In 1790 the rivalry of Northern and Southern states for the capital's location ended when Jefferson's followers supported Hamilton's program for federal assumption of state debts in return for an agreement to situate the national capital on the banks of the Potomac River. George Washington selected the exact spot. The "Federal City" was designed by Pierre L'Enfant and laid out by Andrew Ellicott. Construction began on the White House in 1792 and on the Capitol the following year.
John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House. Congress held its first session in Washington in 1800, and Thomas Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in the new capital. In the War of 1812 the British sacked (1814) Washington, burning most of the public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House.
The city grew slowly. Even after 1850 it was still "a sea of mud," and not until the 20th cent. did it cease to be an unkempt rural city and assume its present urban aspect. Though strongly manned during the Civil War, it was several times threatened by the Confederates, notably by Gen. Jubal A. Early in 1864. In 1871, Washington lost its charter as a city and a territorial government was inaugurated to govern the entire District of Columbia. Congress took direct control of the District's government in 1874, providing for a mayor appointed by the President and a commission chosen by Congress; the residents were disfranchised. After 1901, Washington was developed on the basis of the resurrected L'Enfant plan—a gridiron arrangement of streets cut by diagonal avenues radiating from the Capitol and White House, with an elaborate system of parks.
Through the years the city has been a focus for national political activity. In 1932 Bonus Marchers lived in its parks until they were evicted by the army. In the 1960s and early 70s hundreds of thousands demonstrated for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, and massive rallies have become a recurrent part of Washington life.
Washington's population has declined steadily since the 1950s; much of the outmigration has been to affluent suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. In Apr., 1968, the assassination in Memphis, Tenn., of Martin Luther King, Jr., touched off riots in Washington, and population loss accelerated. The long mayoralties (1980–91, 1995–98) of Marion Barry were fraught with corruption and controversy, which retarded attempts by the city and by federal authorities to resolve economic and social issues. The Washington metropolitan area was shaken in Sept., 2001, by a terrorist attack on the Pentagon and reports that the White House had been among the terrorists' possible targets.