|Politics From the Start
It should come as no surprise that Washington, Americas foremost
city of politics, owes its existence to political compromise.
Washington did not exist as either a city or a capital at the
close of the American Revolution. The newly formed federal
government endured a nomadic existence, setting up headquarters
in eight locations, most notably New York City and Philadelphia.
A weary Congress wanted a home of its own and voted in 1785 to
create a permanent federal city. Divisions arose when the
northern states wanted a northerly location, preferring a site
along the Delaware River, and the southerners wanted the capital
farther south, along the Potomac River. Eventually, they
compromised. If the northern states agreed to establish the
capital on the Potomac, the federal government would assume the
war debts of the colonies. Thus, Washington was created.
To establish the new nations capital, Virginia and Maryland donated
land to create the District of Columbia. The site, at the confluence
of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, was selected by the first president,
George Washington. The new federal city was close to his estate, Mount
Vernon, on the Potomac, and near Georgetown, Maryland, an important
tobacco market. The new federal enclave included Georgetown and another
thriving community, Alexandria, Virginia.
George Washington enlisted Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a French
engineer who had served in the American Revolution, to create
the capital. L'Enfant looked to Versailles for inspiration, and
created a magnificent city with ceremonial circles and squares,
wide boulevards and streets in a grid-like fashion. He also laid
plans for the Mall. His efforts were not without controversy,
however. Many early Washington families didn't want to give up
land for such wide roads, and they raised fears about the
federal government encompassing so much territory. Though
L'Enfants vision wasn't entirely realized, he left his mark on
Before the end of the century, construction had begun on the White
House and the U.S. Capitol, but, in 1800, Washington had just 3,000
inhabitants and was largely considered wilderness. The capital was
temporarily abandoned in 1814, when the British invaded and ordered
the burning of the city. Though the invasion had little impact on
the War of 1812, it solidified Washington as the nations capital in
the eyes of many Americans. Afterward, the city grew slowly. Early
visitors were impressed by its wide avenues, but noted the roads seemed
to lead nowhere and were void of houses, public buildings and people.
The Civil War and successive wars changed that; Washington flourished.
Thousands of new residents flocked to the city, sparking building
booms in all directions. During the decade after the Civil War, roads
were paved, and, in the 1880s, streetcars began traversing city streets.
By the turn of the century, the citys population had swollen to 300,000.
City of Monuments
Though construction of the Washington Monument begun in the mid-1800s,
it wasn't until the 20th century that Washington truly emerged as
a city of monuments and memorials. The Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson
Memorial were built during the first decades of the new century. The
Federal triangle, where thousands of government workers pass their
days, also was created. The Pentagon'the massive military office complex?was
completed in 1943. In the last several years, the Franklin Delano
Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial were added to the Mall.
Throughout the latter 20th century, Washington has been the site of
inspiration and turmoil. Who can forget Martin Luther Kings stirring
"I have a dream" speech delivered from the steps of the
Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Later in the decade came the massive protest
demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, Watergate? the
apartment-hotel-office complex?became a household name after the break-in
at Democratic National Committee headquarters by aides to Republican
President Richard M. Nixon, who eventually resigned in the wake of
At the start of a new century, Washington remains one of the
most visited and most beautiful cities in the world. Visitors
come to see the monuments and memorials, and revel in the
nations history. Its more than a city of government and
politics; its a city of distinctive, historical neighborhoods.
Its an ever-changing, modern city and capital.