Uncovering America's Heritage... Coin by Coin
2009 District of Columbia Quarter
Hey, everyone! I get to start out 2009 with the District of Columbia quarter! You know what I love about the District? It was made up! There were only farms and swamps on that spot when George Washington looked it over in 1791. He was searching for a good place to put a capital city, and he decided that the place where the Anacostia River met the Potomac River was it.
It wasn't all his decision, of course. First of all, the US Constitution, signed four years earlier, gave Congress the right to found such a city as a home for the federal government, without naming a location. Northerners suggested Philadelphia, but Southerners feared that a northern city might be unfair to their needs. They settled on an area somewhere along the border between Maryland, a northern state, and Virginia, a southern state, separated by the Potomac River. The new district would not be part of either state.
Then the Residency Act of 1790 allowed the president to pick the actual site. President Washington, who had done lots of surveying (some in that very area), chose three other men to help him find the best location.
Once the site was set, Pierre L'Enfant was chosen to plan the streets and Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott to mark the boundaries with stones a mile apart. Some of those stones are still in place today.
At first, the area was a square, 10 by 10 miles. The Virginia portion was returned to Virginia in 1846, shrinking the district's 100 square miles to about 68 square miles, 7 of which are water.
The city was named "Washington" in 1791, but President Washington called it simply "the federal city" out of modesty. The city was smaller than the district then, but a law passed by Congress in 1878 made the borders of the city of Washington and the District of Columbia the same.
The population in the District of Columbia was small until the Civil War. Afterward, it kept growing into the 20th century. Today, the city is home to about 600,000 people, not counting its many visitors and commuters.
As part of an 1871 Act, Congress created a seal and motto for the new district. The Latin motto "justitia omnibus" is translated on the back of the District of Columbia quarter: "Justice for All," a phrase used in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Duke Ellington was born in the District of Columbia and grew up there. He was a great jazz composer and musician and also appears on the District of Columbia quarter. Read more about him on the 2009 Quarters page!