George Washington signed the Residence Act, establishing the site of the U.S. capital on the east bank of the Potomac River on this date in 1790. The issue had been a matter of much Congressional debate for the past few years. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton worked out a compromise: the capital would be placed in the South, and in return, Madison would agree to let the federal government assume the states’ war debt. The Residence Act mandated that the capital site not exceed 100 square miles, and that it should lie on the Potomac River somewhere between the Anacostia River and the Conococheague, a creek that flows into the Potomac. At first glance, the marshy, mosquito-ridden site seemed an unlikely place for a capital, but George Washington saw potential in the area’s many rivers.
The act also established Philadelphia as a temporary capital while the exact location was figured out and a plan drawn up for the layout of the city — a process that took 10 years. Washington hired a French architect and city planner named Pierre L’Enfant to design this new city. L’Enfant studied the maps of several European cities and chose what he thought were the best elements of each. He figured out where all the important government buildings would go, connected them with diagonal-running avenues, and then overlaid a grid of streets. The layout resulted in lots of little triangular spaces, which were perfect for statues and monuments. But L’Enfant grew too ambitious, and Washington fired him in 1792. The federal government began moving into Washington, D.C., in 1800, but George Washington, who died in 1799, never lived in the city that bore his name. John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House.