The Reason Behind Georgetown’s Loss of Independence is Rotten

There is no municipal body called Georgetown. But once there was. From the founding of the District of Columbia, in 1801, until 1871, Georgetown was a separate city within the District. After the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, Georgetown and the City of Washington were merged together and with the surrounding Washington County to form a unitary body simply called the District of Columbia. There were many stated reasons for this move, but one of the main reasons behind it were, frankly, quite rotten.

GM came across this topic while reading Howard Gillette’s fantastic book “Between Justice and Beauty“, which tells the sad story of the negative impact Congressional interference has had on the people of DC. In one section, Gillette writes about the state of DC immediately following the conclusion of the Civil War.

In the wake of the emancipation of the enslaved peoples, radical Republicans in Congress took up the cause of the extension of the vote to Black men. After some failed attempts to pressure President Andrew Johnson into forcing the newly re-formed southern state governments to guarantee the vote, legislators like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner turned to the District. Using the power of Congressional autonomy over DC, Sumner pushed for and achieved the vote for African American males in DC in early 1867. It took a Congressional override of Johnson’s veto to pass.

The first black votes in DC history were cast in a Georgetown municipal election just weeks after the passage of the bill.

As elections then took place in the City of Washington, race became a defining issue. Local radical Republicans reached out vigorously to the newly enfranchised voters and promised that the extension of civil rights was critical to the rehabilitation of a city torn by war.

In 1868, Sayles Bowen, a radical Republican, was elected mayor of the City of Washington with strong support from the black population. He quickly moved to make good on his promises of expanded civil rights and targeted social welfare spending. He pushed for the full integration of schools. When that effort failed, he pushed for the construction of new schools for black students.

Bowen began to face strong opposition to his efforts. Much of this opposition was plainly racist, as resentful white conservatives attacked Bowen as a corrupt machine politician directing funds to make-work projects designed simply to employ his supporters in the black community. The legislature thwarted many of Bowen’s plans and hamstrung him from dealing with lingering financial challenges arising from earlier public works projects like the Washington canal.

As he faced reelection in 1870, a new existential crisis hit the District. Western members of Congress began agitating for the relocation of the nation’s capital to a more central spot, specifically St. Louis. This would have devastated DC. To fight these efforts, District leaders decided that public improvements should be prioritized over all other issues.

Bowen kept race as a central theme in his campaign, and argued that lifting up African Americans can be achieved along with the continued building of the capital. However, one local newspaper, the Star, that had supported Bowen, turned against him. It cited a huge increase in debt and accused Bowen of targeting the spending to areas primarily where his black supporters lived. It swung its support to Bowen’s opponent, Matthew Emory. Despite receiving continued support from the black community, Bowen was defeated as Emory collected support from conservative Republicans and Democrats.

In the background of these events, a movement was building to revoke the charters of the local governments and convert the District into a territory-style government with appointed leaders. This would essentially revoke much of the right to vote from all the citizens, black or white. But Republicans like Frederick Douglas believed that the entire effort was about disenfranchising blacks specifically. He wrote that “The ‘rabble,’ so called, must be silenced, or in plain Anglo-Saxon, the old fogies are opposed to negro suffrage; and as they cannot withdraw it, they seek to diminish, if not destroy, the opportunities for its exercise.”

One local leader pushing for the measure was the infamous Alexander “Boss” Shepherd. As a leader of the Washington Board of Trade, he strongly favored the centralization of power and the prioritization of municipal improvements. He also pushed an argument extremely distasteful to modern day DC statehood activists, namely that since the whole nation has a vested interest in DC, the nation’s legislature should control all aspects DC.

The bill passed Congress in 1871, and with its passage the cities of Georgetown and Washington were abolished.

Shepherd had an ulterior motive for pushing for the creation of a territorial government. He believed he would be nominated as governor. These days, people looking for colorful characters in DC’s local past have lifted Shepherd up as a hero. But the reality is that he is more of a Judas to DC. He abetted the abolition of Home Rule to advance his own career.

He didn’t get his wish. At least not right away. A Georgetowner, Henry Cooke, was appointed the first governor of DC. But Cooke was largely a figurehead governor and Shepherd exercised great power from his perch on the newly created Board of Public Works. After three years, Shepherd took over for Cooke as Governor. And he promptly drove the District into an even deeper spiral of debt with massive public works projects. While his views on race have been greatly debated, it’s certain that above all else, he simply didn’t want to emphasize race at all and placed all priorities on physical improvements alone.

In 1873, a national financial panic (ironically kicked off by the collapse of a brokerage house in Philadelphia owned by Cooke’s brother) brought the finances of the territorial government to the precipice. Congress stepped in once again in 1874 to abolish the territorial government and transfer control of the District to an appointed Board of Commissioners. As is a theme throughout the history of DC, local leaders hoped that Congress would match its control over DC with a willingness to contribute financially to its improvements. This was to be a unfulfilled hope.

The Board of Commissioners ruled DC until 1967, at which point DC shifted to an appointed Mayoral system. (Which itself was replaced with true Home Rule in 1973).

Very little of all these changes had anything to do with Georgetown, specifically. And in fact, Georgetown was the home of many Democrats who sympathized with the South during the war. In a referendum on the enfranchisement of African Americans, white Georgetown voters voted 712 to 1 against the proposition.

But that does not change the fact that one of the root causes for the changes that swept away Georgetown autonomy was racial animus. And that is a rather rotten reason to do anything.

All this information came from Between Justice and Beauty. GM highly recommends you track down a copy and read it yourself!

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