The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History

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MS Word file: “The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History”

From its beginnings in the 1790s, Washington, D.C. has been a border city–famously described by John F. Kennedy as a place of “southern efficiency and northern charm.” The new American nation carefully chose a site for a new capital that balanced regional interests. The members of the first Congress under the new Constitution understood the federal city as poised balanced between the northern and southern states and also between the Atlantic seaboard and the continental interior.

Washington has also been a southern city from its origins to the present. Additional roles have been overlaid on its southern character, making it also a “northern” city (especially from 1861 to the 1880s), a national city (especially in the twentieth century), and a global city (especially since 1940). Nevertheless, it has continued to maintain a distinctive regional character that reciprocally supports the distinctiveness of the South Atlantic region.

In this paper, I explore what I call the “social hinterland” of Washington, as distinguished from an economic or commercial hinterland. In effect, I propose to use Washington to show the possibilities of emphasizing a social and cultural dimension to city-regional history. Washington has never had wide-ranging commercial influence comparable to a Chicago or Montreal. But it has been a focus for interregional migration, a draw for regional elites, and symbolic prize among rival regions.


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