Washington, D.C.

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The origins of Washington as the federal capital hark back to the events of 21 June 1783, when about three hundred soldiers, primarily of the Pennsylvania line, marched on the State House in Philadelphia (a venue shared by both the Confederation Congress and the Pennsylvania Assembly) demanding back pay. No blood was spilled, but the mutiny sparked the first public discussion of Congress's right to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over its meeting place. Between June 1783 and January 1785, Congress was "on wheels," meeting successively at Princeton, Annapolis, and finally New York. At Princeton, Congress passed a resolution creating two seats of government, one on the Delaware River near Trenton, the other on the Potomac River near Georgetown. But regional rivalries reasserted themselves, and the dual residence plan was soon abandoned.

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the delegates crafted a federal district ("ten miles square"), endowing the national government with exclusive jurisdiction in all matters within its boundaries and with "like authority … for the erection of … needful buildings." The actual site of the "ten miles square" was left up to the First Federal Congress. The subsequent contest in New York over the location of the federal seat culminated in a dinner-table bargain struck on 20 June 1790 between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. To secure northern support for the removal of the federal government to the Potomac, Jefferson and his Virginia ally James Madison, the most influential member of the First Congress, accepted Hamilton's proposal that the federal government assume the states' Revolutionary War debts. The Residence Act of 16 July 1790 confirmed the compromise, designating Philadelphia as the temporary seat until 1800. On 24 January 1791, President Washington, acting in accordance with the powers given to him by the Residence Act, announced the boundaries of the federal district. In early February, Andrew Ellicott and his free black assistant Benjamin Banneker began a preliminary survey of the district, which included Alexandria, Georgetown, and the yet-to-be-created national seat. On 24 March, after the government purchased the land from local proprietors, Washington announced the official boundaries of the federal city as covering "all the land from Rock Creek along the [Potomac] from the Eastern Branch" (today the Anacostia River) and "so upwards to or above the Ferry including a breadth of about a mile and a half, the whole containing from three to five thousand acres."

Although Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton are credited with the compromise of 1790, as Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay so aptly put it at the time, "It is the interest of the President of the United States, that pushes the Potowmack." Washington envisaged the Potomac seat as part of a larger plan for national development. He believed that in addition to being centrally located between north and south, the "proximity of the Potowmac … to the Western Waters" would also help to strengthen the ties—commercial, political, and cultural—between the original thirteen states and the growing number of emigrants to the Ohio Valley. During his presidency and into his retirement, Washington maintained a consuming interest in the federal city. In early 1791 he hired Peter L'Enfant to draw up the official plan of the seat of government (a plan covering six thousand acres). It was Washington, however, who, after consulting with Jefferson, chose the site of the Capitol, the Executive Mansion, and the executive department buildings. In keeping with his vision of the federal seat as a commercial center, L'Enfant included in his plan a Washington City Canal as the terminus of a projected all-water route to the west.

Washington appointed three commissioners to oversee the building of the federal district and city, which they named "Columbia" and "Washington." Unfortunately, the commissioners soon locked horns with L'Enfant—a circumstance that resulted in his departure in early 1792. Washington subsequently induced the commissioners to employ William Thornton to design the Capitol and James Hoban to design the Executive Mansion (or President's House, as it was then known), but construction progressed slowly. There were also constant money problems. Although Washington preferred to fund the public buildings through private means, several lackluster lotteries and an ill-fated speculative venture in city lots involving his Revolutionary War ally Robert Morris forced Washington to turn to Congress in 1796. By 1800 about $500,000 had been spent, not without criticism in and out of Congress.

In November 1800, when the federal government consummated its long awaited move to the Potomac, the City of Washington numbered a little over three thousand inhabitants, almost a quarter of whom were slaves and free blacks. Continuing construction on the Capitol forced senators and congressmen to share the north or senate wing; the Supreme Court took an upstairs room. Meanwhile, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, found that the Executive Mansion "had not a single apartment finished." Abigail, attributing the lack of energy and initiative at the federal seat to the institution of slavery, remarked, "Two of our hardy N. England men could do as much work as twelve southerners." Despite its shortcomings, the national city figured prominently in the presidential and congressional politics of 1800 to 1801: the Democratic Republicans accused John Adams and the Federalists of profligate spending on public buildings, including a proposal for spending $200,000 to build a mausoleum for the late President Washington.

Thomas Jefferson, the first president to reside in the federal city during the entire length of his term, pursued a more democratic style in etiquette and protocol, doing away with the levees introduced by Washington and continued by Adams during his short stay on the Potomac. Although a firm believer in smaller government, Jefferson resisted efforts in Congress to modify Washington's plans for the public buildings. In 1803 he convinced Congress to appropriate $50,000 to renovate the Capitol and the Executive Mansion and hired Benjamin Henry Latrobe as supervisor of public buildings. Latrobe completed the House wing of the Capitol, which opened for occupancy in 1807, and commenced work on the colonnades extending from the east and west sides of the Executive Mansion. In addition to building roads, Latrobe was employed in 1804 as chief engineer in the revived Washington City Canal project, which had lain dormant since 1792.

The federal city encountered a number of challenges during the Republican administrations of Jefferson and his successor, James Madison. Congress's exclusive jurisdiction over the district left the residents of the City of Washington with no right of self-government. Responding to local demands, in 1802 Congress gave Washingtonians a charter to establish a municipal corporation, although they were still denied suffrage in national elections and representation in Congress. Washingtonians did not dare protest too much, however. Citing lack of facilities, limited amenities, and poor climate, in 1804, 1808, and 1814 there were three separate resolutions in Congress to remove the national seat of government northward. The last was a response to the British invasion of Washington in August 1814, which resulted in the burning of the Capitol and the Executive Mansion and forced Madison to flee temporarily. Among those who opposed the move was Dolley Madison, who helped convince disgruntled congressmen to remain in Washington after the burning of the city.

The surge of national pride following the War of 1812 redounded on the City of Washington. The Capitol, reconstructed under the supervision of Latrobe and, after his departure, Charles Bulfinch, impressed even the most jaded foreign visitors. Continuing on with Washington's vision, Madison also hired Hoban to rebuild the Executive Mansion. Both the Executive Mansion and the Capitol opened for occupancy in 1817. Although reduced to living in temporary quarters, Dolley Madison continued to preside over Washington social life, offering a much needed distraction for government officials, many of whom passed lonely months away from their families in boardinghouses. Still, Monroe and his successor, John Quincy Adams, incurred criticism for behaving in a manner inconsistent with republican simplicity. Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party were swept into office in 1828, after a campaign that attacked Adams, a National Republican, for the purchase of a billiards table for the East Room of the Executive Mansion.

Yet when Jackson's delirious Democratic supporters converged on the President's House following his inauguration in March 1829, they found that the federal city was hardly the impenetrable wall of gold feared by anti-Federalists in the late 1780s. Money would flow into Washington in the form of revenues and flow back out to the states and territories via government programs. The stain of slavery in the national city no doubt discouraged private investment in the federal district. Although President Washington had hoped that growing trade would make it a magnet for northern white emigration, the fact that Washington tolerated emancipated slaves more than most southern cities made it a magnet for blacks. By the late 1820s the city's population of nearly nineteen thousand included over five thousand blacks, most of whom were freed slaves. Perhaps the abandoned Washington City Canal and the elegant Capitol best testify to the partially met dreams of the eponymous founder of the city. Many contemporaries would have agreed with the British actress Fanny Kemble that Washington was a "rambling, red brick image of futurity, where nothing is, but all things are to be" (p. 87).

See alsoSocial Life: Urban Life; War of 1812; Washington, Burning of; Washington, George; White House .


Adams, Abigail. The Letters of Mrs. Adams, the Wife of John Adams. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. Boston: Little and Brown, 1848.

Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1990.

Bowling, Kenneth R., and Helen E. Veit, eds. The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Green, Constance McLaughlin. Washington: Village and Capital, 1800–1878. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962.

Kemble, Fanny. The Terrific Kemble: A Victorian Self-Portrait from the Writings of Fanny Kemble. Edited by Eleanor Ransome. London: H. Hamilton, 1978.

Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. New York: Norton, 1987.

Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series. 11 vols. Edited by Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987–2002.

Young, James Sterling. The Washington Community, 1800–1828. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Rubil Morales-Vazquez