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Your destination - Washington, DC

The US Congress met in a variety of cities - Philadelphia, New York, and Princeton (New Jersey) among them - before the fledgling republic was ready to commit to a permanent seat of government. Congress chose the Potomac as a natural midpoint that would satisfy both northern and southern states (whose cultural and political differences were apparent well before the Civil War of 1861-1865). This spot had the added benefit of being across the river from George Washington's home in Mount Vernon.

Folks started referring to it as 'the city of Washington' around 1791 and the name stuck. Maryland and Virginia agreed to cede land to create the District of Columbia (named for Christopher Columbus), and an area 'ten miles square' (26 sq km) was laid out by African American mathematician Benjamin Banneker and surveyor Andrew Ellicott. French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant was hired to design the city, and though his elegant plan was widely admired, he quickly ran afoul of local politics. After L'Enfant was fired, Banneker continued to carry out L'Enfant's plans.

Work started on the ornate Capitol in 1793, but it was barely complete when British troops torched it in the War of 1812. Though the Capitol was eventually rebuilt, the city entered a slump from which it wouldn't recover for decades. A dispirited vote to abandon the capital lost by only nine votes.

Charles Dickens visited and dismissed DC as 'the City of Magnificent Distances,' complaining about 'spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets, milelong, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public.'

The Civil War focused attention on Washington, bringing bivouacs, temporary hospitals, and armies to its outskirts. The war's chaos and expense led Washingtonians to wonder whether construction of the elaborate Capitol dome might not be suspended. President Lincoln responded, 'If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.' In the war's aftermath, the Great Emancipator was assassinated in Ford's Theater (a memorial flag remains draped over the theater box shrine today), and the role of the US capital changed from state-led administration to centralized leadership.

The town's ailing infrastructure was overhauled in the 1870s by territorial governor Alexander 'Boss' Shepherd, whose extravagant use of federal funds and penchant for steamrolling anything in his way led to a crackdown by Congress that robbed DC of self-government for another 100 years. For the citizenry, it was a high price to pay for a city beginning to look like it might fulfill L'Enfant's original vision of a world-class capital.

A beautification plan at the turn of the century added most of the landscaping, parks, and monuments for which Washington is now well known. Nevertheless, until recently Washington suffered from its image as a Southern backwater. It was John F Kennedy who so succinctly slammed it as 'a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.' The Kennedy Center, established as a 'living memorial' to JFK, did much to bring cosmopolitan culture to the place.

The city's intense and divisive political climate is downright romantic to political activists. Spectacular free art is visible at every turn. From a Southern backwater, DC has evolved into a national pilgrimage center for many citizens (as was intended). Yet Washington is notorious too for the many severe problems that trouble its residents. Poverty, crime, and racial segregation in the shadow of glorious monuments proclaiming 'equality for all' embarrass those who would hope to hold the nation's capital up as a model. Washington, DC, is no model, but it is a microcosm of the grand ideals and grim realities of the USA.


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