CAPITALS. Americans have had the opportunity to decide the location for fifty state capitals. The current array is the result of decisions made as early as the 1600s (Santa Fe, Boston, Annapolis) and as late as the 1970s, when Alaskans declined to build a new capital. The ways in which Americans have thought about capitals have been unavoidably influenced by the example of Washington, D.C., especially the principles of neutrality and centrality that determined the location of the federal district in the 1790s. The location of capitals also shows the effects of economic rivalries within territories and states.
In the early years of independence, many of the original states moved their capitals from seaboard to interior, following the westward movement of population and economic activity. Examples include Columbia, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; and Concord, New Hampshire. Maryland and Massachusetts, in contrast, left their capitals at the seventeenth-century sites whose initial recommendation was easy access to water-borne commerce. In the 1960s and 1970s, Alaskans debated, and ultimately rejected, a similar shift from the tidewater town of Juneau to a site in the state's interior between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Centrality was also the key factor for Indianapolis, deliberately placed in the geographical center of Indiana in advance of European American settlement.
Neutrality was a more important principle for several other middle western states that split the difference between powerful cities. Frankfort, Kentucky, lay halfway between Lexington and Louisville. Columbus was not only central to Ohio but also midway between Cleveland, with its Great Lakes trade, and Cincinnati, with its Ohio River trade.
Local economic competition and promotion played a role in several capital locations. The Wisconsin promoter James Duane Doty finessed the rivalry among several Lake Michigan cities by offering territorial legislators prime town lots in a new community eighty miles west of the lake; the lawmakers soon discovered the merits of Madison as a capital. Coloradans in the 1860s aligned themselves between two factions of the Republican Party. The "Denver crowd" and the "Golden crowd" fought over political offices and over the designation of the territorial
capital, in the end secured by Denver. The choice of Pierre, South Dakota, represents the victory of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad over towns favored by the rival Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad.
Statehouses or capitol buildings occupy a prominent and often elevated site in most capital cities. Many of the buildings date from eras of statehouse building, from 1866 to 1886 and 1895 to 1924. During these years, state capitols grew from relatively modest colonial and antebellum origins to complex and formidable structures, often designed by leading architects such as Cass Gilbert and Charles Follen McKim. The typical statehouse draws on the U.S. Capitol and is a domed, low cross with symmetrically balanced wings for two legislative houses connected by a rotunda. Replacement buildings since the 1930s have tended toward simplified variations on the common themes.
Designation as a state capital has not guaranteed a city economic prominence. Atlanta, Boston, and Denver are the dominant city in their region, but only nine of thirty-seven cities that host Federal Reserve banks or branches are state capitals. Perhaps a dozen more state capitals, such as Hartford, Boise, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, and Phoenix, are the most prominent city in their state. But more commonly, the state capital is a second-tier or third-tier city even within its state, as shown by examples from Tallahassee, Florida, to Olympia, Washington.
Goodsell, Charles T. The American Statehouse: Interpreting Democracy's Temples. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.