George Washington and the National Capitol

George Washington

In 1789 the USA had no capitol city. George Washington would become the driving force in correcting that. Washington DC reflects his vision for a great city.

George Washington took his first presidential oath on a balcony in New York City, which served as a temporary capitol city for the re-born nation. It would soon move to Philadelphia. Congress met in borrowed rooms, and the administration did its work from borrowed or rented buildings.

Where Should the United States Locate its Capitol?

The Continental Congresses had met in Philadelphia from 1774 through the Revolutionary War. The Confederation Congress voted early to establish a permanent seat of government, But the Confederation was too weak and had insufficient money to do more than talk about it. The main debate was where to locate it.

All agreed that a capitol should be in the center of the country, but that could mean the geographic center, the population center, or even the center of wealth. As the Confederation Congress moved from Princeton to Annapolis to Trenton and then to New York City, no decision was made on a permanent location.

The first Congress to meet under the Constitution continued the discussion. The same arguments prevailed. Locations as far north as New York and as far south as the Potomac River were proposed. As often happens, a compromise on an unrelated item brought about a decision. Southerners would vote for Alexander Hamilton’s complicated financial program if the capitol would be located on the Potomac. The deal was struck.

Washington’s Credibility Questioned

The Potomac River was a potential gateway from the Atlantic Seaboard to the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. With canals to bypass falls, some channel improvements, and a few short roads over the mountain passes, the Potomac would make Virginia and Maryland the commercial center of the nation. So thought members of the Ohio Company, which had been formed in 1747 to promote the Potomac route. After the Revolutionary War, Maryland and Virginia chartered the Potomac Company for the same purpose. The president of the Potomac Company was George Washington.

In addition, Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, was prominently situated on the right bank of the Potomac, not many miles from the future site of the capitol city. The official record does not show that Washington used any of his considerable influence to sway the decision. But the proximity of his residence and his active involvement in Potomac area commercial interests opened Washington up to much suspicion and criticism.

Washington DC Plans and Financing

With a location chosen, many additional decisions were needed. Chief among them were:

  • What shall the city look like?
  • Shall it be a city, or just a village with nothing but government offices?
  • How shall it be paid for?

The passage of The Residence Act in 1790 effectively turned these decisions over to Washington. His vision was for a great city as the solution, a center not just of government but of culture, industry, commerce, and education too. He took the sweeping powers granted him and made the following decisions.

  • As required by the Residence Act, he appointed three commissioners to oversee the project. However, he delayed appointing them until he had made many of the decisions, then he appointed three men who would not go against anything he wanted.
  • He chose the site as the junction of the Potomac River and the Eastern Branch (now called Anacostia River). An area ten miles square was set aside.
  • He chose French-born engineer Pierre L’Enfant to design the city, and accepted most of his grandiose plans, even thought Congress had not appropriate any money to construct infrastructure and almost nothing for buildings.
  • He developed a financing plan that called for sale of lots within the grid laid out by L’Enfant. Proceeds from the sales would be used for needed construction. This caused a dispute between Washington and L’Enfant, with the latter being dismissed.
  • Washington oversaw the construction as much as he could. Such details as the type of stone for mounting iron fences attracted his attention. The sale of lots did not generate as much revenue as expected or needed, so some larger parcels within the district were sold to real estate speculators. By 1795, with finances lagging, Washington secured a loan from the Maryland legislature, and the project moved forward.

Construction would take years, and Washington himself would not live to see the government take up its residence in the city he championed, and which was named for him. How much he may have gained in personal profit from the project is not known, but is suspected to be fairly small. His vision was for a great city for America, not for himself.