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Why is Washington DC the capital of the US? When was it chosen?

The city is unique in the United States as it belongs to no state, the District of Columbia is its own entity, giving the federal government free rein.

The sun sets behind the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
Leah MillisReuters

Why and when was it created?

The city was crafted in the US constitution to be the capital of the new United States of America. The first brick was laid on July 16, 1790. The location took time to negotiate, coming 14 years after the end of the war against the British with the southern states wanting a capital closer to their landowning, slave owning territory.

First President George Washington chose the land himself with two nearby states, Maryland and Virginia, ceding land for it to be created. The designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, wanted to city to reflect his native Paris, but this was before Paris was planned how it is today, making the cities feel distinct to one another.

What is its history after this?

Disaster struck the new city in the war of 1812, known in England and Europe as the Napoleonic wars, when the encroaching British army burned the fledgling city to the ground. The Capitol, White House and Library of Congress was lost in the destruction. Further problems occurred when the Virginian part of the area was taken back by the state, after townsfolk felt they were being neglected by the district.

But the fortunes of the city would change with the civil war.

Slaves owned in Washington were emancipated on April 16, 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation, and it therefore became a hub for freed slaves. The war led to a growth in federal power and the reputation, and size, of the city swelled. Growth continued in the 20th century leading to the state of affairs that exist today.

A quirk of the city is that residents lack full self-governance. There is just one delegate in the House of Representatives, who is unable to vote, and a shadow senator. In 1964, Washingtonians were first allowed to vote in Presidential elections.

This is because the city was under the sole jurisdiction of Congress, which terminated voting rights in 1801. Now, the city regularly votes Democrat, due to the long-standing black community dating back to the civil war. They are not allowed to vote for a senator however, and the district is not a legal state, sharing that position with Puerto Rico and various Pacific islands.


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