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Washington DC. The US Capitol building and dome. | by denisbin
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Washington DC. The US Capitol building and dome.

Washington, District of Columbia. The site for the new national capital was selected in 1790 with land donated from Maryland and Virginia- 2 southern states. A southern site was chosen as Alexander Hamilton, the treasure and Thomas Jefferson got the North to agree to a compromise, the new national government would pay of all the state War of Independence debts if the capital city was located in the South. Most of the Southern states had already paid off their war debts so this was the carrot that enticed the North to agree. The city was named after the first President and founded in 1791 but the Congress did not move to Washington until 1800. Peter L’Enfant was given the task of designing the city and he placed the Capitol (Congress) on a hill at one end of a long mall with the President’s house at the other end. Thomas Jefferson proposed a competition for the design of the Capitol which was won by William Thornton a French architect in 1793 but his design was much modified. The senate wing was completed in 1800 and the Congress and dome in 1811 although congress had met in the Capitol since 1807. During the War of 12 with the British part of the Capitol was burned in 1814 as was the White House when the British sailed up the Potomac River and attacked. The Capitol building was much enlarged and took its current form in the 1850s using slave labour! The current dome is three times the size of the original 1811 dome and it was completed in 1863. It was Thomas Jefferson who insisted the Congress be referred to as the Capitol as he wanted the US legislature to draw upon democratic ties with ancient Rome. The quadrants or sectors of Washington DC are all drawn from a central point in the US Capitol. Adjacent to the Capitol is the Library of Congress and the US Supreme Court also designed in the classical style. The Library of Congress, a research library was established by Congress in 1800. Most of the early collection was destroyed by the British in their raid on Washington in 1814. The Library for Congress now consists of 3 buildings but the oldest was opened in 1797. It terms of shelf space and the number of books it is the largest library in the world. Its original function was a research function for politicians in the Capitol.

 

Nearby is the US Supreme Court. Remarkably it is a modern building. The US Supreme Court met in a basement of the Capitol building until 1935 when the current classical style Court was opened. The façade is made of marble mined in Vermont. The Supreme Court is exceedingly important in the US as it is one of the three separate powers of government: the Presidency; the Congress and Senate; and the Supreme Court. The legislature makes the laws; the Supreme Court decides if they are consistent with the US Constitution and therefore legal. Presidents have to have their appointments to the Supreme Court ratified by Congress. It is not an easy process. The Justices are there for life or until they retire. Their judgements have been major milestones in the history of America. From earliest days justices, and politicians, have been categorised into two camps when it comes to interpreting the US Constitution:- the “loose constructionists” and the “strict constructionists.” The loose group argue that if the Constitution does not prohibit something, then it can be made into law. The strict group argue that if the Constitution does not mention and identified something it cannot be made legal. These arguments still continue. The first big argument emerged over the establishment of the first US Bank in the 1790s. Apart from interpretations of the Constitution the US Supreme Court has made many momentous decisions. One important one was the 1954 ruling that facilities and schooling for black Americans could never be equal to that of whites if it was separate. That led to desegregation, the Civil Rights movement and the later student bussing controversies of the 1970s. But the Court changes over time and this 1954 ruling was a repudiation of an earlier ruling of 1899 when the Court ruled that separate but equal facilities for blacks did not breach the 14th amendment to the Constitution of 1866 which gave black Americans equal rights and Civil Rights. The US Supreme Court if one for the three major arms of US government.

 

Washington DC has 600,000 residents and just over 50% are black residents but it used to be over 70% black residents. But the white suburbs flow out across Maryland and Virginia and the metro area has 5.6 million people making it the 7th largest US city. Although a planned city with some beautiful boulevards, and a large complex of government buildings, including the Pentagon which covers acres, it is also a city of black slums and tenements. But one distinguishing feature is the lack of skyscrapers. In 1899 Congress passed a Heights of Buildings Act when a 10 storey hotel was erected. It limited building heights to 110 feet, and this was further lowered by a 1910 amendment which meant no building could be higher than the width of the street that it faced. The only exception has been the Catholic National Shrine (Cathedral) opened in 1959. Thus the Washington Monument is the second highest structure in Washington DC. The Capitol building is 4th highest but it is placed on a hill so it can dominate the city skyline. The city‘s economy is based on government services, political lobbying groups, national offices of professional and trade organisations etc. A number of universities are located in the city and it has a strong arts sector with the Kennedy Performing Arts Centre being the home for the National Symphony Orchestra, National Opera, Washington Ballet Company, National Theatre Company etc.

 

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Taken on October 20, 2012