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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The District of Columbia Created, July 16, 1790

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Today in 1790, the Residence Act was signed into law by US President George Washington. The act designated Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the temporary capital of the United States, but it also gave the President the power to create a federal district to serve as the permanent capital. Thus was born Washington, District of Columbia.

The location of the new nation's capital was the source of much heated debate in the early days of the United States. The early federal government had met in both New York and Philadelphia. That a southern state would be the home of the new federal district was agreed upon by two of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson, who was then Secretary of State, agreed to Hamilton's proposal that the government assume all state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. In exchange, Hamilton, who was Secretary of the Treasury, agreed to Jefferson's proposal that the capital be located in a southern state. Both men worked their political magic and the Residence Act passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate by narrow margins.

Both Maryland and Virginia agreed to cede land for the new district to be located on the Potomac River. It would be 100 square miles in area, 10 miles per side. President Washington wanted to include the town of Alexandria, Virginia within the district, which required the Congress to amend the Residence Act in 1791 so that the area could be included. Several Congressmen became aware of the fact that Washington and his family owned land in Alexandria, and so the revised act also stated that no federal buildings were to be built on the Virginia (or Alexandria) side of the Potomac River.

President Washington chose Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French-born American architect, to lay out the capital city. L'Enfant's plan called for the Capitol Building to be the center of a grid crossed by diagonal streets named after the states of the Union. The city would be filled will large traffic circles and plazas to be named after great Americans not yet born. On L'Enfant's map was a narrow street named Pennsylvania Avenue that would connect the Capitol Building with the Presidential Palace, a very royal-sounding name for the building that would eventually come to be called the White House. In the fall of 1791, the federal district was officially named The Territory of Columbia and the city within was named The City of Washington.

The next year, the President dismissed L'Enfant and replaced him with Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor who would become well-known for his work in the new nation's western territories. In addition to his numerous disagreements with the commissioners appointed over him, legend has it that L'Enfant was fired over a dispute with a local resident who did not want to sell his house to the federal government to make way for a new avenue. L'Enfant supposedly had the man lured from his house under false pretenses and then blew the structure up while he was gone. This makes one glad that our rights of eminent domain have changed a little over the years.

Ellicott revised L'Enfant's plans and made them his own. By 1800, the new city was far enough along that the federal government could begin moving in. On February 27, 1801, Congress took formal possession of the district.

The District of Columbia is far enough down the Potomac River that ocean-going ships of the early 19th century could unload their cargo right at the city docks. This was good from an economic standpoint, but bad in terms of defense. The residents of Washington learned this lesson well on August 24, 1814, when British forces burned much of the capital during their most daring raid of the War of 1812. The Presidential Mansion (as the White House was then named), the Capitol Building, the Navy Yard, the Treasury Building, the War Office and others were all damaged to varying degrees by the fire. The Marine Barracks at 8th and I Streets, however, was not touched out of respect for the courage and skill of the Marines who had fought in the recent Battle of Bladensburg. It was also said that the British force sailing up the Potomac to raid the capital lowered their flags out of respect as they passed Mount Vernon, the late President George Washington's home.

It didn't take long for residents of the district south of the Potomac, in Virginia, to begin asking that their land be turned back over to the state. Essentially, every politician in the city lived north of the Potomac, so the infrastructure needs of the Virginia side were all but ignored. Furthermore, the residents of Alexandria now had no Congressional representation or local government. Essentially, the couldn't vote for anything. In 1846, Congress yielded to the citizens' requests and agreed to return 39 square miles of the district to Virginia.

After 1871, the city of Washington and the District of Columbia became the same entity for all intents and purposes. Since 1973, the district has had it's own municipal government, although Congress still has supreme authority over the area. DC does have a representative in Congress, but the post is non-voting. Today, the 69 square mile district is home to over 581,000 people.

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