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Reading 1: A Capital City Founded by Compromise
Washington, D.C., is a city founded on a compromise. During the Revolutionary War, American states each went into debt when they borrowed money to pay for the war with England. By 1790, states in the south had paid off most of their debt, but northern states had not. Many northerners wanted the federal government to pay off the states’ Revolutionary War debts with taxes. This did not seem fair to southerners. At the same time, the federal government did not have a permanent capital and members of Congress could not agree on a location. The Compromise of 1790 settled both the issue of debt and the capital.
The representative body that became the U.S. federal government met in eight different cities in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland between 1774 and 1800. By 1790, Americans wanted a permanent capital. The United States Constitution gives Congress the power to create a capital district separate from the states. The Constitution does not say where Congress will create the district. Politicians knew that the states bordering the district would be able to influence the capital. Influence in the capital meant influence in the government. This gave the northern states something to bargain with when they asked the South to help pay off their wartime debts. Northerner Alexander Hamilton, who was Secretary of the Treasury, made sure congressmen from northern states voted to put the capital in the South. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who were from the South, made sure that southern congressmen voted to have the federal government pay off the states’ debt. The Residence Act of 1790 passed because of this compromise.
The Residence Act gave the president power to select land in Maryland, on the eastern bank of the Potomac River, to establish the capital city. President George Washington chose a site that included existing river ports known as Alexandria and Georgetown. The land was not developed, except at the ports. There were fewer than 800 people living in the portion of the District known as the City of Washington at the time. Most of the residents were enslaved and worked on large farms. The commissioners named the city a year after the Residence Act passed. They named the district “Columbia” after Christopher Columbus, the Portuguese explorer who began European colonization of the Americas in the 1490s.
The president asked Peter L’Enfant to design the city. L’Enfant was Washington’s friend and a Revolutionary War veteran. He was also an artist who lived in Paris, France, before he moved to America. L’Enfant had a grand vision for the city. He planned for the city to have wide avenues and large, open spaces for public parks and monuments. Congress would meet in the capitol building located a mile away from the President’s House. L’Enfant wanted the land around government buildings to be private home lots for foreign dignitaries and ambassadors, as well as prominent and powerful Americans.
Washington’s and L’Enfant’s ambitious plans for the District of Columbia faced challenges. The construction work was slow. D.C.’s city commissioners argued over planning details with architects and planners. The commissioners also had trouble raising money for the project. The construction of the city was supposed to be paid for by auctioning off lots of land within the city to private buyers. This was not as successful as they had hoped. There were not as many buyers as they had expected.
Another problem was the city commissioners’ preference for using enslaved laborers in the construction projects. L’Enfant and others did not want slavery in the capital. The system of slavery was widespread in the South and Washington, D.C. was founded in the southern state of Maryland. In the late 18th century, northern states like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts abolished slavery and new territories in the west were created with laws against slavery. The new capital district kept it legal when it separated from a slave state.
Construction of the capitol building did not finish by 1800, but Congress did move to D.C. that year. The population increased and construction continued, but growth was slow. Senator Morris of New York state joked that the capital had everything except "houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind."1 In the early 19th century, Washington, D.C. was called “the city of magnificent distances” and “the city of streets without houses.”2
Questions for Reading 1
1) What was the Compromise of 1790? What did the two sides each want? What was the result of the compromise?
2) Why do you think the Framers of the Constitution wanted the capital in an independent district?
3) According to the reading, in what ways did slavery affect the creation of Washington, D.C.? What do you think were some of the ways a capital city with slavery supported slavery throughout the U.S.?
4) Why do you think people would be reluctant to move their homes and businesses to Washington, D.C. in 1800? Why would people be eager to move there?
Reading 1 was compiled from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination for “L'Enfant Plan of the City of Washington, D.C.” and the Smithsonian Magazine article “Washington, D.C. – History and Heritage” published by Smithsonian.com.
1 Byrd, Robert and Wendy Wolff. The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on the history of the United States Senate, Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1988. 405.