Pre-Occupied D.C.

A tent city of protesters springs up in our nation’s capital during a severe economic downturn. After several months of Bonus Army Posteroccupying government property and the public’s imagination, the protesters are finally evicted as police raid the camps and destroy the temporary shantytowns.

While this might be ripped from today’s headlines, I’m not talking about the end of the Occupy D.C. movement, which has spent the past several months camped in the city’s McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza parks.

This is the story of D.C.’s very first group of occupiers (not counting the British during the War of 1812) – the Bonus Army, which staked its tents in our nation’s capital eighty years ago.

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Taxation Without Representation in the District

There was a great op-ed in the New York Times today explaining the historical peculiarities of why the District doesn’t have a vote in Congress – effectively creating taxation without representation in the nation’s capital.

DC Vote License Plate

The occasion for the op-ed is the 50th anniversary today of the ratification of the 23rd amendment, which finally gave residents of D.C. the right to vote in presidential elections. (Yes, it took a Constitutional amendment!)

It seems strange that a city so consumed with politics – and with a population greater than the state of Wyoming – didn’t get the opportunity to vote for president until the election of 1964.

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Capital Roulette

Another question about early America that often stumps my tour groups:

Henry Fite House
Henry Fite’s house in Baltimore, known later as Congress Hall.

“How many capitals of the United States have there actually been?”

We already know of the first two capitals since the Constitution was ratified: New York and Philadelphia.

But how about York, Lancaster, or Baltimore before that?

These former capitals are as fleeting in American memory as they were temporary.

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Potomac Prologue

When I begin a tour of Washington, D.C., I usually start with this question:

“Does anyone know what city was the first capital of the United States?”

And the answer, usually shouted with confidence from Americans and foreigners alike, is: Philadelphia. I then congratulate them…for being half right.

Philadelphia is not a bad answer. After all, it’s the home of Independence Hall, where the Declaration was adopted and where our Constitution was drafted.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the 1770s.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the 1770s.

It was also the de facto capital throughout the Revolutionary War – at least when the Continental Congress wasn’t trying to stay one step ahead of British troops. And then there’s the iconic Liberty Bell…

So yes, the City of Brotherly Love certainly played a formative role in America’s creation. It was the capital throughout most of the Revolutionary War and immediately after. By all rights, it should have been the new country’s first capital.

But it wasn’t.

The first U.S. Congress met, and George Washington took the oath of office as our first president in…New York City.

And that logically leads to the next question: Philadelphia – what happened???

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