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From the porticos of that magnificent Capitol whose domes overhang the Potomac, the eye now looks down upon a city, in which, at a cost of many millions, provision has been made for the central functions of a government, whose daily expenditure exceeds the entire sum appropriated for the establishment of the necessary public buildings and official residences seventy years ago.
In truth, however, there is not much reason to suppose that the Congress of the Confederation seriously contemplated the establishment of a federal city. They were too feeble for such an undertaking. They could pass resolutions and ordinances for the purpose, and send them to the authorities of the States; and if a more decent attention to the wants and dignity of the federal body was excited, it was well, and was probably the effect principally intended. If they had actually proceeded to do what their resolution of 1783 proposed, to acquire the jurisdiction, as well as the right of soil, over a tract of land, they must have encountered a serious obstacle in the want of constitutional power. This difficulty seems to have been felt at a later period; for the ordinance of 1784 only directs a purchase of the land, and is silent upon the subject of municipal jurisdiction. It is fortunate, too, on all accounts, that the design was never executed, if it was seriously entertained. The presence of Congress in the city of New York, where the legislature of the State was also sitting, in the winter of 1787, enabled Hamilton to carry those measures in both bodies, which led im
mediately to the summoning of the national Convention.1 And it was especially fortunate that this whole subject came before the Convention unembarrassed with a previous choice of place by the old Congress, or with any steps concerning municipal jurisdiction which they might have taken, or omitted.
For it was no easy matter, in the temper of the public mind existing from 1783 to 1788, to determine where the seat of the federal, or that of the national government, ought to be placed. The Convention found this an unsettled question, and they wisely determined to leave it so. The cities of New York and Philadelphia had wishes and expectations, and it was quite expedient that the Constitution should neither decide between them, nor decide against both of them. It was equally important that it should not direct whether the seat of the national government should be placed at any of the other commercial cities, or at the capital or within the jurisdiction of any State, or in a district to be exclusively under the jurisdiction of the United States. These were grave questions, which involved the general interests of the Union; but however settled, they would cost the Constitution, in some quarter or other, a great deal of the support that it required, if determined before it went into operation. Temporarily, however, the new government must be placed somewhere within the limits of a State, and
1 See ante, Vol. I. pp. 358361.
2 See the conversation reported
by Madison, Elliot, V. 374.
at one of the principal cities; and as the Congress then sitting at New York would probably invite their successors to assemble there, it became necessary to provide for a future removal, when the time should arrive for a general agreement on the various and delicate questions involved. The difference of structure, however, between the two branches of the proposed Congress, and the difference of interests that might predominate in each, made a disagreement on these questions probable, if not inevitable; and a disagreement on the place of their future sessions, if accompanied by power to sit in separate places, would be fatal to the peace of the Union and the operation of the government.
The committee of detail, therefore, inserted in their draft a clause prohibiting either house, without the consent of the other, from adjourning for more than three days, or to any other place than that at which the Congress might be sitting. Mr. King expressed an apprehension that this implied an authority in both houses to adjourn to any place; and as a frequent change of place had dishonored the federal government, he thought that a law, at least, should be made necessary for a removal. Mr. Madison considered a central position would be so necessary, and that it would be so strongly demanded by the House of Representatives, that a removal from the place of their first session would be extorted, even if a law were required for it. But there was a fear that, if the government were once established at the city of New York, it would never
be removed if a law were made necessary. The provision reported by the committee was therefore retained, and it was left in the power of the two houses alone, during a session of Congress, to adjourn to any place, or to any time, on which they might agree.1
Still it was needful that the Constitution should empower the legislature to establish a seat of government out of the jurisdiction of any of the States, and away from any of their cities. The time might come when this question could be satisfactorily met. The time would certainly come, when the people of the whole Union could see that the dignity, the independence, and the purity of the government would require that it should be under no local influences; when every citizen of the United States, called to take part in the functions of that government, ought to be able to feel that he and his would owe their protection to no power, save that of the Union itself. Some disadvantage, doubtless, might be experienced, in placing the government away from the great centres of commerce. But neither of the principal seats of wealth and refinement was very near to the centre of the Union; and if either of them had been, the necessity for an exclusive local jurisdiction would probably be found, after the adoption of the Constitution, to outweigh all other considerations. Accordingly, when the Constitution was revised for the purpose of supplying the needful provisions omitted
1 Elliot, V. 409, 410. See post, as to the power of the Pres
ident to assemble and adjourn Congress.
in its preparation, it was determined that no peremptory direction on the subject of a seat of government should be given to the legislature; but that power should be conferred on Congress to exercise an exclusive legislation, in all cases, over such district, not exceeding ten miles square, as might, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States. This provision has made the Congress of the United States the exclusive sovereign of the District of Columbia, which it governs in its capacity of the legislature of the Union. It enabled Washington to found the city which bears his name; towards which, whatever may be the claims of local attachment, every American who can discern the connection between the honor, the renown, and the welfare of his country, and the dignity, convenience, and safety of its government, must turn with affection and pride.
With respect to a regular time of meeting, no instructions had been given to the committee of detail; but they inserted in their draft of the Constitution a clause which required the legislature to assemble on the first Monday of December in every year. There was, however, a great difference of opinion as to the expediency of designating any time in the Constitution, and as to the particular period adopted in the report. But as it was generally agreed that Congress ought to assemble annually, the provision which now stands in the Constitution, which requires annual sessions, and establishes the first Monday in Decem