Story pick: A new Congress strips D.C. of its vote -- in 1874
A new Congress convenes and an air of possibility fills the city. The Republican majority is determined to push the debate to core questions about the American ideal -- what are the limits on federal power? What does the Constitution really mean when it talks about equality? And what kind of equality do voters in the District of Columbia deserve under the Constitution?
Although the setting sounds awfully contemporary, the year is 1874, not 2011, and the new Congress is indeed a radical one -- the Republicans who during Reconstruction gave the District the most autonomy it has ever enjoyed now set about reversing themselves and establishing the congressional control of the city that persists in some forms until today.
In a new book, Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University and a longtime scholar on the evolution of race and politics in the District, examines this curious moment when the same politicians who granted blacks a startling array of rights and privileges in the aftermath of the Civil War then turned around in the early 1870s and stripped away those freedoms. In Washington, that process played out as a systematic reversal of the post-war reforms--now, not only blacks, but all Washingtonians would be stripped of their voting rights.
Masur's book, "An Example for All the Land," spells out how blacks and whites came together after the war to turn the District into a place where blacks could vote, ride the streetcars as equals, and even organize militias. But then, she shows, Congress created a system of governance that diminished not only the black role in the city, but also that of wealthy landowners.
Masur writes: "The irony that for the next ninety-nine years the residents of the U.S. capital were not permitted to choose their own local government is inseparable from the larger American paradox that a nation founded on the principle that 'all men are created equal' also permitted and promoted the enslavement of people of African descent. The black Washingtonians and their white allies who demanded expansive government action to eliminate slavery's vestiges in Washington were the first of many generations to attack the problem of postemancipation equality. Their ideas and tactics resonate into the present, as do the strategies of those who ultimately defeated them."