Building a Federal Town: Washington, D.C.

Building a Federal Town: Washington, D.C.
Abigail Adams: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Two to five class periods


Abigail Adams was the first First Lady to live in the White House in Washington, D.C.  Before that, the capital of the country was in New York City and in Philadelphia.  Even when the Adams family moved into the White House, it wasn’t finished, and neither was Washington.  It takes a while to design and build a city from scratch!


Students who participate in all these activities will gain experience in research, synthesis and analysis of data, in the creation of a timeline, in preparing for and debating an issue, in journalistic writing, and in writing a formal research paper.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.


1.  Along with creating a Constitution to guide the development of this new country called the “United States” of America, it was necessary to create a new capital city.  Surpassing “the social, economic and cultural balance of a mere city; it was intended as the model for American city planning and a symbol of governmental power to be seen by other nations.”
2.  To begin this lesson, read the article, “The L’Enfant & McMillan Plans,” (access below) and answer the following questions:
  • Who was Pierre L’Enfant? 
  • How did he come to design the new capital? 
3.  With knowledge gained from these resources and the additional ones (below) on the history of Washington, D.C., you can do any (or all) of the following:
  • Create a timeline for the history of Washington, D.C. from 1789 to 1879.
  • Stage a reconstruction (with “real” characters) in which you debate the location of the new capitol city: What were the debates surrounding the location of the city? How were the debates resolved?
  • Write a newspaper article on the appointment of Pierre L’Enfant to design the city.
  • Write a paper explaining the way in which the District of Columbia is governed and why.

Extending the Lesson:

1.  If you accomplish all that, you can go to the following to create your own “Jeopardy” game about the wives and families of the nation’s presidents.
2.  Or, you can create a Jeopardy game from the materials about the city of Washington.

Sources & Resources:


      The L’Enfant & McMillan Plans

      The Life of Pierre L’Enfant

      Pierre Charles L'Enfant

      History of Washington, DC

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.