Which State Is Washington, D.C. In?

Washington D.C. is not located in any of the 50 US states. It is located in the District of Columbia, which is what D.C. stands for.

The location of Washington D.C.

Originally, the seat of the government of the United States was located in Philadelphia, where members of the Continental Congress met. But shortly after the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress saw the need to create a capital that would not be dependent on or beholden to any of the US states. In 1790, a deal was struck among America’s Founding Fathers that called for the building of a new, permanent capital and federal district in an underdeveloped area consisting of land belonging to the US states of Maryland and Virginia. This area would eventually become Washington D.C., the current capital of the United States of America.

How Washington D.C. Became the US Capital

Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C.
An aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. with federal buildings including the US Archives Building, Department of Justice, FBI Headquarters and the US Capitol Building. 

Before Washington D.C. became the capital of the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania served as the country’s capital. It made sense at the time to have the capital in Philadelphia since it was accessible to both the Northern states, in which slavery was illegal, and the Southern states, where the practice of slavery was permitted. But the city’s status as the US capital became problematic when the Philadelphia Munity took place in 1783.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia
The Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  

In 1783, the Continental Congress was struggling to figure out how to pay the troops who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. Upset over not being paid, a group of soldiers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania marched to Philadelphia and blocked the doors of the Congress. At the same time, the Governor of Pennsylvania refused to use state troops to protect the federal lawmakers. Eventually, members of Congress snuck out of the Continental Congress building, now called Independence Hall, and traveled to Princeton, New Jersey. In the following years, the Congress traveled to other US cities. New York City was the last locale visited by the Congress, though delegates did travel back to Philadelphia to draw up the US Constitution in 1787. In order to prevent crises similar to the Philadelphia Mutiny in the future, an article was added to the Constitution that allowed Congress to create a special federal district that would be under the direct control of federal authorities, without having to depend on a state government for protection. But where would such a district be placed?

Jefferson Memorial, Washington D.C.
The Jefferson Memorial located on the shores of the Potomac River Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, Washington D.C.

When Congress met in 1789, two cities were proposed for the establishment of the new federal district: Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Germantown, Pennsylvania, the latter of which was just outside Philadelphia. Another proposal, however, was put forward by Founding Father Alexander Hamilton by which an underdeveloped area that encompassed parts of Maryland and Virginia would be designated for the federal district. Hamilton proposed this as part of a larger deal that involved fellow Founding Fathers, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Under this deal, the new federal district would be located in an area amiable to the slave-holding states of the South, who feared that a capital in the North would be more sympathetic to the Abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery in the entire United States. In exchange, the South was to pay off the outstanding debts that the Northern states had accumulated during the Revolutionary War. This compromise arrangement was put in place in the form of the Residence Act, which created the new federal district, and placed the permanent capital of the United States in the area where the city of Washington is currently situated.

White House, Washington D.C.
The White House - the official residence and workplace of the President of the United States in Washington D.C. 

George Washington, the first President of the United States, chose the exact spot along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers where the city was founded in 1790. The land in which the new capital city and federal district was to be situated was ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia. In September 1791, the city was named Washington in honor of the first US President. The new federal district was dubbed the Territory of Columbia, a name derived from Christopher Columbus, which was used as a patriotic reference to the United States during the Revolutionary War. In 1871, the Territory of Columbia was renamed the District of Columbia. 

Philadelphia was to remain the US capital for ten years, during which time the people of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania lobbied hard to prevent the capital from moving to the new federal district, even offering President Washington a luxurious mansion to stay in. But it was all for nought. Efforts to keep the US capital in Philadelphia were also harmed by the outbreak of a yellow fever epidemic that hit the city in 1793, raising doubts about safety in the area. Besides, native Virginians, which included Founding Fathers like Washington, Madison, and Jefferson, were looking forward to having a capital near their home. Thus, on May 15, 1800, the US Congress put an end to their business in Philadelphia and began its move to the new federal district. Philadelphia’s days as the US capital would officially come to an end on June 11, 1800. Since then, Washington D.C. has been the capital of the United States of America.