A Nation With No Capital City...
Until July 16, 1790
Before Washington D.C. became the nation's capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the primary location for most of the business of governing. Several other cities hosted Congress from time to time, but Philadelphia was the most oft-used location.
So what prompted the move?
A mutiny in 1783. A band of about 400-500 armed anti-government protesters blockaded Independence Hall in Philadelphia, refusing to allow members of Congress to leave on account of personal and political grievances. The Executive Council of Pennsylvania was asked to provide protection, but they were unwilling or unable to provide support (this varies among depictions of the story).
The mutiny was eventually suppressed by General Washington and the Continental Army, but the lesson was clear — the federal government needed its own land to preside over, whose protection would be its own responsibility. So New York temporarily hosted Congress while possible locations were surveyed and debated.
Determining the District
Article One Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution permits the establishment of a District formed by the land given from states for the purpose of seating and protecting the federal government.
The term "District" is important because it limits the area to 100 square miles by definition — Washington D.C. was established as a 10x10 mile square comprised of landed from both Maryland and Virginia, though some of that land has since been given back to Virginia and the total area is just about 69 square miles.
The land chosen is on the east bank of the Potomac River and is comprised of land that was formerly part of Maryland and Virginia. The area was originally established as the District of Columbia with an internal County of Washington.
The name "Columbia" refers to the female personification of the United States, while "Washington" is an homage to George Washington. After the Civil War, the counties were abolished and the area was renamed Washington D.C.
A Massive Expansion
Washington D.C. has grown quite a bit since 1790. In fact, because it was so swampy no one really resided there until about 1800, when President Adams reluctantly moved into the newly built White House. Jefferson moved in the following year.
But now... the population is nearly a quarter of a million people on the weekends. During the week, commuting workers swell the population by another few hundred thousand people!
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