Location, Location, Location: Settling on a Capital City

Today’s post comes from Judith Adkins, an archivist at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

While the First Congress met for its two sessions in New York City, delegates from Pennsylvania longed to move the seat of government back to Philadelphia, home of the Continental Congress.

On May 24, 1790, Senator Robert Morris of Pennsylvania offered a resolution, “That Congress shall meet and Hold their next Session in the City of Philadelphia”—the first overture on the issue during the second session.

Three days later, Congressman Thomas Fitzsimons, also from Pennsylvania, introduced an almost identical resolution in the House of Representatives.

Debate ensued.

That spirited discussion was recorded in the Annals of Congress, the predecessor publication to today’s Congressional Record. Representative Elbridge Gerry worried that Congress would become “a political shuttlecock, bandied about between two rival cities.” Some in Congress argued for keeping the government in New York until a permanent residence had been determined.

Other members insisted that Philadelphia be made the permanent seat of government. And still others proposed Baltimore or Wilmington as temporary homes.

In late June, the House and Senate reached a compromise: the permanent capital would be located along the Potomac River, satisfying the fervent wishes of Southerners. But first Congress would move temporarily to Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania delegation was gambling that Congress, once established in the City of Brotherly Love, would choose to remain there permanently.

That gamble did not pay off. Ten years later, the Federal Government left the banks of the Delaware River for the banks of the Potomac as planned. Congress convened in Washington, DC, for the first time on November 17, 1800.

For years afterward, however, many members of Congress grumbled about the change. Some considered the District of Columbia to be a poorly planned, mosquito-infested backwater not fit to be the capital of a great nation.

Others believed that having the seat of government in the agrarian South gave that region too much power at the expense of the more commercial North. Unable to reconcile themselves to Washington, members of Congress attempted to move the seat of government several times.

On February 2, 1808, Representative James Sloan of New Jersey offered a resolution, “That it is expedient, and the public good requires, that the seat of Government be removed to the city of Philadelphia for ____ years.” According to the Annals, his resolution sparked heated debate on the House floor, including the usual criticism of DC.

“As to city,” said Representative William Milnor, “it is a burlesque upon the term to call this a city.”

Others members rejected this line of thinking. Representative Matthew Lyon of Kentucky asserted, “The reason why you have not now a large population or great improvements is that you are always talking about moving.”

Some congressmen believed that removal would be unconstitutional, arguing that the framers intended the seat of government, once established, to be permanent.

Others congressmen declared that relocation would violate local business contracts, erode public trust, and waste money already invested in the city.

Emotions ran high, and Sloan even reported receiving a death threat. On February 9, 1808, a motion for further consideration of his resolution was voted down, 51 to 35.

The issue came to the fore yet again during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, the British invaded Washington and set fire to most of its public buildings, including the Capitol, White House, and Library of Congress. Some delegates saw the extensive damage as an opportunity to try once more for removal.

On October 3, the committee appointed to look into the matter resolved that it would be “inexpedient” to relocate the capital.

However, Representative John Fisk of New York immediately made a motion to amend that resolution by striking out inexpedient and substituting expedient.

The first vote on that altered resolution resulted in a tie of 68 to 68. Ultimately the Speaker of the House broke the tie in a final vote that approved the resolution, 72 to 71.

A bill was then introduced to move the seat of government temporarily from Washington to an unspecified location. Rumors circulated, including ones that the new site might be Baltimore or Lancaster. But most speculation centered on Philadelphia.

Although the bill called for temporary removal, opponents of the legislation suspected that permanent removal was its authors’ real aim.

To ensure that any relocation would be only temporary, Representative Thomas Telfair of Georgia proposed an amendment stipulating “that the President’s House, Capitol, and Public Offices, shall be re-built upon their former sites in the City of Washington.” At that point, advocates of removal backed down. On October 15, 1814, the amended bill was put to a final vote and rejected.

As late as 1870, some members of Congress still hoped to relocate the seat of government, though the goal was no longer Philadelphia. In January of that year, Illinois representatives Jesse Moore and John Logan argued that the seat should be moved to the Mississippi River Valley.

President Ulysses S. Grant finally put the matter to rest by publicly stating his opinion that removal would require a constitutional amendment. Facing the prospect of a Presidential veto if they attempted anything short of that, proponents of removal abandoned the fight once more.

This 80-year saga, an intertwining of national story and local story, serves as a reminder that Washington’s current stature—as a major city and as the nation’s capital—was by no means a foregone conclusion.

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