While nowadays it seems a foregone conclusion that the United States capital city is Washington DC, for the first 100 years of the country’s existence it was hardly so defined. The location, 10 square miles straddling the Potomac River with portions in both Maryland and Virginia, was established in 1790 with the Permanent Seat of Government Act (recently dramatized by the song “The Room Where It Happens” from the musical Hamilton). But this didn’t satisfy all Americans. Over the course of the young country’s first century, the idea of moving the capital would come up three more times.
The first, little more than a suggestion, was in 1814, after the British burned Washington during the War of 1812. The second challenge came in 1846 and centered around whether Congress should retrocede Alexandria out of the District of Columbia and back to Virginia. At one point the debate shifted to whether the Government even could, let alone should, change the area of the capital. This, in turn, led to a broader discussion between Senators John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and William Allen of Ohio over whether the capital could be relocated.
It may seem silly to talk of moving the capital, but in the 19th century, Washington DC was not a pleasant place. Built on a tidal plain, the city was frequently muddy, flooded, or just outright stunk. Ulysses S. Grant would write in 1870 that it was “a most unsightly place…disagreeable to pass through in summer in consequence of the dust arising from unpaved streets, and almost impassable in the winter from the mud.”
The movement began in Congress as a counterpoint to spending bills which included significant amounts of funds to clean up DC. Beginning in December of 1867 with Rep. John A. Logan (Ill.), three resolutions were introduced to relocate the capital to the Mississippi Valley rather than spend money cleaning up DC. The third resolution came to a vote in 1868, and while it was voted down the number in favor was something of an eye-opener to representatives from the East.
Outside of government, the movement got its first jump-start from Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune. In an editorial published July 4, 1869, Medill not only laid out logical reasons to move the capital to a more central location, but also named St. Louis, MO as the ideal spot. While condemned in the Eastern press, the idea took root in the Midwest, especially in St. Louis.
In St. Louis a committee was quickly formed to plan a national convention dedicated to relocating the US capital to the Mississippi Valley. They issued their formal call in the press on August 12, 1869 requesting each state’s governor send delegates. The convention was set for October 20th.
Despite its supporters’ dogmatic enthusiasm, the reaction was decidedly lukewarm. When the St. Louis Capital Removal Convention opened, representatives were present from 21 states and territories (although none from an Atlantic state).
While accomplishing little, the attendees did vow to block Federal appropriations for the improvement of Washington DC, which met with a little more success. Larger bills were blocked, although smaller ones still managed to pass. An effort to organize the resistance within Congress was led by Rep. Logan, but ultimately proved ineffective.
In the meantime, supporters called for a second convention. The Cincinnati Capital Removal Convention began on October 25, 1870, but if the response to the St. Louis convention had been tepid, that to the Cincinnati’s was downright frigid. As before, all states were asked to send delegates. This time only seven actually showed up.
The final blow to capital removal came on December 5, 1870, when, in his remarks addressing the opening of the 41st Congress’ 3rd session, President Ulysses S. Grant included requests that appropriations be passed for the improvement of Washington, specifically the archives for the State Department, which were housed in a rented building and in sorry shape.
Congress would debate for a few months, with Logan championing the opposition, but eventually an appropriations bill for the improvement of public works around Washington was passed on March 3, 1871. Grant would sign it that same day. Two years later he would applaud Congress’ efforts, telling them “the city of Washington is rapidly assuming the appearance of a capital of which the nation may well be proud.”
Next, check out Behind the Scenes at the US Capitol Subway System in Washington DC.
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