The Answers Issue: What is “Washington”?

What is “Washington”? In February 2013, Mayor Gray changed the name of the locality listed on license plates issued in the District of Columbia from “Washington, D.C.” to “District of Columbia.” This made me think about why we use the term Washington at all. My understanding is that there is no legal entity called Washington anymore, but there used to be an incorporated city within the District by that name (along with the incorporated cities of Georgetown and Alexandria). I was so curious I actually looked through the District of Columbia Code and found Section 1 - 107 which essentially states that the “City of Washington” refers to the portion of the District within the boundaries of the old City of Washington (south of Florida Ave, etc.) and the city of Georgetown, as they existed before their charters were revoked by federal law. It would appear that, in terms of public law within the District, the “City of Washington” only refers to a portion of the District. However, I often hear people say the two names are synonymous or something abstract along those lines. Did this ever officially change? If so, when?

You’ve got the history right. According to D.C. historian John Muller, the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 bit off chunks of Maryland and Virginia to create a “Ten Miles Square” District of Columbia; the Virginia portion was ceded back in the 1840s. Through much of the 19th century, the historic L’Enfant City was known widely as Washington City; Georgetown was Georgetown; and the sparsely populated suburbs of the remainder of the District were called Washington County. When Ulysses S. Grant was elected president and set about readmitting the Confederate states to the Union, there was an effort to form new state governments, and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871 repealed the individual charters of the District’s three component entities and created a unified city government.

Colloquially, people began referring to the new city as “New Washington.” But officially? Georgetown, says D.C. historian Don Hawkins, “became a convenient designation for the neighborhood, but its official use was limited to its designation as an official port of entry.” And Washington City and Washington County ceased to have any official use.

According to Cynthia Brock-Smith, secretary of the District of Columbia, the 1871 act referred only to the District of Columbia, and so that is the official name of the jurisdiction. (The District seal adopted in that year, bearing just the words “District of Columbia” and “Justitia Omnibus,” remains the city’s seal to this day.) “We refer to it as Washington, D.C., but the legal name is the District of Columbia,” Brock-Smith says. “We can’t find anything that officially says ‘Washington, D.C.’ in our records.” But she notes that there’s one written use of “Washington, D.C.” that remains widespread: as a postal address.

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