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Why Isn't Washington, D.C. a State?

June 17, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

Here’s why D.C. license plates say “End Taxation Without Representation.”

Leading up to the American Revolution, one of the colonists’ chief complaints about the British Empire was that it imposed “taxation without representation”—a slogan that Washington, D.C. has since adopted as its unofficial motto.

In 2000, D.C. started printing “Taxation Without Representation” on all of the city’s standard license plates, and in 2016, the city updated it to “End Taxation Without Representation.” The license plates reference the fact that D.C. residents pay federal taxes without having any voting representatives in the U.S. Congress, and they’re part of a long history of D.C.’s fight for the same voting rights and self-governance as the 50 states.

After Reconstruction, Congress Abolishes D.C.’s Government

Washington, D.C. is the ancestral home of the Nacotchtank people, also known as Anacostans. After British colonists violently drove them out of their land, it became part of Maryland and Virginia. In 1790, both of these states ceded the territory to establish the District of Columbia as the capital of the United States. At the time there were about 3,000 people living in D.C.—too few to become a state—and white men who owned property in D.C. continued to vote in either Maryland or Virginia as they had before.

The Capitol in Washington, D.C., circa 1852.

Starting in the early 19th century, Congress established a series of different government models that allowed voters to elect some local leaders while stripping them of their previously-held right to vote for president or elect voting members of Congress. Then in the 1870s, Congress stripped D.C. of its local representation too. White congressmen didn’t want newly-enfranchised black men running the nation’s capital.

During Reconstruction, black Americans made up about a third of D.C.’s population. Once black men won the right to vote in local D.C. elections in 1867, they quickly established themselves in the city’s local government. Congress responded by dismantling that government through new laws in 1871 and 1874 that gave the president—whom D.C. residents still couldn’t vote for—the sole power to appoint D.C. leaders. The president could consult with Congress when appointing these leaders, but because D.C. voters couldn’t elect voting members of Congress, they had no way to influence these decisions.

The president, congressmen and many federal staff members remained immune to these changes because they were registered to vote in their home …read more


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How Literacy Became a Powerful Weapon in the Fight to End Slavery

June 17, 2020 in History

By Colette Coleman

Following Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831, legislation to limit black people’s access to education intensified. But enslaved people found ways to learn.

On August 21, 1831, enslaved Virginian , a pamphlet calling for uprisings to end slavery. Black sailors brought Walker’s text, surreptitiously sewn into the seams of clothes, to the South.

Nat Turner’s bible on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., 2017.

There’s no proof that Turner, himself, read the Appeal and was inspired by it, according to Edward Rugemer, history professor at Yale University. However, there’s “a lot of evidence that abolitionist writings directly influenced” Caribbean uprisings around this time, he notes. If written “abolitionist agitation was shaping the nature of slave resistance” in the islands, American enslavers believed that it could influence enslaved populations stateside.

Adding to such fears was William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist paper, The Liberator, which began publishing on January 1, 1831. Although it was edited by Garrison, who was described as a “radical” white abolitionist, Rugemer argues it was largely seen as a “black newspaper,” since most of its readers were African Americans, along with a “few radical whites who believed in antislavery and antiracism.” Southern enslavers saw this paper as another example of outside agitation spread through the written word.

Literacy Threatens Justification of Slavery

Black Americans’ literacy also threatened a major justification of slavery—that black people were “less than human, permanently illiterate and dumb,” Lusane says. “That gets disproven when African Americans were educated, and undermines the logic of the system.”

States fighting to hold on to slavery began tightening literacy laws in the early 1830s. In April 1831, Virginia declared that any meetings to teach free African Americans to read or write was illegal. New codes also outlawed teaching enslaved people.

Positioning of slaves on a slave ship, 1786.

View the 10 images of this gallery on the original article

Other southern states passed similarly strict anti-literacy laws around this time. In 1833, an Alabama law asserted that “any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall upon conviction thereof of indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars.” (The fine would be the equivalent of about $7,600 in today’s dollars.)

Despite the consequences, many enslaved people …read more


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The Secret British Campaign to Persuade the US to Enter WWII

June 17, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

The campaign used fake news to shift U.S. opinion about going to war with Germany.

In June of 1941, Americans read about an extraordinary British mission into Nazi-occupied France. Newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun and New York Post, detailed how the British parachuted into an airfield with tommy guns and hand grenades, overpowered the guards and destroyed about 30 planes. All of the team members made it back to Britain alive via torpedo boats, along with 40 German prisoners in tow. It was an incredible story.

It was also completely made-up.

Unbeknownst to the United States, the British foreign intelligence service known as MI6 had planted the story in the press as part of a covert influence campaign to convince the country to enter World War II. With Hitler aggressively gaining ground across the continent and dropping bombs over London, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been anxiously lobbying Franklin D. Roosevelt for reinforcements against the Germans, but America firmly resisted being drawn into another bloody war on the European continent. In May 1940, after the Nazis invaded the Low Countries and France, a Gallup poll reported that only 7% of Americans thought the U.S. should declare war on Germany. In April 1941, the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee led a massively popular campaign against U.S. entry into WWII, a conflict many Americans didn’t see as winnable.

Watch full episodes of ‘WWII: Race to Victory,’ and tune in Sundays at 9/8c for all-new episodes.

“Americans generally did not see Britain as some close, beloved ally at the start of the Second World War,” says Henry Hemming, author of Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II. “Britain was instead one of the major economic rivals to the United States.” In addition, the colonialist British Empire, which America had proudly detached itself from, “was hugely unpopular, and understandably so.”

By November 1941, though, polls suggested that a majority of Americans now favored entering the war to help defeat Germany. Why the shift? Earlier that year, according to Hemming’s book, William Stephenson, a decorated WWI fighter pilot and source of inspiration for James Bond (Ian Fleming noted Stephenson’s martinis were “shaken, not stirred”), was installed as the head of MI6’s U.S. office. A personal friend of Churchill, Stephenson (code …read more