How Washington, D.C. Came to Be

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture One Guide

The 68‑plus square miles that make up Washington, D.C. today are known for their stunning architecture, museums, beautiful green spaces, monuments, and memorials. The city is home to 20 colleges and universities, more than a dozen professional and college sports teams, numerous theaters supporting countless talented performing artists, and a vibrant international culinary scene. Find out how this vibrant city came to be, and a few spots that should be on any tourist’s list.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The historical background of Washington, D.C.’s location
• The works of Pierre Charles L’Enfant
• The Lincoln Memorial
• Events on the National Mall

Historical Background of Washington, D.C.’s Location

instructional gif for blue and green links in The Great Tours DC articles

The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, called for a permanent seat of government in Article I, Section 8, which specified an independent “District (not exceeding ten miles square)” created from land ceded by a state or states. However, it did not specify where.

In 1789, the American North and South clashed over Revolutionary War debts and slavery. Northern states tended to have more debt, and the states with little debt were not happy about having to pay for the rest. Between the issue of debt assumption and slavery, many people worried that the new nation would not survive.

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

As disputes over the capital’s location and the debt assumption were coming to a head, Jefferson hatched a plan and made political leader Alexander Hamilton an offer he could not refuse. He invited Hamilton and Madison over to dinner and proposed a compromise: He and Madison would convince Virginia’s congressmen to vote for the assumption of Northern debt, and Hamilton would convince New York’s congressmen to vote for a capital district in the South.

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

The Four Quadrants of Washington, D.C.

The four quadrants of Washington D.C. on yellow background
Most of the Southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. returned to Virginia in 1846.

After determining the Jones Point boundary with Alexandria, lead surveyors Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker laid out the district in a perfect square, with the corners pointing north, south, east, and west, and the borders facing northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest.

To this day, D.C.’s residents still think of the city as divided into these four quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest, although most of the Southwest quadrant returned to Virginia in 1846. That is why all addresses in D.C. include both a street name and a direction.

For example, the White House is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which means it is north of Constitution Avenue and west of Capitol Street.

This is an important tip for visitors to the city: Forgetting the direction of your destination could leave you hopelessly lost.

The Works of Pierre Charles L’Enfant

Tomb of Pierre George L'Enfant in Washington D.C.
The tomb of Pierre George L’Enfant (August 2, 1754 – June 14, 1825) in Washington D.C.

George Washington entrusted Pierre George L’Enfant with much of D.C.’s initial layout. L’Enfant placed the Capitol Building on what was then called Jenkins Hill. (We know it today as Capitol Hill.) Although it was only about 100 feet high, it was one of the highest points in the district and stood out in the mostly flat landscape.

L’Enfant also selected a site to the west for the president’s house. He placed it overlooking the Potomac, near the mouth of Tiber Creek, which would be reengineered into a canal connecting these two important buildings.

Though it is somewhat different than how L’Enfant envisioned it, the National Mall is the one place that almost every visitor to Washington, D.C. eventually winds up. It is a 146-acre green space stretching east to west between Constitution and Independence Avenues, from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. The National Park Service estimates that 24 million people visit the National Mall every year.

It took time, but by the turn of the 20th century, the White House and the Capitol Building were placed according to L’Enfant’s plan. The district also featured a monument to George Washington in the place, if not the style, that L’Enfant intended. The National Mall had grown and changed more or less according to the needs of the moment.

In 1902, the McMillan Plan provided further guidance. Though Congress never approved it as a whole, its piecemeal implementation gave the basic blueprint for the National Mall as visitors know it now. Today, the National Mall is not only the seat of the country’s government. It is also a living and growing monument to the most important events and achievements in the nation’s history.

The Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial Statue in Washington D.C. at night time
Construction on the Lincoln Memorial began on February 12, 1914—Lincoln’s 105th birthday.

Congress called for a monument to President Abraham Lincoln as early as 1867, but many obstacles stood in the way. However, funding was finally approved in 1910, and the site on the Potomac confirmed in 1911. The builders broke ground on February 12, 1914—Lincoln’s 105th birthday—and the monument was completed in 1922.

New York architect Henry Bacon designed the monument after the Parthenon of Athens. The statue of Lincoln itself was designed by Massachusetts sculptor Daniel Chester French from numerous photographs of Lincoln.

If you walk around the monument’s exterior colonnade to the back, you can see Robert E. Lee’s mansion and Arlington Cemetery on the other side of the river. If you visit the Lincoln Memorial at night, you may be able to spot a memorial to another president. Look for a flickering glow on the hillside just below Lee’s mansion. That glow is the eternal flame that marks the grave of President John F. Kennedy.

Events on the National Mall

Aerial view of the National Mall in Washington D.C.
The National Mall receives approximately 24 million visitors each year.

Over the decades, Americans would use the Mall to exercise their rights to free speech and free assembly, enshrined in the First Amendment, to make their country a better place. From the 5,000 women who marched for women’s suffrage in 1913, to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in 1963, to countless others down to the present day, the National Mall has cemented itself as our nation’s civic podium.

Not every mass gathering on the Mall has been a protest. In 1912, while the McMillan plan was being carried out, Japanese leader Yukio Ozaki presented a gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington, D.C.

These trees, found scattered throughout the city but mostly around the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial on the south arm of the National Mall, are one of the city’s most beloved landmarks—so beloved, in fact, that their blossoming is celebrated with a month-long festival. About 1.5 million people visit Washington between March and April each year for parades, musical performances, art exhibits, food festivals, tree plantings, and simply to take in the trees’ beauty.

Another major annual event is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held for two weeks each year around July 4. This festival, which has been held annually since 1967, celebrates the world’s living cultures through music, dance, storytelling, food, arts and crafts, and more.

D.C.’s most famous annual event is probably the Fourth of July. It features concerts on Capitol Hill and fireworks displays at the Washington Monument. There are also special exhibitions and historical reenactments at the National Archives and a National Independence Day Parade. Many of D.C.’s neighborhoods have their own celebrations and parades.

Here are some additional online resources to help plan your trip to Washington, D.C.
Visiting the National Mall
Cherry Blossom Festival
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Fourth of July in Washington, D.C.