Washington, D.C. History F.A.Q.

How did D.C. get its name and shape? Who designed the city’s flag? The Historical Society answers some frequently asked questions about D.C. history.

Why is Washington, D.C. our nation’s capital?

lenfantmapBetween 1776 and 1800, Congress met in several different locations. Philadelphia served as the last temporary capital from 1790-1800. The location of the permanent seat of the federal government was a controversial issue that divided Americans for many years. Various possibilities were suggested and many compromises were made until finally on July 16, 1790, Congress passed a law that permitted President George Washington to select a location for the national capital along the Potomac River and to appoint three commissioners to oversee its development. Washington selected a ten square mile area of land from property in Maryland and Virginia that lay on both sides of the Potomac. (In 1846, land formerly belonging to Virginia was returned to that state. See below.) Congress met for the first time in the new capital on November 17, 1800 and the transfer of the government from Philadelphia was completed by June of 1801.

How did the city get its name?

57881_dc_seal_smShortly after the owners of the land selected for the capital transferred their property to the government, President Washington began to refer to the newly-created town as “the Federal City.” At a meeting on September 9, 1791, the commissioners agreed that the “Federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.'” (The term “district” was more popular than “territory” and officially replaced it when the capital was incorporated in 1871.) The name “Washington” was chosen by the commissioners to honor the President. “Columbia,” a feminine form of “Columbus,” was popularized as a name for America in patriotic poetry and song after the Revolutionary War. The term idealized America’s qualities as a land of liberty.

What design is on Washington, D.C.’s flag?

271011The design for the flag of the District of Columbia was approved in 1938. It consists of three red stars above two horizontal red stripes on a white field. The design was taken from the shield on the coat of arms of George Washington’s family, which appeared on one of the earliest maps of the district in 1792.

How is D.C. different than a state?

Like other citizens living in states, D.C. citizens pay full federal and local taxes, but they do not get the privileges of representation and independence that the states have. Also, unlike the states, when D.C. receives federal funding, the funding comes with directives on how the money should be spent. D.C. residents do not have voting representatives in the Senate or in the House of Representatives to protect their interests. They have nonvoting representation that can sit on committees, but the representatives cannot vote on bills affecting their District. Senators and members of Congress from the states have voting powers. D.C. residents have a limited Presidential vote equal to the smallest state regardless of their population, and have only had the right to vote for the President since the 1964 election. Unlike states who can appoint their own local judges, the President appoints D.C.’s local judges. Congress only delegated power to a locally elected mayor and 13-member city council in 1974, and Congress continues to review and modify D.C.’s laws and budget. No states have their laws and budget reviewed.

Why is D.C. no longer 10 miles square?

In 1846, the area encompassed by the city of Alexandria and Alexandria County (now Arlington County), was retroceded to Virginia. As a result of this process, the federal district lost one third of its total area. Merchants in Alexandria had expected to gain commercial benefits from being associated with the national capital, but the city quickly stagnated with disputes over the canal and competition with the port of Georgetown. Merchants and traders who expected to become rich were disappointed, because the federal government had no need for the land south of the Potomac River. As part of the District, they had not only lost the right to vote and representation but also potential economic growth. The slave trade was a third, though unstated, reason for the retrocession. The slave trade flourished in Alexandria and by removing the city from congressional authority, Alexandria was able to keep its active business until slavery was outlawed. Also retrocession gave Virginia’s slaveholders two additional representatives in Virginia. Alexandria’s voters petitioned Congress asking for the return of the land to Virginia, but it wasn’t until they petitioned the Virginia legislature in 1846 that they were able to retrocede.

Upcoming Events

Sat 29
Sun 30

Save Your History: a Digital Preservation Workshop

April 30 @ 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm EDT
May 06

Mapping and Migration

May 6 @ 10:30 am - 12:30 pm EDT
May 11