The George Washington University had its beginning in 1821 as The Columbian College in the District of Columbia. The name of the institution was changed in 1873 to Columbian University and in 1904 to The George Washington University. The debt of the University to George Washington, whose name it bears, is an intangible one.

George Washington, as president and as private citizen, had urgently insisted upon the establishment of a national university in the federal city. There he hoped that, while being instructed in the arts and sciences, students from all parts of the country would acquire the habits of good citizenship, throwing off local prejudices and gaining at first hand a knowledge of the practice, as well as the theory, of republican government. To further the materialization of his hopes, Washington left a bequest of 50 shares of The Potomac Company "towards the endowment of a University to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the General Government, if that government should incline to extend a fostering hand towards it." The Congress never extended a "fostering hand." The Potomac Company passed out of existence, and Washington's bequest became worthless.

Fully conscious of Washington's hopes, but motivated primarily by a great missionary urge and the need for a learned clergy, a group of dedicated ministers and laymen sponsored a movement for the establishment of a college in the District of Columbia. Inspired largely by the zeal and energy of the Reverend Luther Rice, they raised funds for the purchase of a site and petitioned Congress for a charter. After much delay and amendment, Congress granted a charter, which was approved by President Monroe on February 9, 1821. To safeguard the College's nonsectarian character it provided "That persons of every religious denomination shall be capable of being elected Trustees; nor shall any person, either as President, Professor, Tutor or pupil, be refused admittance into said College, or denied any of the privileges, immunities, or advantages thereof, for or on account of his sentiments in matters of religion."

During the entire time when the institution was known as Columbian College, its activities were centered on College Hill, a tract of 46 acres between the present 14th and 15th Streets extending north from Florida Avenue to somewhat beyond Columbia Road. The Medical School was located downtown. For the better part of the Columbian University period, the buildings of the University were situated along H Street between 13th and 15th Streets.

During the last half-century, the University's campus has been developed in that section of the old First Ward familiarly known as Foggy Bottom, between 19th and 24th Streets, south of Pennsylvania Avenue. The area has many reminders of historic interest to the University.

President Monroe, who signed the Charter, lived at 2017 I Street. The first President of the Board of Trustees, the Reverend Obadiah B. Brown, was for 50 years the pastor of a church at 19th and I Streets, and Washington selected 23rd and E Streets as the site of the National University he hoped to see established.