Washington DC City Pages Capitol Hill Stay
Washington DC Weather
Home > History > Washington DC History (1777 - 1790)

During the Revolutionary period the Continental Congress was a somewhat nomadic body. At different times within a single year, 1777, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Lancaster, and York had the distinction of being the seat of Congress. In 1783 the delegates were comfortably settled in Philadelphia, and might have stayed there indefinitely had not mutinous continental soldiers come upon them suddenly, while in session, demanding their long overdue pay. Affronted and alarmed, Congress removed to Princeton, N.J., a small place soon deplorably overcrowded. The need for a permanent seat of national government, preferably some piece of virgin territory wherein a "Federal town" might be built, became imperative.

The Continental Congress, while still at Princeton, considered offers from various sections; but so many were made, and such rivalry was shown, that prudent Congressmen began to see in the "Federal town" question a most dangerous issue. Before very long the matter was looming ominously as a major source of contention between North and South. So a compromise was suggested. On October 7, 1783, Congress called for surveys of land near Georgetown on the Potomac River, and land near Trenton on the Delaware River, the resolution being later modified to provide for the building of two "Federal towns" one on each river. The surveys were made; but in October 1784, while in session at Trenton, Congress ignored the Potomac site in arranging that three commissioners should "lay out a district of not less than two nor more than three miles square on the banks of the Delaware", near its falls, "for a Federal town." In December of the same year it resolved "to take measures for suitable buildings to be erected" on this site; but the last of the three commissioners was not appointed until 3 months later, when the temporary seat of government had been transferred to New York City.

It was apparent that the South had not yet given up the fight to secure the "Federal town." A motion to substitute the Potomac for the Delaware site was defeated; but dissension was so acrid, and the waning of interest even in the Federal union itself was so obvious in some of the States, that the Trenton project was permitted to become inactive. Until the confederated States had become a constitutional entity, it seemed wiser for the national body to drift along in a temporary seat of government. In May 1787, delegates called "to revise the articles of confederation" met in convention at Philadelphia, and during the next 4 months drafted the Constitution of the United States. It was adopted by the Convention on September 17, 1787 and ratified by a sufficient number of States by the end of the following June.

On March 4, 1789, the First Congress of the United States convened in New York City. On April 6 both houses of Congress went into joint session to "open and count the electoral vote for President and Vice President." By unanimous vote, General George Washington of Virginia was elected President; John Adams of Massachusetts, who received the next highest number of votes (each elector being required to vote for two names), was declared Vice President. The question of choosing a permanent seat of government seemed to pivot on these two opposite temperaments. In them, the South and North clashed. the South had won the Presidency; but within a year John Adams himself, by virtue of his deciding vote as President of the Senate, had brought seeming victory to the North in the bitter battle to secure the "Federal town". He voted for Germantown, Pa.

When Congress reconvened, in January 1790 southern members moved to reconsider the "Federal town" bill. Six months of bitter conflict followed. By the end of May, Philadelphia had won a partial victory in being made the temporary Capital for a decade from December 1790; and a House vote to place the permanent Capital on "the easterly bank of the Potomac" was lost 15-9. The South was offended, and might secede from the Union. However, it could rejoice in one triumph- by a narrow margin it had defeated Hamilton's "assumption bill," by which the Nation would assume the debts of the individual States. Hamilton appealed to Jefferson, who in truth was alarmed at the possibility of a "dissolution of our Union as this incipient stage." The next day Hamilton was Jefferson's guest at dinner. So, too, were Congressmen White and Lee of Virginia; and the savory viands and mellow Madeira proved softening influences upon the guests. The two Virginia Congressmen agreed to change their "assumption" votes after Hamilton had promised to secure sufficient northern votes to win for the Potomac region the permanent Capital. So both bills eventually became law. The so-called Residence bill, approved July 16, 1790, authorized the selection of a site "not exceeding 10 miles square" somewhere in the Potomac region, and the establishment herein of the permanent seat of government of the United States. The President, George Washington, was to choose the site, acquire the tract, and appoint building commissioners.

©1994-2012 DCpages.com