Before Washington, D.C., became America’s capital in 1800, the Congress met in a number of different locations, including Baltimore, Trenton and New York City. After years of debate by the new nation’s leaders about the selection of a permanent seat of government, Congress passed the Residence Act in July 1790, which declared that the capital would be situated somewhere along the Potomac River and granted President George Washington the power to choose the final site. The president also was given the authority to appoint three commissioners to oversee the federal city’s development, and a deadline of December 1800 was established for the completion of a legislative hall for Congress and residence for the chief executive.
In January 1791, George Washington announced his choice for the federal district: 100 square miles of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia (in 1846, the Virginia land was returned to the state, shrinking the district by a third). In September 1791, the commissioners named the federal city in honor of Washington and dubbed the district in which it was located the Territory of Columbia. The name Columbia, derived from explorer Christopher Columbus, was used during the American Revolution era as a patriotic reference for the United States (In 1871, the Territory of Columbia officially was renamed District of Columbia.) Meanwhile, in the spring of 1791, the president hired French-born architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to lay out the capital city. L’Enfant, who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, created a design that featured wide avenues and open spaces; however, he clashed with George Washington’s commissioners as well as local landowners and was forced to resign from the project after less than a year. L’Enfant’s design was revised by later planners.
Congress met in Washington for the first time in November 1800 (the man for whom the city was named had died in December of the previous year), and in February 1801 the District of Columbia, which at the time also included the cities of Alexandria and Georgetown, was placed under the control of Congress. Today, America’s capital city has more than 650,000 residents, and they’re represented by a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 23rd Amendment gave citizens of D.C. the right to vote for president, starting in 1964, and since 1974 Washingtonians have elected their own mayor and city council.