Why Isn’t Washington DC a State?
Why Isn’t Washington DC a State? Photo KnowInsiders

In 2000, Washington DC began printing the slogan "Taxation Without Representation" on all of the city's vehicle number plates, and in 2016 the slogan was updated to " End Taxation Without Representation”.

The inscriptions on the license plates reflect the fact that DC residents pay federal taxes without any voting representation in the US Congress. It also represents a part of the long history of the city's struggle for representation and self-governance like the other 50 states.

When was Washington D.C. formed?

Washington, D.C. was founded on July 16, 1790. Washington, D.C. is a unique and historical place among American cities because it was completely planned for the national capital and needed to be distinct from the states.

Originally, in 1791, George Washington chose 100 square miles of land in Maryland and Virginia to be the site of the nation’s capital. However 31 of those miles were returned to Virginia in 1847, which is why D.C. today is about one-third smaller.

The district was named Columbia—which had been a nickname for America during the Revolutionary War, in honor of Christopher Columbus—and the new federal city added to the territory was called Washington, for, yes, George. Georgetown and Alexandria were also cities included in the district.

Is DC considered a city, a state, or neither?

Photo shutterstock
Photo shutterstock

By definition, D.C. stands for the District of Columbia, meaning it's not quite a state but you guessed it, a district. It's also the capital city of the United States.

So how did it end up as the District? That answer is tricky, requiring a look back into the city's diverse history.

How many areas did D.C have?

Photo Getty
Photo Getty

Originally, D.C. consisted of five different areas:

Washington County, the more eastern and northern parts of D.C. that are closer to Maryland

City of Washington, the main core of the city with those federal buildings

Alexandria County, the south and west part of D.C. closer to Virginia

City of Alexandria, pretty much the same territory we know today

Georgetown, area similar to the neighborhood today

Who Governs Washington D.C.?

D.C. has its own set of legal codes, like states, but unlike states, doesn't have a governor presiding over it. Instead, the District has a mayor, a title currently held by Muriel Bowser.

Like a state, there are three branches, all with different titles. Instead of governor, a mayor. Instead of a state congress, a council.

D.C. also operates a District-run police force and a public school system, with its own unique laws on liquor control, unemployment compensation and even food and drug inspection. It has its own legislature, the Council of DC, and an Attorney General, Karl Racine. This is why you might be able to buy specific alcohol or marijuana within District limits but not within neighboring states like Maryland or Virginia.

And as mentioned earlier, D.C. does have one member in Congress -- Eleanor Holmes Norton, who isn't able to actually vote. She can sit on committees and influence decisions but doesn't hold the actual power to place a vote like other states.

D.C. also has two 'shadow' senators, currently held by Paul Strauss and Mike Brown. Neither Strauss nor Brown are officially sworn or seated by the U.S. Senate, meaning they get no voting power, but can advocate for issues on behalf of their D.C. constituents.

READ MORE: Who Was The First President of America: George Washington's Biography, Personal Life, Fun Facts

D.C statehood was prohibited by the Constitution

Photo Getty
Photo Getty

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t want a single state to have the disproportionate power that they believed the capital would have. So they specifically wrote in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that the seat of government would be a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of Congress.

Both Virginia and Maryland gave up land to form the district, and it’s “southern” location was a compromise—the Compromise of 1790, wherein the federal government assumed the states’ debt remaining from the Revolutionary war. States like Maryland and Virginia had already paid off their debts and were reluctant to be taxed to help reduce the debts of other states, so the location of the capital was a bargaining chip.

If you live in D.C., your voting rights are fairly new

Before 1961, residents of Washington, D.C. couldn’t vote in presidential elections because of the Electoral College. The number of electoral votes each state gets depends on how many senators and members of the House of Representatives it has. As D.C. isn’t a state, it has no voting representatives in Congress, so for years D.C. residents couldn’t take part in elections. It was the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1961) that gave D.C. the electoral votes that it would have if it were a state, limited to the number of electors the least-populated state has. Currently that state is Wyoming, with three electors. So D.C. gets a max of three electoral votes. Not sure exactly what an electoral vote is?

Why wasn’t D.C. a state from the beginning?

Well, America’s Founding Fathers decided, when they wrote the Constitution, that it was imperative that the center of government was not in a state. In America’s early post-Revolution days, it would see several different temporary centers of government, all of them northern cities like Philadelphia and New York. While drafting the Constitution in 1787, the Founding Fathers decided that the new nation should have a permanent capital. But they were reluctant to give that much power to one single state.

So they wrote in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that “[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive Legislation…over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may…become the Seat of the Government of the United States.” The article also stated that this 100-mile district would come from land ceded by the states so that the new seat of government would be independent of any state. Check out more facts about U.S. history you didn’t learn in school.

But the location caused more tension between the founders—specifically, northerner Alexander Hamilton and southerner Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton thought having a northern capital would help the north settle outstanding Revolutionary War debts. Jefferson was wary about bankers and economic masterminds—who lived mostly in northern states—having too much control. So, to compromise, George Washington himself chose a location bordering the Potomac River. The northern Maryland and the southern Virginia would be the two states to cede land for this new capital, which was founded in 1790. So, in short, statehood for D.C. would directly contradict the Constitution.

But we’re a long way off from the time of the Founding Fathers, and, after all, the Constitution was made to be amended. So the statehood debate continues. Test out how well you know the U.S. Constitution.

Hasn't D.C. tried to be a state before?


Critics of D.C. statehood argue that the framers of the Constitution never wanted the nation’s capital to be its own state. They say creating a new state would call for a constitutional amendment and the new state -- with a proposed name of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth -- would have a disproportionate amount of influence over what the federal government can and can't do.

House bills H.R. 810 & H.R. 381 proposed the idea of D.C. retroceding back into Maryland for voting rights purposes back in 2001 and 2003 and failed. And in 2004, the District of Columbia Voting Rights Restoration Act proposed considering D.C. residents as Maryland residents strictly for congressional representation purposes. It never came out of committee.

Republican lawmakers have pushed back on the fight for D.C. statehood with legislation as recent as October 2020, proposing bills that limit the number of senators a new state could have or push heavily towards Maryland retrocession.

Retrocession means D.C. residents would still get Congressional representation by technically becoming Marylanders for voting purposes, but it would avoid adding additional seats to the House and Senate.

Regardless, D.C. statehood still needs to pass the Senate before actually being rolled out. And with a newly adjusted Congress, you might see that happen sooner rather than later.

What will happen if Washington, D.C. becomes a state?

Washington, D.C. would gain a member of the House of Representatives and two new senators. (The fact that those senators would likely be Democratic is a big reason House and Senate Republicans oppose statehood.) The mayor, Muriel Bowser, will have the title of “governor” instead. The land of the new state would be all of the current land of Washington, D.C., except for a “capital district” over which the federal government would continue to have control. This district would include the White House and the buildings and monuments surrounding the National Mall.

Also, the capital would get a name change! Instead of standing for the District of Columbia, the “D.C.” will stand for “Douglass Commonwealth.” This pays homage to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who lived there for 17 years. Next, check out some more surprising facts you never knew about Washington, D.C.

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