How Washington, D.C., got its name

The city was named by the three commissioners, charged with supervising the construction of the public buildings, at one of their then monthly meetings on September 8, 1791. These three men were recently appointed by President Washington. Secretary of State Jefferson came down from the capital in Philadelphia to present the agenda of what the President wanted the commissioners to decide. Selecting the name for the city was one item and Washington told Jefferson to assure the commissioners that they had complete freedom. Of course, everyone knew that the city would be named after Washington. One name bruited about Philadelphia before the meeting was "Washingtonople." Jefferson described the meeting in a letter to Washington: the commissioners were "preadmonished that it was your desire that they should decide freely on their own view of things." No matter: "they concurred unanimously in... every point with what had been thought best in Philadelphia." The commissioners named the city "Washington." They also had to name the ten mile square, mandated by the Constitution, that the the city was in. In 1791 there were already two existing towns in that ten mile square, Georgetown and Alexandria. They chose the name "Columbia."

As far as I can ascertain there was no debate about "Columbia" either. During the Revolution, Columbia was hailed as the goddess protecting America against Britannia. For example Phyllis Wheatley sent a poem to General Washington in 1775, and it was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine in 1776, which contained these passages:

"Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms....

Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading,Washington be thine."

In 1784 Washington wrote to Lafayette's wife: "When the weight of so powerful an advocate is on our side, will you My Dr. Marchioness deny us the pleasure of accompanying him to the shores of Columbia?"

During this period the many counties and cities named Columbia got their names. So if one were to create a district which would represent all of the United States of America, the name everyone seemed to agree on was "Columbia." In the competition for the capital, some Pennsylvanians planned a city on the Susquehanna to be named Columbia.

In letters, debates and official documents the ten mile square along the Potomac was called the "Federal District." However, officially the congress met in "The City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia." In the early debates in Congress about the city, both names were used. Take this example in 1803 the House turned to the affairs of the "District of Columbia" and began discussing a bill to return portions of the "Territory of Columbia" to Virginia. I suppose the "Territory of Columbia" was no longer used after the District lost what home rule it had in the second half of the 19th century.

Bob Arnebeck

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