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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

The Development of Washington, D.C.

Another topic that emerges as a theme in the collection is the development of Washington, D.C. An interesting place to begin an investigation of the capital’s history is with "Washington, Outside and Inside," a book written in 1873 by George Alfred Townsend, the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. While he is primarily concerned with corruption following the Civil War, he also gives a history of the capital's early days, beginning with these words:

The American Capital is the only seat of government of a first-class power which was a thought and performance of the Government itself. It used to be called, in the Madisonian era, "the only virgin Capital in the world."…

Washington City was designed to be not merely a window, but a whole inhabitancy in fee simple for the deliberations of Congress, and they were to exercise exclusive legislation over it. So the Constitutional Convention ordained; and, in less than seven weeks after the thirteenth state ratified the Constitution, the place of the Capital was designated by Congress to the Potomac River. In six months more, the precise territory On the Potomac was defined, under the personal eye of Washington.

(Page 25, "Washington, Outside and Inside")

Use the collection’s Subject Index to locate other information about Washington's development during the first half of the 19th century.

  • Why did the leaders of the new nation decide to build an entirely new city as the nation's capital?
  • How did the capital come to be located between Maryland and Virginia on the Potomac River? Was this a good location in the late 1700s? Is it still a good location today?
  • What were some of the problems in Washington in the first half of the 1800s? What were the causes of these problems? How might they have been solved?

The theme of Washington’s development as the nation's capital can be picked up in the latter half of the 19th century by examining "Frederick Douglass: A Lecture on Our National Capital." Douglass delivered this speech in Washington in 1875 and again in 1877 in Baltimore, when it created a storm of controversy and criticism. The following excerpt from the speech may give some insight into the cause of the controversy:

Looking at the influence exerted by simple local surroundings, I have no hesitation in saying that the selection of Washington as the National Capital was one of the greatest mistakes made by the fathers of the Republic. The seat of government ought never to have been planted there. This, however, is not to be spoken so much in censure as in sorrow…

There was not, at the time when it was chosen; there is not now and probably never will be, entire satisfaction with the location. The arguments against it were political, moral, and social, as well as geographical. Time has in large measure proved the wisdom and soundness of all these objections.

Seemingly a small matter in itself at the time, experience has shown that it contained the seeds of civil war and disunion.

Sandwiched between two of the oldest slave states, each of which was a nursery and a hot-bed of slavery; surrounded by a people accustomed to look upon the youthful members of a colored man's family as a part of the annual crop for the market; pervaded by the manners, morals, politics, and religion peculiar to a slaveholding community, the inhabitants of the National Capital were, from first to last, frantically and fanatically sectional. It was southern in all its sympathies and national only in name.

Until the war, it neither tolerated freedom of speech nor of the press. Slavery was its idol, and, like all idol worshippers, its people howled with rage when this ugly idol was called in question.

(Pages 21 and 22, "Frederick Douglass: A Lecture on Our National Capital")

Read the speech and the reactions included with the document, answering the following:

  • List the arguments made by Douglass, identifying exaggerations and language Douglass may have used to provoke his listeners.
  • Why would Douglass want to stimulate debate about the city of Washington?
  • Given Douglass's criticisms, would it be possible for Washington to become a great city?


The accounts of the social life and rules of protocol that evolved as the city developed also make interesting reading. Again, the Subject Index can guide students to appropriate sources. One such source, "Etiquette of Social Life in Washington" (published in its fifth edition in 1881), is of note because it includes an 1819 letter from John Quincy Adams (then Secretary of State) to the Vice President (pages 64-69), explaining why he has not followed the custom of visiting each Senator at the beginning of the Senate’s annual session. While the social protocols described in some documents may seem foolish, this letter provides evidence that these customs were taken seriously.

  • Why did members of the Senate feel insulted by Adams?
  • What reasons does Adams give for acting as he did?
  • Do you think that Adams really felt these matters of protocol were "of very little importance"? If so, why do you think he wrote the letter?
  • In your opinion, are social protocols important? Why or why not?

The examination of Washington's development both socially and politically can be traced into the early 20th century. For example, the observations of Frances Parkinson Keyes in "Letters from a Senator's Wife," published in 1924, and Isabel Anderson in "Presidents and Pies; Life in Washington 1897-1919" can be compared with earlier observations of women in Washington society.

"Addresses at the Dinner to the President of the United States by the Citizens of Washington" discusses issues related to the District's government and representation in the national government; unfortunately for those pleading for the franchise for Washingtonians, President Taft was deaf to their pleas:

Now, I am opposed to the franchise in the District; I am opposed, and not because I yield to anyone in my support and belief in the principles of self-government; but principles are applicable generally, and, then, unless you make exceptions to the application of these principles, you will find that they will carry you to very illogical and absurd results. This was taken out of the application of the principle of self-government in the very Constitution that was intended to put that in force in every other part of the country, and it was done because it was intended to have the representatives of all the people in the country control this one city, and to prevent its being controlled by the parochial spirit that would necessarily govern men who did not look beyond the city to the grandeur of the nation, and this as the representative of that nation.

(Page 30, "Addresses at the Dinner to the President of the United States by the Citizens of Washington")

Read the speeches and conduct a debate on whether Washington should be self-governing and whether Washington's residents should have the vote. Find out how this issue has developed since 1909 when the speeches were made.