Two decades ago, like many journalism majors, I went to a conference in our nation’s capital. A fellow student and I decided to ditch the conference and walk the Mall of Washington before grabbing a cab back to our hotel. I remember wondering about how a district could also be a nation’s capital and how a capitol only exists inside of a capital. Maybe this was just amusing wordplay between two young college students, but I learned later that the answers can be found in the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871. The Organic Act of 1871 is an Act of Congress that repealed the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown to establish a new territorial government called the District of Columbia. Though Congress repealed the territorial government in 1874, the legislation was the first to create a single municipal government for the federal district. Seems pretty useless, right? Which begs a reconsideration of why it existed at all.
Let’s take a step back.
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. The territory within the federal district east of the Potomac formed the new County of Washington, which was governed by a levy court consisting of seven to eleven Justices of the Peace appointed by the president and governed by Maryland law as of 1801. The area west of the river became Alexandria County which was governed by Virginia law. In addition, Congress allowed the cities of Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown to each maintain their own municipal governments. In 1846, Alexandria County was returned by Congress to the state of Virginia.
With me so far? This might seem interesting to real estate agents but not to the majority of us. It feels too long ago, too technical, to be relevant. Which it was, I admit, for another half-century.
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 emancipated slaves. By 1870, the District’s population had grown 75% to nearly 132,000 residents. Growth was even more dramatic within the County of Washington, where the population more than doubled as people escaped the crowded city. An exploding population began to raise questions about jurisdiction, taxes, and partitioning to say nothing of health and hygiene. Put simply, 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 such proposals. Grant, a former general, refused to retreat or cede the land he already held.
At the end of the Civil War, Congress reconvened and passed what was called the United States Reorganization Act of 1871, also known as the Act to provide a municipal government for the District of Columbia. However, this government was different; it was structured as a foreign-owned corporation and called the United States. It even adopted the Republic’s constitution but changed only one word. They changed the word Constitution for the United States, to the Constitution of the United States. Most Americans didn’t even notice because life continued along without much change. Most historians are not even aware of this change, noting the Reorganization Act of 1871 as a technical real estate transaction with no real importance.
The Act, mind you, is the basis of several claims held by the Sovereign Citizen movement. According to this movement, the Act made the District – and consequently the whole United States – into a business corporation. These claims stem from the term “municipal corporation” used in the Act. There are many kinds of corporations; a corporation is any group authorized to legally act as a single entity; in this case, an incorporated, organized district of the United States. Again, when historians notice this at all, it is viewed as the process of “legalese” for a mundane, technical real estate transaction. Nothing to see here. Most U.S. cities and counties are municipal corporations. However, this interpretation – that of the Sovereign Citizens and other theorists – was later used by QAnon supporters to falsely claim that former president Donald Trump would be sworn in as the 19th president of the “original United States” on March 4, 2021. This date corresponds to the original presidential inauguration date because they claimed the Twentieth Amendment was invalid, as it was not passed by the original United States.
Still tracking? To better situate these events, we need to shift our attention to a series of concurrent events.
The adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution extended civil and legal protections to former slaves and prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Forces in some states were at work, however, to deny black citizens their legal rights. Members of the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries, for example. In response, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 (also known as the Force Acts) to end such violence and empower the president to use military force to protect African Americans. In its first effort to counteract such use of violence and intimidation, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of May 1870, which prohibited groups of people from banding together “or to go in disguise upon the public highways, or upon the premises of another” with the intention of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. This legislation did not diminish the harassment of black voters and in hindsight, one might question why the Force Acts were passed if there was no supplementary measure put in place to enforce them.
In December 1870, Senator Oliver H.P.T. Morton, an Indiana Republican, introduced a resolution requesting the president to communicate any information he had about certain incidents of threatened resistance to the execution of the laws of the United States. After the Senate adopted Morton’s resolution, President Ulysses S. Grant submitted several War Department reports relating to events in several southern states. These reports were referred to the Select Committee of the Senate to Investigate the Alleged Outrages in the Southern States, chaired by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. In the next Congress, the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States broadened that mandate.
While these committees were investigating southern attempts to impede Reconstruction, the Senate passed two more Force Acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan acts, designed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Second Force Act, which became law in February 1871, placed the administration of national elections under the control of the federal government and empowered federal judges and United States marshals to supervise local polling places. The Third Force Act, dated April 1871, empowered the president to use the armed forces to combat those who conspired to deny equal protection of the laws and to suspend habeas corpus, if necessary, to enforce the act. While the Force Acts and the publicity generated by the joint committee temporarily helped put an end to the violence and intimidation, the end of formal Reconstruction in 1877 allowed for a return of large-scale disenfranchisement of African Americans.
So what does all of this mean and how does it connect with the core question Hawley is putting forward? Are readers of his novel supposed to be inspired by two jail mates and follow their example to collect cash from a government that has been profiting off of their existence without their knowledge? Is QANON correct in their assertion that there are two Americas – the real one the Founders intended, and a fake one created on paper and perpetuated by collective suggestion? And the Force Acts, what connection do they have to any of this? Without a narrative thread, these events seem to be entirely disconnected. Random events which, while debatably important, have no meaningful connection.
Hawley continues to thread these ideas together in a semi-coherent way in his novel.
“Just like that, Uncle Sam replaces common law and subjects all free-born men of the goddamn American experiment to commercial law… Cut to 1933. America decides – out of the fucking blue – to go off the gold standard. Right? Before that every US greenback was guaranteed by a certain weight of precious metal. But then these bankers decide to end all that. Why? And also, if we don’t have gold backing our currency anymore, then what the fuck is? See what I’m saying? Otherwise, that shit’s just a piece of paper. And what else do we know about 1933? It’s the middle of the goddamn Depression, right? The United States of America is going fuckign bankrupt. They need money – fast. And how do they get it? They sell us out.”
“You, me, everybody. See, Uncle Same goes off the gold standard because he realizes he’s got something more valuable than fold. People. So he goes out to all these foreign bigwigs – Jews, bankers, et cetera – and he says You’re gonna give me a loan. And in return, I’m gonna sign over to you the future earnings of my citizens – which, whaddya know, that’s us. You know what collateral is?”
Avon nods. He says, “Like how when I refinanced my house to put on a new roof, they made me put up my car. It’s like a guarantee.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely. Except not the collateral is us. You, me, everybody. You follow?”Noah Hawley, Anthem (2023)
The discussion here is not history. It is not a history of how capitols are placed in capitals with tiny word changes in the routine legislature in a foundling country. It is also not the transactional exchanges required to walk into a federally-insured bank and demand money owed to you by the American government. Rather, the connecting thread is the way that Hawley is pointing to an unsettling but cohesive idea: if you’re not able to identify the product, you are the product.
America began as an idea. For the last seven years, I have begun my American Literature courses with a simple question: When did America begin? Some students point to Plymouth Rock. Others to the Revolutionary War. Another to the signing of the Constitution. Another to the Reformation, when ideas were percolating. My students tend to congregate around this idea, congratulating one another that yeah, yeah, America is an idea.
America has never been about who stepped on to which boat first.
America is not about a specific law or series of laws. Protestors and religionists might claim this, but no government operates by law alone.
America is also not about a divine mandate, since tracing which god said what to whom is an exercise in cultural understanding that late teenagers simply don’t possess.
So instead they agree that America is an idea because it is the least committal option. Ideas are transitory and ephemeral. Ideas have no origin and require no memorization of important names and dates. Ideas do not require laws or knowledge of laws. Ideas don’t even require a diety or geography or text or critical thinking, even engagement. As an idea, “America”, my students so eagerly proffer, resides in all humans and always has.
You might imagine me hearing this, semester after semester, grimacing in pain. The consistency with which a class of teenagers arrives at this conclusion pains me. America has no borders, no beliefs, no laws, no names and dates, it just is. America is all of us – them too! – and always has been. So if you don’t like it, you can leave it. That’s what makes it America. What so few of them seem to understand is that ideas, when they become powerful enough to compel people to action, have a way of taking on corporeal form. That’s what the Revolutionary War was about – an idea was embodied and began to brush up against other bodies. So the idea now has a body.
Bodies don’t simply exist, though. Bodies take on names and locations. I am Randall, and I live in Louisiana. I have a social security number, a tax id number, and an insurance policy. My body has become real not because having a body is an idea but because the body is not tangible and must become so. The body is not real – not really real – until I become legislated, until my identity and existence can be proven by papers of ownership.
I’m a “real” person because I exist, because people recognize this existence, but even then I’m not unique. This is why my body is distinct and distinguished, why my body is “real” – because I don’t just exist, but I also exist on paper.
But now that I’m real, so what? America is an idea. Right? That idea becomes embodied in the hearts and minds and actions of individuals. Those individuals come together. They fight against a competing idea (tyranny, Britain, the idea of a king, restrictions on women’s rights) and for another idea (freedom, individual sovereignty, proximity to God, abortion). This is the idea made flesh, so to speak. To achieve godhood, I must now take on the form of Word. I must become like Jesus and take on flesh. I must be the flesh made Word as much as the Word made flesh. I must become real by words and deeds and actions.
Yes, this is already quite the contortion, a philosophical exercise requiring gymnastic ability. Yes, this sounds like the late-night rambling of someone who should have already gone to bed. Bear with me a little longer. I’ve had to move and bend in ways that some might feel is unnatural but ways that others may feel are self-evident. I think (and of course, I am biased in my own interpretation of things so please fact-check me here) is a testament to the truth of these claims, but now that I’m all contorted, I might require some assistance when I injure myself.
Myths endure because they are simple. Real life is far more complex. This is what we teach our children, at least. Real life resides in a liminal space. Real life is not always black and white, but various shades and hues of grey. Think about all of the things I have presented here.
- The Constitution endorses slavery and forcible migration. Indeed, moving the dial of our time machine forward, what was the Trail of Tears if not a migration?
- The nation recognizes slavery is a moral failure and attempts to correct this by outlawing slavery, while leaving the door open for Forced Labor if anyone makes a mistake.
- The nation explicitly names all residents of this nation as property of the nation. Slavery can’t exist if we’re all in the same dilemma. But hey, let’s not examine who is holding the reins and whips, okay?
- The nation recognizes gold is only as good as the dollar backing it and cuts out the middleman. No more Gold Standard. A dollar is worth a dollar… whatever that means.
- The nation recognizes that humans are laborers on a plantation and names itself as the plantation. All laborers are subject to the law of the plantation. And again, let’s not think too hard about who is holding those reins and whips.
Before we get lost to adjacent, complementary ideas or competing rebuttals, before we become consumed with provocative questions about where I’m going and what I intend to say, let me instead point out one last thing: as anyone in media studies, advertising, sales, marketing, public relations, and psychology can readily identify and explain, when we are not able to locate the tangible product being sold, we are the product.
In 1973, artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman broadcast a short video titled “Television Delivers People”. An anodyne soundtrack played while sentences in white text on a blue background slowly scrolled upward. The text read as follows:
Commercial television delivers 20 million people a minute.
In commercial broadcasting the viewer pays for the privilege of having himself sold.
It is the consumer who is consumed.
You are the product of t.v.
You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer.
He consumes you.
The viewer is not responsible for programming——
You are the end product.Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, “Television Delivers People” (1973)
The author Claire Wolfe wrote an article with a 1999 copyright date titled “Little Brother Is Watching You: The Menace of Corporate America” which discussed electronic markets for personal data, biometric systems, black box recorders in cars, and other technologies used to track people. The central thesis of Wolfe’s essay was thematically pertinent:
Perhaps because you’re not the customer any more. You’re simply a “resource” to be managed for profit. The customer is someone else now — and usually someone without your best interests at heart… Who is the customer? Not you, whose life is reduced to someone else’s salable, searchable, investigatable data. The customer is everyone who wishes to own a piece of your life.Claire Wolfe, “Little Brother is Watching You: The Menace of Corporate America” (1999)
Said another way, if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. As documentarian Jeff Orlowski put it in his 2020 film, The Social Dilemma, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
So rather than get lost down a conspiratorial rabbit hole or debating the interpretation of law and established precedent, rather than debate the merits of social media or a dozen other examples of the American government enslaving and selling humans without their knowledge and consent, let me instead ask if this is where capitalism has led us.
I’m not interested in blaming the Jews. Or rehashing who and who is not a slave, what a historical figure like Jefferson may have meant when penning the Constitutional rhetoric of freedom even as he remained a slaveholder. I’m not interested in supporting QANON’s circus mirror interpretation of events or hiding in one of the rabbit holes on Reddit. These are legitimate questions if we accept the premises, of course. But I’m not sure that I do. Rather, my focus is on the ways in which these ideas are embodied. Ideas are not abstract concepts, loose non-existent things to which humans continually refer. Ideas should not be quarantined to the realm of the metaphysical, as though ideas have no relevance because they are subjective and relative. America is many things, but it is not simply an idea. Claiming America is an idea is a tragic failure of imagination and evidence that the claimant is not paying attention.
I see this in my classrooms as well. Along with ignorance, I see a high level of detachment. Ideas are subjective. Worldviews are too. And what one person believes can be shrugged off. Another person’s ideas are their own, so what do they have to do with me? Ideas aren’t real, are not tangible, and – as ideas – are not embodied. People are allowed to think, feel, and believe whatever they want so it’s none of my business.
This shows a failure to recognize the means by which Americans are exploited. As long as “America” remains an idea, it cannot be touched and cannot touch us. “America” is not a place or a people, it is an idea so… you know… whatever. But as the last few years have shown us, ideas and beliefs and politics and worldviews are embodied. This is what makes them matter. They always have a practical, tangible, physical, embodied expression.
Continued in part III