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How Washington, D.C., Developed

As the new capital in Washington, D.C., was being constructed, the federal government stayed in Philadelphia. On May 15, 1800, President John Adams ordered the federal government to relocate to Washington, and the Adams family became the first First Family to live in what today is called the White House.

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it,” President Adams said upon moving in. “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

Things did not remain tranquil for long. Two years into the War of 1812, the British occupied Washington and burned down many of its most prominent public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, White House, and Library of Congress.

The former two survived only as burnt-out shells; the latter survived thanks to Thomas Jefferson’s offer to replace the 3,000 books lost in the fire with his own personal library of some 6,500 books, thereby doubling the Library of Congress’s size and vastly expanding the variety of books in its possession. (Jefferson had a motive for his munificence; he was deeply in debt and needed the $24,000 Congress paid him.)

For a time, Congress considered relocating back to Philadelphia, but in the end it decided to stay and rebuild.

Washington’s public buildings were repaired, and slowly the city began adding to its array of famous edifices, monuments, and museums. Construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848 and was completed some three decades later. In the meantime, the U.S. Capitol got its iconic dome, which (as you may recall from your grade school textbook) stood conspicuously unfinished at Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.

Washington even got its famous National Zoo in 1889. Nonetheless, Washington did lose one major element of its original design: The town of Alexandria voted in favor of “retrocession” in 1846 and, with President James K. Polk’s signature, was ceded back to Virginia. (Proponents argued that the town received little advantage from being part of the capital and would benefit from greater investment as part of Virginia.)

Ahead of Washington’s centennial in 1900, a Senate commission chaired by Senator James McMillan developed a new park system for the city. Among its most important decisions, the McMillan Commission called for a relandscaping of the National Mall (including the removal of a railroad station and tracks) into an open greenway, re-creating to a certain degree L’Enfant’s original design.

Another result of the McMillan Commission was the construction of Union Station, Washington’s main train station, which opened in 1908 just blocks away from the U.S. Capitol.

Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, Washington experienced a phenomenal population explosion. A small town of just 8,144 residents in 1800 was transformed into a small city of 486,869 residents by 1930, at which point it was roughly two-thirds White and one-third African American.

The city has always had a strong African American population, which was initially the result of slavery but was bolstered during Reconstruction in part thanks to federal employment opportunities and educational institutions like Howard University.

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