Washington, District of Columbia, is quite literally a city unlike any other in the United States. The nation’s capital was not selected but created, carved out of portions of Maryland and Virginia, George Washington himself chose the location. His namesake city was not to be part of any state, but a federal district.
In some ways, Washington, D.C. is emblematic of the nascent country the city belonged to. The capital’s location was not a foregone conclusion, even though it was prescribed by the Constitution. A compromise was reached between factions led by Alexander Hamilton, who supported Northern interests, and Thomas Jefferson, who supported the Southern slave-holding economies.
It took more than a decade to construct the city, originally designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The seat of government moved to the District in 1880, even though few federal buildings were complete and housing was scarce. It would not take long for disaster to strike.
The United State declared war against Great Britain in 1812. Two years later, the Brits attacked the capital, burning many federal buildings, the White House and Capitol among them. President James Madison was forced to evacuate in advance of the British troops. Madison’s wife Dolley famously rescued a beloved portrait of George Washington.
The Library of Congress was one of the buildings burned, along with its books. Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to replenish the collection.
The damage was so extensive that some Northerners wanted to move the capital back to Philadelphia. This movement failed and after a period of seven years, reconstruction was almost complete.
Several decades of slow growth in the District preceded the Civil War. It was still a small city in population but two aspects of the war helped change that.
First was the elimination of slavery in the district eight months prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The city became a hot spot for former slaves and free black peoples.
The second was the influx of soldiers to Washington due to the creation of the Army of the Potomac, created to defend the capital. In the 1860s, the population of the District almost doubled, rising to 132,000 by the 1870 census.
Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 at Ford’s Theatre placed a pall over the capital city and the nation.
The city continued to grow, culminating in the McMillan Plan in 1901. This plan was a proposed redevelopment of the National Mall area. The plan was inspired by L’Enfant’s original plans, which had failed to fully come to fruition.
The plan’s urban renewal efforts lasted through World War I, coming to an end with the completion of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.
The remainder of the 20th century was one of both growth and pain. With Washington having a majority-black population and being the center of government, it naturally became a central location for the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.
Today’s District has seen a bit of a decline in population, with much of the migration going to the surrounding suburbs. The fight for statehood continues to be a hot-button issue, as residents fall under the purview of the federal government. Washington has no Senate representation and only an informal one in the House of Representatives.
A constitutional amendment to give the District full representation in Congress was proposed in 1978. It failed the ratification process. In 2016, voters approved a referendum to propose statehood. Statehood prospects remain doubtful due to opposition in Congress.