This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
In fancy now, beneath the twilight gloom, Come, let me lead thee o'er this " second Rome !" Where tribunes rule, where dusky Davi bow, And what was Goose-Creek once is Tiber now:— This embrio capital, where Fancy sees Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees ; Which second-sighted seers, e'en now, adorn With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn, Though naught but woods and Jefferson they see, Where streets should run and sages ought to be.
In the old days all roads led to Rome : to-day all roads lead to Washington. The eyes of the world are upon her great Capitol: the poor look to it as the bulwark of liberty and prosperity; the rich for protection of vested rights; the savage for learning and assistance ; the jurist for law; the politician as the goal of his ambition; the statesman for the science of progressive government; the diplomat as the place wherein to play the game of nations ; and the sovereigns of Europe in apprehension, for on its walls is written in blood : " The divine right of kings is the divine right of the people." It is the abode of the Goddess of Freedom in the New World.
No matter from which direction the pilgrim approaches the Federal City, whether by land or by water, the white dome of the National Capitol, that shrine of the world's oppressed, is almost the first sight to gladden his eye.
We have but to glance at the map of the globe, to see that Babylon, Nineveh, Tyre, Carthage, Constantinople, Venice, St. Petersburg, London, Paris, New York, Chicago and most of the other great cities of ancient and modern times have sprung up upon the low lands near the sea, or upon so-.i; of its great tributaries, where they have been nourished by commerce. Washington, too, stretches back from the banks of a great tributary, but it was not, like most of these, chance-directed in its line of growth, though the original intention of the President, the Commissioners and the engineers has in part miscarried. Nor was it, like others, planned by some potentate for his own delectation and power. It is the only city designed for the capital of a nation which has been projected practically in a wilderness in accordance with pre-arranged plans dictated by the will of the people themselves through their representatives.
Even before the Constitution was adopted, in 1785, a commission had been appointed by Congress with power to select upon the Delaware a site for a national capital, and to make contracts for the erection of a suitable President's house, houses for the Secretaries and a Federal House; but this commission had taken no action.
The District of Columbia was established under the 8th Section and 1st Article of the Constitution of the United States: " Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States." In pursuance of this provision, the State of Maryland passed, December 23, 1788, " An act to cede to Congress a District of ten miles square in this State, for the Seat of the Government of the United States." The State of Virginia patriotically followed, December 3, 1789, with " An act for the cession of ten miles square, or any lesser quantity of territory within this State to the United States in Congress assembled, for the permanent seat of the General Government".
The final step was taken on the 16th of July, 1790, when President Washington, then in his first term of office, signed the Senate bill establishing the future seat of government upon the banks of the Potomac. Yet even this act left indefinite the location of the District, save that it must be between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Connogochegue. The President was to appoint three Commissioners, who, under his direction, were to survey, and, by proper metes and bounds, define and limit the required territory. These Commissioners, or any two of them, were given power also to purchase or accept such quantity of land as the President thought proper for the use of the United States, and were to provide " suitable buildings for the accommodation of Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government " prior to the first Monday in December, i8oo>; but all according to such plans as the President should approve. The only substantial limitation made by the law was that the sites for the public buildings should be upon the eastern or Maryland side of the river. To defray the expenses of such purchases and buildings, the President was " authorized and requested to accept grants of money." On the above date, the seat of government and all its offices were to be removed to the new District. Meanwhile, they were to remain in New York until December, 1790, after which they were to be located in Philadelphia.
This action of Congress was the culmination of a long and acrimonious debate springing from State jealousy and personal feeling, in which the interests of New York and Germantown were vigorously presented, together with locations upon the Susquehanna and the Delaware. The meager reports of the prolonged contest in the early annals of Congress are interesting and instructive, revealing, as they do, the primitive condition of the country at that time, the bitter sectionalism which prevailed, and the ignorance of the best minds regarding the topography of the States, together with their inability to anticipate the facilities for quick communication, tiansportation and commerce in store for the infant Republic. Madison, Ames, Sherman, Lee and others were active in debate. Mr. Burke " thought a populous city better than building a palace in the woods"; while Mr. George Thatcher, the witty and learned representative from Massachusetts, exclaimed, with some degree of impatience at the debate, that " it was not of two paper dollars' consequence to the United States whether Congress sat at New York, at Philadelphia, or on the Potomac".