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Why Isn’t Washington, D.C., a State?

Washington, D.C., is the 20th largest city in the United States, and along with being the nation’s capital, it’s home to more than 705,000 people. That's more residents than states such as Wyoming and Vermont have — and yet D.C. is neither a state itself, nor part of any other state. Its unique status can be confusing, even to those who live there, but history suggests that any city housing the nation’s capital would have remained stateless. Here’s why.

America’s First Capitals

Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Credit: f11photo/ iStock

Washington, D.C., has reigned as the country’s capital city for more than two centuries, but it took decades for the federal government to finally settle there. In the United States’ earliest days, the capital city was less a specific place and more a band of meetings that roamed between colonial cities. On the run from the Redcoats during the Revolutionary War and angry Americans in the postwar years, the Continental Congress met in eight temporary capitals before eventually creating Washington, D.C.

The Continental Congress used Philadelphia — the country’s main hub — as the first capital, signing the Declaration of Independence there in 1776. But within months, British soldiers took the city, leaving legislators to flee to Baltimore to resume business. With each impending British invasion, Congress would pick up and run to a new city — such as York, Pennsylvania — and return to Philadelphia when the dangers of war had temporarily passed, only to once again desert the city when battles drew uncomfortably close.
By the end of the war in 1783, the Continental Congress had returned to Philadelphia. However, its work there was short lived; uprisings among angry, unpaid soldiers pushed politicians from the city. In the precarious years following the war, the U.S. capital moved between Princeton, New Jersey; Annapolis, Maryland; and Trenton, New Jersey, before settling on Wall Street in New York City.

Creating the Nation’s Capital City

US Capital building in Washington, D.C.
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After years of strategic and unplanned moves, Congress needed to solidify the country’s capital. The Constitution, drafted in 1787, authorized them to build a federal district for all government business, not to exceed 10 miles square. Two initial options were floated, both just outside Philadelphia, which would have been a central location for the growing country. But behind-the-scenes negotiations among Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison in the spring of 1790 — influenced heavily by early infighting over slavery and how to pay the new country’s war debts — bumped the potential capital from Pennsylvania and moved it farther south. President George Washington signed onto the agreement, and Congress passed the Residence Act of 1790 to jumpstart construction of the new government seat.

In the meantime, Congress would move once again, leaving New York for Philadelphia, which would act as the interim capital while the official government seat was constructed. New Yorkers who had hoped for the government to remain in their city were furious. But it wasn’t entirely surprising that Congress would have wanted to establish its own city in an unsettled area. The Founding Fathers worried that seating the federal government in any one state would jeopardize fairness among the colonies, giving that state influence over how the federal government made laws and operated. By creating an entirely separate entity, the federal government wouldn’t be beholden to any one state’s laws or reliant on its finances, and could operate independently under the control of Congress.

President Washington was tasked with selecting the capital’s site, choosing to nestle the district along the Potomac River on land ceded by Virginia and Maryland specifically for the purpose. His plans included a capitol building and President’s mansion, with the city designed by architect Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. With Congress’ deadline to leave Philadelphia within 10 years, construction had to be completed by 1800; Washington assisted with the project after retiring from the presidency and until his death in 1799. The project was finished on time, and Congress left Philadelphia one last time in May 1800.

Washington, D.C.’s Push for Representation

Aerial view of Pennsylvania Street in Washington D.C. with federal buildings.
Credit: Orhan Cam/ Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. — an acronym for District of Columbia and named for President Washington and navigator Christopher Columbus — wasn’t initially beloved by legislators, many of whom thought the district was a swampy, mosquito-infested city too isolated from the rest of the country. Efforts to relocate the capital out of D.C. lasted through the British invasion in 1814 that involved the burning of the White House and Capitol, and even some time after the Civil War’s end.

Despite being painted as a backcountry river port, Washington, D.C., had no problem attracting residents. Even as a new city, it wasn’t created on an unoccupied tract of land, which initially caused debates about how colonists already situated when the city was founded would be legally represented. Those same conundrums still exist today. In 1802, citizens were granted the right to elect a city council, only to have it removed in 1871 and reestablished 100 years later with the addition of an elected mayor (though any laws can be struck down by Congress). And it wasn’t until the 23rd Amendment in 1963 that D.C. residents could vote for President; the city is granted three electors for the Electoral College, but that number doesn’t increase with population. Additionally, because it’s not a state, Washington, D.C., residents have no elected senators but were given one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives in 1970. The representation riddle today’s residents face is the same one D.C.’s first inhabitants did — but today, calls against “taxation without representation” appear on license plates instead of parchment.

In recent years, the battle for statehood has continued and seen some success. In April 2021, the House of Representatives passed a bill in support of making Washington, D.C., the 51st state, and the bill, known as H.R. 51, is now with the Senate for evaluation. If the statehood bill goes into effect, the new state will have representation in Congress, including two senators and one representative.