Washington DC has a long and storied history as the Capital of the United States. From its inception in the late 1700s, to the present day, Washington DC has been an important symbol for the nation. Find out why this historic city became the Nation's Political Hub with a look at its past.
The Creation of Washington
Washington was established as the capital of the United States as the result of a compromise following seven years of negotiation by members of the U.S. Congress as they tried to define the concept of a “federal enclave.” On July 17, 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which created a permanent seat for the federal government. George Washington, the country's first president (1789–97), carefully chose the site, which is on the Potomac River's navigation head (to accommodate oceangoing ships), and near two well-established colonial port cities, George Town (now Georgetown, a section of the city of Washington) and Alexandria, Va. This location bridged the Northern and Southern states, but Washington called it “the gateway to the interior” because he hoped it would also serve to economically bind the Western territories to the Eastern Seaboard—the Tidewater and the Piedmont regions—and thereby secure the allegiance of the frontier to the new country.
The new federal territory was named District of Columbia to honour explorer Christopher Columbus, and the new federal city was named for George Washington. In 1790 French-born American engineer and designer Pierre Charles L'Enfant was chosen to plan the new capital city; meanwhile, surveyor Andrew Ellicott surveyed the 100-square-mile (260-square-km) territory with the assistance of Benjamin Banneker, a self-educated free Black man. The territory surveyed by Ellicott was ceded by Maryland, a slave state, and Virginia, the Southern state with the largest slave population, thus contributing to a significant Black presence in Washington.
Construction of the Capitol building, the presidential palace (now the White House), and several other government buildings was almost complete when Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington in December 1800. There were, however, few finished dwellings and even fewer amenities in Washington at the time, making the first several years rather unpleasant for the new residents. In 1812 the United States declared war against Great Britain (see War of 1812), and two years later the British invaded the vulnerable capital city, setting fire to federal buildings. Structural damage was extensive, and the morale of the local citizens sank. By 1817, however, a newly reconstructed White House welcomed Pres. James Monroe (served 1817–25), and Congress reconvened in the newly built Capitol in 1819, after having spent five years in the temporary Old Brick Capitol Building, which had been erected on the site of the present-day Supreme Court Building.
Growth and Change
Between 1830 and 1865 tremendous changes occurred in Washington, beginning with the arrival of Pres. Andrew Jackson (served 1829–37), who brought with him a retinue of new civil servants—beneficiaries of the “spoils system” who introduced democratizing social changes to the workplace and the community. Challenges were plentiful: the local economy was unstable; silt in the Potomac River restricted navigation; the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was delayed; and epidemics were common. When railroads reached the city in the 1830s, a flood of tourists came with them, as did a proliferation of congressional spouses, who forever changed Washington's social scene. Major construction projects for three federal buildings located just blocks apart in Downtown Washington (the Department of the Treasury, the General Post Office, and the Patent Office [the last is now part of the Smithsonian Institution]) also began in the 1830s.
During the American Civil War, the city was never far from the front lines, if only because Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, was so close. Following the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre just days after the war's end, Washington was plunged into a state of unprecedented desperation and despair.
In the years following the Civil War, the capital was slowly transformed into a showplace. Two factors contributed to this change. First, in 1871 self-government was granted for the first time to Washingtonians. Under the new territorial government, which lasted just three years, numerous city improvement projects were undertaken: modern schools and markets were erected, streets were paved, outdoor lighting was installed, sewers were built, and more than 50,000 trees were planted. The price for these improvements, however, was far more than Congress had anticipated. The new territorial government was short-lived, but Congress was required to complete the projects. Second, beginning in the 1880s, a number of newcomers arrived in Washington from across the country. Many of them were affluent intellectuals and lobbyists. This new “elite” made Washington their part-time home during the winter social season. Members of the old Washington society became known as “Cave Dwellers,” a local term for descendants of the original families of the area. They generally still keep within their own social circles.
Washington's character improved significantly with the completion of the Washington Monument in 1884, the Library of Congress in 1897, and, beginning in the late 1890s, the proliferation of social organizations, private clubs, and formal societies for the arts. In 1901 the Senate Park Commission (also known as the McMillan Commission) offered comprehensive and resolute recommendations for revitalizing and beautifying Washington, advocating that no undertaking “be allowed to invade, to mutilate, or to mar the symmetry, simplicity, and dignity of the capital city.” The new plans were stunning, but years would pass before any of them could be realized.