In 1790 Congress passed the Residence Act, establishing the permanent seat of government along the Potomac River on a site to be determined by the president. President George Washington chose to place the new “federal district” on land where the Potomac River met the East Branch River (today known as the Anacostia). The 10 square miles of land, ceded to the federal government by Maryland and Virginia, included the two existing port cities of Georgetown and Alexandria. The Residence Act created a commission, appointed and supervised by the president, to survey and acquire land to establish a new city within the district “for the use of the United States.”
To design the new federal city, located on the northern banks of the Potomac, Washington appointed Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect and civil engineer. L’Enfant drew up a city grid system intersected by wide boulevards radiating from public squares or circles. L’Enfant located “Congress House”—the Capitol—on a bluff overlooking the city known as Jenkins Hill, which became Capitol Hill. L’Enfant’s plan for the city included a wide avenue, named Pennsylvania Avenue, connecting the Capitol to the president’s mansion, now known as the White House. Another “grand avenue” stretched west from the Capitol to the Potomac River. These two boulevards provided the outline for what became the National Mall. The commission named the new federal city “Washington” and the rest of the district the “Territory of Columbia.” L’Enfant clashed with the supervising commissioners and was fired by Washington in 1791, but his initial design became the blueprint for future development of the city.
Since Congress did not initially appropriate funds for the ambitious building project, early construction of the city was plagued by lack of financial support. Labor shortages led the commissioners to hire enslaved labor from local slaveowners.
The city remained sparsely settled and the Capitol incomplete when Congress moved to Washington in 1800. While most members of Congress stayed in town only temporarily for sessions well into the 19th century, the city gradually became home to a growing number of permanent residents that included a small social elite, larger numbers of laborers, tradesmen, innkeepers, and government clerks, and a population of free and enslaved African Americans upon whose service and labor many of the white residents depended. Churches, theaters, and schools were established, as were newspapers and intellectual societies.
In 1801 Congress formally organized the District of Columbia, and in 1802 granted the City of Washington a municipal charter that allowed white male property owners to elect a council and for the president to appoint a mayor. Among the actions taken by the new council was passage of a set of Black Codes that restricted the freedom of the city’s free African Americans.
The War of 1812 and the British attack in 1814 destroyed most of the city’s federal buildings, and Congress considered moving the capital out of the District of Columbia. Prominent citizens rallied to rebuild, including constructing a new building to temporarily house Congress while the Capitol was rebuilt. In February 1815 Congress passed appropriations for repairing and rebuilding public buildings in the city. While some European visitors, including English author Charles Dickens, dismissed Washington as a backwater, the city gradually grew in size and population. By 1850, even though the city of Alexandria and Alexandria County had been returned to Virginia, the population of the District of Columbia reached 40,000.
Among that 40,000 were 8,000 free and 2,000 enslaved African Americans. Slavery had a visible presence in the District of Columbia, with slave auctions taking place in the shadow of the Capitol. Free African Americans organized charitable and educational organizations in the city in the 1840s and 1850s that continued their work after Congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which freed the District’s enslaved population.
The District of Columbia developed into a more welcoming place to live in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Paved streets and sidewalks, water and sewer systems, and the filling in of the long-neglected Washington Canal helped attract residents, with some members of Congress building lavish homes in nearby neighborhoods. In 1902 Senator James MacMillan led the Senate Park Commission in establishing a plan to bring the National Mall closer to the broad, grassy, tree-lined landscape envisioned by L’Enfant in 1790. Popularly known as the McMillan Plan, it proposed making the Mall a great public park that stretched from the Capitol to a proposed memorial to Abraham Lincoln at the western end, flanked by monumental buildings. Although never formally adopted by the government, the plan provided a vision for development of today’s National Mall.
The District of Columbia and its residents suffered from neglect while under the control of Congress, and throughout the 20th century, those residents fought for greater autonomy. With the exception of a brief period in the 1870s when Congress granted it a territorial government, the District government was dependent on House and Senate standing committees. Committee members did not see measures related to the District as helping them electorally and were slow to support federal funding. Proposals to grant the District home rule and voting representation in Congress passed the Senate six times between 1946 and1965 only to fail in the House. In 1963 the states ratified the Twenty-third Amendment, which granted DC residents the right to vote for president and vice president of the United States. In 1970 Congress passed legislation allowing DC voters to elect a non-voting member of the House of Representatives. After decades of proposals to grant DC home rule, Congress passed a law in 1974 that allowed DC voters to elect a mayor and a 13-member council. Congress retains the power to review all legislation passed by the council before it can become law and still exercises authority over the District’s budget.
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