Many scholars will call the beginning of the history of Washington DC 1790, when the fledgling Congress voted to create a federal city ten miles square, for the sole purpose of governing and protecting the union of states. Other scholars say the history of US capital District of Columbia was born in the same revolution as the nation itself, in the minds of a few genius leaders.
Before 1790, Congress was very much a grassroots institution, with a nomadic existence that was, nonetheless, consistent with rule of the people. But after trying to conduct the solemn and dignified affairs of state on the road for years - convening in New York, Philadelphia, Princeton, Baltimore, Annapolis, Trenton and York - it was agreed that a permanent home for Congress was needed.
The birth and continued evolution of the nation's capital can be best reflected by the history of the United States as a whole. The same markers that define the American identity were markers that shaped the history of US capital city District of Columbia, as well. Perhaps most obvious, the Revolutionary War, which marked the true beginning of this great city. The man who first led the brand new nation, President George Washington, was the man who used his surveying skills to choose the land on the Potomac where a gleaming city could be built. He then commissioned Pierre Charles L'Enfant to design and engineer the city's construction. But it would take approximately a century for L'Enfant's vision for a grand capital city to become reality.
During the War of 1812, even though Washington DC felt insulated from the fighting so far north in Canada, the British managed to surprise the city, eventually burning it to the ground. Washington DC history often teaches the legend of Dolly Madison, firmly refusing to leave the Presidential mansion in spite of the British on her doorstep; not until the portrait of George Washington was saved would she go. When repainting the charred remains of the President's House later, workers had to use white paint, and from then on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue became the White House.
The Civil War further frustrated developments of the city. The history of Washington would be forever altered by the struggle to preserve the federal union itself. The National Mall, barely under construction, was used instead for military encampments and medical facilities. Not only that, some 40,000 freed slaves came in to the city during that time, seeking political refuge. Washington DC history has been more colorful ever since.
The Reconstruction era was also the time when leaders of the nation re-committed to building L'Enfant's Washington DC history had mandated. Because of the number of freed slaves on hand, it is with supreme irony that the center of the free world was built by released slaves who were, literally, building their free world in so doing.
The history of Washington DC is inextricably tied to the history of Black America. As the young city thrived, the greatest minds and artists of African-American descent came to the heart of the nation to assure their participation in its future. During the Civil Rights Era, Washington DC history was again changed by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the somewhat new Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington in 1963 reflected, again, the struggle of a diverse people to keep their union together.
On September 11, 2001, the city was again changed by events of US history. This time by our struggle worldwide to live together in diversity without enmity. The history of Washington therefore progresses on, as the federal buildings and iconic memorials are all modified again, with higher security, wider streets and strengthened walls. The history of Washington DC 1790 to present day, continues to be that of a planned national heartbeat, born of revolution, struggling through its own evolution as the center of a diverse, free world.