One of the ways Democrats are hoping to gain more electoral and congressional power is by changing the status of heavily Democratic Washington D.C. from a federally controlled district to the 51st state. In January, a Democratic Congressman introduced House Resolution 51, the “Washington, D.C., Admission Act,” which would “provide for the admission of the State of Washington, D.C. into the Union,” and her fellow Democrats overwhelmingly signed on. On Thursday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held the first hearing on the bill.
Among the Democrats enthusiastically supporting the bill is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who took to Twitter to promote it but was quickly met with pushback after making an historically inaccurate claim while doing so. One of the reasons D.C. should be granted statehood, she suggested, is because it was “the 1st territory in the United States to free the enslaved.”
“DC was the 1st territory in the United States to free the enslaved,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday. “It’s where Black Americans fled the tyranny of slavery & towards greater freedom, to DC. Yet today it’s where 2nd class citizenship reigns, and the right to vote is denied. It’s time to recognize DC statehood.”
But as noted by many of Ocasio-Cortez’s critics online, the claim that D.C. was the first territory to free the enslaved is not true. In fact, it was one of the last territories in the U.S. to abolish slavery, The Daily Caller notes. First was Vermont, way back in 1777. Three years later, Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish it. About ten years later, in 1791, D.C. officially became a territory. While the slave trade was ended in the district by the famous Compromise of 1850, it was still legal to own slaves in the district until the passage of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act of 1862. The National Archives provides the following summary of the act:
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came 8 1/2 months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The act brought to a conclusion decades of agitation aimed at ending what antislavery advocates called “the national shame” of slavery in the nation’s capital. It provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration. Over the next 9 months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.
Although its combination of emancipation, compensation to owners, and colonization did not serve as a model for the future, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was an early signal of slavery’s death. In the District itself, African Americans greeted emancipation with great jubilation. For many years afterward, they celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16 with parades and festivals.
In response to blowback from the tweet, Ocasio-Cortez issued some follow-up “clarifications.”
“The right is pushing back on this,” she wrote. “To clarify in 280 chars, DC was the first area where enslaved people were freed by the US government. It was enacted by the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.” She followed that explanation with another post noting, “Certain localities and municipalities did pursue abolition earlier, but none were federally recognized.”
The inspiration for Ocasio-Cortez’s D.C. tweet Thursday was the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which address the statehood question as a result from “growing momentum in the city’s statehood movement and increasing support from both congressional Democrats and all Democratic presidential candidates,” as reported by The Washington Post.
In its report, The Post provides some historical context for the D.C. statehood debate:
The Constitution’s enclave clause allows Congress to reserve a territorial seat for the federal government and to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District.” The clause’s framers hoped to protect Congress against angry Revolutionary-era mobs such as the one that stormed a 1783 meeting of the Continental Congress. Congress has since interpreted the clause to withhold congressional representation and home rule from the District and its 700,000 residents, more than the populations of either Vermont or Wyoming.
While there’s debate about the constitutionality of H.R. 51, with opponents arguing that it exceeds the enumerated powers of Congress and requires the repeal of the 23rd Amendment, the Post sides with those who say it passes constitutional muster.
A total of 219 Democrats signed on to the bill, meaning it will almost certainly pass the House. However, it will also almost certainly die in the Senate, where Republicans still hold the majority. Even if it passed in the Senate, President Trump could still veto the bill.