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A History Lover's Guide to Washington, DC: Designed for Democracy

A History Lover's Guide to Washington, DC: Designed for Democracy

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A History Lover's Guide to Washington, DC: Designed for Democracy

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May 6, 2014


Experience the history of America’s capitol with this uniquely engaging and informative guidebook.
Alternating between site visits and brief historical narratives, this guide tells the story of Washington, DC, from its origins to current times. From George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the Kennedy Center, trek through each era of the federal district, on a tour of America’s most beloved sites. Go inside the White House, the only executive home in the world regularly open to the public. Travel to President Lincoln’s Cottage and see where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. And visit lesser-known sites, such as the grave of Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s Botanical Gardens, the Old Post Office, and a host of historical homes throughout the capital. This is the only guide you’ll need to curate an unforgettable expedition to our shining city on a hill.
May 6, 2014

Sobre el autor

Alison Fortier has lived and worked in and around Washington, D.C., for more than thirty years. She began her career on Capitol Hill working as staff for the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives. She then worked in the State Department and on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House before moving to private industry. She is the widow of Donald Fortier and the mother of Graham and Merrill. Alison has a BA in government from the College of William & Mary and an MA in history from the University of Michigan.

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Cotizaciones principales

  • If the lights at the very top of the dome are burning bright, then either the House or the Sen- ate or both are in session.

  • President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent, which would end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.

  • Discouraged federal officials seriously considered moving the U.S. cap- ital out of Washington back to Philadelphia.

  • L’Enfant’s many appeals to Congress for payment for his work would sadly go unanswered.

  • As a symbol of democracy, the home would be visible and accessible to all.

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A History Lover's Guide to Washington, DC - Alison Fortier



Washington, D.C., is unique. It is a city, yet it is also a federal district created by the United States Constitution to house our government institutions and reflect our democratic principles.

This book tells the story of Washington, D.C., from its origins to current times. It helps the reader experience how Washington operates today. Brief narratives alternate with visits to sites in the capital to make the story real.

Visits to the White House, the United States Capitol, the national military memorials and the museums are here. Feel the presence of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who played important roles in the creation of this city. Stand where Abraham Lincoln did as he watched the ongoing construction of the U.S. Capitol dome during the Civil War to demonstrate the strength of the Union. Understand why Frederick Douglass felt it important to move here and why Martin Luther King Jr. felt it critical to come here to further civil rights, equality and justice. Sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, look across the Mall to the Capitol and reflect on the meaning of freedom and democracy.

When visiting Washington, D.C., it is important to check the websites provided or call ahead to make sure a particular site is open. Actual hours of operation may vary from day to day and season to season. Recently, renovations have closed all or part of some sites. In some cases, advance arrangements for tours or visits are preferred or even required. Advance ticketing is always necessary for White House tours, as well as at the State Department, the Treasury Department and the Department of the Interior. In warmer months, reservations in advance for visits to the United States Capitol, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Holocaust Museum, the Voice of America and other popular tours are strongly advised. How to arrange for tickets is explained in this book.

It is not necessary to visit the sites in the order presented in this book. However, when you visit one site, you will bring to it an understanding of Washington, D.C., overall.

This book would not be a reality without the advice, support and involvement of many people. Thank you to my commissioning editor at the The History Press, Banks Smither, for guiding this book and this author from draft to publication. Ryan Finn, my manuscript editor at The History Press, was also extremely helpful. Scott Gudes, Jeff Kelman and Ann Sauer kindly read drafts of the book and offered comments, corrections and recommendations that I greatly appreciated. Photographer Gregory O’Hanlon and artist Joseph Harrison Snyder worked with me to illustrate the sites of this beautiful city for which we share a common love. Laura Barry, research services librarian at the Kiplinger Library of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., helpfully furthered my study of the city’s history.

I would also like to extend a heartfelt thank-you to the National Park Service (NPS) and its dedicated employees who withstand all ranges of weather, good and bad, to bring to life the stories of our national monuments. You will note throughout the book references to a National Historic Landmark or the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service in the Department of the Interior has the responsibility of maintaining the register and preserving and protecting our national parks, sites and monuments. Without its work, we would not have many of these historic places to visit. There are too many park rangers to name who patiently answered my many questions during all the free tours they offer. However, I would like to express my appreciation to Melissa Cronyn and Tom Patterson, both of whom helped with the beautiful National Park Service map. Melissa summed up my experience with the NPS when she said, We are here to serve the public.

And I would like to thank my children, Graham and Merrill, who long ago taught me that visits to historical sites can and should be enjoyable as well as informative in a way that I hope is instructive to this book.

The Potomac River looking toward Georgetown. Courtesy of Gregory O’Hanlon.





Washington, D.C., is a government town. It is a city, and it is also a federal district created specifically to serve as the capital of the United States. Since Washington first opened its doors in 1800, its main industry has always been the public business.

Washington, D.C., is unique among American cities. It is the only one whose origins are in the United States Constitution. Article I of the Constitution establishes the power of the legislative branch to raise taxes, borrow money and regulate commerce. Article I also describes the power of Congress over a district that would serve as the seat of the United States government.

The idea of a federal district for our capital comes from a moment in our nation’s early history that left a lasting impression. In 1783, the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia when an angry mob gathered in the streets. Many in the crowd were Revolutionary War soldiers frustrated that they had not received their military pay. Congress had no authority to call in troops for protection. It had to rely on the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania to provide assistance. In 1783, neither came to its aid. Congress fled town.

Congress wanted to avoid similar situations in the future. Its solution was to create a federal district over which it would have exclusive authority. There was, however, no obvious location for this federal district. Many existing cities were contenders. Some preferred to keep the capital in New York City, the temporary United States capital from 1789 to 1790. New York was lively, with good restaurants, accommodations and diverse temptations.

Philadelphia, serving as the interim United States capital from 1790 to 1800, was bigger and even better. The city also went to great lengths to refurbish buildings for the use of the federal government, hoping to convert its temporary status to a permanent one.

Quite a few remembered Annapolis, Maryland, the 1783–84 capital, with great fondness. Princeton, another former capital but a provincial backwater, never had a chance! There were advocates for locating the capital near Baltimore, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; or near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Several states offered Congress parcels of land and financial inducements to select the capital site within their borders.

The debate over the best location for the federal district continued for years. A majority considered a central location in the new United States to be desirable. But defining what central meant was not easy. There was a geographic center and a population center. Placing the capital closer to the population center would shift it farther north—closer to New York and Boston. The geographic center of the late eighteenth-century United States, on the other hand, lay farther south and very close to Georgetown, Maryland. Northern states invariably argued for the population center and southern states for the geographic center.

An animated discussion also erupted over whether the capital district should be easily accessible to American regions opening up in the West. Some dismissed the importance of the West, regarding as remote the future incorporation of its scattered settlements into the United States. Others more foresighted understood that Ohio, Indiana and Illinois would one day join the Union. They considered a location on the Potomac River, flowing west to southeast, to anticipate this westward growth.

The argument over where to locate the U.S. capital grew so difficult that compromises were promoted to select two capital sites. The government would then have to move back and forth between the two places. The impracticality of this approach eventually removed it from serious consideration.

Concern grew that the disagreement over where to put the capital was so strong that it could tear the young country apart. Ultimately, the decision to locate the United States capital near Georgetown, Maryland, was a key element in a grand compromise. Northern states such as Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania had emerged from the Revolutionary War with much greater debt than the southern states. The northern states wanted the new United States to pay these debts. The southern states wanted none of this. The argument was intense.

When it looked as though all these difficult issues might never be resolved, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in 1790, invited to dinner Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Hamilton, a New Yorker, was secretary of the treasury and the foremost advocate for the federal assumption of the debt. Madison was a U.S. Representative from Virginia and one of the South’s leading statesmen. He opposed the federal government taking on state debt.

Over dinner, this remarkable threesome of Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison came up with a solution. They would package the federal assumption of the debt with a decision on the location of the U.S. capital. To convince the southern states to agree to help pay the Revolutionary War debt, the location of the new U.S. capital would be convenient to the South—on the banks of the Potomac River. The compromise that resulted from this dinner was a turning point in American history. It enhanced our national unity, giving the North and the South something each desired.

To formalize this agreement on the location of the U.S. capital, Congress passed An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States. President George Washington signed this act into law on July 16, 1790. The law gave the authority to the president to select the precise site for the new capital. It was well understood that George Washington preferred a Potomac River location. His own plantation, Mount Vernon, was set along the Potomac in Virginia.

George Washington took a few months to visit various sites along the Potomac. He conferred with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. By January 1791, Washington was ready to make his announcement. The federal district that would serve as the capital of the United States would be a one-hundred-square-mile territory on the Potomac River in the vicinity of Georgetown, Maryland.

Most of the District land lay along the northern bank of the Potomac River in the state of Maryland. Approximately one-fourth of the District land was on the Potomac River’s southern bank, provided by the state of Virginia. The District was shaped like a diamond; each of the four sides was ten miles long. Look at a map of Washington, D.C., today, and you will still see this diamond shape. However, there is a missing chunk on the southwest side of the city. In 1846, when it seemed that the capital would never amount to much, the federal government returned to Virginia its territorial contribution. Today, therefore, Washington, D.C., is on land carved out only from the state of Maryland.


Key Bridge and Georgetown. Courtesy of Joseph Harrison Snyder.


National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 19th Street NW, 20006

www.nps.gov • Metro: Smithsonian

On a small island in the middle of Constitution Gardens on the National Mall sits the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Gardens date to the 1976 United States Bicentennial. The memorial was dedicated in 1984. There are fifty-six stones, each bearing the likeness of the signature of one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Those who signed risked their lives, the safety of their families and the security of their property. Many would suffer greatly. The British pursued the signers as criminals. John Hancock of Massachusetts was the first to sign the Declaration and did so with such flourish that an individual’s signature is today sometimes referred to as your John Hancock. Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among the other signers.

The Declaration of Independence provides the foundation for the American ideals of democracy, equality and freedom. As the Declaration states, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence is on display in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives (see Chapter 10).


3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, VA, 22309

703-780-2000 • www.mountvernon.org • Admission Fee

Mount Vernon was the home of George Washington, who became our first president. In fact, he was in the parlor here in 1789 when he learned that the Continental Congress had unanimously elected him president. Washington returned to Mount Vernon after completing his eight years in office. He was so popular that he could have remained president for many more years. His decision not to run again, and thus to ensure a peaceful transition of power to the next president, John Adams (1797–1801), was a key moment in the early history of the United States. It set this country firmly on course to be a democracy, resisting the temptation to establish a new American monarchy.

George Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1799, one year before his namesake city of Washington officially became the United States capital. His wife, Martha, died in 1802. George and Martha Washington are buried at Mount Vernon, the home they loved so much. In warmer weather, there is a daily wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb where they are interred.

The guided tour of his home takes less than thirty minutes. Entry to the grounds provides timed entry passes to the house. However, the grounds and outbuildings are extensive and require more time. The vistas of the Potomac River are magnificent; boat tours on the Potomac depart from the wharf in seasonal weather. The estate also includes a gristmill used for producing flour and a distillery for producing whiskey. Washington considered himself first and foremost to be a farmer.

George Washington owned more than three hundred slaves at Mount Vernon. Although he owned slaves all his life, Washington’s views on slavery evolved. He expressed hope that slavery would be abolished. In his will, he freed his slaves upon the death of his wife, Martha. To remember the slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, there is a simple, dignified memorial, dedicated in 1983. The Slave Memorial is the design of Howard University architectural students. It is located near the tomb of George and Martha Washington on the site of a burial ground for slaves and free blacks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among the many tours offered at Mount Vernon is a Slave Life Tour.

The Ford Orientation Center offers an eighteen-minute introductory film, and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center provides a multimedia experience that covers the entire life and times of George Washington, including his role in the creation of Washington, D.C. The estate also offers walking tours and family activities.

In 2013, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opened at Mount Vernon. This library serves as a repository for the books and manuscripts of President Washington, as well as other research resources. Access to the library is reserved for scholars and researchers and is by appointment. However, on select dates (posted on the website), tours of the library for the public depart from the Reynolds Education Center.

Mount Vernon has been open to the public since 1860. The home had fallen into great disrepair in the early nineteenth century when a group of women came together to raise money to save it. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, founded in 1853, is the oldest historic preservation organization in the United States. It continues to own and maintain Mount Vernon today.

While you are at Mount Vernon, you may notice that the coat of arms of the Washington family, which they brought with them when they came here from England, is very similar to and was the inspiration for the flag of the District of Columbia: a

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