In Tampa, party like it’s 1799

The party of small government gathered in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday to piece together its platform ahead of next weeks’ Republican National Convention. And, with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell presiding, Republican delegates voted to explicitly deny hundreds of thousands of tax paying, DC residents voting rights in the US House of Representatives.

It’s inevitable that in instances like these the question is asked: how does the party that ostensibly supports devolving federal powers to state and local communities routinely oppose extending DC the same rights enjoyed by hundreds of millions of other Americans?

There is more than just fear of more Democratic votes in the US Congress undergirding the GOP’s opposition to DC Statehood. For the movement’s intellectual leaders, who revere the Constitution as sacred text, opposition to DC voting rights has to do with adhering to the Founders’ original intent, formulated in a vastly different society over 220 years ago, and enumerated in the US Constitution.

Support for locating the national capital outside the bounds of statehood grew after the end of the Revolution. In June 1783, a few months before American delegates signed the Treaty of Paris, disgruntled Continental Army soldiers posted in and around Philadelphia descended on Independence Hall to demand that the Continental Congress grant them back pay for their service during the war.

In the first great showdown between the national government and a state government, Pennsylvania’s governing council refused Congress’ pleas to deploy state militia to defend the Continental Congress. After a few days, Congress fled Philadelphia for Princeton, New Jersey, and would roam about the country for the next several years, only settling permanently in the District of Columbia in 1800.

One theory holds that the Pennsylvania government refused to deploy the state militia to turn back the protestors because it adhered to a belief that a sovereign state should not be subjugated to the whims of Congress. The Pennsylvania Council, it seems, would be right at home in the modern day GOP.

No doubt the Philadelphia debacle—known today as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783—was fresh in politicians’ minds when delegates convened in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a constitution to replace to flawed Articles of Confederation.

In the text that emerged and ultimately became law, Article I Section 8 created a district separate from the states to house the national government, giving Congress full authority to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over…the seat of the government of the United States.” Although they would not decide on a final location or name for this federal district until several years later, the Founders in Philadelphia gave their blessing to the creation of a jurisdiction where the US Constitution has only limited applicability.  And the basic concept has remained with some modifications to the present day.

To most modern-day observers familiar with DC’s lack of voting rights and Congress’ ability to essentially rule the District as its own fiefdom, the GOP’s position as espoused in the 2012 Platform must seem at odds with its stated principle of curtailing the power of the federal government.

As the GOP delegates were assembling the national platform, the DC Republican Party made a valiant, although ultimately futile, attempt to correct this inherent contradiction by proposing the party at least move forward to the 1850’s. In their recommendation to the GOP platform, the DC GOP suggested the following text:

We respect the design of the Framers of the Constitution that gave our Nation’s Capital a unique status entailing special oversight and financial responsibilities for the federal government. However, this status should not preclude the historic tradition of the Republican Party since its founding in 1854 in support of voting representation in Congress and home rule for citizens residing in the District of Columbia.

The amendment died. For a party with views stuck in 1787, however, moving forward to 1854 proved to be a task too great.

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