by Frank Leone
Democracy has been in the news a lot lately, so it’s a good time to visit the West End’s own “Democracy Tree.” The tree and its accompanying plaque (see below) stand in the tree lawn at New Hampshire Avenue and 21st Street. It was planted by The Democracy Project of Foundry United Methodist Church, “a mission group committed to addressing the egregious moral wrong of disenfranchising more than half a million citizens.” Its message of Democracy – no taxation without representation and congressional voting rights – for the people of Washington, D.C. is more relevant than ever.
Foundry United Methodist Church, now at 1500 16th St. NW, has a long and compelling history. Originally located at 14th and G Streets, Foundry dedicated its first building in September 1815. Henry Foxall, a Methodist layman and influential businessman, donated the land and building after his Georgetown iron foundry survived the British attack on Washington in the War of 1812. “Foundry has long been active in mission, with work that mirrors the humanitarian concerns of the times.”
In 1998, Foundry parishioner Mark Schaefer led the effort to establish a church mission group to advocate for D.C. voting rights purely on moral grounds. In 2000, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church nationally approved a supporting resolution. In the late 1990s, an elm seed started growing in one of Mr. Schaefer’s plant pots. On July 4th, 2000, he planted the tree in a vacant tree lawn. The elm has grown into a strong and stately 32-foot tall tree, with an important message.
Washington, D.C. carries the unusual burden of being a nation’s capital whose tax-paying citizens lack full voting rights. In 1790, Maryland and Virginia ceded land to the Federal government to create the District of Columbia. Residents of the ceded land continued to vote in those states through the 1800 election. Congress adopted the 1801 Organic Act, which provided for a D.C., comprised of Georgetown, Washington City and Washington County, and Alexandria City and Alexandria County (now Arlington County). (The Virginia portion was retroceded back to Virginia in 1846, at least in part to preserve markets for enslaved people, which was facing abolition pressures for D.C. in Congress.) The Act eliminated the right of D.C. citizens to vote for national offices and the U.S. Congress exercised jurisdiction over D.C. affairs.
The City of Washington was governed by a group of federally appointed Commissioners (1791-1802), a mayor appointed by the President of the U.S. and an elected city council (1802 to 1812), mayors selected by the city council (1812-1820, a popularly elected mayor (1820 to 1871), and a Presidentially appointed territorial Governor, Board of Public Works, Legislative Council, with an elected House of Delegates, and non-voting congressional delegate (1871-1874).
The franchise, originally limited to white, male, property holders, was extended to African Americans in 1867. Less than 10 years later, Congress intervened to deny all D.C. residents the vote and create a federally appointed three-member Board of Commissioners (including a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to manage the city, with all decisions to be ratified by Congress. That arrangement lasted nearly 100 years with no “Home Rule” for D.C. residents.
Progress was made in the 1960s. In 1964, Congress and the states approved a constitutional amendment giving D.C. residents three electoral votes for presidential elections (but Home Rule advocates were not able to obtain congressional representation at the same time). To allow more local control over D.C.’s affairs, in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson used his executive authority to appoint Walter Washington as Mayor-Commissioner and a nine-member Council. In 1968, Congress granted Washingtonians the right to vote for their Board of Education, the first local election in nearly a century. In 1971 the District of Columbia Delegate Act re-instituted a non-voting Delegate to represent the nation’s capital in the House of Representatives. (The delegate gets a vote in committees, but only when Democrats control the House.)
In 1973, Congress finally passed the Home Rule act. In 1974, D.C. elected its local government for the first time in more than 100 years. Walter Washington was elected Mayor, and longtime civil rights and anti-poverty activists were elected to the D.C. Council.
But D.C. still lacks voting rights in a Congress, which has final authority over D.C. actions and can, with the President’s concurrence, veto D.C. laws. The history of D.C. includes many examples of Congress pursuing its own agenda and not caring properly for the city (e.g., metro vs. highway construction). Many people think full Statehood for D.C. is the best solution. The 24 year old Democracy Tree still reaches towards its goal.
Sources: Foundry Democracy Project, last updated 2008; Phil McCombs, “Stumping for the Vote,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 2000; Prince Of Petworth, “The Democracy Tree, At Least, Seems To Be Doing Well, PopVille, Aug. 20, 2020; Chris Myers Asch and Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation's Capital, UNC Press, 2017; DC Public Library, Exhibit “The History of Home Rule in D.C.”; DC History Center, “Home Rule 50” Exhibit; Foggy Bottom Association History Project.