Washington, D.C.: History

George Washington Chooses Capital's Site

When the U.S. Congress sought a new capital for the young United States in the late eighteenth century, it chose an obscure piece of undeveloped swampland on the Potomac River. This unlikely location was a compromise. Southern politicians resisted placement of the capital too far north in New York or New England. For all representatives—northern and southern alike—Philadelphia, the capital in 1783, was deemed too close to potentially volatile constituents, especially one band of angry soldiers who had disrupted a Congressional session earlier that year to demand back pay. Determining the new capital's exact location was left to President George Washington, who had known the area since boyhood. The diamond-shaped district he carved out included parts of Maryland and Virginia. President Washington modestly referred to the city that came to bear his name as the Federal City.

Early Days of Future Capital

In 1571 Pedro Menendez, a Spanish admiral who founded St. Augustine and was governor of Spain's Florida territories, was the first European to explore the future capital region. The area became a trading center for British settlers who dealt with regional Native American tribes. The Potomac River, one of the few native place names to survive colonialization, means "trading place" in the Algonquin language. Later, white landowners in the region made huge profits growing tobacco.

When the area was selected as the new capital site in 1790, Congress had almost no money to spend on its future home. Virginia and Maryland contributed small sums to erect public buildings, but President Washington was left to try to barter with the tobacco-growing landowners in the area for property. Meanwhile, the task of creating the look of a capital city worthy of the new nation fell to Pierre L'Enfant, a French architect and engineer also selected by President Washington, who eventually persuaded tobacco planters to sell their land cheaply. At the time, L'Enfant's vision of boulevards 400 feet wide and a mile long lined by great buildings seemed like a waste of real estate to the property owners. Nonetheless, the first temporary buildings of the new capital were ready in 1800 and in May of that year the government left Philadelphia. One year later, Thomas Jefferson was the first U.S. president to be inaugurated in Washington. But L'Enfant's vision of what Washington should be remained for decades just a vision. Today's grand Pennsylvania Avenue was an unpaved road from the U.S. Capitol to the White House and a muddy path on the other side of the White House during the first half of the nineteenth century. Americans and foreign diplomats assigned to the city dreaded its dull cultural life and oppressive summers. Few houses and plenty of open space separated official buildings.

Wars Impact on the City

The War of 1812 made life in Washington even more unpleasant, as British forces stormed the city in 1814, burning the President's House—later rebuilt, painted white, and forever after known as the White House—as well as the partially completed U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings. By the 1860s Washington's population had grown to 75,000 people. As the geographic border between the North and South, the District of Columbia acutely felt the mounting tension between factions at the approach of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration was completed under a heavily armed phalanx of soldiers ready to repel an attack by the South. Washington was the headquarters for Northern troops during the four-year war, and several times during the bloody conflict Confederate troops nearly took the capital, defeated only by bad luck or faulty military intelligence.

Government Buildings Proliferate

Gradually, Washington architects filled in the blanks left by L'Enfant. The Mall—a vast tree-lined park stretching out from the U.S. Capitol—sprouted other government buildings and the Smithsonian museums. Tributes to some of the nation's great men were built: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. The population of the city jumped during World War I as the civil service rapidly expanded, and again during the Great Depression of the 1930s when working for the government was the most secure kind of employment. Many of the current government buildings date from the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration erected offices for the Internal Revenue, Commerce, and other federal departments.

Washington during the 1960s reflected the social upheaval and turbulence experienced throughout the nation. The 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" showed America at its best and most righteous. It was there that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his inspirational "I have a dream" speech to 200,000 citizens. But when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, violent riots rocked the capital. Recovering from the damage during the last half of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the capital enjoyed an economic rebirth with major commercial projects downtown and in some neighborhoods.

Behind the glitter and glamour attendant upon conducting one of the world's most powerful governments, though, lies a district plagued by many problems. Washington, D.C. suffered from virtual insolvency in the 1990s, a crumbling infrastructure, and significant population loss. Since 1995 Washington, D.C. has operated under a federal control board to control spending. The board stripped the local school board of most of its powers and eliminated thousands of jobs. Anthony Williams, who was appointed the city's first independent chief financial officer, managed to reverse years of fiscal mismanagement and turned a runaway budget deficit into a steadily growing surplus. He also hired highly qualified people and held them accountable and streamlined the agencies under his control. In 1999 Williams was elected mayor; by that time Washington, D.C. had come a long way toward reversing its decline. Williams continued to place emphasis on the city's economy, housing, health care, education, and public safety. Citizens came together in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacked that rocked the country and especially Washington, D.C. and New York City. In 2004 Washington, D.C. was selected as the second best city to live in for African Americans by Black Enterprise magazine.

Historical Information: Historical Society of Washington, D.C., City Museum of Washington, D.C., 801 K Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001; telephone (202)383-1850