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History of the District of Columbia
The Founding of the District of Columbia
The Continental Congress in 1783 decided that they needed a permanent seat of
the national government, after moving the seat of Congress numerous times throughout
its short existence. It was said by one of the members of the Congress that “the place
should be a piece of virgin territory where a ‘Federal Town’ might be built.”
Two areas were surveyed to relocate the Federal Town in 1784. The northern
states chose an area near Trenton, New Jersey and the southern states chose an area near
Georgetown, Maryland. A site was not selected because a formal constitution for the
United States had not been introduced let alone ratified by the states.
In June of 1788 the Constitution of the United States was ratified by enough states
of the union. One of the articles of the Constitution states that it gives Congress authority
“to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not
exceeding 100 square miles) as may by cession of particular States, and the acceptance of
Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States…”
When the first Congress of the United States convened, a Southerner George
Washington was unanimously elected President. While a Northerner, John Adams was
elected Vice President. The conflicts between the North and the South were great
because each side wanted the Federal Town in their respective regions.
The Revolutionary War which created the United States and its freedom also
generated a large national debt. During the time the Federal District was being decided a
legislative bill was drafted by Alexander Hamilton and stated that the whole Nation
would assume the debts of the individual States. The southern states did not want to take
on these debts since most of the war had taken place in the North. Thus a compromise
was suggested by Thomas Jefferson and other Congressmen from Virginia in which the
Southern states would agree to assume the debts while the Northern states would agree to
have the capital in the south. The Residency Act of 1790 gave the president, George
Washington, the power to choose a site for the new Federal District. He chose an area on
the east bank of the Potomac River where he would have to acquire the tract and appoint
building commissioners for the Federal District.
The Creation of the District of Columbia and the City of Washington
President George Washington selected the site for the new capital, which would
be called the city of Washington. The area would include portions of Maryland and
Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River several miles up river from his home at
Mount Vernon.
George Washington hired the Frenchman Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 to design the
plan of the city Washington. With a largely undeveloped area to build the capital city,
L’Enfant transformed the Federal District using a Baroque plan that features ceremonial
spaces and grand radial avenues. This plan superimposed a system of diagonal avenues
over a conventional street grid. These avenues would radiate from two building sites: the
house of Congress and the President’s home. Also throughout of the city L’Enfant
designated squares and circles to commemorate individual state residents who became
national heroes at the intersection of the diagonal avenues. This premise was carried on to
the naming of these avenues for the states of the union.
The McMillan Commission
In 1901Senator James McMillan from Michigan was the chairman of the Senate
Park Commission to study the improvement of the park system of the District of
Columbia. This plan would restore and expand the open spaces and parks introduced by
L’Enfant as the leading elements in the federal identity of the National Capital. Also the
National Mall was reconfigured to frame and emphasize the connection between the
Washington Monument and the Capitol as well as highlighting the relationship among the
radial streets and avenues. A number of the McMillan Commission’s proposals for the
District were realized in the following decades including parkways through the city and
the Fort Circle Parks around the city.