History of Washington, District of Columbia

The location of the nation's capital was a source of contention from the beginning. Just as cities now vie for professional athletic teams or maybe the Olympics, in the 1780's the great prize among the states was the national capital. Philadelphia, the wartime capital, was the leading contender. The powerful Virginia delegation wanted a location on the Potomac, with numerous other alternatives suggested.

Characteristically, the solution was found in a compromise. Alexander Hamilton was floating a scheme for the new Federal government to assume the war debts of the individual states. Having hosted most of the war, Northern states had larger debts than their Southern cousins. Southern states were understandably reluctant to take on debts they didn't see as their own. The compromise came with the Southern states agreeing to assume the debts, and the Northern delegations allowing a capital in the south.

The city was of course named Washington, and placed in a federal District of Columbia. The Constitution specifies a 10 mile square parcel, placed under direct control of the Congress. George Washington selected the site, a few miles up river from his home at Mt. Vernon.

The French born Pierre L'Enfant was chosen to design the new city. The Baroque layout he adopted was primarily a grid system, overlaid with diagonal streets that converge to form spokes at important points in the city. Although the system doesn't always lend itself to modern traffic flow, the streets were, mercifully, made very wide.

Grandeur wasn't apparent to early residents coping with the near wilderness of muddy streets and swarms of mosquitoes, and the capital was derided as one of monumental open spaces. Government officials and foreign delegations alike frequently wished to be somewhere more civilized, like New York or Philadelphia.

Washington suffered a potentially fatal setback during the War of 1812 when it was burned by the British. There were suggestions to build elsewhere. But the buildings were replaced and the city grew, although slowly. As late as the Civil War many considered Washington to be a miserable little place.

The Civil War cemented Washington in the popular mind of the country as the capital, and after the war great efforts were made to make the city more accurately reflect that status. Beginning in the late 19th century the federal government began to assume a larger role in the life of the nation, and the capital grew along with it.

Governance of the District has been a point of contention for many years. Until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961, citizens weren't able to vote in national elections. Further reforms gave the district non-voting representation in Congress. Of more controversy has been the attempt to establish home rule. In stages residents, have been given the right to elect a mayor and city council, whose actions have always been subject to a veto by Congress. The Democratic Party has even pushed for statehood for DC, no doubt coveting the two extra Democrat Senators such a move would certainly bring.

Such plans seem like fantasy now that the city's government has collapsed on itself. With a declining population, confiscatory taxes, an oversized and corrupt bureaucracy, and a decaying infrastructure, something had to be done. Braving cries of racism, Congress has been forced to remove most of the power from the local officials and install commissions and overseers. Even a Democratic President has acknowledged the need for such a move by watching silently. Hopefully, those appointed to clean up the city will be successful in the attempts to make Washington the city it can be.

Find your nearest travel agent here and don't forget to purchase travel insurance!