The District of Columbia embodies a compromise. The choice of location for the national capital was a source of controversy in the first days of the republic. Philadelphia was the leading city, but Southern states did not want the capital to be there because of Quaker opposition to slavery. Virginia was the most populous state, but Northerners in turn did not want the United States to appear to endorse slavery.
Thomas Jefferson devised a compromise. A largely unpopulated tract of land on the Potomac would be chosen and placed in a new federal district, not subject to the laws of any individual state. The choice of its exact location was left to George Washington, who picked a diamond shaped site ten miles on each side, upriver from his estate at Mount Vernon. Most of it lay on the Maryland side of the river. The city proper was named Washington in his honor.
The task of designing the capital city was given to a Frenchman, Pierre L'Enfant. His design underlies the development of the city to this day. Most of the land along the river was marshy, so L'Enfant chose a hill, now known as Capitol Hill, for the capitol building. Originally, the intent was to direct development to the east, but speculators bought the land and held out for high prices. In response, Congress changed its mind and bought the marshy land to the west.
British forces captured Washington in the War of 1812 and burned several buildings, including the White House. The structures were all rebuilt by 1819. In 1846, Congress retroceded that part of the District of Columbia that lay on the Virginia side of the Potomac, which became Arlington County. During the Civil War, Washington's close proximity to the Confederacy separated solely by the Potomac River made its defense precarious.
On the occasion of the city's centennial, Congress established a commission to reconsider plans for the city. Headed by Senator James McMillan of Michigan, its report called for redevelopment to remove slums and transportation problems, the development of The Mall, and for a height restriction of 160 feet. In addition, a Commission of Fine Arts was created in 1910 to advise the government on future plans. As a result, Washington has been able to preserve its basic design integrity despite the huge expansion of the federal government during the 20th century.
Places of historic, cultural, and educational interest in Washington include: