875, Mississippi Democrats launched a campaign of intimidation at the polls that succeeded in restoring white Democrats to power in Mississippi by 1881. Hoping to keep it that way, they convened a state constitutional convention in 1890. As historian Dorothy Overstreet Pratt writes, Democrats “widely admitted” the convention was designed to circumvent the 15th Amendment. Leveraging the state’s power to determine how and when elections would be held, the new state constitution instituted tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests designed specifically to shut out Black voters to whom they denied the education and economic opportunities needed to clear these hurdles. The convention’s lone Black delegate—Isaiah Montgomery, a member of a wealthy and well-educated family—chided his colleagues for their rigid racial views but ultimately delivered a speech in support of their efforts, which Overstreet Pratt notes was the “most puzzling aspect of the convention” but might be attributed to his family’s wealth and status.

Within about five years, the other Southern states followed Mississippi’s lead and enacted their own restrictive laws, known as Jim Crow laws, which they paired with continued violence and intimidation to suppress the Black vote. These tactics worked. By 1892, Mississippi had cut the percentage of eligible Black men who were registered to vote from more than 90 percent to less than 6 percent. Black citizens were equally disenfranchised across the South and the conservative Southern Democratic Party surged to power. For the next 70 years, white supremacists continued to use these voter suppression tactics to ensure their rule.

By the 1960s, however, more than a decade of protests, nonviolent resistance, and voter registration efforts that took place during the civil rights movement yielded federal intervention. In 1964, the states ratified the 24th Amendment, which prohibited poll taxes. Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act barred the remainder of the voter suppression tactics that states had been using and established federal oversight over localities with histories of voter discrimination.


The Constitution says no to DC statehood

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke at a news conference about DC statehood on Tuesday. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

The House of Representatives is poised to make a bit of history on Friday, when, with all-but-unanimous Democratic support, it is expected to approve a bill — H.R. 51 — that would make Washington, D.C., the nation’s 51st state.

The House vote will be merely symbolic, since the bill isn’t going to be brought up in the Republican-controlled Senate. President Trump said last month that Republicans would have to be “very, very stupid” to let the District of Columbia become a state and enlarge Congress with new seats guaranteed to be Democratic.

Partisan considerations are woven into Washington life, of course, and the admission of new states to the union has historically been entangled in balance-of-power politics. But there are much better reasons to oppose D.C. statehood — or, for that matter, to support it — than the deep-blue loyalties of the district’s voters.

The pro-statehood argument is straightforward: It is outrageous, advocates say, that the 700,000 US citizens who live in Washington, D.C., are denied what their fellow citizens in the 50 states take for granted: representation in Congress. The case for statehood is emblazoned on every District of Columbia license plate: “End Taxation Without Representation.” Susan Rice, a D.C. native who was President Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in a recent column that only statehood can end “the enduring oppression of the citizens of the District of Columbia.”

If you’re a Washington resident, you probably find that argument convincing: In a 2016 referendum, 86 percent of D.C. voters supported statehood. But in the rest of the country, it doesn’t fly: A Gallup survey last summer found that 64 percent of Americans opposed D.C. statehood vs. just 29 percent in favor. Previous polls on the question have had similar results. By contrast, Americans have long favored statehood for Puerto Rico.

Clearly, what Rice and many Washingtonians regard as “enduring oppression” is seen very differently by most Americans.

It’s not by accident or oversight that the nation’s capital isn’t a state: The Founding Fathers wrote it into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8 provides explicitly for a national capital that would not be part of a state nor treated as a state, but rather a unique enclave under the exclusive authority of Congress — a neutral “district” in which representatives of all the states could meet on an equal footing to conduct the nation’s business.

Not being citizens of a state, the district’s residents wouldn’t elect their own members of Congress. But that didn’t mean they were condemned to “taxation without representation.” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, testified at a 2007 congressional hearing that the framers of the Constitution “repeatedly stated that the district would be represented by the entire Congress and that members . . . would bear a special interest in its operations.”

Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom or fairness of the framers’ plan, but the only way to change it is to amend the Constitution. That’s exactly what happened in 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was ratified and D.C. residents were granted the right to vote in presidential elections and participate in the Electoral College. In 1978 Congress passed another amendment, giving the District of Columbia seats in the Senate and the House, but only 16 states ratified it. It may frustrate Washingtonians to be denied the perquisites of statehood on Capitol Hill, but Americans plainly have not wanted to change the Constitution to make that happen.

So House Democrats have come up with a creative constitutional workaround. H.R. 51, the bill to be voted on next Friday, purports to shrink the District of Columbia to just the few blocks along the National Mall containing the various federal government buildings, such as the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, plus the “principal federal monuments.” The rest of the city would be rechristened “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” and admitted as the 51st state.

Give the drafters points for ingenuity, but their scheme is too clever by half. Congress cannot change the status of the capital district simply by redefining it. Washington, D.C.’s one-of-a-kind standing in the federal system is spelled out in the Constitution the only way to modify that standing is to modify the Constitution. The plain meaning of Article I is that “the Seat of Government of the United States” comprises all the land supplied for that purpose. H.R. 51 would turn it instead into exactly what the Framers rejected — an island of government buildings, with perhaps a few hundred residents, enveloped within a state.

And what about those few hundred residents? As long as the 23rd Amendment is in force, the District of Columbia is guaranteed at least three votes in the Electoral College. Under the House bill, those votes would be controlled by the microscopic population of the drastically shrunken district, making them far and away the most influential voters in the nation. Such an outcome would obviously be absurd, yet it would be unavoidable unless the 23rd Amendment were repealed. And the only way to repeal a constitutional amendment is with another amendment.


Created Equal: How Benjamin Banneker Challenged Jefferson on Race and Freedom

When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the liberties it provided were withheld from the hundreds of thousands of Africans living here in slavery. That same year, a free African-American, Benjamin Banneker, challenged the way blacks were seen and treated by whites in America in a public letter to Thomas Jefferson. In this letter, Banneker pointed to the contradictions between the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and the continued existence of slavery.

In courteous but forceful words, Banneker called on one of Jefferson’s own great Enlightenment principles, an ideal that intimately tied together political liberty and religious faith in a democracy—the idea that God creates all men equal:

That one universal Father hath given being to us all and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him. 1

Banneker was a skilled surveyor who had gained an education and a profession working with a leading Quaker family in Maryland, the Ellicotts. Considered to be America’s first African-American scientist and civil engineer, Benjamin Banneker was born a free person on November 9, 1731, a rarity in a period when almost 700,000 of the country’s estimated 750,000 blacks were enslaved. A self-taught natural philosopher who became an amateur mathematician and astronomer, Banneker helped to survey the new capital city, the District of Columbia, and published widely-read almanacs. However, his most daring action was to publically challenge Thomas Jefferson on the issue of slavery and racism. 2

A woodcut portrait of Benjamin Banneker in title page of his 1795 Almanac

By 1791, Jefferson had already authored the Declaration of Independence, had been Governor of Virginia (1779-1781) and was serving as the first United States Secretary of State (1789-1793). The lifelong contradictions between Jefferson’s stated beliefs, politics, and practice on issues of race and slavery are so complicated that entire books have been written about them. 3 Early in Jefferson’s political career, he made some attempts to gradually end slavery in the United States. In 1778, he drafted a law in Virginia that prohibited the future importation of enslaved Africans, and in 1784 he proposed a law that would ban slavery in the growing territories of the Northwest. He hoped that these limits would contribute to gradually phasing away the slave economy.

But despite Jefferson’s misgivings about the slave trade, he continued to believe in the moral and social superiority of whites over blacks. In fact, he personally owned and sold upwards of 700 slaves. And evidence suggests that Jefferson had a decades-long relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and fathered six children by her.

Meanwhile, in his famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), Jefferson condemned slavery itself, but reiterated the idea of blacks’ physical and intellectual inferiority to whites.

I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind. 4

He went on to write disparagingly of the physical appearance of blacks and witheringly dismissed the intellectual and creative potential of the entire race:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites in reason much inferior . . . and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous . . . But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.

In the light of such passages, Benjamin Banneker’s decision to take up his pen and address Jefferson with a plea for a change of heart might have seemed like an extraordinary, and potentially risky, gesture. He began:

SIR, I AM fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which I take with you on the present occasion a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession, which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.

But Banneker had carefully thought through why he was the right person to address Jefferson, and why Jefferson was the right leader to whom he should make his plea. He enclosed a copy of the popular astronomical almanac he had authored, and mentioned in passing his employment on the survey of the District of Columbia, adding:

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them of the deepest dye and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under that state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favored and which, I hope, you will willingly allow you have mercifully received, from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceedeth every good and perfect Gift.

In other words, Banneker suggested that his own achievements as a freeman were both a contradiction of Jefferson’s belief that blacks innately lacked intellectual ability, and proof of what they could achieve when they were not limited by the “tyrannical thraldom” of slavery.

He reminded Jefferson of the very language of religious humility that the Secretary himself had used elsewhere—the idea that the blessings of liberty come from a Supreme Being, rather than being doled out by one human being to another. Readers of this site will recognize the idea of an equality originating in God as one of the principles that inspired Moses Seixas's address to George Washington, a principle also found in the writings of Jefferson, Madison, and others among the Founding Fathers who sought to widen religious freedom as the national government took shape. Banneker hoped to get Jefferson to take that principle further and to accept that the same ideal applied to people of all races.

Less than two weeks after receiving Banneker’s letter, Jefferson sent him a polite response (dated August 30, 1791). In it, he appears to extend Banneker his good will. Seemingly impressed with Banneker’s calculations, he says that that he will send the almanac to the French Academy of Science, explicitly to contradict the kind of widespread racial theories that his own Notes had echoed.

I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them. 5

Discussing “the degraded condition” of blacks in African and America, the short letter even seems to suggest that Jefferson might change his own views about race:

No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men and that the appearance of the want of them, owes merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.

Unfortunately, Jefferson’s reply fell far short of addressing the political, religious, and ethical challenges that Banneker had put forth. The engineer had written

Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.

It was a question which the future president chose not to debate with the freeman: the fundamental contradiction between the principles of democracy and freedom and the cruelty of slavery, passionately voiced by Banneker.

Jefferson, it seems, saw Banneker’s intelligence as an exception among African-Americans, rather than evidence that Jefferson’s perceptions about race might be fundamentally flawed. Sadly, three years after Banneker’s death in 1806, Jefferson wrote to Joel Barlow, an American poet and politician, disparaging the by-then well known Banneker and arguing that he could not have made the calculations contained in the almanac without assistance. With time, he had convinced himself that the “proofs” of ability he had once seen in the black author could not be real. 6

Banneker, however, may have had more then one purpose in crafting his plea to the Jefferson. In 1793, he had the letters between Jefferson and himself printed in his annual almanac. These periodicals contained not only tables of tides and weather, planetary cycles and astronomical calculations, but also essays and poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America.

They were supported and circulated by Banneker’s Quaker allies, the Ellicott family, and by Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania. The pamphlets circulated as far as Great Britain, where the famed anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce praised Banneker in the House of Commons. 7

Banneker, then, not only embodied the principles of those who argued for an end to slavery in his achievements, but worked actively to influence public opinion in favor of abolition. Like Washington’s outreach to the Jews of Newport, Banneker’s address to Jefferson belongs to the great tradition of public letters. Through the freedom of the press, circulating his writings within a country eager for political debate, Banneker could craft his own appeal to public opinion and claim some of Jefferson’s most powerful ideas for the cause of African-Americans seeking freedom—even where one of the Founding Fathers far fell short of those ideals.


Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy

Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

A homeless man eats a cup of chili not far from the Washington Monument in D.C. (Jim Young/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Fortune is on Malik's side when we meet up outside the Federal City Shelter in downtown Washington, D.C., the place he calls home. It's a respectable-looking three-story job with blue-framed windows and red, white, and blue tiling running the length of the block—not a bad upgrade to the wooden bench on Capitol Hill where I spent the previous night, if you can find a bed. Lunch will soon be served through the delivery entrance in back, courtesy D.C. Central Kitchen. The yard and street out front have started filling up with a motley assortment of men and women, shopping carts and bags, wheelchairs and bikes.

Finding me confused by his cheerful demeanor in this not-so-cheerful place, Malik exclaims, "My spirit is not down . I gotta thank the Lord!" His reason to give thanks? Word has just come in that his long-awaited disability check will soon be coming through.

Malik is not your average homeless Joe. A native of the District of Columbia, he looks young for his 56 years and does not have the scars and scuffs that usually come with time out on the streets. His trim 5-foot-8-inch frame is neatly clad in a button-down shirt tucked into his worn but respectable-looking slacks. He talks with the confidence and fluency of a man with a college degree, which he has—in theater arts. He was a counselor for 10 years, assisting people who were abused, neglected, or mentally ill. Usually they were all of the above, he says.

"I worked for group homes for the court building right here, for the public defenders next door, for the D.C. Court of Appeals right over there," he explains, pointing to a trio of dull gray buildings across the Interstate from where we stand on 2nd Street NW. "I used to come through here and see these people [at the shelter]. I had good jobs …"

Then things took a turn for the worse. It's hard to say exactly what it was that sent his marriage of 12 years into a tailspin and landed him out on the streets, but Malik figures some combination of his wife's infidelity and his own abuse of drugs and concomitant depression are to blame. Before long, Malik was himself in need of counseling. "The choices that you make sometimes can be the wrong ones," he says.

Stints in shelters and out on the street—the longest he went without a roof over his head was three months in Atlanta, where he'd gone in search of work that never materialized—were broken up by live-in relationships with an assortment of women. But they never seemed to last. "Some just turned tragic," Malik says, and offers his last relationship as a case in point. Sharing a cramped apartment in a rundown section of D.C. with various relatives didn't make things easy, especially when his girlfriend's 25-year-old son moved in—"a real beater." "Beat his girlfriend up and her brother the next year, at Christmas," Malik says.

Of course, the son had demons of his own: Malik could see from the start that he was bipolar. But Malik has little sympathy for the son, since he refused to take his medications and drank instead. Not long after their final run-in, when Malik decided to pack his bags and leave, the son was picked up by the police and sentenced to three years in jail. Malik doesn't know the charge and he doesn't seem to care—"I'm just glad to see he's locked up."

As for lessons learned, Malik says he's always had a knack for attracting—and being attracted to—women with mental-health issues. If his past experience as a counselor is anything to go by, such struggles are par for the course in the high-poverty, high-stress neighborhoods with which he is familiar. Besides, "When you work around these people, you trying to help them," he says, and he doesn't just mean in the professional sense. Then he offers the textbook response: "You can't do that, though—doesn't work." Having ridden the roller coaster one too many times, he is determined to learn his lesson and move on, even if it means being alone. "I'ma take care of me now," he says.

Speaking of moving on with his life, that's what he plans to do in a few months' time when the shelter is projected to close and he has managed to accumulate enough in disability payments to get into a place of his own. Although things are looking up for him, he's worried about what will happen to the hundreds of other homeless people who call the shelter home and don't have a place to go. "I see people come in here all day," he says. "They come from the prison, [police] let 'em out on that corner . I see it every day." Free and subsidized housing arrangements can be made through the D.C. Housing Authority, he says, but in a tight market where rents are climbing fast and funding lags behind, the waitlist often takes years to clear.

As if on cue, our conversation is interrupted by Marie, a white-haired lady from the shelter, who happily informs Malik that she's just been approved for an apartment of her own through Pathway to Housing, some 15 months after putting her name down on the list. "I got a roof over my head, everything's gonna be OK!" she exclaims. Malik is thrilled and sober at the same time. "Government could do more of this," he says, after giving Marie a hug and waving her goodbye. "There could be a whole lot of happy stories."

For Malik, the problems of homelessness and housing, depression and domestic abuse are equal parts personal and political. First things first, he says, a person has to take responsibility for himself. He bemoans the fact that "people tell me they're tired, giving up . when they got no reason to complain." Recalling his former career as a "pretty good ball player" at a Catholic high school in D.C., Malik says, "You gotta bring the ball down court and make the right passes. You gonna win and lose some games, but you gotta take those same defeats and turn it around."

But the conversation doesn't end with "personal responsibility." By this point in his life, the former counselor with a theater degree has seen enough tragedy in his world to know that the physical and emotional circumstances into which a child is born—circumstances beyond the child's control—have a lot to do with who that child becomes and what kind of opportunity she has to succeed. Those surrounding conditions, Malik maintains, are intimately affected by politics. And politics in turn, is all about who can get elected and make their voices heard. When it comes to politics and representation, he has nothing good to say.

Like millions of immigrants and ex-felons, Malik and some 632,000 other residents of Washington, D.C.—together with over 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the territories—are denied voting equality under the law. Their situation is neatly captured in three explosive words that adorn the bottom of D.C.'s red-and-white license plates: "Taxation Without Representation." Neither the District of Columbia nor Puerto Rico and the other island territories has voting representation in Congress. Their crime is nothing more than choosing the wrong place to call home.

Homeless people camp in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (Daniel Weeks)

The lack of congressional representation for millions of taxpaying citizens began as a peculiar piece of historical oversight or offense, depending on whom you ask. When the District was first established as the nation's capital in 1790, residents were permitted to vote for U.S. representatives in their former jurisdictions of Maryland and Virginia for 11 years. Then the federal government intervened, establishing a new jurisdiction in 1801 but denying the citizens of D.C. any representatives or senators of their own.

Only with ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1963 were residents finally permitted to vote in presidential elections, while ongoing efforts to secure Senate representation and more than a single non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives (granted by Congress in 1971) have always come up short. In fact, city leaders only became subject to direct election by their constituents after an act of Congress in 1973 before that, they were appointed by the federal government, which still retains control over the city's judicial, executive, and legislative functions.

The picture is similar in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, where residents observe the same rights and responsibilities as other American citizens but are denied voting equality by the courts—a precedent dating back to the Insular Cases of 1901 to 1904. The decisions regarding America's colonial possessions bore an eerie resemblance to another ruling by the same Supreme Court: Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the doctrine of "separate but equal." Like D.C. residents, the citizens of Puerto Rico and the other island territories pay the same rate of taxes to the federal government as their counterparts in the 50 states and are subject to military conscription, but do not have any representation in the Senate and only one non-voting delegate each in the House. Unlike D.C. or the 50 states, they don't even have a vote in national presidential elections. Even so, enthusiasm for democracy is strong: Fully eight in 10 voting-age Puerto Ricans regularly turn out in the island's local elections, one of the highest rates of voter participation in the world.

Since delegates are not permitted to vote on legislation that comes before the House, Washington, D.C., and the territories are silent when it comes to deciding federal appropriations on education, social welfare, infrastructure, and other critical concerns. That may partly describe why Puerto Rico and the territories rank far behind the 50 states in terms of total federal dollars spent per capita at $5,668 in 2010—23 percent less than the lowest state, Nevada, and less than one third the highest state in overall federal spending, Alaska. (2010 is the latest year for which data are available due to funding cuts at the Census Bureau data for the District of Columbia were not available).

Looking only at federal aid to local and state/territorial governments, Puerto Rico received $1,848 per capita in 2010, 22 percent less than the $2,100 average per capita across the 50 states. While the District of Columbia received a substantially higher per capita amount of federal aid to government, the money can hardly be separated from the federal government's unique and dominant presence in the city—including deciding how federal dollars and local taxes alike are to be spent.

Federal investments and local spending authority are not abstract concerns for Malik. For one thing, the effects of non-representation of District and territory citizens in Congress disproportionately fall on poor people and people of color. More than half the population of Washington, D.C., is black, in contrast to the one percent of citizens who are black in Wyoming and Vermont, the two states with congressional representation and smaller populations than D.C. Another 10 percent of District residents are Hispanic. Although median household incomes in Washington exceed the national average by a healthy 17 percent, thanks in large part to the District's affluent white minority living in upper Northwest, nearly one in five residents and one in three children is currently living in poverty, higher than each of the 50 states.

For District residents with means, close proximity to (and often professional employment in) the organs of government partly offset the lack of voting representation. Wealthy citizens employ a range of tools beyond the franchise to influence politics. For the majority of Washingtonians with limited means, however, the story is different. One need only walk a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol to see inner-city neighborhoods in disrepair, where intergenerational poverty remains a fact of life. Malik considers child poverty and homelessness, spurred by a continuing shortage of affordable housing in this fast-gentrifying city, to be the biggest offense of all.

"The child population is terrible with homelessness," he says, referring to the nearly 2,000 D.C. children counted homeless in 2013 and thousands more living doubled up in crowded homes. As Malik can personally attest, roughly one-third of homeless adults report a history of substance abuse, domestic violence, or severe mental illness—often a combination of the three. "It's epidemic," he says. It doesn't help that a minimum wage worker in the District would have to work 132 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, or that welfare benefits for eligible families cap out at between $342 and $428 per month.

In Puerto Rico, the largest of the American territories with roughly 4 million Hispanic inhabitants, the poverty rate reaches 46 percent—three times the national rate—and formal unemployment hovers around 16 percent. Child poverty in Puerto Rico is even higher, at 56 percent, and 80 percent of Puerto Rican children live in high-poverty areas, compared to 11 percent of children in the 50 states. Around one in five Puerto Rican teenagers is currently not in school and unemployed, twice the U.S. rate, while many of those who are in school lack basic school supplies. Even in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, conditions frequently resemble those of under-developed countries, with deeply rooted socioeconomic inequalities and incomplete access to basic services like sanitation, public health, and an adequate education that other American citizens take for granted.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton
represents Washington in the
House, but has no vote. (Reuters)

It doesn't have to be this way, Malik says. While he is far from certain that extending congressional representation to District and territory residents would solve all the problems we have discussed, he sees it as a necessary start. At least folks in Washington would have a pair of senators and a representative to "bring home the bacon" like other states.

"What else needs to be done?" I want to know. Malik pauses for a moment before bringing us back to money—"big money [in politics]" this time. He points to another systemic problem he sees with American democracy, one that is hardly limited to Washington: the link between money and political power. From his perspective, it's a problem of poverty and powerlessness going hand-in-hand. "People that got the money, they put their people in [government]," he says. "The poor can't make a move."

Malik believes that money affects both who politicians talk to and what they believe and do. He bemoans the fact that politicians "don't spend no time with ordinary folks . too busy with $500-, $5,000-a-plate fundraisers" and the like. Although he doesn't consider himself a policy expert—voting for president is the extent of his political engagement—the poverty and wealth he sees around him in Washington appear to be stuck in certain hands because of more than just decisions that individuals make. "This is their system … injustice," he says, adding, "The rich always seem to exploit things off the poor." He doubts whether there is a single representative in Congress who shares his life experience, or a single lobbyist working for him on Capitol Hill.

Whatever the solution, he says folks are having a real hard time and things have got to change. "Ain't got not representation in Congress . The game has already been fixed—it's fixed before it even starts."

But Malik will not end on a sour note, not today. "Even in this my spirit is upbeat! I gotta thank the Lord!" As we prepare to part ways, conversation turns again to lighter, brighter things—the daughter he recently gave away in marriage to a respectable man his comeback from the brink of death a year ago with an untreated case of diabetes the job he plans to get at a sports bar once he's found a place to live the 2003 Lincoln Continental he's got his eye on (through a website) in Ohio.

"It still comes down to me, put that in your book . Like they say in AA, you gotta get sick and tired of sick and tired."

This it the conclusion of a week-long series exploring the intersection of poverty and democracy in America. Read the rest of the series:

Poverty vs. Democracy in America: 50 years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, tens of millions of second-class Americans are still legally or effectively disenfranchised.

Should Felons Lose the Right to Vote? The poor and minorities are disproportionately locked up—and as a result, disproportionately banned from the polls.

Immigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea: Until the 1920s, many states and territories allowed non-citizens to cast ballots. Given their role in American society, it's worth reconsidering the practice.

Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy: Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.

Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? Even when America's underclass isn't formally stripped of its ballot, a slew of barriers come between them and full representation and participation.


State vs. Federal Powers

A central issue at the Convention was whether the federal government or the states would have more power. Many delegates believed that the federal government should be able to overrule state laws, but others feared that a strong federal government would oppress their citizens.

The delegates compromised by allotting specific responsibilities to the federal government while delegating all other functions to the states.


Our Founding Fathers Used Encryption. And So Should You

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America's Most Influential Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers were those political leaders of the 13 British Colonies in North America who played major roles in the American Revolution against the Kingdom of Great Britain and the founding of the new nation after independence was won. There were many more than ten founders that had a huge impact on the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. However, this list attempts to pick the founding fathers having the most significant impact. Notable individuals not included are John Hancock, John Marshall, Peyton Randolph, and John Jay.

The term “Founding Fathers” is often used to refer to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It should not be confused with the term “Framers.” According to the National Archives, the Framers were the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention who drafted the proposed Constitution of the United States.

After the Revolution, the Founding Fathers went on to hold important positions in the early United States federal government. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison served as President of the United States. John Jay was appointed the nation's first Chief Justice.



Comments:

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  2. Gokora

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  4. Garr

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