This Day in History: The 23rd Amendment

On this day in 1964, residents of Washington D.C. cast votes in the presidential election. While such an event might sound routine, the 1964 election was anything but. The 23rd Amendment had just been ratified, giving the District of Columbia votes in the Electoral College for the first time.


Yes, you read that correctly. Our nation was then nearly 200 years old, yet residents of D.C. had never voted in a presidential election.


There’s a simple reason.


Our nation’s capital is not a state, and original constitutional provisions didn’t treat it as one for purposes of presidential elections. But did you ever think about why the Constitution doesn’t make Washington, D.C. a state?

Some today are pushing to change that situation and to make D.C. a state after all. Thus, the historical background and logic behind the Founders’ decision is relevant as Americans consider what to do.


The Founders did not want the national capital to be a state (or to be inside a state). Instead, the Founders provided for a “district (not exceeding ten miles square)” to be the seat of our federal government. They deliberately appointed Congress, not a state government, to oversee matters in this district.


Indeed, the Father of the Constitution thought it an “indispensable necessity” that the seat of government be its own entity, not just another state. His reason was straightforward: If the nation’s capital were a state, then that state would have too much power over the federal government.


Congress might find “its proceedings interrupted with impunity,” James Madison wrote, or congressional members might find themselves too dependent on the state for “protection in the exercise of their duty.” Indeed, the state in which the capital lay could easily have too much influence if congressional members felt indebted to the state in any way.


Naturally, these dynamics would not only help the capital state, but they would also hurt the other non-capital states.


Madison knew these concerns would grow as the government itself grew. After all, the government would establish all sorts of public improvements in a “stationary residence.” He thought those improvements “too great a public pledge to be left in the hands of a single State.” The difficulty of moving them, once built, would compromise the “necessary independence” of the federal government.


“Madison’s concerns about insults to the ‘public authority’ were not speculative,” lawyer Lee Casey concludes. “In June 1783, several hundred unpaid and angry Continental soldiers had marched on Philadelphia, menacing the Confederation Congress meeting in Independence Hall. Pennsylvania refused all requests for assistance and, after two days, Congress adjourned. Its Members fled into New Jersey.”


Perhaps delegates to the state ratification conventions also remembered the events of June 1783? As they considered whether to ratify the Constitution, they didn’t question why the national capital wasn’t a state. Instead, they were concerned that the area would be treated too well because it was under the protection of Congress.


A delegate at the Virginia ratification convention worried that the national capital “would be the favourite.” Would its residents get “exclusive privileges”? In New York, an amendment was proposed to ensure that residents of the national capital were not exempted “from paying the same taxes, duties, imposts and excises” as those in neighboring states.


Americans today are faced with demands to make Washington D.C. a state, after all this time. It's important to remember what the Founders knew.


They knew they weren’t perfect, so, yes, they provided future generations with a constitutional amendment process. We can absolutely use it when needed. But don’t you think we use that amendment process best when we consider our history and think through ramifications, rather than falling for simple sound bites?

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Primary Sources