When the United States won its independence and began to form a federal government in the 1780s, it did not have a capital city. For more than a decade, Congress moved from city to city, meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ; Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey ; Annapolis, Maryland ; and New York City.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 provided that a tract of land be reserved for the seat of the federal government. Most of the nation's leaders believed that the federal government should be located in a new city, free from state and local pressures. In 1791 Congress authorized President George Washington (1732–1799; president 1789–97) to choose a site along the Potomac River in what was then part of the Maryland Colony. Halfway between Georgia and New Hampshire , the location served as a compromise between the northern and southern states. Washington selected a plot ten miles square on the peninsula formed by the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers. The necessary land was ceded by Maryland and Virginia.
Building the “Federal City”
Washington then employed a commission headed by French military engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754–1825) to draw up plans for the “Federal City.” L'Enfant endowed the capital with broad avenues radiating from public buildings, and monuments. Central to his scheme were Pennsylvania Avenue, connecting the Capitol and the president's house, and a 400-foot-wide avenue between the Capitol and a planned statue of Washington (roughly the site of the Washington Monument today). L'Enfant, though, was dismissed before completion of the work, and after he left, his plan wasn't followed very well. For several decades the city was a strange and much-ridiculed blend of large public buildings, broad dusty avenues, and vast empty fields. Still, construction had progressed far enough by June 1800 to allow the government—President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) and some 125 government officials—to move from its temporary seat in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.
The capital burns
The original capital buildings did not stand long. In 1814, at the height of the War of 1812 (1812–15; a war between the United States and Britain), the residents of Washington, D.C., received word that the British army was coming. At that time the capital had a population of about eight thousand. Still unfinished, it consisted of several public buildings scattered here and there.
On August 24, 1814, an army of about four thousand British soldiers broke down the meager U.S. defenses at nearby Bladensburg, Maryland. News of the lost battle, and rumors of British plans to burn the city, reached Washington, D.C., only hours before the British arrived. Crowds of fleeing women and children loaded down with baggage pressed onto the wooden bridge leading over the Potomac River and out of the city.
First lady saves documents
Dolley Madison (1768–1849), wife of President James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17), watched the panic-stricken flight from the president's residence. She was awaiting word from her husband, who was leading the defense at Bladensburg. She had already made certain that important documents—the Declaration of Independence , the Constitution, and treaties—were packed in coarse linen bags readied for flight. They were taken to a vacant stone house in Leesburg, Virginia , thirty-five miles outside Washington. Most of the Madisons' private property had to be sacrificed, but Dolley managed to save some national treasures, including George Washington's portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Fear finally got the better of her and she left the presidential household in a carriage loaded with public property.
That evening, the British invaders took possession of Washington. The British soldiers burned the president's residence along with the Capitol and Treasury buildings. Temporarily interrupted by a great storm, they renewed their activities the following morning. By noon they had reduced to ruins most of the government buildings as well as some private ones.
Americans learned with dismay that the national capital had been held by the enemy and burned. But when the war ended with an American victory a few months later, Dolley Madison led celebrations in the capital. President Madison decided to rebuild Washington, D.C. The original President's House had taken ten years to build. A newly built structure, the White House, would be finished in three years.
The construction of the Capitol building was not quite finished when the British burned it. Restoration of the building as we know it today, including its large dome, was completed in 1826.
The seat of democracy?
As a symbol of democracy, the city of Washington left something to be desired. The U.S. Constitution gave Congress power to govern over the District of Columbia. Its citizens could not vote for president and vice president or elect a representative to Congress because of the unusual way it came into being as a non-state.
In 1961 the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution granted Washingtonians the right to vote in presidential elections, but even in the early twenty-first century the nearly six-hundred thousand residents of Washington, D.C., still do not elect representatives to Congress.