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How Washington, DC, Actually Became The Capital Of The United States

If you've seen Hamilton, you might be familiar with the song "The Room Where It Happens." That tune gives a comprehensive summary of how America's national capital found its home along the Potomac River. Informative as the song is, there's so much more to the story. 

Exactly how Washington, DC, became the capital of the United States is a tale that spans decades. It's a bit of a roller coaster really, full of ups, downs, and even a few loop-the-loops. The history of Washington, DC, is necessarily tied up in politics, but there are a lot of considerations that went into the "whys" and "whats" of the city and the district that came to be.

From how it got its name through the building (and rebuilding) of its familiar landmarks and deep into questions about statehood, here's a breakdown of how Washington, DC, came to be the US's national capital.  

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  • Eight Different Cities Were Called 'The Capital' Before Washington, DC
    Photo: Ramon de Elorriaga / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Eight Different Cities Were Called 'The Capital' Before Washington, DC

    When representatives from the 13 colonies met as the First Continental Congress in 1774, they gathered in Philadelphia, PA. The Second Continental Congress also convened in Philadelphia in 1775 and, over the subsequent six years, met in Baltimore, MD; Lancaster, PA; and again in Philadelphia. 

    In 1781, as the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, the newly formed Congress took up residence in Philadelphia. By 1788, Congress had met in Princeton, NJ; Annapolis, MD; Trenton, NJ; and New York, NY.

    It was their last location, New York City, that ultimately became the first official capital of the United States in 1785. The First Federal Congress met at City Hall in New York City in 1789, and City Hall was renamed Federal Hall. Federal Hall was also where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789.

  • The Constitution Calls For A 'Seat Of Government' But Doesn't Say Where
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Constitution Calls For A 'Seat Of Government' But Doesn't Say Where

    The Constitution of the United States was written during a meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. It wasn't ratified by the requisite nine states for passage until 1788, but one of the provisions the writers worked into the document was about establishing a formal "seat of government":

    [A] District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States.

    No other guidance or restrictions were placed upon where the seat of government was to be established.

    The decision to make New York City the first capital was heavily influenced by the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Philadelphia, PA, would have been a contender for the first capital had it not been for an uprising of Pennsylvania militiamen against the delegates from the states in the city in June 1783. Congress was forced to flee Philadelphia, first taking refuge in New Jersey, then Maryland, and again in New Jersey.

    The incident was so concerning to the writers of the Constitution that they took extra care with how they phrased the establishment of a federal seat of power. New York City was a placeholder of sorts, one that Congress agreed upon as they looked to find a permanent - and autonomous - option. 

  • The Compromise Of 1790 Resulted In A 'Southern' Capital

    As the political interests of Federalists and Anti-Federalists were debated among men like Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, several issues became especially contentious. The idea that the federal treasury would take on the debts of the individual states was unpalatable to Anti-Federalists, especially those from states like Virginia that had already paid theirs off. 

    Another issue was the placement of the national capital. Jefferson was from Virginia and was one of the many advocates for making the nation's capital a more centralized location - one that was decidedly more Southern. 

    When Jefferson and Hamilton came face-to-face one day in June 1790, the men decided to talk about the issues at a dinner hosted by the former. James Madison, the congressional representative from Virginia, was in attendance and, on June 20, an agreement was reached. In exchange for Madison's support for the assumption of states' debt by the federal government, Hamilton agreed to the establishment of the nation's capital on the Potomac River. 

    Congress passed the Residence Act in July 1790, designating "[a] district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located as hereafter directed on the River Potomac." Philadelphia was to serve as a temporary capital for 10 years. The following month, the Funding Act authorized the government to assume $21.5 million in states' debt

  • Maryland And Virginia Ceded Land For The District

    Per the Constitution, the "seat of government" for the United States was to be in a district created from land given "by Cession of particular States." The president of the United States was tasked with finding the exact location on the Potomac River, and George Washington opted for a site where the river branches off to the east.

    Despite the long-standing belief that the nation's capital was built on a swamp, the land wasn't especially marshy or swamp-like. Flooding from rainfall was common, but drainage issues and inadequate sewers contributed to the myth of the Washington, DC, swamp through the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries.

    Due to the location Washington chose, it fell to Maryland and Virginia to cede land from within their respective borders. Maryland donated parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties in 1791. Virginia ceded the area "adjacent to the shoreline of the Potomac River at Alexandria, Virginia," that same year. Washington had already enlisted the services of Pierre L'Enfant to design the city.

  • French Engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant Designed The City's Layout

    Pierre Charles L'Enfant left his native France during the late 1770s to take part in the American Revolution on the side of the colonists. As a military engineer, L'Enfant served under George Washington.

    After the war, L'Enfant stayed in North America, where he later opened an engineering firm in New York City. L'Enfant was involved in architectural projects in Philadelphia and New York before being asked by Washington to survey and develop a plan for the nation's capital along the Potomac River.

    L'Enfant worked with surveyors Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, developing a grid-based plan for the federal city. Alongside L'Enfant and his team, three federal commissioners oversaw the planning and development of the federal territory and the city. 

    Drawing heavily on the grandeur of European design, L'Enfant's plan was somewhat irregular due to the inclusion of diagonal and orthogonal thoroughfares. Green spaces and parks were included, with the US Capitol building serving as the focal point of the city. His grand design also featured a "President's House," one that was part of his plan:

    [T]o change a Wilderness into a City to erect and beautify Buildings... to that degree of perfection necessary to receive the Seat of Government of so extensive an empire, in the short period of time that remains in effect these objects is an undertaking vast as it is novel.

    L'Enfant was defiant of the commissioners who were technically in place to oversee his work. He even tore down commissioner Daniel Carroll's house in the emerging city. As a result, he left the project in 1792 and Ellicott took over. 

  • The Name Honors George Washington And Christopher Columbus

    Prior to engineer Pierre L'Enfant, surveyors Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, and three federal commissioners working on what would become Washington, DC, the entire enterprise was talked about in generalities. Words like "district" and "federal city" were used but, on September 9, 1791, it was officially decided the city would be named after George Washington:

    By the plan of the city of Washington, in the territory of Columbia, the Capitol in that city is intended as a first meridian for the United States of America.

    Calling the area the "territory of Columbia" was an homage to the goddess of the same name. Columbia was, at her core, the deification of Christopher Columbus's legacy as the man who had "discovered" the Americas. The first mention of "Columbina" (the name would later morph to "Columbia") appeared as early as 1697 in a poem written by Samuel Sewall.

    In 1775, the formerly enslaved Phillis Wheatley included "Columbia" in her poem, "Enclosure," (also called "To His Excellency, George Washington") as a female warrior:

    Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
    For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

    It was this notion that informed the choice to name the "territory of Columbia," which later became the District of Columbia. When Congress officially moved the seat of power to the new national capital in 1801, discussions about the process used "territory" and "district" interchangeably. The legislation that was ultimately passed on February 27, 1801, was called the "Act concerning the District of Columbia."