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How D.C. Came to Be

The city that invented American politicking, back scratching, and delicate diplomatic maneuvering is itself the result of a compromise. Tired of its nomadic existence after having set up shop in eight locations, Congress voted in 1785 to establish a permanent federal city. Northern lawmakers wanted the capital on the Delaware River; Southerners wanted it on the Potomac. A deal was struck when Virginia's Thomas Jefferson agreed to support the proposal that the federal government assume the war debts of the colonies if New York's Alexander Hamilton and other Northern legislators would agree to locate the capital on the banks of the Potomac.

George Washington himself selected the site of the capital, a diamond-shape, 100-square-mile plot not far from his estate at Mount Vernon, near the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. To give the young city a head start, Washington included the already thriving tobacco ports of Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland, in the District of Columbia. In 1791 Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a French engineer who had fought in the Revolution, created the classic plan for the city.

It took the Civil War to energize the city first, attracting thousands of new residents and spurring a building boom that extended the capital in all directions. Streets were paved in the 1870s, and the first streetcars ran in the 1880s. The early 20th century witnessed the development of the city's monumental core: memorials to famous Americans such as Lincoln and Jefferson, along with the massive Federal Triangle, which includes the National Archives, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Justice.

Updated: 2014-09-23

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