What is Washington, DC? Is it in Maryland? Virginia? Is it a state? Nope Nope and Nope.

DC is a district, not a state. At least not yet.  There’s a lot of history regarding the location of the district.

The capital was originally located in Philadelphia.

James Madison argued that the capital of the country should exist not within a state. Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Virginia all offered to have the capital on their land.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were the founding fathers tasked with finding a place for the capital city. They agreed to have the capital on the Potomac River between two slave states – Maryland and Virginia. This was the Compromise of 1790.

Why? Because the North still had unpaid debts for the Revolutionary War. The three men agreed the Federal Government will assume the rest of these debts. (Hamilton wanted this) But the South had already paid their debts back, so they had to agree to assume part of the debt. In exchange, they got the capital in their preferred location. (Jefferson and Madison wanted this)

This means DC is below the Mason Dixon Line. This isn’t a well-known fact. Most people think Maryland was in the north.

In 1790 George Washington selected “10 miles square” for the capital and boundary stones were laid out at every mile around what was the original city.

The capital is called Washington City, and it’s named the “Territory of Columbia” which pays homage to Christopher Columbus. George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to design the capital city, with oversight from three commissioners – Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and David Stuart.

L’Enfant had specific visions for the city. He wanted a walk/promenade which is now our National Mall. He wanted the leader’s palace which became the White House. And, he liked how European cities placed the leader’s palace on the best spot, but L’Enfant instead chose to put Congress there – on the hill. And this is how Capitol Hill was named.

The city is laid out in 4 quadrants and is on a grid. Numbered streets run north/south; Lettered streets run east/west.

All 50 states are represented by streets here as well, and they run on angles. Where they intersect, L’Enfant designed what still exist today – green spaces. Circles and squares.

L’Enfant didn’t finish his work, and not by his choice. George Washington had to terminate him when he became disagreeable and difficult to work with. In his desire to build New Jersey Avenue, L’Enfant demolished Daniel Carroll’s house. (This Daniel Carroll was the cousin of the Commissioner Daniel Carroll, to whom L’Enfant reported.)

The capitol building was built (the first time) in the 1790’s.

By 1800 DC citizens realize they have no voting power and no representation.

1802 Congress incorporated the city and granted limited home rule. White male property owners can elect a council which is overseen by a Mayor. Mayor is appointed by President. In 1812 Congress gives the council the right to select the Mayor but DC waited until 1820 to be able to vote in an election.

In the War of 1812, the British invaded and burned much of the capital city including the White House, the Capitol, Treasury Building among others. The northerners tried to reclaim the capital city and relocate back to Philly but it was voted down. 

It takes a painstaking 12 more years to get the Capitol building re-built. The capitol dome, which didn’t come until later, is 8.9M lbs. Where the 4 quadrants of the city come together there is a marker inside the Capitol building.

In the early 1800’s Southwest was an island called “The Island” because the Washington City canal went around it. Navy Yard was full of brothels with saucy ladies waiting for sailors to hit land.

Livestock was wandering the city. Sewers doubled as canals. Disease was widespread. By all accounts it was pretty gross. And people make fun of the Capital City!

Mid 1800’s the building continues. James Smithson leaves money to the U.S. for a “Smithsonian Institution” which is supposed to be for increasing the knowledge among men. It was about $50M in today’s money.

So why can both Maryland and Virginia claim that DC belongs to them if anyone? Looking at a map, DC really does reside on the Maryland side. But, the original boundaries of the city included Alexandria, and it used to be called Alexandria DC. But Alexandria petitioned to be returned to Virginia.

That retroceding happened in 1846 and included Alexandria City and all of Arlington County. This explains why there is an Alexandria City, which is different from Alexandria in Fairfax county – outside the beltway.

Join me for Part 2 of DC History where we cover the Civil War to the early 1900’s!

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