Washington, D.C., United States of America

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The capital of the United States and its seat of national government, Washington, D.C. is located at the head of the Potomac River on the East Coast of the United States. The city occupies an area of 68 sq. miles (177 km2), although the Washington Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (WSMSA), which also contains counties in the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia, covers a far larger area.


Originally an area of marshland, early settlements came after English adventurer Captain John Smith’s exploration in 1608. After the end of the American War of Independence in 1783 and the inauguration of George Washington as President in 1789, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton agreed, in a compromise deal, that the national capital would be located on the East Coast. President Washington chose the location personally by carving a diamond of territory from the states of Virginia and Maryland. This set in motion the establishment of a permanent seat of government for the new nation, which was named Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) in honour of the first President and in reference to ‘Columbia’, a poetic name for the US at the time.

Maverick French army engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was entrusted with the task of designing the city under the supervision of three presidentially appointed commissioners. In 1792 L’Enfant was dismissed after a series of bitter disputes with the commissioners and local landlords. However, his basic vision of a grid-patterned city with the President’s mansion on a hilltop, as well as a generous endowment of parks, squares and circles, was ultimately achieved after decades of mismanagement and chaos.

Construction of the city began in 1793 yet it wasn’t until 1800 that Congress transferred to Washington from their temporary home of Philadelphia and President John Adams took up residence in the White House, which was still not completed. Some measure of local government was established in 1802, including a mayor and an elected council. In 1814 British forces attacked the city, setting fire to several public buildings, including the White House, and forcing President James Madison to take temporary residence in the Octagon.

At this stage in its history, the city lacked any significant public amenities. Its evolution was hampered by the fact that the District of Colombia had been made a politically neutral state whose residents did not have the right to vote in presidential or congressional elections. Congress therefore took little interest in the city other than to lobby for the national capital to be moved to a more westerly location. In 1846 the section of the District of Colombia to the southwest of the Potomac was ceded back to Virginia, reducing the size of the District to approximately 69 sq. miles (179 km2).

After the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a new structure of city administration was established by Congress in 1871. Under the aegis of administrator Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd an ambitious public works programme began to bring the city’s urban infrastructure up to scratch. Proper sewage systems, street lighting and pavements were finally installed.

America’s participation in World War I and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s introduction of the New Deal both served to swell the city’s population as employment opportunities rapidly increased. The ethnic mix of the city was transformed during the 1950s when large-scale migration from the southern states saw the black population of the city increase from 35% to 54%. In 1954 Washington, D.C. became the first American city to introduce racial integration within schools and in 1964 its residents were, for the first time since 1800, permitted to vote in presidential elections.

On 11 Sept. 2001, along with New York City, Washington was the target of a major terrorist attack when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon killing nearly 200 people on the ground and all 64 on board the plane.

Modern City

The main source of employment is government service, although real estate, communications, insurance and tourist industries are also essential to the city’s prosperity. However two-thirds of Washington’s workforce live outside the District of Columbia.

Despite its status as the seat of national government, the larger metropolitan city suffers from complex social, economic and political problems. In 1968 the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led to violent riots in several areas of the city. The majority of the residents in the city itself are black, and unemployment levels are higher than the national average.

Washington is served by three major airports, Dulles International, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. There are major rail links with New York, Philadelphia and Boston. The city also has a Metro Subway and two commuter rail networks which stretch from the major monuments in the city centre to outlying residential areas.

Places of Interest

Washington is sometimes dubbed ‘Paris on the Potomac’, and is said to be the most ‘European’ of all American cities, a reputation that has helped to change the city’s previously staid image as the seat of American officialdom and bureaucracy. The capital city is home to many of the nation’s most important monuments, artefacts and museums. The Supreme Court and the Library of Congress are located on Capitol Hill, which is almost directly in the centre of the city.

The National Mall, which runs for 2 miles (3.2 km) from the Capitol (the seat of the Senate and the House of Representatives) to the Potomac River, includes the White House, the President’s official residence, and monuments to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Also located on the Mall, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, are the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of American Art and the National Zoo among other attractions. The new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was opened in Sept. 2016, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, are also housed on the National Mall.

The National Archives are on the north side of the Mall while the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) are on Pennsylvania Avenue and Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, is located on Tenth St. Arlington National Cemetery, which includes the grave of John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, is located across the Potomac River outside of the metropolitan city.

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