Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17
Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1212--221833
§ 1212. This clause was not in the original draft of the constitution; but was referred to a committee, who reported in its favour; and it was adopted into the constitution with a slight amendment without any apparent objection.
§ 1213. The indispensable necessity of complete and exclusive power, on the part of the congress, at the seat of government, carries its own evidence with it. It is a power exercised by every legislature of the Union, and one might say of the World, by virtue of its general supremacy. Without it not only the public authorities might be insulted, and their proceedings be interrupted with impunity; but the public archives might be in danger of violation, and destruction, and a dependence of the members of the national government on the state authorities for protection in the discharge of their functions be created, which would bring on the national councils the imputation of being subjected to undue awe and influence, and might, in times of high excitement, expose their lives to jeopardy. It never could be safe to leave in possession of any state the exclusive power to decide, whether the functionaries of the national government should have the moral or physical power to perform their duties. It might subject the favoured state to the most unrelenting jealousy of the other states, and introduce earnest controversies from time to time respecting the removal of the seat of government.
§ 1214. Nor can the cession be justly an object of jealousy to any state; or in the slightest degree impair its sovereignty. The ceded district is of a very narrow extent; and it rests in the option of the state, whether it shall be made or not. There can be little doubt, that the inhabitants composing it would receive with thankfulness such a blessing, since their own importance would be thereby increased, their interests be subserved, and their rights be under the immediate protection of the representatives of the whole Union. It is not improbable, that an occurrence, at the very close of the revolutionary war, had a great effect in introducing this provision into the constitution. At the period alluded to, the congress, then sitting at Philadelphia, was surrounded and insulted by a small, but insolent body of mutineers of the continental army. Congress applied to the executive authority of Pennsylvania for defence; but, under the ill-conceived constitution of the state at that time, the executive power was vested in a council consisting of thirteen members; and they possessed, or exhibited so little energy, and such apparent intimidation, that congress indignantly removed to New Jersey, whose inhabitants welcomed them with promises of defending them. Congress remained for some time at Princeton without being again insulted, till, for the sake of greater convenience, they adjourned to Annapolis. The general dissatisfaction with the proceedings of Pennsylvania, and the degrading spectacle of a fugitive congress, were sufficiently striking to produce this remedy. Indeed, if such a lesson could have been lost upon the people, it would have been as humiliating to their intelligence, as it would have been offensive to their honour.
§ 1215. And yet this clause did not escape the common fate of most of the powers of the national government. It was represented, as peculiarly dangerous. It may, it was said, become a sort of public sanctuary, with exclusive privileges and immunities of every sort. It may be the very spot for the establishment of tyranny, and of refuge of the oppressors of the people. The inhabitants will be answerable to no laws, except those of congress. A powerful army may be here kept on foot; and the most oppressive and sanguinary laws may be passed to govern the district. Nay, at the distance of fourteen years after the constitution had quietly gone into operation, and this power had been acted upon with a moderation, as commendable, as it ought to be satisfactory, a learned commentator expressed regret at the extent of the power, and intimated in no inexplicit terms his fears for the future. "A system of laws," says he, "incompatible with the nature and principles of a representative democracy, though not likely to be introduced at once, may be matured by degrees, and diffuse its influence through the states, and finally lay the foundation of the most important changes in the nature of the federal government. Let foreigners be enabled to hold lands, and transmit them by inheritance, or devise; let the preference to males, and the rights of primogeniture be revived with the doctrine of entails; and aristocracy will neither want a ladder to climb by, nor a base for its support."
§ 1216. What a superstructure to be erected on such a narrow foundation! Several of the states now permit foreigners to hold and transmit lands; and yet their liberties are not overwhelmed. The whole South, before the revolution, allowed and cherished the system of primogeniture; and yet they possessed, and transmitted to their children their colonial rights and privileges, and achieved under this very system the independence of the country. The system of entails is still the law of several of the states; and yet no danger has yet assailed them. They possess, and enjoy the fruits of republican industry and frugality, without any landed or other aristocracy. And yet the petty district of ten miles square is to overrule in its policy and legislation all, that is venerable and admirable in state legislation! The states, and the people of the states are represented in congress. The district has no representatives there; but is subjected to the exclusive legislation of the former. And yet congress, at home republican, will here nourish aristocracy. The states will here lay the foundation for the destruction of their own institutions, rights, and sovereignty. At home, they will follow the legislation of the district, instead of guiding it by their precept and example. They will choose to be the engines of tyranny and oppression in the district, that they may become enslaved within their own territorial sovereignty. What, but a disposition to indulge in all sorts of delusions and alarms, could create such extraordinary flights of imagination? Can such things be, and overcome us, like a summer's cloud, without our special wonder? At this distance of time, it seems wholly unnecessary to refute the suggestions, which have been so ingeniously urged. If they prove any thing, they prove, that there ought to be no government, because no persons can be found worthy of the trust.
§ 1217. The seat of government has now, for more than thirty years, been permanently fixed on the river Potomac, on a tract of ten miles square, ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland. It was selected by that great man, the boast of all America, the first in war, the first in peace, and the first in the hearts of his countrymen. It bears his name; it is the monument of his fame and wisdom. May it be for ever consecrated to its present noble purpose, capitolî immobile saxum!
§ 1218. The inhabitants enjoy all their civil, religious, and political rights. They live substantially under the same laws, as at the time of the cession, such changes only having been made, as have been devised, and sought by themselves. They are not indeed citizens of any state, entitled to the privileges of such; but they are citizens of the United States. They have no immediate representatives in congress. But they may justly boast, that they live under a paternal government, attentive to their wants, and zealous for their welfare. They, as yet, possess no local legislature; and have, as yet, not desired to possess one. A learned commentator has doubted, whether congress can create such a legislature, because it is the delegation of a delegated authority. A very different opinion was expressed by the Federalist; for it was said, that "a municipal legislature for local purposes, derived from their own suffrages, will of course be allowed them."In point of fact, the corporations of the three cities within its limits possess and exercise a delegated power of legislation under their charters, granted by congress, to the full extent of their municipal wants, without any constitutional scruple, or surmise of doubt.
§ 1219. The other part of the power, giving exclusive legislation over places ceded for the erection of forts, magazines, &c., seems still more necessary for the public convenience and safety. The public money expended on such places, and the public property deposited in them, and the nature of the military duties, which may be required there, all demand, that they should be exempted from state authority. In truth, it would be wholly improper, that places, on which the security of the entire Union may depend, should be subjected to the control of any member of it. The power, indeed, is wholly unexceptionable; since it can only be exercised at the will of the state; and therefore it is placed beyond all reasonable scruple. Yet, it did not escape without the scrutinizing jealousy of the opponents of the constitution, and was denounced, as dangerous to state sovereignty.
§ 1220. A great variety of cessions have been made by the states under this power. And generally there has been a reservation of the right to serve all state process, civil and criminal, upon persons found therein. This reservation has not been thought at all inconsistent with the provision of the constitution; for the state process, quoad hoc, becomes the process of the United States, and the general power of exclusive legislation remains with congress. Thus, these places are not capable of being made a sanctuary for fugitives, to exempt them from acts done within, and cognizable by, the states, to which the territory belonged; and at the same time congress is enabled to accomplish the great objects of the power.
§ 1221. The power of congress to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over these ceded places is conferred on that body, as the legislature of the Union; and cannot be exercised in any other character. A law passed in pursuance of it is the supreme law of the land, and binding on all the states, and cannot be defeated by them. The power to pass such a law carries with it all the incidental powers to give it complete and effectual execution; and such a law may be extended in its operation incidentally throughout the United States, if congress think it necessary so to do. But if intended to have efficiency beyond the district, language must be used in the act expressive of such an intention; otherwise it will be deemed purely local.
§ 1222. It follows from this review of the clause, that the states cannot take cognizance of any acts done in the ceded places after the cession; and, on the other hand, the inhabitants of those places cease to be inhabitants of the state, and can no longer exercise any civil or political rights under the laws of the state. But if there has been no cession by the state of the place, although it has been constantly occupied and used, under purchase, or otherwise, by the United States for a fort, arsenal, or other constitutional purpose, the state jurisdiction still remains complete and perfect.
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, Document 22
The University of Chicago Press
Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.
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