Q119: What is the capital of the United States?

A. Washington, D.C.
B. New York City, New York
C. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
D. Boston, Massachusetts 

Question Background Information


The Constitution does not establish where the federal capital would be, but Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 did insist that it be a distinctive place. For one, it could not be part of a state (which is why it does not have congressional representation, which is reserved only for states). This was because, as Madison argued in Federalist 43, the Founders did not want the nation’s leadership to be unduly pressured by the local people in decision making.  

Among the many decisions in the early years of the republic was where to place the capital. Both Philadelphia and New York served as temporary capitals, but neither was ultimately chosen: instead, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton brokered a deal to place the new capital, eventually called Washington, D.C., on land contributed by Virginia and Maryland. (The land that Virginia gave was later returned to Virginia and makes up present day Alexandria and Arlington County, and some have proposed that most of the rest of it be retroceded to Maryland, leaving only a rump district consisting of federal buildings). That it would be near George Washington’s home was an additional draw to the site.

Today Washington D.C. is the site not only of the Capitol, White House, and Supreme Court chambers, as well as other federal government buildings, but also many important monuments such as the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials.

Since the Constitution designates that the capital not be part of a state, the 23rd Amendment gave citizens residing there three electoral votes for president and vice president.  

Additional Content

Discussion Prompts


The first capital of the United States was Philadelphia, PA, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  It was believed, though, that a location separate from a state was a better idea, and eventually a new location on the Potomac River was chosen.  This region was named Washington, D.C. 

Prompt 1 

Today, the United States is made up of 50 states, but the capital is not located in any of them.  Instead, it sits separate, a region unto itself.  What is the capital of the United States, where is it located, and why is it located there?  

Prompt 2

One of the arguments James Madison made for creating a separate location for the nation’s capital was that he did not want to see it be part of a state. He wanted it to be a separate entity entirely, which the other founding fathers agreed with. Why do you think Madison’s idea was well received? What would be the benefits and the drawbacks to having the federal district be part of a state, or its own state? What about the benefits and drawbacks to having the federal district wholly independent of a state? Consider the perspective both of the inhabitants and the citizens of the entire United States.  Use current and past events to support your answer.