To ensure he arrived in Washington before the deadline he had set for public offices to "be opened in the City of Washington for the dispatch of business by the fifteenth of June," Adams left Philadelphia on May 27, traveling by carriage with his personal secretary. Though his wife, Abigail, would take the more direct route through Baltimore, those roads were considered to be more difficult to travel.
Adams chose the western route across Pennsylvania before turning back through Maryland. The roads on his route were better than those the First Lady traveled, but the additional miles extended his trip to eight days.
He would enter Washington on its western edge, in Georgetown. Upon hearing of Adams' planned arrival, prominent residents of Georgetown met and unanimously resolved, "That an address on the part of this town be presented to the President of the United States upon his arrival here."
In fact, the President was celebrated all along his route, which might have made his journey less tedious. He was escorted by the cavalry both when he arrived in and departed York, Pennsylvania, which also marked the occasion with the ringing of church bells. Residents of these rural areas considered any visit by the President a great honor, and Adams stayed in many towns and attended church services along the way.
Adams likely hoped that these constituents remembered his visits fondly because 1800 was an election year, and he was in a fierce fight against Vice President Thomas Jefferson.
Without mass media or easy travel available to the candidates, the presidential contest was largely carried out in partisan newspapers. That made the necessary trip from Philadelphia to Washington an opportunity for Adams that wasn't available to his opponent. The editor of one paper that supported Jefferson cast aspersions on Adams' route, asking, "Why must the President go fifty miles out of his way to make a trip to Washington?"
Despite his longer route, Adams arrived almost two weeks ahead of the June 15 deadline he had set for federal agencies to open in the new capital. As planned, he was greeted with a public address by the citizens of Georgetown that reads, in part, "In every situation to which you have been called by the public voice, we recognize with delight your unvarying devotion to the public good conspicuously manifested in your discharge of the duties of the high station you now fill."
Adams' reply the next day congratulated them "on the translation of the Government to the city so near you." While agencies would open for business shortly, the President himself would have to live and conduct his business in a boarding house for five more months before his residence was ready that November.
That was the same month that Congress was able to meet in the U.S. Capitol Building for the first time, even though some rooms were still unfinished. Construction of the U.S. Capitol was a laborious and time-consuming process: building sandstone had to be quarried by hand in Virginia, then ferried to the relative wilderness of Capitol Hill. In 1799 alone, 20 tons of plaster from Paris had been boiled in vats and troweled onto 10,000 square yards of walls and ceilings, bound to 240,000 feet of wooden lath with 1,000 bushels of hair.
Even that effort wasn't enough to finish the interiors, and accommodations were made to ensure Congress could occupy the building on schedule. Wooden staircases would temporarily serve in lieu of the grand marble staircases intended for the building. Senate Chamber columns that would eventually be stone were wooden shafts skimmed with plaster. The hearths of the fireplaces that would heat the rooms were laid with three pieces of sandstone, which could be reused to pave the new city's footpaths when marble hearths and mantles were later available.
"The original interior … was simple and straightforward, lacking the elaborate materials and designs that were beyond the city's means," observed former Architect of the Capitol Historian William Allen. These conditions and the continued presence of workers weren't likely to bother Adams, who had written to his wife, "Let frugality and industry be our virtues."
On November 22, 1800, President Adams made the trip from his new residence, which was then called the President's House, to the U.S. Capitol at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the only paved road in Washington at the time. He addressed a joint session of Congress whose members were crowded into the new Senate Chamber, with spectators filling the gallery on the floor above. Jefferson was en route to Washington when Adams spoke allowing the incumbent to avoid an awkward encounter with his opponent who would have presided over the Senate.
Standing near his opponent's empty chair to speak, Adams gave credit to the people for the successful move while acknowledging the work to be done. "I congratulate the people of the United States on the assembling of Congress at the permanent seat of their Government, and I congratulate you, gentlemen, on the prospect of a residence not to be changed. Although there is cause to apprehend that accommodations are not now so complete as might be wished, yet there is great reason to believe that this inconvenience will cease with the present session."
Although construction on the U.S. Capitol continued beyond that session, Adams' residence in Washington would end the next year, when Jefferson was inaugurated as the next President. The U.S. Capitol was where the hotly contested election was finally decided by the U.S. House of Representatives in 36 ballots over six days. Jefferson was then the first President inaugurated at the U.S. Capitol in the same Senate Chamber where Adams had welcomed Congress a few months earlier.
Adams wasn't there to witness the proceedings, however, having already left Washington for his home in Massachusetts. For this trip, Adams took the shorter route north.