Oct 23, 2012

District of Columbia (2)

So there were two outstanding items in the first post on GABROEN's weekend trip to Washington D.C. (click here for that first post):
1. the origin of the term 'District of Columbia', or the story of two Italian dudes
2. what we did on Saturday night

Starting with the origin of 'D.C.' means starting with the U.S. constitution. This much revered document also lists, somewhat to my surprise, a clause to create a "District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States". Interestingly, at least to a down-to-earth Dutchman, is how frequently the constitution and constitutionality of ideas and legislation are debated in U.S. politics, in court, in the media. In stark contrast, I don't think the Dutch language has a word for 'unconstitutional', and the Dutch constitution expressly prohibits the courts to rule on constitutionality of legislation. Another thing the down-to-earth Dutchman quickly observed, is that in these debates Americans do a lot of interpreting of their constitution to make it fit their own cause, but they do not mess with it. So an exactly square area on both sides of the Potomac River was reassigned from Maryland and Virginia to become a federal district, the only area in the U.S. that is not part of a state. This exact square measured exactly 10 by 10 miles, or 100 square miles - I assume that is not too loose of an interpretation of the original text 'ten miles square', as only 3 years passed between the adoption of the constitution and Congress passing the act that created the federal district and new capital city. Although, the 2012 election circus has shown how much can change in the minds of certain politicians in a couple of months, let alone 3 years.........

The current size of the district is smaller than the original 10 by 10 mile square, as the Alexandrian part south of the Potomac River was handed back to Virginia as an early prelude to the clash between North and South during the civil war. That put the federal capital right on the border of North and South, and more or less in the heat of battle. The shape of today's D.C. looks more or less like a paper square torn in half - perhaps a fitting metaphor for that civil war.

Anyway, back to the origin of the name. That brings us to a tale of the two Italian dudes. To clearly identify the district as a federal territory separate of any state, it was decided to use what at the time was a poetic patriotic name for America: Columbia. Some people had argued that when a name for the new country was coined 14 years earlier with the Declaration of Independence, it should have been the United States of Columbia. That would have created Columbians rather than Americans, not to be mistaken with Colombians. Perhaps too much credit for the first Italian dude Columbus, granted a brave explorer, who named the natives (those with a feather) 'Indians', not to be mistaken with Indians (with a dot). On the other hand, people apparently did not want to credit the other dude Amerigo Vespucci too much either - granted he was the first to realize that Columbus made a mistake when thinking he had arrived in India, Amerigo never set foot on North American soil.

The city was modeled after cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Milan, and GABROEN walked through different neighborhoods that reminded us of those cities. Although Boston is often called the most European city of the U.S., GABROEN would argue this title should go to Washington. We had a nice time in this walkable city, and I'll dedicate a third post to what we did on Saturday night.


1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed Washington D.C. too. And you know I loved all the bikers, pedaling around. Plus there was a bike share!!

    So fascinating... Amerigo. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to post 3!