A Different Columbia as Capital City

Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD. 

During the 1770s and 1780s, the U.S. capital moved up and down the eastern seaboard from city to city. While its stay in Philadelphia might be the most famous, it also traveled south to Annapolis in 1783–84 and north to New York in 1785–90. But this transient state of affairs was not to last. Calls for the establishment of a permanent seat of the national government had been ongoing for years, and Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution laid out the qualifications for creating a federal district:

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings[.]

With the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the contest for the permanent seat of the national government was on. September 1789 saw several petitions come before Congress. One, to the House of Representatives on September 2, was part of a popular campaign to make Philadelphia the permanent capital. According to the House Journal:

Several petitions of the inhabitants of Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery counties, in the State of Pennsylvania, were presented to the House and read, praying that the permanent seat of Congress may be established at the place known by the name of Old Philadelphia, on the West side of the river Delaware.

But a resolution read on September 7, is a little less well known:

Resolved, That the permanent seat of the Government of the United States ought to be at some convenient place on the East bank of the river Susquehannah, in the State of Pennsylvania, and that, until the necessary buildings be erected for the purpose, the seat of the Government ought to continue at the city of New York.

Detail from a map showing the relation of the proposed Morristown Canal with the upper basins of the Delaware and Susquehannah Rivers, showing Columbia on the left and Philadelphia on the right (National Archives Identifier 172058235)

The “convenient place on the East bank of the river Susquehannah” was the small town of Columbia, Pennsylvania, approximately 75 miles west of Philadelphia. This location would be conveniently located near land owned by Pennsylvania senator William Maclay. Pennsylvania’s other senator, Robert Morris, however, was a Philadelphia-based merchant, and deeply interested in moving the federal government and its bustling business and patronage permanently to Philadelphia. 

With a proposal to establish the seat of government of the United States passed in the House and up before the Senate in a few days, on September 21, 1789, Morris reminded the Senate that on March 5 he had made “a respectful offer to Congress of the use of any or all the public buildings in Philadelphia, the property of the state, &c. in case Congress should, at any time, incline to make choice of that city for the temporary residence of the federal government.”

When the bill was read in the Senate, a motion was introduced that the words “at some convenient place on the banks of the river Susquehannah, in the state of Pennsylvania” be stricken out, and replaced with “in the counties of Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks, and state of Pennsylvania, including within it the town of Germantown, and such part of the Northern Liberties of the city of Philadelphia.” Senator Morris voted yea and Maclay nay; with the vote locked at 9-9, Vice President John Adams voted yea, thus ending Columbia’s bid to fame.

Ultimately, after a lengthy debate, “An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,” was passed on July 16, 1790, a compromise between southerners Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and northerner Alexander Hamilton.

This act designated a site on the Potomac River to become the permanent capital (named Washington, District of Columbia), in 10 years’ time, while appointing Philadelphia the temporary capital in the intervening period.

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