Washington D.C. – the United States – The Story Behind Us Capital

Since the Constitution established the United States Congress, it has met in three cities: New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. The story of how Washington, DC, came to be the United States’ capital spans decades. It’s more like a roller coaster, with ups and downs and even a few loop-the-loops.

A view of the Washington monument.
Source: Jessica Chen/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Although the history of Washington, DC is inextricably linked to politics, many factors played into the “whys” and “whats” of the city and the District’s formation. Here’s how Washington, DC became the US’s national capital, from how it earned its name to the construction (and renovation) of familiar landmarks.

Eight Different Cities Were Earlier Dubbed “The Capital”

Representatives from the thirteen colonies assembled in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1775 and met in Baltimore, MD, Lancaster, PA, and Philadelphia again during the next six years. Finally, Congress convened in Princeton, NJ, Annapolis, MD, Trenton, NJ, and New York, NY by 1788.

A painiting of Washington’s inauguration.
Source: Ramon de Elorriaga/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

In 1785, their final home, New York City, was designated as the United States’ first official capital. In 1789, the First Federal Congress convened at City Hall in New York City, renamed Federal Hall. On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the United States’ first president at Federal Hall.

The Constitution Mentions a “Seat of Government” but Does Not Specify Where

The Constitution of the United States was drafted in Philadelphia at a meeting of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Although the required nine states didn’t approve it until 1788, one of the stipulations written into the document was to establish a formal “seat of government”:

The building in which George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States.
Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

There were no further guidelines or limits on the location of the government’s seat. The Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 influenced the choice to make New York City the first capital. Congress was forced to abandon Philadelphia, seeking sanctuary in New Jersey, Maryland, and then New Jersey once more.

The District Received Territory From Maryland and Virginia

According to the Constitution, the United States’ “seat of government” was to be in a territory founded from land granted “by Cession of Particular States,” according to the Constitution. The president of the United States was given the duty of locating the exact position on the Potomac River, and George Washington chose a location.

A map showing the Plan of the City of Washington 1792.
Source: Andrew Ellicott/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Because of Washington’s site choice, Maryland and Virginia were forced to give land within their borders. In 1791, parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland were donated. In the same year, Virginia gave up the land “close to the Potomac River’s shoreline at Alexandria, Virginia.” Washington had previously hired Pierre L’Enfant to help them.

Congress First Convened in Washington, DC, in 1800

The Residency Act required Congress to meet in Philadelphia between 1790 and 1800. The seat of government was to be moved to the new capital after the “first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred.” However, the change of site was not marked by pomp and fanfare.

A sketch of the White House.
Source: Maryland Center for History and Culture/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

In late 1800, members of Congress arrived in Washington, DC, amid a snowstorm, which forced the cancellation of a planned procession. As a result, when President John Adams addressed Congress on November 22, 1801, work on the Capitol building had been proceeding since 1793 and was still not finished.