History of the District of Columbia
An Algonquian people known as the Nacotchtank inhabited the area
around the Anacostia River where Washington now lies when the first
Europeans arrived in the 17th century; however, Native American people
had largely relocated from the area by the early 18th century. Georgetown
was chartered by the Province of Maryland on the north bank of the
Potomac River in 1751. The town would be included within the new
federal territory established nearly 40 years later. The City of Alexandria,
Virginia, founded in 1749, was also originally included within the District.
James Madison expounded the need for a federal district on January
23, 1788, in his "Federalist No. 43", arguing that the national capital
needed to be distinct from the states in order to provide for its own
maintenance and safety. An attack on the Congress at Philadelphia
by a mob of angry soldiers, known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783,
had emphasized the need for the government to see to its own security.
Therefore, the authority to establish a federal capital was provided in
Article One, Section Eight, of the United States Constitution, which
permits a "District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession
of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat
of the government of the United States". The Constitution does not,
however, specify a location for the new capital. In what later became
known as the Compromise of 1790, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and
Thomas Jefferson came to an agreement that the federal government
would assume war debt carried by the states, on the condition that the
new national capital would be located in the Southern United States.
The United States Capitol after the burning of Washington, D.C. in the
War of 1812.On July 16, 1790, the Residence Act provided for a new
permanent capital to be located on the Potomac River, the exact area to
be selected by President Washington. As permitted by the U.S.
Constitution, the initial shape of the federal district was a square,
measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles
(260 km2). During 1791–92, Andrew Ellicott and several assistants,
including Benjamin Banneker, surveyed the border of the District with
both Maryland and Virginia, placing boundary stones at every mile point;
many of the stones are still standing. A new "federal city" was then
constructed on the north bank of the Potomac, to the east of the
established settlement at Georgetown. On September 9, 1791, the federal
city was named in honor of George Washington, and the district was
named the Territory of Columbia, Columbia being a poetic name for the
United States in use at that time.Congress held its first session in
Washington on November 17, 1800.
The Organic Act of 1801 officially organized the District of Columbia and
placed the entire federal territory, including the cities of Washington,
Georgetown, and Alexandria, under the exclusive control of Congress.
Further, the unincorporated territory within the District was organized into
two counties: the County of Washington to the east of the Potomac and
the County of Alexandria to the west. Following this Act, citizens located
in the District were no longer considered residents of Maryland or Virginia,
thus ending their representation in Congress.
Ford's Theatre in the 19th century, site of the 1865 assassination of President
LincolnOn August 24–25, 1814, in a raid known as the Burning of Washington,
British forces invaded the capital during the War of 1812, following the
sacking and burning of York (modern-day Toronto). The Capitol, Treasury,
and White House were burned and gutted during the attack. Most government
buildings were quickly repaired, but the Capitol, which was at the time largely
under construction, was not completed in its current form until 1868.
Since 1800, the District's residents have protested their lack of voting
representation in Congress. To correct this, various proposals have been
offered to return the land ceded to form the District back to Maryland and
Virginia. This process is known as retrocession. However, such efforts
failed to earn enough support until the 1830s when the District's southern
county of Alexandria went into economic decline partly due to neglect by
Congress. Alexandria had been a major market in the American slave trade,
and rumors circulated that abolitionists in Congress were attempting to
end slavery in the District; such an action would have further depressed
Alexandria's slavery-based economy. Unhappy with Congressional authority
over Alexandria, in 1840 residents began to petition for the retrocession of
the District's southern territory back to Virginia. The state legislature
complied in February 1846, partly because the return of Alexandria provided
two additional pro-slavery delegates to the Virginia General Assembly. On
July 9, 1846, Congress agreed to return all the District's territory south of
the Potomac River to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Confirming the fears of pro-slavery Alexandrians, the Compromise of 1850
outlawed the slave trade in the District, though not slavery itself. By
1860, approximately 80% of the city's African American residents were
free blacks. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 led to notable
growth in the District's population due to the expansion of the federal
government and a large influx of freed slaves. In 1862, President Abraham
Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in
the District of Columbia and freed about 3,100 enslaved persons, nine
months prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1870, the District's
population had grown to nearly 132,000. Despite the city's growth,
Washington still had dirt roads and lacked basic sanitation; the situation
was so bad that some members of Congress proposed moving the capital
Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool during the 1963 March on Washington
With the Organic Act of 1871, Congress created a new government for the
entire federal territory. This Act effectively combined the City of Washington,
Georgetown, and Washington County into a single municipality officially named
the District of Columbia. Even though the City of Washington legally ceased
to exist after 1871, the name continued in use and the whole city became
commonly known as Washington, D.C. In the same Organic Act, Congress
also appointed a Board of Public Works charged with modernizing the city.
In 1873, President Grant appointed the board's most influential member,
Alexander Shepherd, to the new post of governor. That year, Shepherd spent
$20 million on public works ($357 million in 2007), which modernized
Washington but also bankrupted the city. In 1874, Congress abolished
Shepherd's office in favor of direct rule. Additional projects to renovate
the city were not executed until the McMillan Plan in 1901.
The District's population remained relatively stable until the Great Depression
in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation
expanded the bureaucracy in Washington. World War II further increased
government activity, adding to the number of federal employees in the capital;
by 1950, the District's population had reached a peak of 802,178 residents.
The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in
1961, granting the District three votes in the Electoral College for the election of
President and Vice President, but still no voting representation in Congress.
After the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April
4, 1968, riots broke out in the District, primarily in the U Street, 14th Street,
7th Street, and H Street corridors, centers of black residential and commercial
areas. The riots raged for three days until over 13,000 federal and national guard
troops managed to quell the violence. Many stores and other buildings were
burned; rebuilding was not complete until the late 1990s.
In 1973, Congress enacted the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, providing for
an elected mayor and city council for the District. In 1975, Walter Washington
became the first elected and first black mayor of the District. However, during
the later 1980s and 1990s, city administrations were criticized for
mismanagement and waste. In 1995, Congress created the District of Columbia
Financial Control Board to oversee all municipal spending and rehabilitate the
city government. The District regained control over its finances in September
2001 and the oversight board's operations were suspended.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and
deliberately crashed the plane into the Pentagon in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
United Airlines Flight 93, believed to be destined for Washington, D.C., crashed
in Pennsylvania when passengers tried to recover control of the plane from hijackers
From another source
In 1790, founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
agreed upon the Compromise of 1790, in which it was agreed that the capital city of
the United States would be moved from Philadelphia to a new location in the South,
what would eventually become known as the District of Columbia. George Washington
chose the location of the new city, along the banks of the scenic Potomac River, and
one year after its establishment, the City of Washington was named in his honor. The
federal district was poetically named the District of Columbia, and the Congress of the
United States held its first session on Capitol Hill in November of 1800.
Between 1790 and 1800, residents of this federal territory were able to elect
representatives to Congress as part of the Virginia or Maryland delegations. In 1801,
however, Congress passed the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, splitting the
city into Washington, in the north, and Alexandria, in the south. Following passage of
this legislation, residents of the District were no longer considered residents of either
Maryland or Virginia and were subsequently no longer able to vote for Congressional
representation. From that moment onward, only a few decades after American colonists
coined the phrase “taxation without representation,” Washington residents were refused
the most basic right of a voice in their government, an atrocity that still continues today.
In 1871, the District of Columbia and the City of Washington were merged, creating
Washington, DC as we know it today. Other states continued to gain admittance to the
Union, and representation in Congress, while DC residents continued to go without. Only
in 1961, with the passage of the 23rd Amendment, were the residents of DC actually
given the opportunity to vote for president. Even this small victory was not without
controversy, and although the District was more populous than 13 of the 50 states in
1960, it was not, and cannot, be granted more electoral votes than the least populous
state regardless of its own population.
In 1978, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Both Houses of Congress
passed the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment. This Amendment proposed
to treat the District as though it were a state, particularly in regard to representation in
Congress and the Electoral College. However, the Amendment was ratified by only 16
states, more than 20 short of the two-thirds needed, and the oppression of District
Recently, small steps have been taken towards granting the District the equal voting
representation it deserves. In 2008 Congress lifted the ban on spending money lobbying
for fair representation and the DC Council approved $500,000 towards a DC voting rights
campaign. The Shadow and Congressional Delegation, along with other Democrats in
the Senate, brought the DC Voting Rights Bill to within three votes of the 60 needed to
begin debate, the farthest the bill has ever gotten.
This year the House Voting Rights Act 2009 (S. 160–HR 1.57157) will again reach the
floor for Congressional debate. Although progress has been made, there is much more
that needs to be done in the future in order to halt the systematic, politically biased
exploitation of the District by a selfish right-wing coalition that does not want the voices
of DC residents to be empowered on a national level.
Information courtesy of Wikipedia and other DC sources.
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