On July 16, 1790, the District of Columbia was established as the capital of the United States after signature of the Residence Act. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, the City of Washington was named after George Washington, first President of the United States and Founding Father. Washington is the principal city of the Washington metropolitan area, which has a population of 6,131,977. Washington, D.C., has been described as an important political capital, owing to its status as the seat of the United States federal government. Washington is one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million annual tourists.
The signing of the Residence Act on July 16, 1790, approved the creation of a capital district located along the Potomac River on the country’s East Coast. The U.S. Constitution provided for a federal district under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress and the District is therefore not a part of any state. The states of Maryland and Virginia each donated land to form the federal district, which included the pre-existing settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria. Named in honor of President George Washington, the City of Washington was founded in 1791 to serve as the new national capital. In 1846, Congress returned the land originally ceded by Virginia; in 1871, it created a single municipal government for the remaining portion of the District.
Washington had an estimated population of 693,972 as of July 2017. Commuters from the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs raise the city’s daytime population to more than one million during the workweek. The Washington metropolitan area, of which the District is the principal city, has a population of over 6 million, the sixth-largest metropolitan statistical area in the country.
Unique among cities with a high percentage of African Americans, Washington has had a significant black population since the city’s creation. As a result, Washington became both a center of African American culture and a center of Civil Rights Movement. Since the city government was run by the U.S. federal government, black and white school teachers were paid at an equal scale as workers for the federal government. It was not until the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat who had numerous Southerners in his cabinet, that federal offices and workplaces were segregated, starting in 1913. This situation persisted for decades: the city was racially segregated in certain facilities until the 1950s.
All three branches of the U.S. federal government are centered in the District: U.S. Congress (legislative), President (executive), and the U.S. Supreme Court (judicial). Washington is home to many national monuments and museums, which are primarily situated on or around the National Mall. The city hosts 177 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of many international organizations, trade unions, non-profit, lobbying groups, and professional associations, including the Organization of American States, AARP, the National Geographic Society, the Human Rights Campaign, the International Finance Corporation, and the American Red Cross.
Today, D.C. is marked by contrasts. Neighborhoods on the eastern periphery of the central city, and east of the Anacostia River tend to be disproportionately lower-income. Following World War II, many middle-income whites moved out of the city’s central and eastern sections to newer, affordable suburban housing, with commuting eased by highway construction. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 sparked major riots in chiefly African American neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park. Large sections of the central city remained blighted for decades.
By contrast, areas west of the Park, including virtually the entire portion of the District between the Georgetown and Chevy Chase neighborhoods (the latter of which spills into neighboring Chevy Chase, Maryland), contain some of the nation’s most affluent and notable neighborhoods. During the early 20th century, the U Street Corridor served as an important center for African American culture in DC. The Washington Metro opened in 1976. A rising economy and gentrification in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to revitalization of many downtown neighborhoods.
Article One, Section 8, of the United States Constitution places the District (which is not a state) under the exclusive legislation of Congress. Throughout its history, Washington, D.C. residents have therefore lacked voting representation in Congress. The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1961, gave the District representation in the Electoral College. The 1973 District of Columbia Home Rule Act provided the local government more control of affairs, including direct election of the city council and mayor.
A locally elected mayor and a 13‑member council have governed the District since 1973. However, Congress maintains supreme authority over the city and may overturn local laws. D.C. residents elect a non-voting, at-large congressional delegate to the House of Representatives, but the District has no representation in the Senate. The District receives three electoral votes in presidential elections as permitted by the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1961.
Archaeological evidence indicates Native Americans settled in the area at least 4,000 years ago, around the Anacostia River. Early European exploration of the region took place early in the 17th century, including explorations by Captain John Smith in 1608. At the time, the Patawomeck (loosely affiliated with the Powhatan) and the Doeg lived on the Virginia side, as well as on Theodore Roosevelt Island, while the Piscataway (also known as Conoy) tribe of Algonquians resided on the Maryland side. Native inhabitants within the present-day District of Columbia included the Nacotchtank, at Anacostia, who were affiliated with the Conoy. Another village was located between Little Falls and Georgetown, and English fur trader Henry Fleet documented a Nacotchtank village called Tohoga on the site of present-day Georgetown.
The first colonial landowners in the present-day District of Columbia were George Thompson and Thomas Gerrard, who were granted the Blue Plains tract in 1662, along with Saint Elizabeth, and other tracts in Anacostia, Capitol Hill, and other areas down to the Potomac River in the following years. Thompson sold his Capitol Hill properties in 1670, including Duddington Manor, to Thomas Notley; The Duddington property was handed down over the generations to Daniel Carroll, of Duddington. As European settlers arrived, they clashed with the Native Americans over grazing rights. In 1697, Maryland authorities built a fort within what is now the District of Columbia. In that same year, the Conoy relocated to the west, near what is now The Plains, Virginia, and in 1699 they moved again, to Conoy Island near Point of Rocks, Maryland.
Georgetown was established in 1751 when the Maryland legislature purchased sixty acres of land for the town from George Gordon and George Beall at the price of £280, while Alexandria, Virginia was founded in 1749. Situated on the fall line, Georgetown was the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. The strong flow of the Potomac kept a navigable channel clear year-round; and, the daily tidal lift of the Chesapeake Bay, raised the Potomac’s elevation in its lower reach; such that fully laden ocean-going ships could navigate easily, all the way to the Bay. Gordon had constructed a tobacco inspection house along the Potomac in approximately 1745. Warehouses, wharves, and other buildings were added, and the settlement rapidly grew. The Old Stone House, located in Georgetown, was built in 1765 and is the oldest standing building in the District. It did not take long before Georgetown grew into a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of tobacco and other goods from colonial Maryland. With the economic and population growth of Georgetown came also the founding of Georgetown University in 1789, at its founding drawing students from as far away as the West Indies.
The United States capital was originally located in Philadelphia, beginning with the First and Second Continental Congress, followed by the Congress of the Confederation upon gaining independence. In June 1783, a mob of angry soldiers converged upon Independence Hall to demand payment for their service during the American Revolutionary War. Congress requested that John Dickinson, the governor of Pennsylvania, call up the militia to defend Congress from attacks by the protesters. In what became known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, Dickinson sympathized with the protesters and refused to remove them from Philadelphia. As a result, Congress was forced to flee to Princeton, New Jersey, on June 21, 1783. Dickinson’s failure to protect the institutions of the national government was discussed at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The delegates therefore agreed in Article One, Section 8, of the United States Constitution to give the Congress the power:
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such 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, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings;
James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 43, also argued that the national capital needed to be distinct from the states, in order to provide for its own maintenance and safety. The Constitution, however, does not select a specific site for the location of the new District. During the mid-1780s, numerous locations were offered by the states to serve as the nation’s capital, but the Continental Congress could never agree on a site due to regional loyalties and tensions. Proposed sites included: Kingston, New York; Nottingham Township in New Jersey; Annapolis; Williamsburg, Virginia; Wilmington, Delaware; Reading, Pennsylvania; Germantown, Pennsylvania; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; New York City; Philadelphia; and Princeton; among others. Proposals from the legislatures of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia all offered territory for the location of the national capital.
Northern states preferred a capital located in one of the nation’s prominent cities, unsurprisingly, almost all of which were in the north. Conversely, Southern states preferred that the capital be located closer to their agricultural and slave-holding interests. The Southern states refused to accept a capital in the North, and vice versa. Another suggestion was for there to be two capitals, one in the North and one in the South.
The United States Congress was established in 1789, upon ratification of the United States Constitution, and New York City remained the temporary capital. The new Constitution — through Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 — authorized Congress to create a federal district outside of the state structure as the nation’s permanent seat of government, and granted Congress exclusive governing jurisdiction over it. The choice of a site was left for the new Congress to decide. During the debate, two sites became serious contenders: one site on the Potomac River near Georgetown; and another site on the Susquehanna River near Wrights Ferry (now Columbia, Pennsylvania). The Susquehanna River site was approved by the House in September 1789, while the Senate bill specified a site on the Delaware River near Germantown, Pennsylvania. The House and Senate were not able to reconcile their two bill.
The selection of a location for the capital resurfaced in the summer of 1790. At the same time, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was pushing for Congress to pass a financial plan. A key provision of Hamilton’s plan involved the Federal government assuming states’ debts incurred during the American Revolutionary War. Northern states had accumulated a huge amount of debt during the war, amounting to 21.5 million dollars, and wanted the federal government to assume their burden. The Southern states, whose citizens would effectively be forced to pay a portion of this debt if the Federal Government assumed it, balked at this proposal. Some states, including Virginia, had paid almost half of their debts, and felt that their taxpayers should not be assessed again to bail out the less provident. Further, they argued that the plan exceeded the scope of the new Constitutional government. James Madison, then a representative from Virginia, led a group of legislators from the south in blocking the provision and prevent the plan from gaining approval.
When Jefferson ran into Hamilton at President Washington’s residence in New York City in late June 1790, Jefferson offered to host a dinner to bring Madison and Hamilton together. Subsequently, a compromise was reached, in which the northern delegates would agree to the southerly Potomac River site, and in return, the federal government would assume debts accumulated by the states during the American Revolutionary War. Jefferson wrote a letter to James Monroe explaining the compromise.
Congress agreed to the compromise, which narrowly passed as the Residence Act. Jefferson was able to get the Virginia delegates to support the bill, with the debt provisions, while Hamilton convinced the New York delegates to agree to the Potomac site for the capital. The bill was approved by the Senate by a vote of 14 to 12 on July 1, 1790, and by the House of Representatives by a vote of 31 to 29 on July 9, 1790. Washington signed the Act into law one week later on July 16. The Assumption Bill narrowly passed the Senate on July 16, 1790, followed by passage in the House on July 26.
The Residence Act specified that the capital encompass an area of no more than “ten miles square” (10 miles or 16 km on a side, for a maximum area of 100 square miles or 259 km²). and be located on the “river Potomack, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Connogochegue”. The “Eastern-Branch” is known today as the Anacostia River. The Connogocheque (Conococheague Creek) empties into the Potomac River upstream near Williamsport and Hagerstown, Maryland. The Residence Act limited to the Maryland side of the Potomac River the location of land that commissioners appointed by the President could acquire for federal use.
The Act gave President George Washington the authority to decide the exact location and hire a surveyor. The President was required to have suitable buildings ready for Congress and other government offices by the first Monday in December 1800 (December 1, 1800). The federal government would provide financing for all public buildings.
The Act specified that the laws of the state from which the area was ceded would apply in the federal district, meaning that Maryland laws applied on the eastern side of the Potomac while Virginia laws applied on the western side in the District of Columbia until the government officially took residence. Upon assuming control of the federal district in 1800, Congress would have full authority over local matters within the District of Columbia.
In order to garner enough votes to pass the Assumption Bill, Hamilton also needed votes from the Pennsylvania delegates. This led to the decision to designate Philadelphia as the temporary capital city of the United States federal government for a period of ten years, until the permanent capital was ready. Congress reconvened in Philadelphia on December 6, 1790 at Congress Hall.
Soon after signing the act, Washington began work on the project. He, along with Thomas Jefferson, personally oversaw the process as plans were developed and implemented. Even as the project began to move forward, some held out hope that it would fail, and that the capital would remain permanently in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation attempted to undermine the plan by introducing legislation allocating funds for federal buildings and a house for the president in Philadelphia.
Although the legislation did not specify an exact location, it was assumed that Georgetown would be the capital. Washington began scouting the area to the southeast of Georgetown, near the Anacostia River (Eastern Branch). Some of the property owners expressed to the President that they were willing to sell land for the capital. Washington also looked at other sites along the Potomac. He decided that a few sites should be surveyed to provide specific details about the land and its ownership. Washington returned to Philadelphia in late November 1790 to meet with Jefferson. At this time, the decision was reached to locate the capital at or adjacent to Georgetown, which was a short distance below the Fall Line and the farthest inland point for navigation.
In January 1791, the President proceeded to appoint, in accordance with the Residence Act, a three-member commission, consisting of Daniel Carroll, Thomas Johnson, and David Stuart, to oversee the surveying of the federal district, and appointed Andrew Ellicott as surveyor. Washington informed Congress of the site selection on January 24, and suggested that Congress amend the Act to allow the capital to encompass areas to the south of the Eastern Branch, including Alexandria, Virginia. Congress agreed with this suggestion, passing an amendment to the Act that Washington approved on March 3, 1791. However, consistent with language in the original Act, the amendment specifically prohibited the “erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac”. In September 1791, the three commissioners agreed to name the federal district as “The Territory of Columbia,” and the federal city as the “City of Washington.”
On March 30, 1791, Washington issued a presidential proclamation that established “Jones’s point, the upper cape of Hunting Creek in Virginia” as the starting point for the federal district’s boundary survey and the method by which the survey should determine the district’s boundaries. Working under the general supervision of the three commissioners and at the direction of President Washington, Major Andrew Ellicott, assisted by his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott, Isaac Roberdeau, Isaac Briggs, George Fenwick, and an African American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker, then proceeded to survey the borders of the Territory of Columbia with Virginia and Maryland during 1791 and 1792.
The survey team enclosed within a square an area containing the full 100 square miles (260 km²) that the Residence Act had authorized. Each side of the square was 10 miles (16 km) long. The axes between the corners of the square ran north–south and east–west. The center of the square is within the grounds of the Organization of American States headquarters west of the Ellipse.
The survey team placed sandstone boundary markers at or near every mile point along the sides of the square. Many of these markers still remain. The south cornerstone is at Jones Point. The west cornerstone is at the west corner of Arlington County, Virginia. The north cornerstone is south of East-West Highway near Silver Spring, Maryland, west of 16th Street. The east cornerstone is east of the intersection of Southern Avenue and Eastern Avenue.
On January 1, 1793, Andrew Ellicott submitted to the commissioners a report that stated that the boundary survey had been completed and that all of the boundary marker stones had been set in place. Ellicott’s report described the marker stones and contained a map that showed the boundaries and topographical features of the Territory of Columbia, The map identified the locations within the Territory of the planned City of Washington and its major streets, as well as the location of each boundary marker stone.
In early 1791, President Washington appointed Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant to devise a plan for the new city in an area of land at the center of the federal territory that lay between the northeast shore of the Potomac River and the northwest shore of the Potomac’s Eastern Branch. L’Enfant then designed in his “Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States…” the city’s first layout, a grid centered on the United States Capitol, which would stand at the top of a hill (Jenkins Hill) on a longitude designated as 0,0°. The grid filled an area bounded by the Potomac River, the Eastern Branch (now named the Anacostia River), the base of an escarpment at the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line along which a street (initially Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue) would later travel, and Rock Creek.
North-south and east-west streets formed the grid. Wider diagonal “grand avenues” later named after the states of the union crossed the grid. Where these “grand avenues” crossed each other, L’Enfant placed open spaces in circles and plazas that were later named after notable Americans.
L’Enfant’s broadest “grand avenue” was a 400-foot-wide (122 m) garden-lined esplanade, which he expected to travel for about 1 mile (1.6 km) along an east–west axis in the center of an area that the National Mall now occupies. A narrower avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) connected the “Congress house” (the Capitol) with the “President’s house” (the White House). In time, Pennsylvania Avenue developed into the capital city’s present “grand avenue”.
L’Enfant’s plan included a system of canals, one of which would travel near the western side of the Capitol at the base of Jenkins Hill. To be filled in part by the waters of Tiber Creek, the canal system would traverse the center of the city and would enter both the Potomac River and the Eastern Branch.
On June 22, L’Enfant presented his first plan for the federal city to President. On August 19, he appended a new map to a letter that he sent to the President. President Washington retained one of L’Enfant’s plans, showed it to Congress, and later gave it to the three Commissioners. The survey map may be one that L’Enfant appended to his August 19 letter to the President.
L’Enfant subsequently entered into a number of conflicts with the three commissioners and others involved in the enterprise. During a contentious period in February 1792, Andrew Ellicott, who had been conducting the original boundary survey of the future District of Columbia and the survey of the federal city under the direction of the Commissioners, informed the Commissioners that L’Enfant had not been able to have the city plan engraved and had refused to provide him with the original plan (of which L’Enfant had prepared several versions).
Ellicott, with the aid of his brother, Benjamin Ellicott, then revised the plan, despite L’Enfant’s protests. Some of Ellicott’s revisions, such as the straightening of the longer avenues, created minor changes to the city’s layout, including the removal of Square No. 15 from L’Enfant’s original plan. Ellicott stated in his letters that, although he was refused the original plan, he was familiar with L’Enfant’s system and had many notes of the surveys that he had made himself. It is therefore possible that Ellicott recreated the plan.
Shortly thereafter, Washington dismissed L’Enfant. Ellicott gave the first version of his own plan to James Thakara and John Vallance of Philadelphia, who engraved, printed and published it. This version, printed in March 1792, was the first Washington city plan that received wide circulation. After L’Enfant departed, Ellicott continued the city survey in accordance with his revised plan, several larger and more detailed versions of which were also engraved, published and distributed. As a result, Ellicott’s revisions became the basis for the capital city’s future development.
Design competitions were then held to solicit designs for each of the Federal structures. Architect James Hoban was selected to design the President’s House, while no satisfactory drawings were submitted for the Capitol. A late submission by William Thornton was selected for the Capitol. Stephen Hallet was hired to oversee construction, which got underway in September 1793. Hallet proceeded to make alterations to the design, against the wishes of Washington and Jefferson, and was subsequently dismissed. George Hadfield was hired in October 1795 as superintendent of construction, but resigned three years later in May 1798, due to dissatisfaction with Thornton’s plan and quality of work done thus far.
The original intention of the Residence Act was to use proceeds from selling lots in the District to cover costs of constructing federal buildings in the capital. However, few were interested in purchasing lots. A shortage of funds further contributed to the delays and problems in building the Capitol and other federal buildings in Washington.
In 1800, the seat of government was finally moved to the new city. President John Adams made his first official visit to Washington in early June 1800, which lasted for several days. Amid the “raw and unfinished” cityscape, the president found the public buildings “in a much greater forwardness of completion than expected.” The Senate (north) wing of the Capitol was nearly completed, as was the White House. The president moved into the White House, on November 1. First Lady Abigail Adams arrived a few weeks later. The Senate of the Sixth Congress met in the Capitol for the first time on November 17, and on November 22, Adams delivered his fourth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress in the Senate chamber. The House (south) wing was not completed until 1811. Nonetheless, the House of Representatives began meeting there in 1807.
In February 1801, Congress approved the District of Columbia Organic Act, officially An Act Concerning the District of Columbia (6th Congress, 2nd Sess., ch. 15, 2 Stat. 103, February 27, 1801), formally placing the District of Columbia under the control of the United States Congress and organizing the unincorporated territory within the District into two counties: Washington County to the north and east of the Potomac River and Alexandria County to the west and south. The charters of the existing cities of Georgetown and Alexandria were left in place and no change was made to their status. The common law of both Maryland and Virginia remained in force within the District. A court was established in each of the new counties. Following the passage of this Act, residents of the District of Columbia were no longer considered to be residents of either Maryland or Virginia. This left District residents unable to vote for members of Congress.
On May 3, 1802, the City of Washington was granted a municipal government consisting of a mayor appointed by the President of the United States. The District of Columbia relied on Congress for support for capital improvements and economic development initiatives. However, Congress lacked loyalty to the city’s residents and was reluctant to provide support. Congress did provide funding for the Washington City Canal in 1809, after earlier private financing efforts were unsuccessful. Construction began in 1810 and the canal opened in late 1815, connecting the Anacostia River with Tiber Creek.
During the War of 1812, British forces conducted an expedition between August 19 and 29, 1814, that took and burned the capital city. On August 24, the British routed an American militia, which had gathered at Bladensburg, Maryland to protect the capital (see Battle of Bladensburg). The militia then abandoned Washington without a fight. President James Madison and the remainder of the U.S. government fled the capital shortly before the British arrived.
The British then entered and burned the capital during the most notably destructive raid of the war. British troops set fire to the capital’s most important public buildings, including the Presidential Mansion (the White House), the United States Capitol, the Arsenal, the Navy Yard, the Treasury Building, and the War Office, as well as the north end of the Long Bridge, which crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. The British, however, spared the Patent Office and the Marine Barracks. Dolley Madison, the first lady, or perhaps members of the house staff, rescued the Lansdowne Portrait, a full-length painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, as the British approached the Mansion.
The aftermath of the war kicked off a mild crisis with many northerners pushing for a relocation of the capitol with a vote brought to the floor of Congress proposing the removal of the government to Philadelphia. It was defeated 83 to 74 votes and the seat of government remained in Washington, D.C.
Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O) began in Georgetown in 1828. Construction westward through Maryland proceeded slowly. The first section, from Georgetown to Seneca, Maryland, opened in 1831. In 1833 an extension was built from Georgetown eastward, connecting to the City Canal. The C&O reached Cumberland, Maryland in 1850, although by that time it was obsolete as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) had arrived in Cumberland in 1842. The canal had financial problems, and plans for further construction to reach the Ohio River were abandoned.
The B&O opened a rail line from Baltimore to Washington in 1835. Passenger traffic on the Washington Branch had increased by the 1850s, as the company opened a large station in 1851 on New Jersey Avenue NW, just north of the Capitol. Further railroad development continued after the Civil War, with a new B&O line (the Metropolitan Branch) connecting Washington to the west, and the introduction of competition from the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in the 1870s. In 1907, Union Station opened as the city’s central terminal.
Almost immediately after the “Federal City” was laid out north of the Potomac, some residents south of the Potomac in Alexandria County, D.C., began petitioning to be returned to Virginia’s jurisdiction. Over time, a larger movement grew to separate Alexandria from the District for several reasons:
- Alexandria’s economy had stagnated as competition with the port of Georgetown, D.C., had begun to favor the north side of the Potomac, where most members of Congress and local federal officials resided.
- The Residence Act prohibited federal offices from locating in Virginia.
- Alexandria was a center for slave trading. There was increasing talk of abolition of slavery in the national capital. Alexandria’s economy would suffer if slavery were outlawed in the District of Columbia.
- There was an active abolition movement in Virginia, and the pro-slavery forces held a slim majority in the Virginia General Assembly. (Eighteen years later, in the Civil War, the most anti-slavery counties would secede from Virginia to form West Virginia.) If Alexandria and Alexandria County were retroceded to Virginia, they would provide two new pro-slavery representatives.
- The Alexandria Canal, which connected the C&O Canal to Alexandria, needed repairs, which the federal government was reluctant to fund.
- Alexandria’s residents had lost representation and the right to vote at any level of government.
After a referendum, Alexandria County’s citizens petitioned Congress and Virginia to return the area to Virginia. By an act of Congress on July 9, 1846, and with the approval of the Virginia General Assembly, the area south of the Potomac (39 square miles; 101 km²) was returned, or “retroceded,” to Virginia effective in 1847. The area of 31 square miles (80 km²) which was ceded by Virginia was returned, leaving 69 square miles (179 km²) of territory originally ceded by Maryland as the current area of the District in its entirety.
The retroceded land was then known as Alexandria County, Virginia, and now includes a portion of the independent city of Alexandria and all of Arlington County, the successor to Alexandria County. A large portion of the retroceded land near the river was an estate of George Washington Parke Custis, who had supported the retrocession and helped develop the charter in the Virginia General Assembly for the County of Alexandria, Virginia. The estate (Arlington Plantation) would be passed on to his daughter (the wife of Robert E. Lee), and would eventually become Arlington National Cemetery.
A portion of the Washington Aqueduct opened in 1859, providing drinking water to city residents and reducing their dependence on well water. The aqueduct, which was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, opened for full operation in 1864, using the Potomac River as its source.
Washington remained a small city of a few thousand residents, virtually deserted during the summertime, until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. President Abraham Lincoln created the Army of the Potomac to defend the federal capital, and thousands of soldiers came to the area. The significant expansion of the federal government to administer the war—and its legacies, such as veterans’ pensions — led to notable growth in the city’s population: from 75,000 in 1860 to 132,000 in 1870.
Slavery was abolished throughout the District on April 16, 1862 — eight months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — with the passage of the Compensated Emancipation Act. The city became a popular place for freed slaves to congregate.
Throughout the war, the city was defended by a ring of military forts that mostly deterred the Confederate army from attacking. One notable exception was the Battle of Fort Stevens in July 1864 in which Union soldiers repelled troops under the command of Confederate General Jubal A. Early. This battle was only the second time that a U.S. President came under enemy fire during wartime when Lincoln visited the fort to observe the fighting. (The first had been James Madison during the War of 1812.) Meanwhile, over 20,000 sick and injured Union soldiers were treated in an array of permanent and temporary hospitals in the capital.
On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the war, Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth during the play Our American Cousin. The next morning, at 7:22 am, President Lincoln died in the house across the street, the first American president to be assassinated. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
By 1870, the District’s population had grown 75% from the previous census to nearly 132,000 residents. Despite the city’s growth, Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation. Some members of Congress suggested moving the capital further west, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to consider such a proposal.
Congress passed the Organic Act of 1871, which repealed the individual charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown, and created a new territorial government for the whole District of Columbia. President Grant appointed Alexander Robey Shepherd to the position of governor in 1873. Shepherd authorized large-scale projects that greatly modernized Washington, but ultimately bankrupted the District government. In 1874, Congress replaced the territorial government with an appointed three-member Board of Commissioners.
The first motorized streetcars in the District began service in 1888 and spurred growth in areas beyond the City of Washington’s original boundaries. In 1888, Congress required that all new developments within the District conform to the layout of the City of Washington. The City of Washington’s northern border of Boundary Street was renamed Florida Avenue in 1890, reflecting growth of suburban areas in the County of Washington. The city’s streets were extended throughout the District starting in 1893. An additional law passed in 1895 mandated that Washington formally absorb Georgetown, which until then had maintained a nominal separate identity, and renamed its streets. With a consolidated government and the transformation of suburban areas within the District into urban neighborhoods, the entire city eventually took on the name Washington, D.C.
In the early 1880s, the Washington City Canal was covered over. Originally an expansion of Tiber Creek, the canal connected the Capitol with the Potomac, running along the north side of the Mall where Constitution Avenue is today. However, as the nation transitioned over to railroads for its transport, the canal had become nothing more than a stagnant sewer, and so it was removed. Some reminders of the canal still exist. South of the Capitol, a road named Canal Street connects Independence Avenue, SW, and E Street, SE (although the northernmost section of the street was renamed Washington Avenue to commemorate the state of Washington). A lock keeper’s house built in 1835 at the eastern terminal of the C&O Canal (where the C&O emptied into Tiber Creek and the Potomac River) remains at the southwest corner of Constitution Avenue, NW, (formerly B Street, NW) and 17th Street, NW. The western end of the City Canal emptied into the Potomac and connected with the C&O Canal near the lock keeper’s house.
One of the most important Washington architects of this period was the German immigrant Adolf Cluss. From the 1860s to the 1890s, he constructed over 80 public and private buildings throughout the city, including the National Museum, the Agriculture Department, Sumner and Franklin schools.
The Washington Monument, a tribute to George Washington and the world’s tallest stone structure, was completed in 1884.
In 1901, the Senate Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia (the “McMillan Commission”), which Congress had formed the previous year, formulated the McMillan Plan, an architectural plan for the redevelopment of the National Mall. The commission was inspired by L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the city, which had not been fully realized. The members of the commission also sought to emulate the grandeur of European capitals such as Paris, London, and Rome. They were also strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement, a Progressive ideology that intended to build civic virtue in the poor through important, monumental architecture. Several of the Commission members, including Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. had in fact participated in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, which was widely popular and helped to spread interest in the City Beautiful movement.
The McMillan Plan in many respects was an early form of urban renewal that removed many of the slums that surrounded the Capitol, replacing them with new public monuments and government buildings. The Plan proposed a redesign of the National Mall and the construction of the future Burnham-designed Union Station. World War I interrupted the execution of the Plan, but construction of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 largely completed it.
Although the McMillan Plan resulted in the demolition of some slums in the Federal Triangle area, substandard housing was a much larger problem in the city during the early 1900s, with large portions of the population living in so-called “alley dwellings.” Progressive efforts eventually led to the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1934. The agency, led by John Ihlder, was an early example of a public housing agency, and was responsible for demolishing slum housing and building new units that were affordable, modern, and sanitary.
In 1922, Washington was hit by its deadliest natural disaster when the Knickerbocker Storm dumped 18 inches (46 cm) of snow, causing the roof to collapse at the Knickerbocker Theater, a silent movie house. Ninety-eight people were killed, including a U.S. Congressman; 133 were injured.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the city’s population grew rapidly with the creation of additional Federal agencies under the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during which most of the Federal Triangle buildings were constructed. World War II brought further population increases and a significant housing shortage, as existing residents were urged to rent rooms to the influx of Federal staffers who arrived from throughout the country. During the war, as many as 200,000 railroad passengers passed through Union Station in a single day. The Pentagon was built in nearby Arlington to efficiently consolidate Federal defense offices under one roof. One of the largest office buildings in the world, it was built rapidly during the early years of the war, partially opening in 1942, and complete in 1943.
In 1957, Washington became the first major city in the nation with a majority African-American population. Like many cities, it had received thousands of black people from the South in the Great Migration, starting during World War I and accelerating in the 1940s and 1950s. With the buildup of government and defense industries during World War II, many new residents found jobs. In the postwar years, whites who were better established economically began to move to newer housing in adjoining states in the suburbanization movement that occurred around most major cities. They were aided by the extensive highway construction undertaken by federal and state governments.
On August 28, 1963, Washington took center stage in the Civil Rights Movement, with the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Following the assassination of King on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Washington was devastated by the riots that broke out in the U Street neighborhood and spread to other black areas, including Columbia Heights. The civil unrest drove many whites and middle-class blacks to move out of the city core. There had already been a steady movement of some residents to suburban locations in the search for newer housing and to avoid school integration. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many businesses left the downtown and inner city areas, drawn to suburban malls and following residential development. Marks of riots scarred some neighborhoods into the late 1990s.
In 1973, Congress enacted the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, providing for an elected mayor and 13-member council for the District. In 1975, Walter Washington became the first elected and first black mayor of the District.
On November 8, 2016, Washington voters were asked to advise the Council to approve or reject a proposal, which included advising the council to petition Congress to admit the District as the 51st State and to approve a constitution and boundaries for the new state. The voters of the District of Columbia voted overwhelmingly to advise the Council to approve the proposal, with 86% of voters voting to advise approving the proposal. Challenges, including Republican opposition in Congress and constitutional issues, continue to cause problems for the movement.
The National Park Service manages most of the 9,122 acres (36.92 km²) of city land owned by the U.S. government. Rock Creek Park is a 1,754-acre (7.10 km²) urban forest in Northwest Washington, which extends 9.3 miles (15.0 km) through a stream valley that bisects the city. Established in 1890, it is the country’s fourth-oldest national park and is home to a variety of plant and animal species including raccoon, deer, owls, and coyotes. Other National Park Service properties include the C&O Canal National Historical Park, the National Mall and Memorial Parks, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Columbia Island, Fort Dupont Park, Meridian Hill Park, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, and Anacostia Park. The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation maintains the city’s 900 acres (3.6 km²) of athletic fields and playgrounds, 40 swimming pools, and 68 recreation centers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture operates the 446-acre (1.80 km²) U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington.
By law, Washington’s skyline is low and sprawling. The federal Height of Buildings Act of 1910 allows buildings that are no taller than the width of the adjacent street, plus 20 feet (6.1 m). Despite popular belief, no law has ever limited buildings to the height of the United States Capitol or the 555-foot (169 m) Washington Monument, which remains the District’s tallest structure. City leaders have criticized the height restriction as a primary reason why the District has limited affordable housing and traffic problems caused by urban sprawl.
The District is divided into four quadrants of unequal area: Northwest (NW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Southwest (SW). The axes bounding the quadrants radiate from the U.S. Capitol building. All road names include the quadrant abbreviation to indicate their location and house numbers generally correspond with the number of blocks away from the Capitol. Most streets are set out in a grid pattern with east–west streets named with letters (e.g., C Street SW), north–south streets with numbers (e.g., 4th Street NW), and diagonal avenues, many of which are named after states.
The City of Washington was bordered by Boundary Street to the north (renamed Florida Avenue in 1890), Rock Creek to the west, and the Anacostia River to the east. Washington’s street grid was extended, where possible, throughout the District starting in 1888. Georgetown’s streets were renamed in 1895. Some streets are particularly noteworthy, such as Pennsylvania Avenue, which connects the White House to the Capitol and K Street, which houses the offices of many lobbying groups. Washington hosts 177 foreign embassies, constituting approximately 297 buildings beyond the more than 1,600 residential properties owned by foreign countries, many of which are on a section of Massachusetts Avenue informally known as Embassy Row.
Washington, DC, celebrated its 150th anniversary as the capital of the United States in 1950. The Post Office Department issued four stamps called the “National Capital Sesquicentennial Issue” to commemorate the occasion. It released the Statue of Freedom on Capitol Dome on April 20 (Scott #989), Executive Mansion on June 12 (Scott #990), Supreme Court Building on August 2 (Scott #991), and the United States Capitol on November 22 (Scott #992). President Truman christened the celebration the “Freedom Fair.” The stamps portrayed the three branches of government (Executive, Judicial, Legislative), as well as the concepts of Liberty and Freedom. All four first day issues were postmarked in Washington, DC, and the number issued exceeded a half billion stamps.
Scott #989 was printed on the Rotary Press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in bright blue ink and perforated 10½ x 11 with 132,090,000 copies printed. It portrays the Statue of Freedom, also known as Armed Freedom or simply Freedom, a bronze statue designed by Thomas Crawford (1814–1857) that, since 1863, has crowned the dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Originally named Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, a U.S. government publication now states that the statue “is officially known as the Statue of Freedom”.
The Statue of Freedom is a colossal bronze standing figure 19½ feet (5.9 m) tall and weighing approximately 15,000 pounds (6,800 kg). Her crest peaks at 288 feet (88 m) above the east front plaza of the U.S. Capitol. She is a female, allegorical figure whose right hand holds the hilt of a sheathed sword, while a laurel wreath of victory and the Shield of the United States are clasped in her left hand. Her chiton is secured by a brooch inscribed “U.S.” and is partially covered by a heavy, Native American–style fringed blanket thrown over her left shoulder. She faces east towards the main entrance of the building and the rising Sun. She wears a military helmet adorned with stars and an eagle’s head which is itself crowned by an umbrella-like crest of feathers. Although not actually called “Columbia”, she shares many of her iconic characteristics. Freedom stands atop a cast-iron globe encircled with one of the national mottoes, . The lower part of the base is decorated with fasces and wreaths. Ten bronze points tipped with platinum are attached to her headdress, shoulders, and shield for protection from lightning.
A monumental statue for the top of the national Capitol appeared in architect Thomas U. Walter’s original drawing for the new cast-iron dome, which was authorized in 1855. Walter’s drawing showed the outline of a statue representing the Goddess of Liberty; Crawford proposed instead an allegorical figure of Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace.
Crawford was commissioned to design Freedom in 1854 and executed the plaster model for the statue in his studio in Rome. Mississippian U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who would later become President of the Confederacy) was in charge of the Capitol construction and its decorations. According to David Hackett Fischer in his book Liberty and Freedom, Crawford’s statue was…
…very close to Jefferson Davis’s ideas in every way but one…. Above the crown he [had] added a liberty cap, the old Roman symbol of an emancipated slave. It seemed a direct affront to a militant slaveholder, and Jefferson Davis exploded with rage. The northern sculptor and the southern slaveholder had already clashed over a liberty cap in the interior decoration of the Capitol.
Davis sent his aide, Captain Montgomery Meigs, with orders to remove the cap, saying that “its history renders it inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved”. A military helmet, with an American eagle head and crest of feathers, replaced the cap in the sculpture’s final version. Today many casual observers take the statue, with its eagle and feathers, to be a Native American.
Crawford died in 1857 before the full-size plaster model left his studio. The model, packed into six crates, was shipped from Italy in a small sailing vessel in the spring of 1858. During the voyage, the ship began to leak and stopped in Gibraltar for repairs. After leaving Gibraltar, the ship began leaking again to the point that it could go no farther than Bermuda, where the model was stored until other transportation could be arranged. Half of the crates finally arrived in New York City in December, but all sections were not in Washington, D.C. until late March 1859.
Beginning in 1860, the statue was cast in five main sections by Clark Mills, whose bronze foundry was located on the outskirts of Washington. Work was halted in 1861 because of the Civil War, but by the end of 1862, the statue was finished and temporarily displayed on the Capitol grounds. The cost of the statue, exclusive of installation, was $23,796.82.
While Freedom was being cast at Mills’ foundry, the foreman in charge of the casting went on strike. Instead of paying him the higher wages he demanded, Mills turned the project over to Philip Reid, one of the slaves working at the facility. Reid presided over the rest of the casting and assembly of the figure. Late in 1863, construction of the dome was sufficiently advanced for the installation of the statue, which was hoisted by former slaves in sections and assembled atop the cast-iron pedestal. The final section, the figure’s head and shoulders, was raised on December 2, 1863, to a salute of 35 guns answered by the guns of the 12 forts around Washington, D.C.
On May 9, 1993, after being in place almost 130 years, the statue was brought down from its pedestal by helicopter for restoration, giving tourists a chance to see the statue up close. The work was needed because of extensive pitting and corrosion on the surface of the bronze and because of a crack and rusting on the cast-iron pedestal. The United States Capitol Preservation Commission provided the $780,000 in privately raised funds. The work was performed by New Arts Foundry of Baltimore, Maryland.
The cast-iron pedestal was restored in place atop the dome. The metal was stripped of paint, and the wreaths and fasces were removed to ensure that they were thoroughly cleaned and coated. The crack was permanently repaired, and the entire pedestal was primed and painted with a color specially mixed to match the statue.
Restoration of the statue and the pedestal was completed in approximately four months. The Statue of Freedom was returned to its pedestal by helicopter on October 23, 1993, amid the celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Capitol. Since then, every 2–3 years, the statue undergoes two weeks of cleaning and recoating as necessary.
The plaster model of the statue, in storage for 25 years, was reassembled and restored in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, where it was returned to permanent public display in January 1993. The plaster model was relocated to the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, which provides more visitors access to look at the statue’s details.
The well-known Statue of Freedom has appeared on several official designs, akin to the Statue of Liberty. The head of the statue was first depicted on a United States postage stamp in 1923 (Scott #573), which was re-issued in 2006. The entire statue is depicted on Scott #989, while the engraving of the head as used on Scott #573 was reused for a set of three high-denomination definitives released on June 27, 2018. The statue can also be found on the obverse side of an 1862 $5 currency note and on the reverse side of the Iraq Campaign Medal decoration that was authorized to be awarded to members of the U.S. military who deployed to Iraq in direct support of the Iraq War. The Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal also depicts the statue on the obverse (front face) of the medal.