History of Washington DC

United States > US City Index > Washington DC > History

It should come as no surprise that Washington, America's foremost city of politics, owes its existence to political compromise.

Washington did not exist as either a city or a capital at the close of the American Revolution. The newly formed federal government endured a nomadic existence, setting up headquarters in eight locations, most notably New York City and Philadelphia. A weary Congress wanted a home of its own and voted in 1785 to create a permanent federal city. Divisions arose when the northern states wanted a northerly location, preferring a site along the Delaware River, and the southerners wanted the capital farther south, along the Potomac River. Eventually, they compromised. If the northern states agreed to establish the capital on the Potomac, the federal government would assume the war debts of the colonies. Thus, Washington was created.

To establish the new nation's capital, Virginia and Maryland donated land to create the District of Columbia. The site, at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, was selected by the first president, George Washington. The new federal city was close to his estate, Mount Vernon, on the Potomac, and near Georgetown, Maryland, an important tobacco market. The new federal enclave included Georgetown and another thriving community, Alexandria, Virginia.

L'Enfant's City

George Washington enlisted Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a French engineer who had served in the American Revolution, to create the capital. L'Enfant looked to Versailles for inspiration, and created a magnificent city with ceremonial circles and squares, wide boulevards and streets in a grid-like fashion. He also laid plans for the Mall. His efforts were not without controversy, however. Many early Washington families didn't want to give up land for such wide roads, and they raised fears about the federal government encompassing so much territory. Though L'Enfant's vision wasn't entirely realized, he left his mark on the city.

Before the end of the century, construction had begun on the White House and the U.S. Capitol, but, in 1800, Washington had just 3,000 inhabitants and was largely considered wilderness. The capital was temporarily abandoned in 1814, when the British invaded and ordered the burning of the city. Though the invasion had little impact on the War of 1812, it solidified Washington as the nation's capital in the eyes of many Americans. Afterward, the city grew slowly. Early visitors were impressed by its wide avenues, but noted the roads seemed to lead nowhere and were void of houses, public buildings and people. The Civil War and successive wars changed that; Washington flourished. Thousands of new residents flocked to the city, sparking building booms in all directions. During the decade after the Civil War, roads were paved, and, in the 1880s, streetcars began traversing city streets. By the turn of the century, the city's population had swollen to 300,000.

City of Monuments

Though construction of the Washington Monument begun in the mid-1800s, it wasn't until the 20th century that Washington truly emerged as a city of monuments and memorials. The Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial were built during the first decades of the new century. The Federal triangle, where thousands of government workers pass their days, also was created. The Pentagon 'the massive military office complex' was completed in 1943. In the last several years, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial were added to the Mall.

Throughout the latter 20th century, Washington has been the site of inspiration and turmoil. Who can forget Martin Luther King's stirring "I have a dream" speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Later in the decade came the massive protest demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, Watergate, the apartment-hotel-office complex, became a household name after the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters by aides to Republican President Richard M. Nixon, who eventually resigned in the wake of the scandal.

At the start of a new century, Washington remains one of the most visited and most beautiful cities in the world. Visitors come to see the monuments and memorials, and revel in the nation's history. It's more than a city of government and politics; it's a city of distinctive, historical neighborhoods. It's an ever-changing, modern city and capital.