George Washington, United States History, Revolutionary War, Washington DC, Potomac River


For over 200 years, historians have glossed over blemishes on George Washington’s reputation, transforming the president into an almost mythological figure of the United States’ national identity. This paper brings into focus one of the more overlooked narratives about the president, revealing that his choice of Washington DC and the Potomac River as the location for the national capital was driven by financial self-interest and not by a prescient vision of future national unity.

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that Washington knew the Potomac River could not serve as a national waterway; he was well aware of impassible rapids, sudden drops that totaled 874 feet, and large mountains that completely obstructed the river. Despite this, Washington continued to pursue development along the Potomac for personal financial gain. By the early 1790s, the country had sent thousands of dollars to his private river company, promoted settlement in areas near Washington’s land holdings, and begun the creation of a major city within walking distance of Mount Vernon.

The revelation of Washington’s true motivations for choosing this location for the national capital complicates the myth of this founding father as the epitome of a perfect leader. It calls into question the legitimacy of the political, racial, and economic hierarchies that have transformed a self-interested slaveholder into a centerpiece of modern democracy.