Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17

[Volume 3, Page 229]

Document 11

St. George Tucker, Blackstone's Commentaries 1:App. 276--78


14. Congress have power to exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over such district, (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of congress, become the seat of the government of the United States; and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state; in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful buildings. C. U. S. Art. 1. §. 8.

The exclusive right of legislation granted to congress by this clause of the constitution, is a power, probably, more extensive than it was in the contemplation of the framers of the constitution to grant: such, at least, was the construction which the convention of Virginia gave to it. [Volume 3, Page 230] They, therefore, proposed an article, as an amendment to the constitution, declaring, "that the powers granted by this clause, should extend only to such regulations as respect the police, and good government thereof." The states of New-York and North-Carolina proposed similar amendments; and one to the like effect was actually proposed in the senate of the United States, but shared the fate of many others, whose object was to limit the exercise of power in the federal government.

I agree with the author of the Federalist, that a complete authority at the seat of government was necessary to secure the public authority from insult, and it's proceedings from interruption. But the amendment proposed by Virginia, certainly, would not have abridged the federal government of such an authority. A system of laws 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 it's 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, together with the doctrine of entails, and aristocracy will neither want a ladder to climb by, nor a base for it's support. Many persons already possess an extent of territory in the United States, not inferior to many of the German principalities: if they can be retained for a few generations, without a division, our posterity may count upon the revival of feudal principles, with feudal tenures.

The permanent seat for the government of the United States has been established under the authority of an act passed 1 Cong. 2 Sess. c. 28, and 3 Sess. c. 17, upon the river Potowmac, including the towns of Alexandria in Virginia, and Georgetown in Maryland. And the laws of Virginia (with some exceptions) were declared in force in that part of the ten miles square, which was ceded by Virginia, and those of Maryland in the other part, ceded by Maryland; and several other regulations were likewise established by two several acts, 6 Cong. 2 Sess. c. 15 and 24. An amendatory act passed also at the first session of the seventh congress, but the system does not appear to be as yet completely organized. It has been said, that it was in contemplation to establish a subordinate legislature, with a governor to preside over the district. But it seems highly questionable whether such a substitution of legislative authority is compatible with the constitution; unless it be supposed that a power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, comprehends an authority to delegate that power to another subordinate body. If the maxim be sound, that a delegated authority cannot be transferred to another to exercise, the project here spoken of will probably never take effect. At present that part of the union is neither represented in the congress, nor in any state legislature; a circumstance, of which there seems to be some disposition to complain. An amendment of the constitution seems to be the only means of remedying this oversight.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, Document 11
The University of Chicago Press

Tucker, St. George. Blackstone's Commentaries: With Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 5 vols. Philadelphia, 1803. Reprint. South Hackensack, N.J.: Rothman Reprints, 1969.

© 1987 by The University of Chicago
All rights reserved. Published 2000