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Washington D.C., 1800
The establishment of the nation's capital on the banks of the Potomac River resulted from a compromise between the Federalist and the Republican factions of the early republic. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, accepted the Federalist proposal that the national government pay the state debts incurred during the war of independence. In exchange, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, agreed to situate the capital at a place chosen by George Washington. Work on the new city began in 1790 and by 1800 was complete enough for the seat of government to be moved there from Philadelphia. John Adams was the first president to reside in the new city, if only for a short period as he was defeated for reelection by Thomas Jefferson in the fall of 1800 and left office in March 1801. President Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved to their new home in November.

Today, the region between Washington D.C. and Baltimore is a sprawling megalopolis - a seamless blend of suburban communities interlaced with super highways and rapid transit. Two hundred years ago it was mostly wilderness - dense forest punctuated by mosquito-infested swamps. One road connected the two locations and travel between them, which today takes less than an hour by car, could take two days.

Introduction to the New Capital

In November 1800 Abigail Adams made the trip from Philadelphia to join her husband in Washington. She traveled by carriage accompanied by servants. Leaving Baltimore, her carriage takes a wrong turn and the party is forced to hack its way through the woods until finally they find their way back to the main road. Stopping to eat, Abigail and her party meet another carriage sent from Washington (a "chariot") to intercept her. Abigail described her experience in a letter to her sister:

"Washington November 21, 1800

My Dear Sister:

I arrived in this city on Sunday the 16th. Having lost my way in the woods on Saturday in going from Baltimore, we took the road to Frederick and got nine miles out of our road. You find nothing but a forest & woods on the way, for 16 and 18 miles not a village. Here and there a thatched cottage without a single pane of glass, inhabited by Blacks... I set out early, intending to make my 36 miles if possible: no traveling however but by day light; We took a direction as we supposed right, but in the first turn, went wrong, and were wandering more than two hours in the woods in different paths, holding down & breaking bows of trees which we could not pass, until we met a solitary black fellow with a horse and cart. We inquired of him our way, and he kindly offered to conduct us, which he did two miles, and then gave us such a clue as led us out to the post road and the Inn, where we got some dinner. Soon after we left it, we met the chariot then 30 miles from Washington, and 20 from our destination."

An Overnight Stay

Before leaving Philadelphia, Abigail was advised to ease her journey by staying at the home of Major Thomas Snowden, midway between Baltimore and Washington. Approaching the home, Abigail is reluctant to impose on the Major with so large a party of travelers and passes the house. Seeing her, the Major mounts his horse in pursuit:

"We rode as fast as the roads would allow of, but the sun was near set when we came in sight of the Major's. I halted but could not get courage to go to his house with ten horses and nine persons. I therefore ordered the coachman to proceed, and we drove rapidly on. We had got about a mile when we were stopped by the Major in full speed, who had learnt that I was coming on; and had kept watch for me, with his horse at the door; as he was at a distance from the road. In the kindest, and politest manner he urged my return to his house, represented the danger of the road, and the impossibility of my being accommodated at any Inn I could reach: A mere hovel was all I should find. I plead my numbers. That was no objection. He could accommodate double the number. There was no saying nay and I returned to a large, handsome, elegant house, where I was received with my family, with what we might term true English hospitality, friendship without ostentation, and kindness without painful ceremony.

Every attention possible was shown me and the next morning I took my departure, having shared in the common bounty of Major Snowden's hospitality, for which he is universally celebrated - I arrived about one o'clock at this place known by the name of the city, and the name is all that you can call so. As I expected to find it a new country, with houses scattered over a space of ten miles, and trees & stumps in plenty with, a castle of a house - so I found it - The President's House is in a beautiful situation in front of which is the Potomac with a view of Alexandria. The country around is romantic but a wild, a wilderness at present.

I have been to George Town and felt all that Mrs. [William] Cranch described when she was a resident there. It is the very dirtiest hole I ever saw for a place of any trade, or respectability of inhabitants. It is only one mile from me but a quagmire after every rain. Here we are obliged to send daily for marketing; the capital is near two miles from us. As to roads we shall make them by the frequent passing before winter, but I am determined to be satisfied and content, to say nothing of inconvenience &c. There must be a worse place than even George Town, that I would not reside in for three Months."

The President's House

".We have had some very cold weather and we feel it keenly. This house is twice as large as our meeting House. I believe the great Hall is as big. I am sure tis twice as long. Cut your coat according to your Cloth. But this house is built for ages to come.I had much rather live in the house at Philadelphia. Not one room or chamber is finished of the whole. It is habitable by fires in every part, thirteen of which we are obliged to keep daily, or sleep in wet and damp places."

   Adams, Abigail, New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, Stewart Mitchell (editor) (1947); McCullough, David, John Adams (2001).

How To Cite This Article:
"Washington D.C., 1800," EyeWitness to History, (2001).

Washington had a population of approximately 5,000 in 1800.