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Washington DC History

Updated: May 30, 2019


Washington, D.C., is a city borne of politics, by politics, and for politics. It wasn't the first national capital: Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Annapolis, Trenton, Philadelphia, and even New York City all hosted the national government. However, it was clear that the nation's capital would need to be independent from the then-powerful state governments and that the southern states would refuse to accept a capital in the north. On July 16, 1790, Congress passed The Residence Act, which established that the capital of the U.S. will be located along the Potomac River. On January 24, 1791, President Washington announced the specific location of the new federal city just north of his 70,000-acre estate. A diamond-shaped federal district was carved out of land from the states of Maryland and Virginia and the federal government purchased large swaths of mostly-undeveloped land from its owners. The existing municipalities of Georgetown and Alexandria remained independent cities within the newly created District of Columbia.

The French-born architect Pierre L'Enfant was hired to plan the city layout. L'Enfant's plan, modeled after some of the leading cities in Europe, envisioned large parks and wide streets, including a grand boulevard connecting the "President's House" to the Capitol Building, with a huge waterfall cascading down Capitol Hill. However, L'Enfant was eccentric and fought bitterly with President Washington and the commissioners appointed to supervise the capital's construction. At the urging of Thomas Jefferson, L'Enfant resigned from his post and never received payment for his work.

Issues with financing and a lack of skilled craftsmen slowed the construction of the city. The commissioners ultimately relied on African slaves lent from nearby plantations to complete construction. The federal government finally moved to the new capital in 1800, which by then had been named Washington, in honor of its founder (though Washington still preferred to call it the "Federal City").

During the War of 1812, British forces burned the Capitol Building, Treasury, and White House, although they were all rebuilt shortly thereafter. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built in 1831 to bypass the treacherous rapids of the Potomac River and move goods from the western territories along the Ohio River all the way to Georgetown, where they could then be loaded onto ships. However, the canal was unable to compete with the more efficient Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which was completed around the same time as the canal.

Alexandria suffered from economic stagnation, since the government's plans favored the port at Georgetown and all government buildings were, by law, built on the formerly-Maryland side of the Potomac River. The economic stagnation, combined with rumors that Congress would ban slavery in the capital city, led the citizens of Alexandria to petition Congress to return the land south of the Potomac River to Virginia. Congress voted to do so and, after a referdum of the citizens of Alexandria, approval by President James K. Polk, and a vote by the Virginia General Assembly, the "retrocession", which spoiled the city's fine diamond shape, was effected, leaving only the land originally donated by Maryland under federal control.

Washington D.C.'s compromise location on the border of North and South proved precarious during the Civil War. Surrounded by Confederate Virginia and southern sympathizers in Maryland, President Lincoln established a network of forts surrounding the capital. As the center of war operations for the Union, government workers, soldiers, and runaway slaves flooded into the city. Despite the city's growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation.

The District of Columbia Act of 1871 created a new territorial government. Georgetown and Washington were formally combined. In 1873, President Grant appointed Alexander Robey Shepherd as governor, charged with modernizing the capital. Sewers and gas lines were installed, streets were paved, and the town was transformed into a modern metropolis. However, the modernization initiative wound up costing 3 times the original estimate, possibly in part due to cronyism, and in 1874, the city filed for bankruptcy protection. Congress replaced the territorial government with a 3-member board of commissioners that it appointed.

By the early 1900s, the grand national capital had become marred by slums and randomly placed buildings, including a railroad station on the National Mall that created so much noise, it disrupted sessions of Congress. In 1901, Congress created the McMillan Commission, a team of architects and planners charged with developing the city generally in accordance with L'Enfant's grand plan. The commission re-landscaped the Capitol Building grounds, straightened the National Mall by reclaiming land from the Potomac River, eliminated the slums and alleys surrounding the Capitol Building and the National Mall, established a city-wide park system, and paved the framework for the monuments. The northern border of the city was pushed beyond Boundary Street (now Florida Ave) and the streetcar lines were extended, spurring the development of the neighborhoods of Bloomingdale, Eckington, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights. The New Deal spending of the 1930s under president Franklin Delano Roosevelt created many more federal agencies and led to the construction of even more federal buildings, including the Pentagon. With the start of World War II, government spending in Washington increased, a trend that has continued over the decades.

In 1957, Washington became the first city to have a majority African-American population and the population of the city exceeded 800,000. The March on Washington and the I Have A Dream speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 were major events in the civil rights movement. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, riots broke out at the intersection of 14th St and U St and 1,200 buildings were badly damaged or destroyed. Many businesses were forced to permanently close and thousands of jobs were permanently lost.

The influx of crack cocaine marred the District in the 1970s and 1980s. Government services and the public school system went into disrepair. The expanding suburbs, with excellent schools and lower crime and tax rates, became more desirable places to live by many. The population of the District fell below 600,000, shrinking the tax base. The arrest of Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges in 1990 also hurt the city's reputation. In 1991, D.C. led the country in homicides and many of the buildings destroyed in the 1968 riots still remained in rubble. Several government agencies, including the Patent and Trade Office, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), moved their offices to the suburbs.

A wave of change began in the late 1990s. The construction of the Capital One Arena and the nearby Metrorail station in 1997 led people to return to the East End for the first time in years. Further revitalization efforts in the late 1990s, supported by President Clinton and Mayor Anthony Williams, led to D.C. becoming one of the fastest improving cities in the U.S. and the population once again began to climb.

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