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The American Experience

People & Events
The United States Creates a New Capital


At the time Aaron Burr served as vice president, from 1800-1804, the new national capital of Washington, D.C. was little more than a rustic village. But Burr and his colleagues soon proved that, though it might be primitive, its occupants were capable of the most sophisticated political intrigue.

Authorized in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and set aside by an act of Congress in 1790, the national capital at Washington, D.C., was originally designed by a French military engineer named Pierre-Charles L'Enfant. Although L'Enfant was fired shortly after the project began, his layout for the city became reality. The plan featured diagonal avenues radiating across a grid of streets, thrilling vistas from the Capitol and the "presidential palace," and numerous squares and circles of greenery.

The cornerstone of the Capitol was laid by George Washington in September, 1793. Seven years later, the government offices were moved to Washington from Philadelphia. President John Adams became the first to live in the presidential palace, as the White House was then called.

In 1801, when Jefferson was inaugurated, Pennsylvania Avenue was a muddy trail through the brush. To the shock and dismay of many, Jefferson insisted on walking it to his inauguration ceremony. The presidential palace was only half built, as was the Capitol. Senators and representatives lived in rustic boardinghouses, several to a room.

If the American politicians who lived there saw the new capital as a primitive outpost, foreign visitors were appalled -- especially when they met the new president, who had a habit of greeting visitors in his dressing gown and slippers and generally flouting diplomatic convention. Yet during Jefferson's second term, the new capital become the scene of high political drama. Jefferson would test the power of the judiciary, and it would survive -- thanks to none other than Aaron Burr.

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