There has always been a little confusion around the location and title of the political center of America. For one, the capital shares its name with a state that is not located anywhere near it. And secondly, the land where the capital is located, known as the District of Columbia, is neither a state, not exists within a state itself. So what is up with all of this? Why is it called Washington, DC in the first place? Let’s dismantle this mystery step by step.
The Residence Act of 1790
Back in 1790, there were many cities in the running to become capital of the United States. Among them were places like New York, Boston, and Trenton. Of course, Washington, DC was ultimately selected. So how did this decision come to be?
It all started earlier that year, when Congress passed the Residence Act by a relatively close margin of 32-29. This act granted then President George Washington the power to choose a location for the capital city. There was one condition, however. The capital had to be located along the East Bank of the Potomac River.
What was so special about the Potomac River? Well, it was picked as a compromise between northern and southern leaders. At the time, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was pushing Congress to pass a financial plan that involved the Federal government assuming state debts incurred during the American Revolution. As the northern states had accumulated much higher debts, many southern leaders, like James Madison, felt their taxpayers should not have to bail out states to the north. Ultimately, Thomas Jefferson met with Hamilton and Madison, and they reached a deal. Hamilton would get his financial plan passed, and a southern location would be selected as the site of the national capital.
Soon after signing the Residence Act, Washington began work on the project. He appointed three commissioners, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Carroll, and David Stuart, to oversee things. In September, 1791, the three men agreed to name the federal district, “The Territory of Columbia”, and the capital city, the “City of Washington”. In 1800, 10 years after the signing of the Residence Act, the seat of government was formally moved to Washington. The next year, the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 put the District under the jurisdiction of Congress.
Why Is it Called Washington, DC?
First, the District. The name “Columbia” derives from Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and first began to appear around the 18th century. Historically, Columbia was used to describe the New World or the Americas, but it gradually came to represent a personification of America. The District of Columbia is named after this personification. While imagery of Lady Liberty would replace that of Columbia by the 20th century, many places throughout the United States still bear the Columbia name.
As for the name Washington? Well, it is obvious that the three city commissioners wanted to honor their current, and first president by naming the city after him. The state of Washington is also named after George Washington. And while this can be confusing, the duplication of place names is fairly common throughout not just the US, but world.
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