The first European settlement in the district area was in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1749, but the region remained lightly populated. After the United States gained its independence from Great Britain in the American Revolution (1775–83), there was a heated political debate over the location of a new permanent capital. A compromise was reached in 1790, and the new District of Columbia founded, created from federal lands not part of any state. The complex of federal buildings, including the Capitol, was at the heart of the plan for the city laid out by the French-born American engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant. When the government actually moved to the city in 1800, it had a population of only about 8,000. The Capitol and other government buildings were burned by the British during the War of 1812 (1812–14) but were rebuilt by the end of the decade. Early hopes that the city would become a great commercial center were never realized, and by the time of the Civil War (1861–65), there were only about 60,000 inhabitants.
The true basis of Washington’s growth proved to be war and depression, since in times of crisis the role of the federal government is greatly expanded. During the Civil War, for instance, the population doubled, to about 120,000. Another trend displayed itself then, as thousands of dispossessed migrants—freed slaves in this case—moved to the city, seeking the benefits of government and the protection of its officers. As a result, the racial and ethnic composition of the city differed greatly from other major U.S. cities. By 1900, Washington’s foreign-born population was only 7 percent, compared to New York City’s 37 percent and Boston and Chicago’s 35 percent. At the same time, its African-American population was 31 percent, much higher than the 2 percent in New York, Boston, and Chicago.
The next great period of city growth was during World War I (1914–18), when the population rose from 350,000 to 450,000 almost wholly due to internal migration. Again, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, more jobs could be found in Washington than anywhere else, mainly because of federal projects. Between 1930 and 1940, the city’s population grew from 485,000 to 665,000, with the percentage of foreign born actually shrinking to 5 percent. During World War II (1941–45), the city’s population grew rapidly and peaked at more than 800,000 in 1950. During the next half century, the population declined, to 572,000 in 2000, as the suburban and metropolitan areas have grown. In 2000, the greater D.C. area, including the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, had a population of more than 3.9 million, and the larger metropolitan area, including Baltimore, Maryland, had a population of 7.6 million.
Few cities in the United States were affected more than Washington, D.C. by passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The immigrant share of the population has grown dramatically since then, with most coming from Asia and Central America. In 1965, less than 5 percent of the population was foreign born; in 2000, it was more than triple that amount, the exact percentage varying according to city, county, or metropolitan basis. Between 1983 and 1996, more than 300,000 immigrants moved to the metropolitan area. Although they came from more than 100 countries, about half emigrated from El Salvador, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, China, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jamaica. About 48 percent of the metro area immigrant population arrived since 1990, with El Salvador topping the list of immigrant source countries in both 1990 and 2000 (9,276 and 15,886, respectively). The District of Columbia also permanently resettled more than 3,000 refugees from all parts of the world between 1996 and 2001. The share of foreign students also continues to increase. In 1999, more than 8,000 foreign students attended the area’s universities, with the largest number at George Washington (2,226), American University (1,711), Georgetown University (1,589), and Howard University (1,172).