Why is it Called the District of Columbia?

Daniel Ganninger
November 23, 2022
Washington DC (the District of Columbia) aerial view with capitol hill building and street

Why is the United States capital in the District of Columbia, and how did the district get its name?

On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress passed the Residence Act which gave power to President George Washington to select a spot for the new country’s permanent capital. Prior to this time, the capital had been in various other locations such as New York, Philadelphia, two other locations in Pennsylvania, Annapolis, Maryland, and Princeton, New Jersey, before it became the capital in the District of Columbia. But what was the District of Columbia, and how did it get established?

The Residence Act allowed Washington to find a location on the Potomac River. It also gave him the power to appoint three commissioners to develop the land into what would be the permanent capital of the United States. Philadelphia was again selected as a temporary capital while development finished on a one-hundred-square-mile tract of land that had been ceded from Maryland and Virginia. Philadelphia remained the last temporary capital until 1800.

In 1791, the commissioners named the city after Washington and said that it would lie in the Territory of Columbia. The name “Columbia” was a female personification of “Columbus.” It was a term that was used to refer to the original thirteen colonies and the entirety of the United States up to that time. In 1871, the Territory of Columbia was officially renamed to the District of Columbia.

LEnfant plan
L’Enfant plan for Washington

Washington appointed Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the city, and he began crafting it using his home city of Paris as a guide. He planned it so the Capitol building would be at the center.

The size of Washington D.C. didn’t stay the same, however. Part of the land south of the Potomac that belonged to Virginia returned to the state in 1846. The federal capital hadn’t been a boom to commerce like the people had expected on the south side. The return of land to Virginia reduced the size of the capital by about one-third and made it into the city it is today.

Sources: History, DC History, Wikipedia, Washington DC