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Assassins are remembered forever, but gadflies—even those that effect change—are soon forgotten. A hundred years ago, political provocateur Hallet Kilbourn made headlines. Today, only a scant record of his civic contributions remains, namely an 1897 collection of his writings, Hallet Kilbourn on Congress and the District of Columbia. Yet Kilbourn’s ruminations on the Hill/District relationship and the viability of municipal government are as pertinent now as they ever were.
Kilbourn became an important local player after the Civil War. He was a founding member of the Union Club, a real estate developer, the president of the Evening Critic newspaper, and a partner in the law firm Kilbourn & Latta. In 1876, Congress held Kilbourn in contempt and threw him in the District jail when he refused to testify before a House committee. He languished in durance vile for 45 days until Congress adjourned and he obtained a writ of habeas corpus. Six years later, the Supreme Court awarded the curmudgeon $450,000 in damages and established an important precedent limiting the power of a congressional subpoena. (Kilbourn also opposed the local tax system because it forced a disproportionate levy on District residents for local federal projects. He and his allies took their case to the Supreme Court and won in 1894.)
The late 19th century was a great time to be a gadfly in the District: Local government fluxed from an elected mayor system in 1871 to a territorial government (notably under Alexander “Boss” Shepherd) to a presidentially appointed commissioner form of government in 1874. As the District sampled everything short of dictatorship, Kilbourn provided noisy advice.
Presaging the views of 1990s Republicans, Kilbourn demanded an end to home rule in a long piece he wrote for the Washington Chronicle in 1868. Maintaining that the city had been torn apart by the warring jurisdictions of Congress, Washington, Georgetown, and the courts, Kilbourn argued on behalf of “business leaders and property owners” that Washington had “more law and less government than any community in America” and that it was time for Congress to reclaim the city and “regenerate the nation’s capital from the slough of local partisan cliques.”
“The fact that Congress ever delegated to the people of the District power of local legislation is to be regretted; for had Congress exercised exclusive legislation and appointed a board of Commissioners to administer the legislation enacted by Congress, the condition of the Nation’s Capital would be far different than it is now,” he wrote. As for the issue of congressional representation, Kilbourn stated that “the citizens of the District of Columbia have no political status, no voice in the affairs of the nation; they locate here with that full knowledge and understanding.”
After the feds seized control of D.C. from municipal officials, Kilbourn transformed himself from the city’s greatest critic to its biggest booster. One Kilbourn essay, published in the late 1890s and excerpted below, gushes about the new, improved Washington. Praising every facet of the city—its parks, its roads, its schools, and even its cuisine—Kilbourn paid tribute to the federal control he had long advocated.
In 1974, home rule curtailed that federal control a century after it was established. Today, given Washington’s downward fiscal spiral, its unequaled tax burden, pathetic schools, dilapidated housing projects, crumbling infrastructure, and the predilection of its children to shoot each other, as well as its elected officials’ apparent inability to face these facts, Kilbourn’s vision of a congressionally controlled city has a renewed—if largely unspoken—appeal to many property owners, business leaders, and other District residents.
A Few Brief Pen SketchesIllustrating Some of the Attractionsof the Nation’s Seat of GovernmentBy Hallet Kilbourn
The District of Columbia and Washington City have become the pride of the nation.
Washington is the most cosmopolitan city in the country.
It has 300,000 population, and is rapidly moving onward.
It has the best paved broad avenues and streets of any city in the land.
It is the most attractive city for residents, sojourners, and visitors on the continent.
The majority of its population are of the most intelligent people in the Union.
It is rapidly becoming the national center of education, science, art, and literature, as it is already the political and social center of the United States.
It is also rapidly becoming the residence of people of wealth, refinement, and culture from all parts of the country.
Its universities, colleges, academies, public schools, seminaries, and other institutions of education and useful instruction are among the foremost in the land.
It is one of the healthiest localities in the country and, with the completion of the Potomac river front improvements, will be the model sanitary city in the land.
It presents the best inducements for investments in property, as its prosperity, growth, and grandeur are assured by the entire nation.
The continued development of the vast resources throughout the Republic increases the business of the General Government to be transacted at the National Capital; the progress of the country at large thus insures the continued prosperity of its national seat of Government.
No other city in the land has so substantial a guarantee for its future; and while the national Government exists, Washington and the District will advance with the growth and development of the Republic.
Every new quarter-section of land settled upon, every new mine discovered and operated, every new manufactory established, every new emigrant who lands on our shores, every ship that enters our ports, every new business enterprise started, every extension of railroad traffic, every increase of population, every invention and development of new resources and industries, in short, everything that pertains to the greatness and advancement of the nation increases the Government’s business at Washington, and while other cities throughout the country have important special avenues of trade, commerce, and general business, the whole country pays tribute to the progress and prosperity of its Nation’s Capital.
The government of Washington and the District of Columbia is entirely national in its character, being under the exclusive control of the Congress of the United States as trustee for the people of the entire nation.
The District of Columbia is the only neutral District in the Union; its government is alike to the people of the whole country, regardless of sections, creeds, politics, religion, and the peculiarities and isms which to a more or less extent sometimes shape the sentiment of other localities.
Citizens from all sections of the country can assemble here without exciting local jealousies, as the government of the District is the common heritage of the 70,000,000 people of the United States.
The resident population of the District comprises citizens from all sections of the country.
It is rapidly becoming the favorite place for holding conventions, anniversaries, and public gatherings of the various societies and organizations throughout the land.
The Departments, Institutions Asylums, Courts, Bureaus, Museums, Commissions, Offices, and Boards of the General Government established here are being constantly increased in consequence of the rapid growth of national business resulting from the wonderful progress and development of the Republic.
It is the headquarters of the Army and Navy, and the domicile of a great many of the officers and their families.
Its broad smooth thoroughfares present the most attractive line of march for military and civic processions, and it is the paradise for bicycles.
Washington is the bower of paradise for the enjoyment of bridal couples. The coming race may be impressed with the greatness of the Republic which is so well exemplified in the grandeur of its National Capital.
Washington has the fattest terrapin, the finest flavored ducks, the choicest savory crabs, the most succulent oysters, and the greatest variety of fish and game which Chesapeake Bay in its tributaries can furnish to gratify the appetite of man, woman, and child.