Residence Act

Residence Act of 1790
Great Seal of the United States
Long title An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States
Enacted by the 1st United States Congress
Statutes at Large 1 Stat. 130
Legislative history
  • Passed the Senate on July 1, 1790 (14-12)
  • Passed the House of Representatives on July 9, 1790 (32-29)
  • Signed into law by President George Washington on July 16, 1790
Major amendments
Virginia retrocession (1846)
Sketch of Washington, D.C. by Thomas Jefferson (March 1791)

The Residence Act of 1790, officially titled An Act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States, is the United States federal law that set where the capital of the United States would be established, selecting a site along the Potomac River. The federal government was located in New York City at the time the bill was passed and had previously been located in Philadelphia, Annapolis, and several other locations.


Congress passed the Residence Act as part of a compromise brokered between James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Madison and Jefferson favored a southerly site for the capital on the Potomac River, but they lacked a majority to pass the measure through Congress. Meanwhile, Hamilton was pushing for Congress to pass the Assumption Bill, to allow the Federal government to assume debts accumulated by the states during the American Revolutionary War. With the compromise, Hamilton was able to muster support from the New York State delegates for the Potomac site, while four delegates (all from districts bordering the Potomac) switched from opposition to support for the Assumption Bill.[1]

The Residence Act gave authority to President George Washington to select an exact site for the capital, along the Potomac, and set a deadline of December 1800 for the capital to be ready. In the meantime, Philadelphia was chosen as a temporary capital. Washington had authority to appoint three commissioners and oversee the construction of Federal buildings in the District, something to which he gave much personal attention. Thomas Jefferson was a key adviser to Washington, and helped organize a competition to solicit designs for the United States Capitol and the President's house. The construction of the Capitol building was fraught with problems, including insufficient funds; the building was only partially complete in November 1800 when Congress convened in it for the first time.


During the American Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House. On account of British military actions, the Continental Congress was forced to relocate to Baltimore, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and York, Pennsylvania for a time before returning to Philadelphia.[2] Upon gaining independence, the Congress of the Confederation was formed, and remained in Philadelphia until June 1783, when a mob of angry soldiers converged upon Independence Hall, demanding payment for their service during the American Revolutionary War. Congress requested that John Dickinson, the governor of Pennsylvania, call up the militia to defend Congress from attacks by the protesters. In what became known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, Dickinson sympathized with the protesters and refused to remove them from Philadelphia. As a result, Congress was forced to flee to Princeton, New Jersey on June 21, 1783,[3] and met in Annapolis and Trenton, before ending up in New York City.[4] The United States Congress was established upon ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, and New York City initially remained home to Congress.[5]

Establishing the capital

The question of where to establish the capital was raised in 1783. Numerous locations were offered by the states to serve as the nation's capital, including: Kingston, New York; Nottingham Township in New Jersey; Annapolis; Williamsburg, Virginia; Wilmington, Delaware; Reading, Pennsylvania; Germantown, Pennsylvania; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; New York City; Philadelphia; and Princeton; among others. The Southern states refused to accept a capital in the North, and vice versa. Another suggestion was for there to be two capitals, one in the North and one in the South.[6][7] Congress approved a plan in 1783 for a capital on the Potomac, near Georgetown, in Maryland, and another capital on the Delaware River; this plan was rescinded the following year.[2]

Establishing the capital was put on hold for several years, until the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787, to draft the United States Constitution.[2] Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution granted Congress power over a federal district, separate from any state:[8]

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, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful buildings.[9]

The Constitution said nothing about where the federal district would be. The debate heated up in 1789 when Congress convened for the first time under the Constitution. Two sites were favored by members of Congress: one site on the Potomac River near Georgetown; and another site on the Susquehanna River near Wrights Ferry (now Columbia, Pennsylvania). The Susquehanna River site was approved by the House in September 1789, while the Senate bill specified a site on the Delaware River near Germantown, Pennsylvania. Congress did not reach an agreement at the time.[2]


The Residence Act was passed in 1790, while Congress was convening at Federal Hall in New York City.

The selection of a location for the capital resurfaced in the summer of 1790. At the same time, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was pushing for Congress to pass a financial plan. A key provision of Hamilton's plan involved the Federal government assuming states' debts incurred during the American Revolutionary War. Northern states had accumulated a huge amount of debt during the war, amounting to 21.5 million dollars, and wanted the federal government to assume their burden. The Southern states, whose citizens would effectively be forced to pay a portion of this debt if the Federal Government assumed it, balked at this proposal. Some states, including Virginia, had paid almost half of their debts, and felt that their taxpayers should not be assessed again to bail out the less provident. Further, they argued that the plan exceeded the scope of the new Constitutional government. James Madison, then a representative from Virginia, led a group of legislators from the south in blocking the provision and prevent the plan from gaining approval.[10]

When Jefferson ran into Hamilton at President Washington's residence in New York City in late June 1790, Jefferson offered to host a dinner to bring Madison and Hamilton together. Subsequently, a compromise was reached, in which the northern delegates would agree to the southerly Potomac River site, and in return, the federal government would assume debts accumulated by the states during the American Revolutionary War. Jefferson wrote a letter to James Monroe explaining the compromise.[10]

The 1st United States Congress agreed to the compromise, which narrowly passed as the Residence Act. Jefferson was able to get the Virginia delegates to support the bill, with the debt provisions, while Hamilton convinced the New York delegates to agree to the Potomac site for the capital. The bill was approved by the Senate by a vote of 14 to 12 on July 1, 1790, and by the House of Representatives by a vote of 31 to 29 on July 9, 1790.[11] Washington signed the Act into law one week later on July 16.[12] The Assumption Bill narrowly passed the Senate on July 16, 1790, followed by passage in the House on July 26.[13]

The Residence Act specified that the capital be located along the Potomac River between the Eastern Branch (the Anacostia River) and the Connogochegue (near Williamsport and Hagerstown, Maryland), and encompass an area of no more than "ten miles square" (i.e., 10 miles (16 km) on a side, for a maximum area of 100 square miles (259 km2)).

The Act gave President George Washington the authority to decide the exact location and hire a surveyor. The President was required to have suitable buildings ready for Congress and other government offices by the first Monday in December 1800 (Monday, December 1, 1800). The federal government would provide financing for all public buildings.[12]

The Act specified that the laws of the state from which the area was ceded would apply in the federal district, meaning that Maryland laws applied on the eastern side of the Potomac while Virginia laws applied on the western side in the District of Columbia until the government officially took residence. Upon assuming control of the federal district in 1800, Congress would have full authority over local matters within the District of Columbia.[12]

In order to garner enough votes to pass the Assumption Bill, Hamilton also needed votes from the Pennsylvania delegates. This led to the decision to designate Philadelphia as the temporary capital city of the United States federal government for a period of ten years, until the permanent capital was ready.[14] Congress reconvened in Philadelphia on December 6, 1790 at Congress Hall.[15]


President's House, Philadelphia. This Philadelphia mansion served as the presidential mansion of George Washington, 1790-97, and John Adams, 1797-1800. Adams first occupied the White House on November 1, 1800.

Some hoped that the plan to establish the capital on the Potomac would not materialize, and that the capital would remain permanently in Philadelphia.[16] However, George Washington quickly got the ball rolling, and along with Jefferson, personally oversaw the process as plans were developed and implemented.[17] While plans for the permanent capital were being developed, Pennsylvania delegates continued to put forth effort to undermine the plan, including allocating funds for federal buildings and a house for the President in Philadelphia.[18]

Although the legislation did not specify an exact location, it was assumed that Georgetown would be the capital. Washington began scouting out the territory to the southeast of Georgetown, near the Anacostia River (Eastern Branch). Some of the property owners expressed to the President that they were willing to sell land for the capital. Washington also looked at other sites along the Potomac. He decided that a few sites should be surveyed to provide specific details about the land and its ownership. Washington returned to Philadelphia in late November 1790 to meet with Thomas Jefferson to discuss the implementation of the Residence Act. At this time, the decision had been reached to locate the capital at or adjacent to Georgetown,[2] which was a short distance below the fall line and the farthest inland point for navigation.

First page of the proclamation issued by President George Washington on March 30, 1791, specifying the boundaries of the proposed Federal capital.

In January 1791, the President proceeded to appoint, in accordance with the Residence Act, a three-member commission, consisting of Daniel Carroll, Thomas Johnson, and David Stuart, to oversee the surveying of the federal district, and appointed Andrew Ellicott as surveyor. Washington informed Congress of the site selection on January 24, and suggested that Congress amend the Act to allow the capital to encompass areas to the south of the Eastern Branch, including Alexandria, Virginia. Congress agreed to the President's suggested change. However, consistent with language in the original Act, the amendment specifically prohibited the "erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac".[2][19][20] Pierre Charles L’Enfant began working on a city plan for the capital in early spring 1791.[21]

A design competition was held to solicit designs for the United States Capitol and the President's mansion. Architect James Hoban was selected to design the mansion, while no satisfactory drawings were submitted for the Capitol.[22] A late submission by William Thornton was selected for the Capitol, though his plans were amateur in many respects.[23][24] Stephen Hallet was hired to oversee construction, which got underway in September 1793. Hallet proceeded to make alterations to the design, against the wishes of Washington and Jefferson, and was subsequently dismissed. George Hadfield was hired in October 1795 as superintendent of construction, but resigned three years later in May 1798, due to dissatisfaction with Thornton's plan and quality of work done thus far.[25]

The original intention of the Residence Act was to use proceeds from selling lots in the District to cover costs of constructing federal buildings in the capital. However, few were interested in purchasing lots. A shortage of funds further contributed to the delays and problems in building the Capitol and other federal buildings in Washington.[26]

The Senate wing was completed in 1800, while the House wing was completed in 1811. However, the House of Representatives moved into the House wing in 1807. Though the building was incomplete, the Capitol held its first session of the United States Congress on November 17, 1800, 2 weeks before the original deadline. The legislature was moved to Washington prematurely, at the urging of President John Adams in hopes of securing enough Southern votes to be re-elected for a second term as president.[27] However, he was defeated that same month.


In 1846, based on a petition to Congress by the residents of the Virginia portion of the District (Alexandria County) and the City of Alexandria, the area of 31 square miles (80 km2) which was ceded by Virginia was returned,[28] leaving 69 square miles (179 km2) of territory originally ceded by Maryland as the current area of the District in its entirety.[29]


  1. Ellis, Joseph J., (2000) Founding Brothers, Vintage Books, New York, NY, p. 73
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Reps 1965, pp. 240–242
  3. Crew 1892, p. 66
  4. See List of capitals in the United States for a complete accounting.
  5. Allen 2001, p. 4
  6. Panchyk, Richard (July 1, 2016). Washington, DC, History for Kids: The Making of a Capital City, with 21 Activities. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1613730065.
  7. Whitfield, Perter; Speicher, Lara (October 10, 2005). Cities of the World: A History in Maps. University of California Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0520247253.
  8. Writers Web|
  9. Constitution of the United States, United States Senate, retrieved 2008-12-12
  10. 1 2 Ellis 2002, pp. 48–52
  11. Residence Act, Library of Congress, retrieved 2008-12-12
  12. 1 2 3 An ACT for establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States, Library of Congress, retrieved 2008-12-12
  13. Elkins 1995, p. 160
  14. Miller 2003, p. 251
  15. The Senate Moves to Philadelphia, United States Senate, retrieved 2008-12-12
  16. Bowling 2000, pp. 3–4
  17. Elkins 1995, p. 169
  18. Elkins 1995, p. 174
  19. Statutes At Large, 1st Congress, Session III, Chapter 18, pp. 214-215, March 3, 1791.
  20. Hazelton 1903, p. 4
  21. Allen 2001, p. 8
  22. Allen 2001, pp. 13–15
  23. Allen 2001, p. 19
  24. Frary 1969, pp. 34–35
  25. Frary 1969, pp. 44–45
  26. Bowling 2005, p. 58
  27. Carter II, Edward C. (1971–1972), "Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the Growth and Development of Washington, 1798-1818", Records of the Columbia Historical Society: 139
  28. "Washington, D.C. History F.A.Q.". Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Retrieved 2015-05-15.
  29. "Frequently Asked Questions About Washington, D.C". Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Retrieved 2010-10-03.


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