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How DC Can Vote in Federal Elections

Terence P. Jeffrey on

When the Massachusetts Ratification Convention was debating whether to approve the U.S. Constitution in January 1788, Dr. John Taylor, a delegate from Worcester County, asked a pointed question about the language in the draft that called for creating a new and independent city to house the federal government.

"Dr. Taylor asked, why it need be ten miles square, and whether one mile square would not be sufficient," said the records of the convention.

Caleb Strong, who had been a delegate at the Constitutional Convention (and would later serve as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts), provided Taylor with an answer.

As reported in the records of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention: "Hon. Mr. Strong said, Congress was not to exercise jurisdiction over a district of ten miles, but one not exceeding ten miles square."

Specifically, Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution said that Congress shall have power 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 Government of the United States."

On July 16, 1790, the first Congress acted on this language.

 

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled," said the journal of that first Congress, "That a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue, be, and the same is hereby accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States."

The states of Virginia and Maryland ceded to the federal government the 100 square miles of territory that originally constituted this federal district.

In his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution, Joseph Story described the creation of this Capitol city and celebrated George Washington's role in it.

"The seat of government has now, for more than thirty years, been permanently fixed on the river Potomac, on a tract of ten miles square, ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland," Story wrote.

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