National Capital, The

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In the months leading up to the American declaration of independence from Great Britain, colonists could look to two capitals, or centers of political activity: London and Philadelphia. London was the largest city in Europe as well as the hub of the British Empire. It was home to England's primary political, financial, and cultural institutions, and by implication it represented the imperial capital to the British colonists of North America. Independence necessarily severed the American connection to London.

Then there was Philadelphia. The capital of Pennsylvania, centrally located on the Atlantic seaboard, and the most populous city in the colonies in 1776, Philadelphia was also the seat of the Continental Congress. By default, it became the national capital when on 4 July Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. In the midst of a revolutionary war, Americans never deliberated on the appropriateness of Philadelphia as the capital city for the fledgling nation, nor would they for at least another decade. Few Americans took notice when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777; the rump Congress simply fled to Lancaster, some forty miles to the interior. Over the ensuing seven years the Continental and then Confederation Congress met in York, Baltimore, Annapolis, Princeton, Trenton, and again in Philadelphia. After adjourning on Christmas Eve in 1784, the peripatetic Confederation Congress finally removed to New York City, where it met for the remainder of its existence.

New York City thus became the national capital of the nascent United States. Through the 1780s the Confederation Congress conducted the nation's business in lower Manhattan. In 1787 it called for a convention to meet in Philadelphia "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." By the end of the summer, the Continental Congress was on its way out to be replaced by a new government. The people of the several states ratified the United States Constitution in the course of the next year, and in 1789 a new national government convened in lower Manhattan. On the steps of the Federal Hall on Wall Street, Chancellor of New York Robert R. Livingston administered the oath of office to George Washington as the first president of the United States. Among its numerous provisions, the new Constitution stipulated that Congress purchase from the several states an area of land no larger than one hundred square miles on which to erect a permanent "seat of government."

The symbolic and strategic importance of the location of the national capital was not lost on the members of the First Congress. A fierce debate raged from September 1789, when the issue was broached, until the final House vote on 9 July of the following year. Congressmen deliberated on some sixteen possible sites. In addition to New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, a number of smaller locations were put forward in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. James Madison proposed the creation of an entirely new city to house the capital, to be erected on the shores of the Potomac River. Ultimately, the final form of the Residence Bill embraced Madison's idea, providing for a new city to be constructed on territory between Maryland and Virginia. In the ten years it would take to complete construction, the government would reside in Philadelphia.

How Madison's bold proposal became a reality is the stuff of legend. Virginia's and Maryland's gain was New York's and Pennsylvania's loss. No one knows precisely why New Yorkers agreed to forfeit the city's prospect of becoming the permanent capital of the United States. Most contemporaries agreed that Alexander Hamilton, the New Yorker serving as Washington's Treasury secretary, had traded it away in exchange for gaining Madison's tacit agreement to his plan for national assumption of state debts. Known as the Compromise of 1790, this remarkable political horse-trading allegedly transpired over dinner at Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's residence at 57 Maiden Lane. In order to save his funding and assumption plan then languishing in Congress, Hamilton assented to using his influence to have the nation's capital, its putative heart, shifted several hundred miles to the south. As for the supporters of the various Pennsylvania locations, they were rather easily won over. Not only were they assured of gaining the capital for ten years, but the prospect of its never moving to the mosquitoinfested shores of the Potomac River was very great indeed. What one Congress could give, another most likely would take away. Passage of the 1790 Residence Bill was not likely to be the last word.

Fully cognizant that the Potomac location was both unpopular and impractical, Madison and Jefferson sought to distance Congress as far as possible from the entire process. Madison effected this brilliantly by persuading the legislature to recuse itself from virtually all subsequent decisions concerning the capital in favor of the executive. President Washington would be charged with oversight. Despite reservations, including a conflict of interest—Washington actually owned some of the land ultimately settled upon—the president agreed to the terms of the Residence Bill. In subsequent years, he took great interest in and expended a great deal of energy on the plans to create a capital city, which all knew would ultimately bear his name.

What Jefferson and Madison did not know was whether the Compromise of 1790 was worth the price. In 1792 Jefferson confessed that the trade had been a political blunder of the first order. By the time the government actually removed itself from Philadelphia to its new home on the Potomac eight years later, Jefferson had changed his mind. As the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C., Jefferson already in 1801 could perceive the symbolic, political, and even historic significance of situating the nation's capital in the South. In the ensuing decades Washington took on the atmosphere of a southern town, with slavery and slave markets, torrid summer heat and humidity, and a leisurely pace that inevitably had an impact on national policy and politicians.

Far more significant than where the capital was placed, perhaps, was from whence it came. By effecting the removal of the capital from New York and Philadelphia, Jefferson uniquely invested his agrarian ideal into American political culture. At the heart of the Jeffersonian vision, which would predominate at least through the nineteenth century, rested the conviction that cities like New York and Philadelphia were "sores on the body politic," full of vice and corruption, and utterly unbefitting a nation of farmers and freeholders. Ensconced on the banks of the Potomac River, the bucolic American seat of government might stave off the type of corruption that plagued European courts. In America, it would seem, "country air makes free."

Even as President John Adams reluctantly and ruefully removed from Philadelphia to Washington in the winter of 1800, where he would shortly turn over the ship of state to Jefferson, a deep irony was at work. It took many decades, but as Washington expanded around the wonderfully symmetrical design of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, it increasingly became the symbol of an emerging empire. In 1814 the capital was still sufficiently inconsequential that its burning by the invading British army had negligible impact on either the outcome of the War of 1812 or the Madison administration. Washington never rivaled New York or Philadelphia as the locus of cultural or financial might, but by mid-century it stood for central power utterly antithetical to the American agrarian ideal that had spawned its birth in the first years of the Republic.

See alsoArticles of Confederation; Congress; Continental Congresses; Founding Fathers; Hamilton, Alexander; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; New York City; Philadelphia; South; Washington, Burning of; Washington, D.C.; Washington, George .


Bowling, Kenneth R. The Creation of Washington, D.C.: The Idea and Location of the American Capital. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1991.

Bryan, Wilhelmus B. A History of the National Capital: From Its Foundation to the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act. New York: Macmillan, 1914.

Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Padover, Saul K., ed. Thomas Jefferson and the National Capital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946.

Young, James Sterling. The Washington Community, 1800–1828. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Peter S. Field

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