Prefrosh Preview: A bit of D.C. history

D.C. is a far cry from your typical college town (although according to Huff Post, Georgetown ranks as one of the best). Not every undergrad can easily access 176 different embassies via public transport, embark on a nighttime run to the Lincoln Memorial, or boast that the Secretary of State casually lives a few blocks from their front gates. To help you deceive others into thinking you might actually be a local—or at the very least, somewhat informed about U.S. history—Vox has put together a brief summary of D.C.’s history for your reading pleasure.


The District was not always our nation’s capital. The title was initially—albeit briefly—held by New York City from 1789 to until 1790 when Congress passed the Residence Act. This act mandated that the site for the permanent seat of government would be located somewhere along the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. The location was a result of a compromise (a concept that no longer seems to exist in the D.C.) between the northern states who wanted the new federal government to assume Revolutionary War debts and the southern states who wanted a capital in close proximity to their agricultural interests.

Nascent Years

In 1781, George Washington selected the official location of the district: the furthest point inland on the Potomac navigable by boat that included the ports of Alexandria and Georgetown. Thus the party had arrived in the area we Georgetowners now fondly call home.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who was appointed by Washington to draw up plans for the new city, designed the capital with wide boulevards and open spaces that were reminiscent of Paris. His plan also included a “grand avenue”, an area which later became the National Mall, and a system of canals. Sadly, the British had a field day setting fire to the District in the War of 1812, burning important buildings like the White House and the Capitol.

Tension in the District

Washington has had a long history of racial division. Prior to the Civil War, the city was home to many free African Americans working as craftsmen, businessmen, and laborers—yet it also served as a popular site for slave auctions. Although slavery was abolished in the District in 1862, segregation and race-based violence continued to mar the city well into the 20th century. A century after the abolition of slavery, D.C. took center stage in the Civil Rights Movement with the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr‘s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Today, socioeconomic disparity and gentrification is one of the major problems that the District currently faces.

Present-Day D.C.

After over 200 years as the nation’s capital, the District has developed into multifaceted city with a unique culture and personality. The establishment of the Smithsonian museums in the late 19th century and the completion of major public works like the Federal Reserve, Supreme Court, and Jefferson Memorial in the early 20th century have certainly added to D.C.’s charm. With a population of nearly 647,000, it is expected to gain 250,000 more residents over the next 20 years. Today, the District’s biggest claim to fame is its ranking as the #1 coolest city in America–but hey, fourth funniest isn’t too shabby either.

Photo: John Haslam via flickr

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