Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How Washington Got Its Name

I've kept up web pages on early Washington history, mostly amplifications of parts of my book Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800. Of late, according to my site statistics, there's been an inordinate amount of traffic on a modest page explaining how the city was named.

For example, my site is hosted my Yahoo and I can get "live updates" on viewers. In the last 10 minutes on a Tuesday morning, two people visited the how Washington was named site, one from Howell, Michigan and the other from Oslo, Norway.

Why such interest?

The first person to report on the naming of the city was Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. He came down to Georgetown, accompanied by James Madison, to confer with the three commissioners appointed by the President to supervise the preparation of the city for the reception of the federal government in 1800. After the meeting he sent a memo back to President Washington reporting on what the commissioners decided.

The 13th and last decision he mentioned was the name or names: "they have named the City, & the territory, the last after Columbus."


The first, of course, was named Washington.

Perhaps, there was a becoming sense of modesty in those days; perhaps the president was a bit embarrassed; perhaps the president had let it be known that he preferred the phrase "federal city", and, indeed, from all the reading I've done of his letters, Washington never called Washington "Washington." In a January 1791 letter he called the district: "The District of ten miles square for the permanent Seat of the general government." In a March letter he referred to "the federal town." A few weeks later he called it "the federal city." After September, when the city  was officially named Washington, he continued to call it "the federal city."

Obviously, Washington knew that the commissioners were going to name the city after him which was why Jefferson did not mention their decision. He prefaced his report by assuring the president that 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

This suggests that Washington had given thought to the name. However, he may not have given thought to the name of the "territory" or the congressional ordain 

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."  The commissioners named the city "Washington." They also had to name the ten mile square the city was in, mandated by the Constitution, in which in 1791 there were already two existing towns, 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 became 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

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.

 The committee consisted of Mr [Melancton] Smith Mr [Nathan] Dane and Mr [John] Kean to whom was referred the letter1 of John M Pintard requesting that Sea letters be granted for the ship Columbia and the sloop lady Washington bound on a voyage to the northwest coast of America report "that it appears to them that the ship Columbia and the sloop Lady Washington and their cargoes are the property of citizens of the United States and that they are navigated principally by inhabitants of the United States and are bound on a voyage to the Northwest coast of America" 9/24/87