Home > History > Get to know the District of Columbia
Confused about the proper name for the Nation's capital? If so, you're not alone.Pierre L'Enfant, designer of the city, thought of it as the Capital City. Jefferson referred to it as Federal Town. Washington, however, considered this undignified, and instead used the name Federal City.
The initial plot of land authorized by the Constitution for the seat of the US government was a 100-square mile area. The first commissioners appointed to acquire the property for the new capital and construct the first government buildings made the obvious choice and named the city Washington. At the same time, they decided to call the entire 100 square-mile area the District of Columbia. Congress later went along with this decision through legislative references to the area.
The city of Washington as designed by L'Enfant did not, of course, fill the 100 square-mile area authorized by the Constitution for the seat of government. The area also included the cities of Georgetown (1751) and Alexandria (1749), which were already in existence. Congress designated the rest of the 10-mile by 10-mile portion outside the corporate limits of these three cities as the County of Alexandria, in the section given by Virginia, and the County of Washington, in the Maryland-ceded portion.
In 1846 Congress voted to give back to Virginia all the land that state had given to the government in 1790 for creation of the District of Columbia. This move returned about 32 square miles of territory to Virginia. Residents of Alexandria and what is now Arlington County, Virginia, thus lost District of Columbia residency and again became Virginia citizens.
If all this sounds confusing, think of Congress trying to enact legislation dealing with the local affairs of this area. Congress tried to clarify the jurisdictional muddle when it established a territorial form of government for the capital in 1871. It revoked the charters of the cities of Washington and Georgetown and also abolished a levy court for the County of Washington. All legal municipal functions were given to the District of Columbia.
Then Congress changed its mind again and decided that Georgetown and the County of Washington should be separate entities. In 1895, Congress legally ended Georgetown's status as a separate city by merging it with the City of Washington, yet this act said nothing about the County of Washington. Technically, this Maryland-ceded portion of the District of Columbia is still a part of that namesake even though it operates as a separate identity. The slip-up, moreover, has never been corrected.
So, today, a resident of the District of Columbia may be living either in the old County of Washington or in the merged section made up of L'Enfant's City of Washington and of Georgetown. Washington, D.C., however, is a city in name only - a mapmaker's designation and the established pseudonym for the District of Columbia.