Friday, February 27, 2009

Taxation without Representation!

Left: The imposing Northern Liberties Market.

If you live in Washington, you know that "taxation without representation" is a semi-official slogan for the District; there is a great deal of resentment within the city about our lone, non-voting representative in Congress. For the moment, the idea of giving voting rights to the residents of the capital is again on the Congressional agenda, and whether or not anything comes of the newest effort to grant representation to the people here, at least the arguments laid against the legislation are entertaining. Consider, for example, the longstanding idea that the work of politicians should be conducted in an environment free from the turmoil and posturing of politics.

Painfully ironic? Yes. Legitimate? Maybe.

In 1857, the Know-Nothing party was gaining strength across the country and specifically in Washington, DC. The Know-Nothings were the party of xenophobia, and worked to undermine the rights of immigrants in the United States. On June 1, 1857, when the polls opened for the mayoral election in Washington, Know-Nothings across the city attempted to physically bar naturalized foreign-born citizens from voting. In addition to local thugs, a large group of Plug Uglies (a gang which existed in many cities in the US) from Baltimore came to the District by train to help enforce the Know-Nothings' intimidation scheme. To prove that they were serious, the Plug Uglies brought a number of firearms and a brass cannon loaded with cobblestones.

The Know-Nothing riot, exacerbated by the Plug Uglies, compelled the otherwise inert President Buchanan to call in the Marines. A confrontation ensued outside of the Northern Liberties Market (today Mt. Vernon Square), where the polls had closed early in the day because of the rioting. The Plug Uglies were ultimately dispersed, but not before exchanging fire with the Marines, resulting in nearly two dozen casualties.

Elections, admittedly, can get rowdy. But hey, democracy is messy, right?

Source: George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (Baltimore: Norman Publishing Company, 1930).

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