The history of Washington dates back to July 16, 1790 when the site was chosen next to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers by George Washington (1732- 1799) the First President and Commander-in-chief, with the City named in his honor.
At the time (1790) New York was the capital of the United States, but in 1792 the capital was moved to Philadelphia, where it remained until Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the President in in March 1801 in Washington.
The site of Washington as the capital was a matter of both politics and diplomacy, with debate and competing business, financial, city and political influences vying for the rights to become the Capital. New York had been the first capital, Philadelphia had become the new capital, but in the end Washington was chosen as being a neutral location midway between the competing interests of the North with those of the South, with Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) lobbying for Northern interests, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) lobbying for the Southern interests.
Plans for the new capital were started in 1790, under the direction of President George Washington, with a French born architect/engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1826) drawing up plans for the city to be, with the Capitol Building on Capitol Hill and avenues radiating from it. His vison for the city would take another 100 years to come into fruition, but Washington today and the design of the city can be attributed to a large degree to his vision and enterprise.
The design and layout of the streets can also be partly attributed to Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) an African American freeman who had a great interest in astronomy and mathematics, which he used in his surveying work.
While the United States sought its independence from British rule, with the War of Independence taking place between 1775 and 1783, the skirmishes and animosity between the United States and Britain continued on, and in 1811-12 the trade disputes reached new heights, with the 4th President of the United States, James Madison (1751-1836) declaring war on Britain. An American attack on Toronto in Canada (then named York), when much of Toronto was burned down, also resulted in a British reprisal attack in 1812 on Washington where a number of government buildings were burned too – including the White House, which had started being built in 1792 and along with the Capitol Building.
The war continued on, and only ended when the Treaty of Ghent was ratified between the two warring countries in February 1815. In Washington itself, only the residential buildings, Post Office, Patent Office and Marine Barracks were saved from the fires in 1812.
While Washington was clearly established as the Nation’s capital, most power rested with the individual state legislatives up until the American Civil War (1861-65) when each state declared themselves to be either pro-slavery or pro-abolition states. Defending Washington then became a priority and Washington grew as a consequence as new recruits arrived in the City to protect it, and casualties of the war came back to Washington to recuperate or be hospitalised. While Slave auctions in Washington had been stopped by 1850, it would only be in 1862 that all slaves in Washington were emancipated, followed in January 1st, 1863 by the 16th President of the United States, President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” which affected all states, including all the pro-slavery states too. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) played a key role in the Civil War, as Commander-in-chief, but he would at the end of the war also become the first President in the United States to be assassinated too.
A number of African Americans by the time of the Civil War had come to Washington to live and work, with some also gaining their freedom there. Others became soldiers on the promise that their service would buy their freedom and at the end of the war many newly emancipated slaves headed from southern states to Washington to live and work. Today over 50% of Washington’s population are African Americans, many tracing their family history back to the Civil War days and the early years afterwards. A new National Museum of African American History and Culture is located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW.
The Civil War clearly confirmed Washington as the Capital City of the United States, and as transport and communication developed, so too did the role and responsibilities of the Federal Government – with the city becoming the center for American Politics, the Judiciary, Government departments and administration, Defense, Research, foreign embassies, education and the press.