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Primary Documents in American History

Residence Act

Plan of the Federal District
Thomas Jefferson.
Plan of the Federal District.
Manuscript map.
Manuscript Division (102)

The Residence Act, officially titled "An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States," was passed on July 16, 1790, and selected a site on the Potomac River as the permanent capital (Washington, D.C.), in ten years times. Also, this act designated Philadelphia as the temporary capital for a period of ten years. The Residence Act was the result of a compromise reached between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison concerning the permanent location of the Federal capital. In exchange for locating the new capital on the Potomac River, Madison agreed not to block legislation mandating the assumption of the states' debts by the Federal government.

Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography

Digital Collections

An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

This collection contains a broadside of the Residence Act that was printed in New York in 1790.

Search or browse this collection to find additional printed ephemera related to the early history of Washington, D.C.

The Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, ca. 1600-1925

The District in the XVIIIth Century, a book published in 1909, provides an overview of life in Washington, D.C. during the 1790s.

Search this collection using the phrase "Washington, D.C." or "District of Columbia" to locate more full-text books on this subject.

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

The Senate passed the Residence Act by a vote of 14 to 12 on July 1, 1790. The House of Representatives passed this act by a vote of 31 to 29 on July 9, 1790.

Search in the 1st Congress using the phrase "seat of government" to find additional Congressional debate and documents related to this act.

This collection also contains Maclay's Journal, a diary kept by Senator William Maclay describing his experiences in the 1st Congress. Because Senate sessions were closed to the public until 1795, Maclay's Journal is one of the few accounts of Senate floor activity in the early Congresses. Search Maclay's Journal using the word "residence" to find information on the Residence Act.

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

This collection consists of approximately 65,000 documents, including a large number on the creation of a Federal capital in Washington, D.C.

Search Washington's papers to find hundreds of documents related to the creation of Washington, D.C.


The focus of Map Collections is Americana and Cartographic Treasures of the Library of Congress, including nine maps of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the city of Washington.

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress is organized into ten series, including Series 3. District of Columbia Miscellany. 1790-1808. This series contains a wide variety of Jefferson's letters, drawings, maps, and notes that document the building of Washington, D.C.

Jefferson's account of the Compromise of 1790 involving the location of the Federal capital is available in the Introduction to the "Anas" from February 4, 1818.

"I proposed to him (Hamilton) however to dine with me the next day, and I would invite another friend or two, bring them into conference together, and I thought it impossible that reasonable men, consulting together coolly, could fail, by some mutual sacrifices of opinion, to form a compromise which was to save the union. The discussion took place. I could take no part in it, but an exhortatory one, because I was a stranger to the circumstances which should govern it. But it was finally agreed that, whatever importance had been attached to the rejection of this proposition, the preservation of the union, & of concord among the states was more important, and that therefore it would be better that the vote of rejection should be rescinded, to effect which some members should change their votes. But it was observed that this pill would be peculiarly bitter to the Southern States, and that some concomitant measure should be adopted to sweeten it a little to them. There had before been propositions to fix the seat of government either at Philadelphia, or at Georgetown on the Potomac; and it was thought that by giving it to Philadelphia for ten years, and to Georgetown permanently afterwards, this might, as an anodyne, calm in some degree the ferment which might be excited by the other measure alone. So two of the Potomac members (White & Lee, but White with a revulsion of stomach almost convulsive) agreed to change their votes, & Hamilton undertook to carry the other point."

Words and Deeds in American History

In 1800, President John Adams wrote a letter to federal department heads ordering the relocation of government offices from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia.

America's Library

Jump Back in Time: Washington D.C., Became the Capital, July 16, 1790.

Jump Back in Time: The Cornerstone Of The White House Was Laid, October 13, 1792.


American Treasures at the Library of Congress - The Nation's Capital

Contains L' Enfant's original plan of Washington, D.C. and early pictures of the Capitol and the White House.

Creating the United States

This online exhibition offers insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self–governing country.

Temple of Liberty: Building a Capitol for a New Nation

Online exhibition of original prints, drawings, and documents related to the construction of the U.S. Capitol.

Prints and Photographs Image List

Washington, D.C., Sights Before 1850

A select list of early images of Washington, D.C. from the Prints and Photographs Reading Room.

Today in History

July 16, 1790

Congress declared the city of Washington in the District of Columbia the permanent capital of the United States on July 16, 1790.

October 13, 1792

The cornerstone of the White House was laid on October 13, 1792.

Link disclaimerExternal Web Sites

Birth of the Nation: First Federal Congress, 1789-1791: Locating the United States Capital, George Washington University

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

The Senate Moves to Washington, United States Senate

Residence Act, National Archives and Records Administration

The United States Capitol Historical Society

Washington DC: A Guide to the Historic Neighborhoods and Monuments of Our Nation's Capitol, National Park Service

The White House Historical Society

Selected Bibliography

Arnebeck, Bob. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800. Lanham: Madison Books, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Bordewich, Fergus M. Washington: The Making of the American Capital. New York: Amistad, 2008.
[Catalog Record]

Bowling, Kenneth R. Creating the Federal City, 1774-1800: Potomac Fever. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1988. [Catalog Record]

Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1991. [Catalog Record]

Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. [Catalog Record]

Padover, Saul K., ed. Thomas Jefferson and the National Capital: Containing Notes and Correspondence Exchanged Between Jefferson, Washington, L’Enfant, Ellicott, Hallet, Thornton, Latrobe, the Commissioners, and Others, Relating to the Founding, Surveying, Planning, Designing, Constructing, and Administering of the City of Washington, 1783-1818. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1946. [Catalog Record]

Younger Readers

Brill, Marlene Targ. Building the Capital City. New York: Children's Press, 1996. [Catalog Record]

Curlee, Lynn. Capital. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003. [Catalog Record]

Hilton, Suzanne. A Capital Capital City, 1790-1814. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992. [Catalog Record]

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  January 27, 2015
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