Washington, DC History

Historic Facts & Overview of Washington, DC History

Take a peek at Washington, DC history. Discover an overview of Washington, DC's (District of Columbia) rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Although New York City and Philadelphia each served briefly as the capital of the United States, in 1790, Congress chose the District of Columbia as the permanent seat of government. George Washington helped select the site for the city. Situated on the Potomac River, Washington, D.C., was originally carved out of land transferred from Maryland and Virginia (Virginia's portion south of the river was returned to that state in 1846). French-born American engineer, architect, and urban designer Pierre-Charles L'Enfant designed the city's basic plan, which features wide avenues radiating from the Capitol building through a grid of streets with numerous circles and parks. Congress first met in Washington in 1800, although construction of the first phase of the Capitol was not completed until 1826. Today, millions come to Washington, D.C. each year to see the Capitol, the White House, the Library of Congress, and the city's many museums and monuments. The flower is the American beauty rose.

Overview of Washington, DC History and Heritage

Capital City of the United States of America, Municipal Corporation: February 21, 1871

The District of Columbia - identical with the City of Washington - is the capital of the United States. It is located between Virginia and Maryland on the Potomac River. The district is named after Columbus.

When European settlers first visited the area that is now Washington D.C., Piscataway Native Americans lived in the area. During the late 1600s, many of the Native Americans moved west and white farmers and plantation owners settled the new colony of Virginia. In 1749, Alexandria was established as the first town in the area.

The United States of America won its independence in 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War. Several different cities served as the national capital until the late 1700s. Congress then wished the nation's capital to be permanent. Disagreements rose as to which state it would be a part of. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton proposed a solution that established the new permanent capital on federal land rather than in a state. President George Washington, raised in the Potomac area, was chosen to pick the site. Both Maryland and Virginia gave up land along the Potomac River that became the District of Columbia, established in 1791.

DC history actually began in 1790 when the United States Constitution was adopted on September 15, 1787, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, included language authorizing the establishment of a federal district. This district was not to exceed 10 miles square, under the exclusive legislative authority of Congress. On July 16, 1790, Congress authorized President George Washington to choose a permanent site for the capital city and, on December 1, 1800, the capital was moved from Philadelphia to an area along the Potomac River. The census of 1800 showed that the new capital had a population of 14,103. Congress directed selection of a new capital site, 100 sq mi, along the Potomac. When the site was determined, it included 30.75 sq mi on the Virginia side of the river. In 1846, however, Congress returned that area to Virginia, leaving the 68.25 sq mi ceded by Maryland in 1788. The seat of government was transferred from Philadelphia to Washington on Dec. 1, 1800, and President John Adams became the first resident in the White House.

The city was planned and partly laid out by Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French engineer. This work was perfected and completed by Maj. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, a freeborn black man who was an astronomer and mathematician. In 1814, during the War of 1812, a British force burned the capital including the White House.

District residents won the right to vote in a presidential election on March 29, 1961, to elect a board of education in 1968 and, in 1970, to elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. In 1973, Congress approved a bill that provided District residents with an elected form of government with limited home rule authority; as a result, District residents voted for a mayor and a council for the first time in more than 100 years. District residents accepted the home rule charter by referendum vote in 1974. Congress delegated to the District government the authority, functions and powers of a state, with a very important exception: Congress retains control over the District's revenue and expenditures by annually reviewing the entire District government budget. In addition, Congress has repeatedly prohibited the District from imposing a non-resident income tax.

There have been several forms of appointed and elected governments in the District of Columbia. Until Nov. 3, 1967, the District of Columbia was administered by three commissioners: an appointed, three-member commission (1790-1802); elected councils and an appointed mayor (1802-1820); elected councils and an elected mayor (1820-1871); an appointed governor, a two-house legislature (one appointed and the other elected), and an elected , non-voting delegate to the Congress (1871-1874); and another appointed, three-member commission (1874-1967). Following the defeat by Congress of a home rule effort in 1967, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson reorganized the District government and created the positions of an appointed mayor/commissioner and an appointed nine-member council.

On that day, a government consisting of a mayor-commissioner and a 9-member council, all appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate, took office. On May 7, 1974, the citizens of the District of Columbia approved a Home Rule Charter, giving them an elected mayor and 13-member council - their first elected municipal government in more than a century. The district also has one nonvoting member in the House of Representatives and an elected Board of Education.

On Aug. 22, 1978, Congress passed a proposed constitutional amendment to give Washington, DC, voting representation in the Congress. The amendment had to be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures within seven years to become effective. It died in 1985. A petition asking for the district's admission to the Union as the 51st state was filed in Congress on Sept. 9, 1983, and new statehood bills were introduced in 1993. The district is continuing this drive for statehood.

The District of Columbia Bicentennial Commission was established to develop plans for the celebration of various anniversary dates in District of Columbia history. The commission is comprised of 39 members with a specified number of commissioners appointed by the mayor, the chairman of the D.C. Council, council members, the District delegate to the House of Representatives, the courts, and the District of Columbia Bar. Among the events celebrated are the 200th anniversary of the Residency Act, which established that there shall be a permanent seat of government on the Potomac River (July 16, 1990); the 200th anniversary of President George Washington's proclamation of the site for the federal district (January 24, 1991); and the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Pierre L'Enfant, Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott. The commission may designate other bicentennial events for celebration.

As the federal government continues to grow steadily, so does the population of Washington. The city's population reached a peak of 800,000 in 1950 and then declined as the suburb population began to increase dramatically. Between 1950 and 1980, the metropolitan area grew faster than that of any other large city, increasing from 1.5 million to more than 3 million.

The federal government and tourism are the mainstays of the city's economy, and many unions, business, professional, and nonprofit organizations are headquartered there. Among the city's many educational institutions are the Catholic University of America, Georgetown University, Howard University, and Gallaudet University. Cultural attractions include the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In 1963, Washingtonians were given the right to vote for the President of the United States. In 1970, they were given the right to elect a representative to Congress. Finally, in 1973 Congress gave Washingtonians the right to elect local officials for the first time in 100 years. Recently, some residents have wanted to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. However, Congress denied the request. In 1997, Congress appointed a control board to oversee efforts in solving growing city problems such as street repair and school expansion.

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. It began that morning, as two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York. Later that morning, at 9:45 a.m. hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. The capital was placed on emergency alert. Congressional leaders were taken away in hiding, all federal offices, national monuments, and streets were cleared of people. This event began a war on terrorism within the United States and the world, that continues today.

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