Within the boundaries of the United States there were at various times "organized incorporated territories", that were not a part of any of the states and whose governments were organized by acts of Congress rather than by a state constitution drafted by statesmen within the state and enacted by the voters of the state, and that, unlike the states, had no voting representatives or senators in Congress. (Somewhat like the three territories of northern Canada today, I think?) Is the District of Columbia simply an instance of that phenomenon, or is there some essential difference?

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    After posting this question I ascertained one detail that I seemed to recall but wasn't fully sure of: Although the three territories of northern Canada are not represented in the House of Commons, which is the democratically elected house of Parliament, there are senators from the territories (appointed, in effect, by the prime minister whenever a vacancy happens) (nominally by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister). So the word "somewhat" in my question does belong there. Aug 7 at 17:22
  • Despite Australia's having a Westminster system of government, the content of the constitution of Australia was conspicuously influenced by that of the United States. In Australia the constitution says state legislatures can cede lands to the federal government which then become parts of "territories", that term being understood in about the same way as in the U.S.A. (In the U.S.A., the power of state legislatures to do that is not in the constitution but it was done.) But the Australian constitution is explicit in calling the Capital Territory a "territory." Oct 15 at 13:01
  • . . . and the Australian Capital Territory is properly (much) more extensive than the city of Canberra. I think DC used to be more extensive than the city of Washington, but that was a long time ago. Oct 15 at 13:06

1 Answer 1


Art. I Sec. 8 Cl. 17 states that "The Congress shall 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 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

which then happened in 1 Stat. 130 (1790). It is there referred to as "a district of territory" but more often simply as a "district".

Unlike territories, its existence for its actual purpose as seat of government is specifically enabled by the Constitution. Then via 2 Stat 103 (1801), DC was politically brought within the control of Congress, so that residents were no longer residents of Maryland or Virginia. In this act it is consistently termed a "district".

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    By contrast, the power to legislate in the territories comes from Art. IV Sec. 3. And instead of "exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever", the wording there is "make all needful rules and regulations". Aug 7 at 5:19
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    D.C., of course, also has electoral votes, even though it does not have Congressional representation, unlike all other U.S. territories.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 7 at 16:47
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    DC is deliberately not a state because back when Philadelphia was serving as the temporary national capital, the federal government had some conflicts with the Pennsylvania state government. Notably, the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783.
    – dan04
    Aug 7 at 18:32
  • No other US territory has congressional representation, either, unless you count non-voting delegates, in which case DC is also represented, along with Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands. Two Native American tribes, the Cherokee and the Choctaw, can also technically have one non-voting delegate each under treaties with the US government, but neither has ever sent one, AFAICT. None of those (except DC) has electoral votes. Aug 7 at 19:31
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    @NetworkLlama In 2019, the Cherokee Nation sent someone, and in 2021 the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians sent someone, neither of whom have been seated.
    – prosfilaes
    Aug 7 at 21:57

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