A Brief History of Washington DC

By Tim Lambert

The Foundation of Washington DC

Washington DC was founded to be the capital of the United States. The first European to explore the area was Englishman John Smith in 1608. Later in the 17th century settlers created tobacco plantations worked by black slaves. The town of Alexandria was founded in 1749 and the town of Georgetown was established in 1751. Both flourished.

After the War of Independence (1775-83) the federal government decided to create a capital. The constitution, which was ratified in 1788 allowed for a federal territory to be created not more than 10 square miles in size. The site of Washington was chosen in 1790 after some wrangling. The Northern states wanted the Federal government to take over debts they had incurred during the war. The Southern states agreed on the condition the new capital was located in the South.

In 1791 George Washington obtained land in Virginia and Maryland. Congress decided the new city would be called Washington and it would be in the territory (later district) of Columbia. The same year, in 1791 a French architect called Pierre L’Enfant (1754-1825) drew up a plan for the new capital.

In 1792 work began on building the President’s House (later the White House). Many of the people who worked on building the new capital were slaves.

Progress was slow but the US government moved to Washington in 1800. In 1802 Robert Brent was appointed the first mayor of Washington. However, by the time the war began with Britain in 1812, Washington DC was still taking shape. In August 1814 the British burned many of the public buildings in the town.

The Growth of Washington DC

In the early and mid 19th century Washington DC continued to grow and develop. In 1829 an Englishman named James Smithson left books and minerals and the Smithsonian Institution was founded. In 1835 Washington was connected to Baltimore by railroad.

However, there was racial tension in the growing city. There were many slaves in Washington as well as free blacks. The tension erupted in the Snow Riot of 1835 when whites attacked blacks. Slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia in 1862.

Washington DC boomed during the American Civil War (1861-1965) and its population doubled to 130,000 by 1870. However, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington in 1865.

Life in Washington DC improved in the late 19th century. Howard University was founded in 1867. In 1871 President Grant appointed a Board of Public Works to improve the infrastructure in Washington. Washington Monument was completed in 1884.

In 1901 the McMillan Plan was drawn up for Washington DC and it revised the original plan by Pierre l’Enfant.

Union Station was built in 1908 and in 1910 a height restriction was placed on new buildings to preserve the existing cityscape. Also in 1910, the National Museum of Natural History opened.

However, in the early 20th century Washington remained deeply divided along racial lines. Race riots broke out again in 1919.

Modern Washington DC

During the First World War, the population of Washington DC rose steeply. In the 1920s the city flourished and the Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922. Freer Art Gallery opened in 1923.

Like the rest of the USA Washington DC suffered in the depression of the 1930s However the Supreme Court was built in 1935 and the Federal Reserve Building was built in 1937. In 1941 the National Gallery of Art opened. Then during World War II, the population of Washington soared again. The Pentagon was built in 1943.

In 1963 Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington DC. When he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 Washington exploded into rioting.

In the late 20th century Washington DC continued to develop. The Kennedy Center opened in 1971 and the Hirshhorn Museum opened in 1974. In 1976 the Metrorail System opened. So did the National Air and Space Museum.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1982. The US Holocaust Museum opened in 1993. Also in 1993, the National Postal Museum opened.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated in 1995. The FDR Memorial opened in 1997 and The National WWII Memorial opened in 2004. Meanwhile, the International Spy Museum opened in Washington in 2002.

In 2020 the population of Washington DC was 689,000.

Last Revised 2024