District of Columbia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1783, the Congress of the United States of America determined that the newly independent country should have a permanent seat of government.

History of the District of Columbia

In 1783, the Congress of the United States of America determined that the newly independent country should have a permanent seat of government. Selection of the site was delayed as politicians argued, believing that prestige and wealth would flow to the area surrounding the new federal city. A compromise was reached in 1790 when northern leaders dropped their opposition to a southern site in return for political concessions. The following year President George Washington selected a ten-mile square of land along the Potomac for a new district in which the United States capital would be built. The area included land contributed by both Virginia and Maryland.

Washington hired Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French architect and engineer, to design the layout for the new capital city. L’Enfant envisioned a city with massive public buildings, an array of open spaces, and a network of beautifully landscaped roads. L’Enfant was assisted by Andrew Ellicott, the chief surveyor, and Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught African American mathematician and surveyor. The engineers and architects working on the new capital named the city Washington, in honor of the president. Washington himself remained adamant in calling it “Federal City.”

Construction and Early Growth

After a suggestion from Thomas Jefferson, L’Enfant designed the capital district in a diamond shape. At the heart of the design were the presidential mansion, which became known as the White House, the Capitol building, and Pennsylvania Avenue, the street connecting them. L’Enfant located the two buildings one mile apart–far enough for formal transportation between them, but near enough for the president to keep abreast of legislative activity. L’Enfant also planned a sweeping four hundred-foot-wide public walk from the Capitol to the Potomac, which would then angle to the president’s house. The National Mall was designed as a place for museums, fountains, and monuments that would represent the heroes and ideals of the young republic.

When the federal government moved from Philadelphia in 1800, only the north wing of the Capitol building had been completed. It contained the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. The Library of Congress was moved to a new building in 1897, and the Supreme Court in 1935. When Washington, D.C., was burned in 1814 by the British during the War of 1812, the White House and Capitol were rebuilt. The basic structure of the Capitol building, including the great dome, was completed in 1863.

Early predictions that Washington, D.C., would quickly grow into a commercial metropolis of more than 100,000 people were not realized. The established cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston continued to dominate the coastal economy. By the 1840’s, Washington, D.C., still had only 50,000 residents, leading Congress in 1846 to return land west of the Potomac to the states which had originally given it up when the federal district was authorized.

The secret to the city’s eventual growth was crisis, not commerce. During the Civil War (1861-1865), the population of Washington, D.C., grew to 120,000, as troops, civilian planners, and freed slaves moved into the city. A housing shortage ensued, and the inadequacy of city services, already evident before the war, was further exacerbated. President Ulysses S. Grant implemented a hastily devised plan to expand and construct water, sewer, road, and sidewalk systems throughout the city. By 1873 a “new” and more functional Washington, D.C., had appeared, though the cumulative effect of building placement over the years and the installation of the new public works destroyed much of the aesthetic grandeur of L’Enfant’s original city design.

Along with the city’s new look came a new form of government. Congress had been empowered by the Constitution to govern the federal district, but had by 1802 established a mayor and city council to help them govern. By 1820, citizens of Washington, D.C., were allowed to vote for council members and a mayor, though not for congressional representatives or the president. In 1871, Congress converted the district to territorial status, with an appointed governor, in order to facilitate the rebuilding of the city. Three years later, Congress established a local government comprising three commissioners appointed by the president. Washington, D.C., thus became the only American city which did not allow its people to elect local officials.

Social and Political Changes in the Twentieth Century

The next phase of rapid growth came after the United States entered World War I in 1917. In less than two years, the population rose from 350,000 to more than 450,000, once again straining city services. Much of the Mall was turned into a parking lot.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, many Americans had trouble finding jobs. Jobs were plentiful in Washington, D.C., however, as the federal government organized and staffed many programs for ending the depression. As a result, the city’s population grew from about 485,000 to 665,000 during the decade.

With the vast expansion of the federal government during World War II (1941-1945) and the Cold War (1945-1991), Washington, D.C., grew rapidly. Though the actual population of the city declined from its peak of more than 800,000 in 1950, the metropolitan area (including suburbs) grew faster than any other major city in the United States. Between 1950 and 1980, the city’s population doubled, from 1.5 million to more than 3 million.

Population growth brought dramatic social change. After World War II, whites steadily moved into the suburbs of neighboring Virginia and Maryland. African Americans thus became a majority of the population in Washington, D.C., beginning in the 1950’s. At the time of the 1990 census, they composed more than 65 percent of the population.

The post-World War II period also saw increased public demand for political rights. The Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed in 1961, granting the presidential vote to the people of Washington, D.C., for the first time. The right to elect local government officials was restored by Congress in 1973.

Two movements for increased political power in Washington, D.C., failed during the last quarter of the twentieth century. A constitutional amendment that would have provided for the election of voting delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate was introduced in 1978, but failed to receive the approval of three-fourths of the states necessary for ratification. A movement in favor of statehood for the District of Columbia also began in the 1970’s. Although a state constitution was drawn up in 1982 for the proposed fifty-first state of New Columbia, by the end of the century Congress had failed to act upon the measure.

The issue of political control was hotly debated throughout the 1990’s as Washington, D.C., ranked high in virtually every negative category documenting quality of urban life, including infant mortality, crime, drug addiction, and school dropout rates. Facing bankruptcy and an erosion of city services, in 1995 Washington, D.C.’s finances were taken over by a control board appointed by Congress. In 1997, a bill was passed granting one billion dollars in federal aid to the District of Columbia over a five-year period. Though the aid provided a substantial boost to the economy, critics complained that the concurrent shift of control from the mayor’s office to the appointed board was once again depriving citizens of their democratic rights.

Monuments and Marches

As the seat of American government, Washington, D.C., was the United States’ preeminent city for monuments commemorating the democratic ideal and for marches demonstrating its flexibility. Memorials in honor of four of the United States’ greatest presidents have been constructed there. The 555-foot-high Washington Monument is located on the National Mall, due south of the White House. It was begun in 1848 but not dedicated until 1885. The Lincoln Memorial, constructed in the style of an ancient Greek temple, was completed in 1922, at the west end of the Mall. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, echoing Jefferson’s own design for the rotunda at the University of Virginia, was finished in 1943. The Roosevelt Memorial, a 7.5-acre landscape of waterfalls and statuary partially enclosed by granite walls, was dedicated in 1997.

American soldiers have also been honored at several sites. The Arlington National Cemetery, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima statue) are located just across the Potomac River in Virginia, on land that had once been part of the federal district. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, two adjoining walls of black granite inscribed with the names of all Americans who died in Vietnam, was dedicated in 1982 and is located near the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the Mall. In 1998, a design for a World War II Memorial was approved.

As a bastion of free speech, Washington, D.C., has been the site of many public demonstrations, including the famous civil rights march of August 28, 1963, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 marchers. Many major demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War were held in Washington, D.C., during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1995, the city was the site of the Million Man March, organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Promoted as a day of commitment and unity for African American men, the march was estimated to have drawn between 400,000 and 800,000 people.


Washington, D.C., was envisioned from the beginning as a great commercial and cultural center, as well as the seat of the American government. It was slow in developing. In 1842, English novelist Charles Dickens characterized it as a “city of magnificent intentions,” with “broad avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere.” During the last half of the twentieth century, however, the city grew into its early promise. In 2000, Washington, D.C., boasted seventeen universities and colleges, including American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, and Howard University. The Mall and nearby areas included great cultural centers such as the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Combined with the governing institutions of the American republic and the symbolic monuments to its growth, Washington, D.C., itself is one of the proudest monuments to the American way of life.

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