D.C. Washington, capital of the United States, coextensive (since 1878, when Georgetown became a part of Washington) with the District of Columbia (2000 pop. 572,059), on the Potomac River; inc. 1802. The city is the center of a metropolitan area (1990 pop. 3,923,574) extending into Maryland and Virginia. With the city of Baltimore to its north in Maryland, it forms a consolidated metropolitan area of some 6.7 million people. Washington is the legislative, administrative, and judicial center of the United States but has little industry; its business is government, and hundreds of thousands are so employed in the metropolitan area. The city is also a major tourist attraction and a cultural center.
Washington has long been a gateway for African Americans emigrating from the South, and since the 1960s has had a (now diminishing) black majority. Many citizens live in poverty, and social problems have been exacerbated by the transient nature of the governmental workforce and the District's lack of political power.
Transportation facilities include a subway system that connects the city with many suburbs. The main rail and air hubs are Union Station and Ronald Reagan Washington National and Dulles International airports (both in Virginia). Nearby military installations include Fort McNair, Fort Myer, Andrews Air Force Base, and Bolling Air Force Base.
The city spreads out over 69 sq mi (179 sq km), including 8 sq mi (20.7 sq km) of water surface, with tree-shaded thoroughfares and many open vistas. Numerous impressive government buildings near the city's center are built of white or gray stone in the classical style, and there are many fine homes. Among other attractive buildings are the embassies and legations of many foreign countries, many of them lining "Embassy Row" on Massachusetts Ave. The larger of the city's fine parks are West Potomac Park, which extends S from the Lincoln Memorial and includes the Tidal Basin, flanked by the famous Japanese cherry trees; East Potomac Park, an area of reclaimed land jutting S from the Jefferson Memorial; Rock Creek Park, with almost 1,800 acres (728 hectares) of natural woodlands and extensive recreation facilities, and the adjoining National Zoological Park; and Anacostia Park, adjacent to the National Arboretum.
Besides the Capitol and the White House, other important government buildings and places of historic interest include the Senate and House of Representatives office buildings, the Supreme Court Building, the Pentagon (in Virginia), the Federal Bureau of Investigation building, the Library of Congress, the National Archives Building, Constitution Hall, the Ronald Reagan Building, the Watergate apartment complex, the State Department ( "Foggy Bottom" ), and the headquarters of the World Bank. Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, has been restored. In 1974 the Admiral's House at the U.S. Naval Observatory became the official residence of the vice president. Of historic interest is Fort Washington (built 1809, destroyed 1814, rebuilt by 1824).
Best known of the city's many statues and monuments are the Washington Monument, at the western end of the long grass-covered National Mall; the Lincoln Memorial, with its reflecting pool; the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial flanking the pool and the World War II Memorial at the pool's far end; and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, all overlooking the Tidal Basin. Among Washington's famous churches are Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal), which was completed in 1990; and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States. The city also contains Nationals Park, the home to major-league baseball's Nationals, and the Capitals (hockey) and Wizards (basketball) play in the Verizon Center. The Washington Redskins play in nearby Landover, Md.
The Arlington Memorial Bridge across the Potomac connects the capital with Arlington National Cemetery. Also in Arlington is the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, one of the largest statues ever cast in bronze, and the U.S. Air Force Memorial. In the Potomac itself lies Theodore Roosevelt Island, thickly wooded and with many foot trails.
Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Institutions
The city's many institutions of higher education include American Univ., the National Defense College, the Catholic Univ. of America, Georgetown Univ., George Washington Univ., Howard Univ., and the Univ. of the District of Columbia. Among many cultural attractions are the National Gallery of Art, the Freer Gallery of Art, and the other centers under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution; the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the Phillips Collection; the Folger Shakespeare Library; and the Newseum. Major visitor draws on the Mall include the National Air and Space Museum, the Holocaust Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.
The U.S. Naval Observatory, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, the Smithsonian Institution, the Brookings Institution, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington are among the institutions dedicated to scientific research and education. Also in Washington is the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home (1851). Nearby are the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (Bethesda, Md.) and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture research center (Beltsville, Md.)
The present system of government (in operation since 1975) provides for an elected mayor and city council but reserves for Congress veto power over the budget and legislation and direct control over an enclave containing most of the federal buildings and monuments.
The Twenty-third Amendment (1961) to the Constitution gave inhabitants the right to vote in presidential elections; the District of Columbia was accorded three electoral votes, the minimum number. In 1970 legislation authorized election of a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. There have been several unsuccessful attempts by the District of Columbia to gain statehood and achieve full representation in Congress.
With the city facing insolvency in 1995, Congress created a financial control board with a mandate to supervise municipal finances. Granted virtual authority over the city, the board concentrated on reducing the municipal workforce, paring services and programs, stimulating the economy, retaining a middle-class presence, and transferring prison and other costly operations to the federal government; it continued its oversight until the District had four successive balanced budgets (2001).
In 1790 the rivalry of Northern and Southern states for the capital's location ended when Jefferson's followers supported Hamilton's program for federal assumption of state debts in return for an agreement to situate the national capital on the banks of the Potomac River. George Washington selected the exact spot. The "Federal City" was designed by Pierre L'Enfant and laid out by Andrew Ellicott. Construction began on the White House in 1792 and on the Capitol the following year.
John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House. Congress held its first session in Washington in 1800, and Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in the new capital. In the War of 1812 the British sacked (1814) Washington, burning most of the public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House.
The city grew slowly. Even after 1850 it was still "a sea of mud," and not until the 20th cent. did it cease to be an unkempt rural city and assume its present urban aspect. Though strongly manned during the Civil War, it was several times threatened by the Confederates, notably by Gen. Jubal A. Early in 1864. In 1871, Washington lost its charter as a city and a territorial government was inaugurated to govern the entire District of Columbia. Congress took direct control of the District's government in 1874, providing for a mayor appointed by the President and a commission chosen by Congress; the residents were disfranchised. After 1901, Washington was developed on the basis of the resurrected L'Enfant plan—a gridiron arrangement of streets cut by diagonal avenues radiating from the Capitol and White House, with an elaborate system of parks.
Through the years the city has been a focus for national political activity. In 1932 Bonus Marchers lived in its parks until they were evicted by the army. In the 1960s and early 70s hundreds of thousands demonstrated for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, and massive rallies have become a recurrent part of Washington life.
Washington's population has declined steadily since the 1950s; much of the outmigration has been to affluent suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. In Apr., 1968, the assassination in Memphis, Tenn., of Martin Luther King, Jr., touched off riots in Washington, and population loss accelerated. The long mayoralties (1980–91, 1995–98) of Marion Barry were fraught with corruption and controversy, which retarded attempts by the city and by federal authorities to resolve economic and social issues. The Washington metropolitan area was shaken in Sept., 2001, by a terrorist attack on the Pentagon and reports that the White House had been among the terrorists' possible targets.
See C. M. Green, Washington: A History of the Capital (1976) and Washington: Capital City, 1879–1950 (1976); S. Smith, Captive Capital (1974): D. Duncan, Washington: The First One Hundred Years, 1889–1989 (1989); J. W. Reps, Washington on View: The Nation's Capital since 1790 (1991); C. Sten, ed., Literary Capital: A Washington Reader (2011).