Arlington County is a county in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is coterminous with the U.S. Census Bureau-census-designated place of Arlington, which is the second-largest principal city of the Washington metropolitan area. As a result, the county is often referred to in the region simply as “Arlington” or “Arlington, Virginia”. In 2015, the county’s population was estimated at 229,164, which would make it the fourth-largest city in the Commonwealth if it were incorporated as such.
The land that became Arlington was originally donated by Virginia to the United States government to form part of the new federal capital district of Columbia. On February 27, 1801, a year after moving from the temporary National Capital at Philadelphia to the City of Washington, the United States Congress organized the area as a subdivision of the District named Alexandria County. In 1846, Congress returned the land southwest of the Potomac River donated by Virginia due to issues involving Congressional representation and the abolition of slavery. The General Assembly of Virginia changed the county’s name to Arlington in 1920 to avoid confusion with the adjacent City of Alexandria.
The county is situated in Northern Virginia on the south bank of the Potomac River directly across from Washington, D.C. Arlington is also bordered by Fairfax County and City of Falls Church to the northwest, west and southwest, and the City of Alexandria to the southeast. With a land area of 26 square miles (67 km2), Arlington is the geographically smallest self-governing county in the United States, and due to state law regarding population density, has no other incorporated towns within its borders.
Due to the county’s proximity to downtown Washington, D.C., Arlington is headquarters to many departments and agencies of the federal government of the United States, including the Department of Defense (DoD) at the Pentagon, Drug Enforcement Administration, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is also home to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The many federal agencies, government contractors, and service industries contribute to Arlington’s stable economy. Arlington is also the location of national memorials and museums, including Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, and the United States Air Force Memorial.
It is the highest-income county in the United States by median family income, though it has the highest concentration of singles in the region. According to a 2016 study by Bankrate.com, Arlington is the best place to retire, with nearby Alexandria coming in at second place. Criteria of the study included cost of living, rates of violent and property crimes, walkability, health care quality, state and local tax rates, weather, local culture and well-being for senior citizens. The area that now constitutes Arlington County was originally part of Fairfax County in the Colony of Virginia. Land grants from the British monarch were awarded to prominent Englishmen in exchange for political favors and efforts at development. One of the grantees was Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, who lends his name to both Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax. The name Arlington goes back to Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, the namesake of a plantation, Arlington Plantation, along the Potomac River, and Arlington House, the family residence on that property. George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of First Lady Martha Washington, acquired this land in 1802. The estate was eventually passed down to Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee. The property later became Arlington National Cemetery during the American Civil War, and eventually lent its name to present-day Arlington County.
The area that now contains Arlington County was ceded to the new United States federal government by the Commonwealth of Virginia. With the passage of the Residence Act in 1790, Congress approved a new permanent capital to be located on the Potomac River, the exact area to be selected by U.S. President George Washington. The Residence Act originally only allowed the President to select a location within Maryland as far east as what is now the Anacostia River. However, President Washington shifted the federal territory’s borders to the southeast in order to include the pre-existing city of Alexandria at the District’s southern tip. In 1791, Congress amended the Residence Act to approve the new site, including the territory ceded by Virginia. However, this amendment to the Residence Act specifically prohibited the “erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the River Potomac.” As permitted by the U.S. Constitution, the initial shape of the federal district was a square, measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2). During 1791–92, Andrew Ellicott and several assistants placed boundary stones at every mile point. Fourteen of these markers were in Virginia and many of the stones are still standing.
1878 map of Alexandria County, now Arlington County
When Congress arrived in the new capital, they passed the Organic Act of 1801 to officially organize the District of Columbia and placed the entire federal territory, including the cities of Washington, Georgetown, and Alexandria, under the exclusive control of Congress. Further, the unincorporated territory within the District was organized into two counties: the County of Washington to the east of the Potomac and the County of Alexandria to the west. It included all of the present Arlington County, plus part of what is now the independent city of Alexandria. This Act formally established the borders of the area that would eventually become Arlington but the citizens located in the District were no longer considered residents of Maryland or Virginia, thus ending their representation in Congress.
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