Daily Archives: November 10, 2010

II. A Place for the Federal City | Washington DC, the Place and Space Series

In Section 8 of Article I in the U.S. Constitution, there is a long list of the Congress’s powers which more or less concludes with the following lines:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Building . . .

This establishment of a “District” to serve as the place for the Congress to meet–with limited dimensions–is unusual.  To understand how this comes about, one has to begin by considering the fear of certain state delegates and elected officials had of central government on the one hand and the strong sense of regionalism and state loyalty that had already developed by this time, on the other hand.  The geographic position was itself the result of compromise.  Given these strong territorial attitudes, there was a great concern that any capital would be under undue influence of the state that hosted it.  Thus, obvious cities such as Philadelphia and New York, for which there was a great deal of precedent in housing U.S. affairs up to that point, were off the table for the southern states who were already rankled over discussions surrounding populations and voting due to the high population of slaves (should slaves be counted as part of the population if they are not voting?).  In the end, the North conciliated the South when it was decided that the city should be established along the Potomac and take land from both Maryland and Virginia–both “southern” states in many important features despite Maryland’s more northernly location.

The cities of Georgetown, Alexandria and Washington of the District of Columbia.

Over the course of George Washington’s young presidential career, the city was dug and hammered out, both legally and literally, though he would never live or work there.  The boundaries of the “Territory of Columbia” would be established by 1791, including the Maryland and Virginia portions and already existing corporations of Georgetown, MD and Alexandria, VA.  By 1796, the name, District of Columbia, would be officially christened and the existing cities would become Georgetown and Alexandria, DC.  From 1791-1801, Georgetown and Alexandria ran their respective city governments within their pre-established jurisdictions and three presidential appointees, the Commissioners, were assigned the task of establishing Washington City, selling plots to private owners and constructing public buildings.

Georgetown, DC in Washington County.

The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 called for the establishment of two counties: Washington County to the east of the Potomac (formerly Maryland) and Alexandria County to the west of it (formerly Virginia).  This organizational amendment did not effect the established cities of Georgetown and Alexandria.  Presidentially appointed justices of the peace and other county magistrates would shortly be formed into boards of commissioners, which resembled the County courts of Virginia and the Levy courts of Maryland, thus the Levy Court of Washington County and the County Court of Alexandria County.  On May 3, 1802, the Federal City transitioned from the system of Commissioners to the city government with the incorporation of the City of Washington DC.  It would remain in this configuration until 1846 when Alexandria would be returned at its request to Virginia.  (http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/351.html#351.1)

The District of Columbia Alexandria County has been returned to Virginia.

At the historical conference, John Gorney presented on Washington’s obsession with the development of the Federal City.  His contemporaries and detractors accused him both of being distracted and of furthering his own private interests given the city’s proximity to his estate in Mount Vernon.  The president’s three appointed Commissioners were tasked with seeing development of the capital city and the capitol building.  Pierre L’Enfant would design the city after Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker mapped it out.  L’Enfant would eventually be fired for failing to present the city plan in time for land sales–for his part he did not believe the site was ready to besold to private interest–and Ellicott was put in charge and recreated the L’Enfant plan from memory.  This plan remained the principle guiding vision for the city’s development until the McMillan Plan in 1901-2 sought to reinvigorate the open ceremonial spaces included by L’Enfant, but largely unrealized in the city.

Gorney argues that Washington intended DC to be a vibrant, economically successful city like Philadelphia and New York, and pointed to his plans to establish a national university in the city to foster learning in the arts and sciences (especially his own love, botany).  L’Enfant was clearly inspired by the design of the great European cities that he had seen.  But, DC develops slowly and uncouthly.  It’s awkward charter and it’s peculiar attachment to Congress make for an odd and often ponderous evolution.

Washington DC, not far from its roots as farm land, in 1852 looking past the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The next post will take a brief look at the locals’ space in the city–the residential area–and the challenges of this concept in a city that is technically run at the will of the committees in Congress.

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