What State Is Washington, D.C., In?

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 
Pennsylvania Avenue
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is perhaps the most prestigious street address in Washington, D.C. Here the U.S. Capitol building is visible from Pennsylvania Avenue. Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

On July 16, 1790, the Constitution of the United States established a territory 10 miles square (100 square miles/259 square kilometers) to serve as the permanent seat of the U.S. federal government and as the nation's capital. President George Washington selected a site along the Potomac River and Anacostia River after both Maryland and Virginia ceded land to create this new federal district.

At the time, the federal government was operating from New York City, but this act — known as the Residence Act — moved the national capital to Philadelphia until December 1800, when the new capital city would be ready. We know this today, of course, as Washington, D.C. But what state is Washington, D.C., in?


Washington, D.C., Is a Federal District

Some might say Washington, D.C., is in a state of confusion. But if we're answering the geography question it's quite simple: Washington, D.C., is a district and not part of any U.S. state.

The capital city borders Maryland to the north, east and west, and the state of Virginia on the southern shore of the Potomac River. But Washington, D.C., is not a city in either state.


James Madison explained that keeping the nation's capital as a district prevented any one state from holding too much power.

Instead, when the newly formed federal district territory was named the District of Columbia Sept. 9, 1791, about 3,000 people lived there, which wasn't enough to make it a state. White men who owned property in D.C. kept voting in either Maryland or Virginia as they always had.

Washington, D.C., April, 1865
Washington, D.C., has changed quite a bit since this view circa April 1865.
Library of Congress


Alexandria County and Freed Black Americans

By 1847, the federal government retroceded the portion of D.C. in Arlington County back to Virginia. Why? Because the residents of Alexandria, which had previously been the county seat of Fairfax County, lost their Virginia state citizenship and could no longer vote in congressional or presidential elections. So they left D.C.

But despite this temporary population and land area loss, the federal government and civilian population continued to grow. And many of those coming to the area were formerly enslaved people.


After the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act became law and enslaved men and women there were freed April 16, 1862 — months before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — Washington, D.C., became a hub for newly freed men and women. This, and the establishment of Howard University in 1867, helped make it home to a substantial, vibrant African American community, including luminaries like Frederick Douglass.

All this U.S. history still does not make it part of a state, however. Originally intended only as the seat of federal government, D.C. didn't even have its own mayor or city council until 1974. And even though the residents pay federal taxes, they do not have representation in Congress, meaning they lack the full rights that residents of individual states enjoy. Plus, Congress still retains the power of veto over local laws enacted by city government, which is why some argue for statehood.


Visiting the U.S. Capital Today

Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Veterans Memorial is just one of the myriad of monuments you can visit on the National Mall. Terry Adams/NPS

But if there's one thing Washington, D.C., is known for, it's being home to some of the nation's best museums and monuments about American history. Here are just a few of them:

On or Near the National Mall

The National Mall is home to the most iconic monuments in the country's capital, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. At the eastern end is the U.S. Capitol, to the north is the White House, and the museums of the Smithsonian Institution are on its flanks.


  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing
  • Eisenhower Memorial
  • FDR Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  • National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Gardens
  • U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • U.S. Institute of Peace
  • U.S. Navy Memorial and Visitors Center
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • World War I Memorial
  • World War II Memorial

Major Public Buildings

  • Library of Congress
  • National Archives
  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • U.S. Botanic Garden
  • U.S. Capitol
  • White House
  • White House Visitor Center

Beyond the National Mall

  • African American Civil War Museum
  • Cultural Tourism DC
  • DC History Center
  • Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
  • Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  • International Spy Museum
  • Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • National Building Museum
  • National Geographic Museum
  • National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
  • Washington National Cathedral

In Nearby Virginia

  • Air Force Memorial
  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Mt. Vernon Estate and Gardens
  • National Museum of the Marine Corps
  • National Museum of the United States Army
  • Pentagon
  • Pentagon 9/11 Memorial
  • U.S. Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima)
  • Women in Military Service for America (Women's Memorial)

Smithsonian Museums

  • National Air and Space Museum
  • National Museum of African American History & Culture
  • National Museum of African Art
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Smithsonian Gardens
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)