Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > The National Capital

The British took aim at the seat of the American government in 1814. Washington’s location in the Chesapeake region was one of the reasons this became such an important theater of the war. The British blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and invaded Washington, not only because it was the capital but also to take the war to the Virginia-based politicians whom the British held responsible for the war. By contrast, the northern states, largely opposed to the war, traded with and supplied the British until the naval blockade was extended.

The lack of defense of Washington, D.C., the flight of government officials, and the occupation and burning of several public buildings in the Federal City were deeply embarrassing and demoralizing for Americans. This generated debate about moving the seat of government back to Philadelphia. By a narrow margin, Congress voted to keep the capital in Washington.

Washington was more grand plan than reality at the time of the war, with only about 3,000 residents, few buildings, and crude roads. The U.S. Capitol building was incomplete. After the British burned many of the public buildings in 1814, Congress debated whether to go to the trouble of rebuilding or to move the capital to the more cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. Period watercolor by William Russell Birch, Library of Congress

Still echoing the grand plan of Washington’s designers, the revered Capitol and White House, the stately offices of government, the iconic monuments and museums, the sweep of the Mall and the city's many public parks have come to evoke the ideals of democracy for Americans and for visitors from around the world.


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