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The unsettled state of the nation's finances led to the first talks of locating a new federal capital. In 1789 Alexander Hamilton presented a report on public credit that was greatly opposed by James Madison. A short lived victory had Hamilton and congressional supporters resorting to legislative horse trading for votes. An agreement made with Virginia at this time allowed that, in exchange for locating a new federal capital on the Potomac River, several key congressmen would change their vote. The District of Columbia seemed an appropriate capital for a Republican president. When Jefferson was inaugurated, Washington was still an isolated rural village. George Washington selected the exact spot for the Federal City. Building of White House began in 1792 and building of the Capital began in 1793. Jefferson was first President inaugurated at the Capitol. With Jefferson's backing, the area where Washington D. C. is located soon became known as the Federal district coextensive with the city. Arguments as to whether this area was part of the north or south were settled in 1790 by a compromise. Land was donated by Maryland and Virginia on each side of the river, including the towns of Alexandria and Georgetown. Alexandria was later returned to Virginia in 1847. The Federal district was established by the Congressional acts of 1790 and 1791. Congress first met there in 1800.

In 1812 it was believed that even though the United States possessed only a small army and navy, it could easily sweep the British out of Canada. The governing forces of that time failed to appreciate how unprepared the country was for war. They also refused to mobilize the needed resources to wage an expensive war against the world's greatest sea power. When the United States Treasury appealed for loans to finance the War of 1812, wealthy northern merchants failed to respond. The campaigns of 1813 revealed that conquering Canada would be more difficult than the War Hawks had ever imagined. Throughout 1814 the British war ships harassed the Chesapeake coast. To their surprise they found the region almost totally undefended. Finally on August 24, 1814, in retaliation for the Americans destruction of the capital of Upper Canada, a small force of British marines burned the nations capital.

A territorial government was established at Washington D.C. in 1871 with the present system established in 1878. Governed by congress through the executive board of presidential appointees, it was originally set up so that the inhabitants had no voice in local government and no representation in Congress. In 1961 the Twenty Third Amendment to the Constitution gave inhabitants the right to vote in presidential elections.

Washington D. C. was made the Capitol of the United States in 1895, when Georgetown became part of Washington with the District of Columbia on the Potomac River and southwest of Baltimore. The city did not cease to be an unkempt village and assume urban aspects until the 20th century. Washington D. C. was designed by Pierre L'Enfant and laid out by Andrew Ellicot.