Protests in Washington, D.C., are common. As the seat of the federal government, the city is guaranteed to attract more than its share of activists hoping to influence the president or Congress with their mass advocacy. The reaction to peaceful protests there is, and should be, roughly the same as in any other city. The First Amendment guarantees that the government will not restrict free speech or peaceful assembly, and whatever regulations it does impose are minor and value-neutral.
When protests turn physical, though, the situation changes. Rioting, violence, and looting are dangerous crimes in any city, but in Washington, they pose a particular threat.
Seattle harbored a mob of anarchists governing a section of its downtown, proclaiming independence from any legal authority. That’s a problem, but it’s a local problem. If a similar commune were proclaimed in the nation’s capital, it would be a threat to the whole country. As The Federalist’s culture editor Emily Jashinsky noted, some D.C. protesters did attempt to erect an autonomous zone of their own, but without much success.
Lawlessness in capitals poses a unique danger to a nation, which is among the reasons the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over the federal district. Capital cities and their residents exert outsized control over the business of government. Were the capital controlled by a state government, as D.C. statehood advocates wish, federal officials would be as powerless to stop disorder there as they are in Seattle. This shows, more clearly than any other argument, why allowing D.C. to become the 51st state would enable one local government to hold the nation hostage through inaction — or even endorsement — of riotous disturbances.
Keeping the Capitol from Controlling the States
How the federal district should be governed is not a new discussion. The District Clause of Article I of the Constitution gave the federal government the power of “exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over such district … as may, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States” even before the location of that district had been decided. In Federalist No. 43, James Madison explained the reasons for that provision.
“Without it,” he wrote, “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.” His point, essentially, was that having the seat of government in one of the states would give that state too much power over the entire union.
That was a fair concern in the republic’s early days. No one knew how long the states would remain united, and the threat of civil war among them was one of the driving forces in the push for a stronger central government. While it sounds bizarre today to imagine the governor of Maryland sending troops to intimidate Congress, the Founding Fathers had no way of knowing it would not come to that. The Civil War we fought 75 years later proved it was at least possible for a state or collection of states to threaten the capital.
Look at Today’s Unrest
But the Civil War was a long time ago, and the idea that a state force could “awe or influence” the government has faded from memory, replaced by the mob.
The riots near the White House are not the first time civil disorder threatened the government. The first was the Pennsylvania mutiny of 1783. Revolutionary War soldiers went long stretches without pay,
and some marched on Philadelphia (then the capital) to remedy the situation. Congress called on the state government to protect them, but Pennsylvania declined to do so.
It took General George Washington’s personal intervention to talk the mutineers down. Without his leadership, the young republic might have become, like so many new nations, the plaything of armies and dictators. That incident was on the delegates’ minds in 1787 when they wrote the District Clause. It was not the last time the capital was threatened by a mob, but in later incidents, the government had advantages.
In 1894, a large group of unemployed men called “Coxey’s Army” marched on Washington to demand government jobs. In 1932, the Bonus Marchers, World War I veterans who wanted an advance on their military pensions because of the Great Depression, did the same. In 1971, anti-war protests in early May featured widespread civil disobedience and led to thousands of arrests.
In all of these scenarios, the federal government had the power to control its environs because of the District Clause of Article I. In the years since the Constitution was written, mobs in capitals around the world have succeeded in revolutions even when the nation did not support their efforts. The Russian Revolution is one such example, as are many of the various French Revolutions. Once the radicals take control of the capital, governments can be forced to capitulate.
The current rioters are unlikely to overthrow the government, although some surely wish to do so. In the meantime, they could cause a great deal of damage, enough to impair the government’s functioning. If D.C.’s government had all the powers of a state, they might use them to protect Congress and the president, or they might not.
It is easy to imagine a scenario where a Republican president is deeply unpopular with the residents of the Democratic capital city, and the local government there sympathizes more with the rioters than with the chief executive. It’s easy to imagine, because it’s happening right now.
Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has finally recognized the threat rioters pose to the city, much to the consternation of the mob’s leaders. But it took a while, during which she and the rest of the D.C. government sided with the protesters openly and with the rioters covertly. Seattle’s mayor decided to let the mob tire itself out like toddlers throwing a tantrum, but that is not a realistic option in the nation’s capital.
D.C. statehood is advocated as a matter of voting rights, and there is no reason parts of the city could not be returned to Maryland, just as the Virginia portion of the district was returned to that state in 1846. But the core of the city must remain under the sole control of the federal government, lest the mob impose its will on a nation helpless to defend its center of power.