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Primary Documents in American History

Residence Act

Plan of the Federal District
Thomas Jefferson.
Plan of the Federal District.
Manuscript map.
Manuscript Division (102)

The Residence Act, officially titled "An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States," was passed on July 16, 1790, and selected a site on the Potomac River as the permanent capital (Washington, D.C.), in ten years times. Also, this act designated Philadelphia as the temporary capital for a period of ten years. The Residence Act was the result of a compromise reached between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison concerning the permanent location of the Federal capital. In exchange for locating the new capital on the Potomac River, Madison agreed not to block legislation mandating the assumption of the states' debts by the Federal government.

Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography

Digital Collections

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.

The Annals of Congress, 1st Congress, 2nd Session, contains the following references to the Residence Act:

  • July 1, 1789 - The Senate passed the Residence Act by a vote of 14 to 12.
  • July 6, 1790 - The House of Representatives debated the Residence Act.
  • July 7, 1790 - The House of Representatives debated the Residence Act.
  • July 8, 1790 - The House of Representatives debated the Residence Act.
  • July 9, 1790 - The Residence Act passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 31 to 29.

Search in the 1st Congress using the phrase "seat of government" to find additional Congressional debate and documents related to this act.

Maclay's Journal is one of the few accounts of Senate floor activity in the early Congresses. Senate sessions were closed to the public until 1795. Senator William Maclay from Pennsylvania kept a diary of his experiences in the First Congress. Search Maclay's Journal using the word "residence" to find information on the Residence Act.

George Washington Papers

This collection consists of approximately 65,000 documents, including a large number on the creation of a Federal capital in Washington, D.C.

Search Washington's papers to find hundreds of documents related to the creation of Washington, D.C.

Maps: Cities and Towns

This category includes maps that depict individual buildings to panoramic views of large urban areas. These maps record the evolution of cities illustrating the development and nature of economic activities, educational and religious facilities, parks, street patterns and widths, and transportation systems.

This collection contains eleven maps of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant's plan for the city of Washington.

Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

The Printed Ephemera collection comprises 28,000 primary-source items dating from the seventeenth century to the present and encompasses key events and eras in American history.

Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827

The complete Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 27,000 documents. The collection is organized into ten series, including Series 3. District of Columbia Miscellany. 1790-1808. This series contains a wide variety of Jefferson's letters, drawings, maps, and notes that document the building of Washington, D.C.

"I proposed to him (Hamilton) however to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two, bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union. The discussion took place. I could take no part in it, but an exhortatory one, because I was a stranger to the circumstances which should govern it. But it was finally agreed that, whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of this proposition, the preservation of the union, & of concord among the states was more important, and that therefore it would be better that the vote of rejection should be rescinded, to effect which some members should change their votes. But it was observed that this pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States, and that some concomitant measure should be adopted to sweeten it a little to them. There had before been propositions to fix the seat of government either at Philadelphia, or at Georgetown on the Potomac; and it was thought that by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years, and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might, as an anodyne, calm in some degree the ferment which might be excited by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members (White & Lee, but White with a revulsion of stomach almost convulsive) agreed to change their votes, & Hamilton undertook to carry the other point." [Transcription] External Link

Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff has selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

America's Library

Jump Back in Time: Washington D.C., Became the Capital, July 16, 1790.

Jump Back in Time: The Cornerstone Of The White House Was Laid, October 13, 1792.


American Treasures at the Library of Congress - The Nation's Capital

Contains L' Enfant's original plan of Washington, D.C. and early pictures of the Capitol and the White House.

Creating the United States

This online exhibition offers insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self–governing country.

Temple of Liberty: Building a Capitol for a New Nation

Online exhibition of original prints, drawings, and documents related to the construction of the U.S. Capitol.

Prints and Photographs Image List

Washington, D.C., Sights Before 1850

A select list of early images of Washington, D.C. from the Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

Today in History

July 16, 1790

Congress declared the city of Washington in the District of Columbia the permanent capital of the United States on July 16, 1790.

October 13, 1792

The cornerstone of the White House was laid on October 13, 1792.

External Web Sites

Birth of the Nation: First Federal Congress, 1789-1791: Locating the United States Capital, External Link George Washington University

Editorial Note: Fixing the Seat of Government, External Link Founders Online, National Archives

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. External Link

The Senate Moves to Washington,External Link United States Senate

Residence Act,External Link National Archives

The United States Capitol Historical Society External Link

The White House Historical Society External Link

Selected Bibliography

Arnebeck, Bob. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800. Lanham: Madison Books, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Bordewich, Fergus M. Washington: The Making of the American Capital. New York: Amistad, 2008.
[Catalog Record]

Bowling, Kenneth R. Creating the Federal City, 1774-1800: Potomac Fever. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1988. [Catalog Record]

Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. [Catalog Record]

Padover, Saul K., ed. Thomas Jefferson and the National Capital: Containing Notes and Correspondence Exchanged Between Jefferson, Washington, L’Enfant, Ellicott, Hallet, Thornton, Latrobe, the Commissioners, and Others, Relating to the Founding, Surveying, Planning, Designing, Constructing, and Administering of the City of Washington, 1783-1818. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1946. [Catalog Record] [Full Text] External Link

Younger Readers

Brill, Marlene Targ. Building the Capital City. New York: Children's Press, 1996. [Catalog Record]

Curlee, Lynn. Capital. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003. [Catalog Record]

Hilton, Suzanne. A Capital Capital City, 1790-1814. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992. [Catalog Record]

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  October 30, 2017
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