On this day in history: the federal government relocated from Philadelphia to Washington DC

On May 15, 1800, President John Adams orchestrated a move that was fairly quick, due to the relatively small size of the government at the time.

The most important move in the history of the United States occurred on May 15, 1800. On that day, the federal government left Philadelphia and moved to Washington DC, where it remains to this day. The event occurred under the presidency of John Adams and was a quick transition due to the size of the government at the time, which did not exceed 150 employees.

It all started with the new constitution, in which Article I (Section 8) granted Congress the power to create a federal district to "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."

From Philadelphia to somewhere along the Potomac River

The debate began in 1789 and two locations were quickly proposed for the capital: one near Lancaster and the other in Germantown, an area outside Philadelphia. However, Alexander Hamilton was the architect of the deal that decided to move the capital to an undeveloped area that encompassed a portion of Virginia and a portion of Maryland.

This was supported by Thomas Jefferson and later by James Madison. In return, Hamilton pledged to reorganize the federal government's finances. In 1790, Philadelphia was chosen as the temporary seat of the federal government, as it was a good compromise for the debates of the time, particularly the balance of power between the North and the South. The Residence Act that George Washington signed that year authorized Congress to establish a new national capital and permanent seat of government at a site along the Potomac River, with the base established between Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison.

The location was to be one "consistent with convenience to the navigation of the Atlantic Ocean, and having due regard to the particular situation of the Western Country."

Washigton DC/Wikimedia Commons

The chosen site became too hot and prone to disease outbreaks, so legislators quickly began to consider options. The debate culminated on January 24, 1791, when President Washington announced in a proclamation the new headquarters, newly christened the District of Columbia.

"They were thereby authorized and required, on the behalf of the said State, to cede to the Congress of the United States, any District in the said state, not exceeding Ten miles square, which the Congress might fix upon and accept for the Government of the United States," the first president stated.

According to the History Channel, they had to work on the appropriate permits and even survey the land to draw up the boundaries of the new headquarters. Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a distinguished French engineer was in charge of the project. Washington DC was so named as a tribute to the first president, who died in 1799.

The move took place on May 15, 1800, although it took John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, a little longer to relocate to the White House. They arrived in November of that year, becoming the first presidential couple to settle there.

"I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise men ever rule under this roof!" wrote Adams at the time.

The move was relatively straightforward since moving the federal government at the time involved moving 125 employees, a figure that contrasts with the 2 million public employees currently employed by the state.