Congress Finds a Home

“Where will Congress find a resting place?--they have led a kind of vagrant life ever since 1774 . . . . Every place they have taken to reside has been too hot to hold them; . . . We pity the poor congress-men, thus kicked around and cuffed about from post to pillar--Where can they find a home?”

New York Daily Advertiser, January 27, 1791

Between 1774 and 1790 Congress resided in eight places: Philadelphia, Lancaster, and York, Pennsylvania; Princeton and Trenton, New Jersey; Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland; and New York, New York. In 1790 Congress passed a bill locating the capital along the banks of the Potomac River. Selection of the specific site for a Federal district of up to one hundred square miles was left to President George Washington who chose an area which included Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland. As part of the compromise, which ensured the bill’s passage, the Government would reside in Philadelphia for ten years before occupying its permanent capital. In 1799, the new city in the Federal district was named after Washington.

The transfer of the Government to its new capital took place in the summer of 1800. Ships and wagons carried government papers and the personal belongings of the Federal establishment to the city of Washington which was little than a village at the time. Most of the new residents were struck by the city’s unfinished look. One congressman described it as "both melancholy and ludicrous . . . a city in ruins." Only one wing of the Capitol was useable and Congress met there for the first time in November.