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Washington DC History

During the 1780’s congress began to debate moving the U.S. Capital from Philadelphia to a new city that’s function was solely government. At that time, the country was much divided between the northern states and the southern states. Furthermore, the aristocracy knew that the location chosen to be the new capital would grow to become a prominent financial center. Consequently, there was a lot of competition for the honor of the capital seal.

Northerners would not support a southern capital and vice versa. A compromise between the northern states and the southern states was reached in 1790. The north agreed to support a southern capital in exchange for having their Revolutionary War debts paid off by the southern states. The area now known as Washington DC was selected, since it was technically part of the south, though, close enough to the north so that it didn’t upset too many northerners. George Washington, who was an experienced surveyor, was chartered with mapping out the precise location. Washington hired a man named Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the city. L’Enfant had a grand vision of the city in mind. However, he alienated himself from the landowners, which lead to his firing less then a year later. Though L’Enfant was relieved of his office, his vision remained and eventually would be realized.

There was little in Washington DC, other then swamplands, in 1800 when government officials arrived at their new home. Many even wondered if they wouldn’t be better off choosing a new location for the capital.

War of 1812
The War of 1812 reached Washington DC on August 23rd, 1814 when British troops landed on the Maryland shores. British soldiers stormed the city and torched the President’s House, the Capital, and the Library of Congress, in addition to many other government buildings. If it weren’t for the rainstorm on the following eve that extinguished the fires, the city would have been completely destroyed. Afterwards, there was talk of moving the capital. However, congress urged that this would be perceived as a sign weakness; the restoration effort began after the Treaty of Ghent was signed, establishing peace with Great Britain.

Civil War
During the Civil War, Washington DC’s population doubled from 60,000 to 120,000. The capital became the Union Army’s predominate supply depot and an important medical center. Lincoln insisted that work continue on the city. The dome of the Capital Building was actually completed during the height of the war. Lincoln believed that the continued development of the city signified Washington’s plan to rejoin the nation. Washington DC rejoiced after the Civil War. However, the celebration was short lived as Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater crippled moral.

During his Presidency, Ulysses S. Grant appointed his close friend Alexander Shepherd governor. Shepherd was a real estate speculator who had made his fortune in a plumbing firm. Shepherd vowed to turn Washington DC into a showcase for the ages, and that is exactly what he did. However, his lavish projects put the city $20 million in dept.

James McMillian
In 1900, Michigan Senator James McMillian established a committee focused on the beautification of Washington DC. The committee was comprised of highly respected architects, landscapers and city planners. The committee put forth work designing the Lincoln Memorial, Union Station and the Arlington Memorial Bridge. After McMillian’s death, President Taft established the commission of fine arts, which took over the beautification efforts and added fountains, landscaping and monuments throughout Washington DC.

Civil Rights Act
By the 1950’s, Washington DC’s population had increased to a mammoth 800,000. Then in the 1960’s the Civil Rights movement took a foothold on the city. On August 28th, 1963 200,000 whites and blacks “Marched on Washington” to ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Beautification efforts are still alive today. In recent years, Washington DC saw the addition of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in 1997, the City Museum of Washington in 2003 and the Smithsonian’s Nation Museum of the American Indian in 2004. Throughout its brief history, Washington DC has become one of the most beautiful capitals in the world. Moreover, there is little doubt that the city’s transformation will continue far into the 21st century.


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