As House Passes Bill for D.C. Statehood, A Look at the City’s Early Days

calls for the 51st state of the United States grow louder

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

House Democrats passed H.R. 51, calling for Washington, D.C. statehood. The cry for the city to become the 51st state of the United States has grown over the years, though the bill may die in the U.S. Senate. How did the capital become the capital?

Aerial view of Washington D.C. the United States Capitol
From 1774-1789, our nation’s early federal government, the Continental Congress, moved location many times, especially during the Revolutionary War to avoid British forces, meeting in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. Photo By Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

“No taxation without representation” may soon take one step closer to fruition for the residents of Washington, D.C., as the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to make the city become the 51st state of the United States. The bill may not pass through the U.S. Senate, but it calls to mind the city’s rich history of governmental and cultural development.

Despite being the seat of the federal government, Washington, D.C. wasn’t the nation’s capital until nearly a quarter century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, when John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, it was still being built.

In his video series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, explained how the city came to be in the first place.

Location, Location, Location

“The location of America’s capital was never a foregone conclusion,” Dr. Kurin said. “Between 1774 and 1789, the Continental Congress was nomadic—it moved 11 times, back and forth, between Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.

“The Constitution, ratified in 1788, called for a permanent seat of government in Article I, Section 8, which specified an independent ‘District (not exceeding 10 miles square)’ created from land ceded by a state or states, but it did not specify where.”

According to Dr. Kurin, this was because there was a dispute between the Northern states, which were more urban and “freer”; and the Southern states, which were more agrarian and slave-holding. However, Revolutionary War debts made the foundations for another dispute between the North and the South.

Alexander Hamilton issued the First Report on Public Credit, arguing that the states had gone into debt during the war for the good of the nation, and therefore, the entire nation was responsible for helping states pay their war debts. Of course, not all the states had the same debt amount.

“And the states with little debt weren’t too happy about having to pay for the rest,” added Dr. Kurin.

The Room Where It Happened

According to Dr. Kurin, the issues of debt assumption and slavery were so heated that many worried the new nation wouldn’t survive at all. John Adams, vice president of the United States at the time, wrote that he feared a civil war and that the North American continent would split into two or three different nations.

“The Northerners wanted the seat of government to return to Pennsylvania; specifically, Wrights Ferry, near the Susquehanna River,” Dr. Kurin said. “The Southerners—including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—had identified a different spot, near Georgetown, Maryland, at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

“By 1790, the area was already a thriving commercial crossroads for the nation.”

Thomas Jefferson invited Alexander Hamilton and James Madison over for dinner and offered a compromise that would change the nation: Jefferson and Madison would convince Virginia’s Congressmen to vote to take on Northern war debt if Hamilton could convince New York to agree to move the capital to the South.

“The compromise worked. And so, on July 16, 1790, George Washington signed the Residence Act, empowering Washington himself to establish the District of Columbia on the Potomac River.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily