District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871
The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, formally An Act to provide a Government for the District of Columbia, is an Act of Congress that repealed the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown and established a new territorial government for the whole District of Columbia. Though Congress repealed the territorial government in 1874, the legislation was the first to create a single municipal government for the federal district.
The passage of the Residence Act in 1790 created a new federal district that would become the capital of the United States. Formed from land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia, the capital territory already included two large settlements at its creation: the port of Georgetown, Maryland and the town of Alexandria, Virginia. A new capital city named in honor of President George Washington was founded to the east of Georgetown in 1791.
Shortly after establishing operations in the new capital, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1801, which organized the federal territory. Congress allowed the cities of Washington and Georgetown to each maintain their own municipal governments. The remainder of the unincorporated territory within the federal district formed the new County of Washington, which was governed by a levy court consisting of three Justices of the Peace appointed by the President. The City of Alexandria and adjacent Alexandria County also maintained their own local governments but were returned by Congress to the state of Virginia in 1846.
The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 led to notable growth in the capital's population due to the expansion of the federal government and a large influx of freed slaves. By 1870, the District's population had grown 75% to nearly 132,000 residents. Growth was even more dramatic within County of Washington, where the population more than doubled as people escaped the crowded city.
The individual local governments within the District were insufficient to handle the population growth. Living conditions were poor throughout the capital, which still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. The situation was so bad that some lawmakers in Congress even suggested moving the capital out further west, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to consider the proposals.
Instead, Congress passed the Organic Act of 1871, which revoked the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown and combined them with Washington County to create a unified territorial government for the entire District of Columbia. The new government consisted of an appointed governor and 11-member council, a locally elected 22-member assembly, and a board of public works charged with modernizing the city. The Seal of the District of Columbia features the date 1871, recognizing the year the District's government was incorporated.
In 1873, President Grant appointed an influential member of the board of public works, Alexander Robey Shepherd, to the post of governor. Shepherd authorized large-scale municipal projects, which greatly modernized Washington. In doing so, however, the governor spent three times the money that had been budgeted for capital improvements, bankrupting the city. In 1874, Congress replaced the District's quasi-elected territorial government with an appointed three-member Board of Commissioners. Direct rule by Congress would continue for nearly a century until the passage of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973.
- "An Act to provide a Government for the District of Columbia", Statutes at Large, Library of Congress