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How Washington DC Became the US capital. Photo Getty

When George Washington became the first US president in 1789, the capital city of the United States was New York. By 1792 when he was re-elected for his second term, the capital district had moved to Philadelphia. Philadelphia remained the capital for ten years. Before becoming the capital, Philadelphia had been the country’s hub and home to the house of Congress until 1783 when the Pennsylvania mutiny forced the Congress to move.

To learn how Washington became the US capital let’s take a look at when and how New York and Philadelphia became capital cities earlier.

How And When Did New York Become The First Capital City?

By 1783 the federal government had no funds, and it had not paid the federal soldiers who fought in the British-American war. Therefore, on June 1783, the Congress met in the present day Independence Hall in Philadelphia to deliberate on various pressing issues affecting the federal government including the lack of funds to pay the federal soldiers.

In response, the frustrated and unpaid Lancaster Pennsylvania soldiers marched to Philadelphia to join their comrades and went to Congress and blocked the building’s door. After being locked out of the building, the Congress members sent Hamilton to negotiate with them. Alexander Hamilton met with their committee that evening and sent a note to the government of Pennsylvania asking for their militia to protect the lawmakers. Pennsylvania refused to offer their protection and fearing for their safety congress relocated to Princeton. From 1783 to the 1790s, the law-makers met in different cities including Trenton, Maryland, New Jersey, and finally New York City.

The Congress of the Confederation selected New York City as the new government's temporary seat in 1785. Federal Hall became the first US capitol building, as well as the location of the inauguration of George Washington as the first US President, the first assembly of the United States Congress and the US Supreme Court, and the drafting of the US Bill of Rights.

How And When Did Philadelphia Become The Capital City?

By 1787 the United States had already drafted their constitution. The constitution gave the Congress the authority to choose where to build the federal district; therefore they proposed two cities (Germantown and Lancaster). However, Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison had agreed to move it to the south (present-day Washington). Robert Morris renegotiated a new deal which resulted in Philadelphia becoming the first capital city as the present-day federal district was built.

The American-British war left many states in debt, and since the federal government planned to absorb all the debt, it meant the wealthy regions would be paying off the loans of the financially challenged areas. To pass his funding act (that allowed the government to absorb all the debts owed by the different states), Hamilton needed Madison’s help (the most influential member of Congress). In return, Hamilton agreed to help him with the necessary votes to pass the Residence Act.

The residence act which placed the capital district in present-day Washington DC was part of the plan by the federal government to appease all the pro-slavery regions. These states feared that a northern capital city would mean that the federal government was sympathetic to the slavery abolitionists. Philadelphia had ten years to convince Congress that it was better suited to be the capital, but the 1793 Yellow fever endemic raised doubts over the safety of this state.

How And When Did Washington, D.C Become The Capital City?

Photo Getty
Photo Getty

As per the Residence act, President Washington issued a decree stipulating the borders of the capital district on January 24, 1791. Even though it appears diamond shaped on the map, the capital was to be a square-shaped measuring 10 miles on all sides. The construction period lasted for ten years, and the government worked from Philadelphia until May 15, 1800, when they moved to Washington D.C. Even president Adams left Philadelphia in April of 1800 and moved into the White House in November of the same year.

Founded on July 16, 1790, Washington, DC is unique among American cities because it was established by the Constitution of the United States to serve as the nation’s capital. You can read the actual line at the National Archives. From its beginning, it has been embroiled in political maneuvering, sectional conflicts and issues of race, national identity, compromise and, of course, power.

Like many decisions in American history, the location of the new city was to be a compromise: Alexander Hamilton and northern states wanted the new federal government to assume Revolutionary War debts, and Thomas Jefferson and southern states who wanted the capital placed in a location friendly to slave-holding agricultural interests.

How Did George Washington Select Site for Capital?

Photo Getty
Photo Getty

President George Washington chose the exact site along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and the city was officially founded in 1790 after both Maryland and Virginia ceded land to this new “district,” to be distinct and distinguished from the rest of the states. To design the city, he appointed Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who presented a vision for a bold, modern city featuring grand boulevards (now the streets named for states) and ceremonial spaces reminiscent of another great world capital, L’Enfant’s native Paris. He planned a grid system, at which the center would be the Capitol building.

Even before coming of age, DC was nearly completely destroyed. During the War of 1812 against Great Britain, enemy forces invaded the city and burned much of it to the ground, including the newly completed White House, the Capitol and the Library of Congress (including all of its books). Thomas Jefferson later replenished the library’s collection by selling off his entire library for $23,950 in 1815.

After the devastation, the city remained small, especially in terms of permanent residents. Soon it would become smaller in physical size as well. In 1847, the portion of the city that had originally belonged to Virginia was retroceded, after the voters of Alexandria elected to leave DC, feeling that they had been left out of development on the other side of the river. You can still see some surviving, original markers for the District today.

Interesting facts about Washington DC

Originally, in 1791, George Washington chose 100 square miles of land in Maryland and Virginia to be the site of the nation’s capital. However 31 of those miles were returned to Virginia in 1847, which is why D.C. today is about one-third smaller. The district was named Columbia—which had been a nickname for America during the Revolutionary War, in honor of Christopher Columbus—and the new federal city added to the territory was called Washington, for, yes, George. Georgetown and Alexandria were also cities included in the district.

George Washington never lived there. Turns out our first president never resided in D.C.—one of the many George Washington facts you never learned in school. Washington died before the White House was finished, though he did lay its cornerstone on October 13, 1792.

How Washington DC Became the US capital

If you live in D.C., your voting rights are fairly new. Before 1961, residents of Washington, D.C. couldn’t vote in presidential elections because of the Electoral College. The number of electoral votes each state gets depends on how many senators and members of the House of Representatives it has. As D.C. isn’t a state, it has no voting representatives in Congress, so for years D.C. residents couldn’t take part in elections. It was the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1961) that gave D.C. the electoral votes that it would have if it were a state, limited to the number of electors the least-populated state has. Currently that state is Wyoming, with three electors. So D.C. gets a max of three electoral votes.

How Washington DC Became the US capital
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Before 1961, residents of Washington, D.C. couldn’t vote in presidential elections because of the Electoral College. The number of electoral votes each state gets depends on how many senators and members of the House of Representatives it has. As D.C. isn’t a state, it has no voting representatives in Congress, so for years D.C. residents couldn’t take part in elections. It was the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution (passed in 1961) that gave D.C. the electoral votes that it would have if it were a state, limited to the number of electors the least-populated state has. Currently that state is Wyoming, with three electors. So D.C. gets a max of three electoral votes. Not sure exactly what an electoral vote is? No shame; we answered 19 political questions you’ve been too embarrassed to ask.
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