On January 8, 1867, African American men gain the right to vote in the District of Columbia despite the veto of its most powerful resident, President Andrew Johnson. The Republican-controlled senate overrode Johnson by a vote of 29-10 three years before a constitutional amendment granted the right to vote to all men regardless of race.
At the time, citizens of D.C. voted for a local council, but had no representation in Congress and no say in presidential elections. Congress was the final authority on many matters for the District, including voting rights—to this day, the capital city’s budget is the only municipal budget in the country subject to congressional approval. At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s Republican Party dominated the legislature, which had been reduced in size and drained of Democrats due to the secession of Southern states. Johnson, however, was not a Republican but rather a Unionist Democrat whom Lincoln had chosen as his running mate during the Civil War in the hopes of appealing to Southern Unionists.
As evidenced by his veto, Johnson valued reconciliation with the former Confederacy over racial equality. He also opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which made freed slaves citizens. Johnson’s opposition to the Republicans’ views on Reconstruction would define his presidency and lead to his becoming the first president ever to be impeached. Though he was unable to stop Congress from granting voting rights to the African Americans of D.C., he spent much of his presidency vetoing the bills of the so-called Radical Reconstructionists.
African American men in D.C.—with some exceptions, including those on welfare—gained the right to vote three years before the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that right for all American men, regardless of race. As citizens of D.C., however, they did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1961. Today, the nation’s capital stands on equal footing with the states in the Electoral College, but its congressional representation remains limited to a single, non-voting member of the House of Representatives. Many official license plates in the district carry the phrase “Taxation without representation,” a nod to the irony that the capital of the United States has roughly the amount of influence in the legislative process as it did before the Revolutionary War.