Skip to main content

Leaving Washington Behind

July 2024
4min read

For more than a century, politicians, journalists, and Western-city boosters urged Congress to get out of the District of Columbia and take the government elsewhere.

In last year’s April/May issue, David McCullough gave a tour of Washington, D.C., in which he described the palpable presence of the past there. Washington today is so rich in national memories and so thoroughly synonymous with federal government that having the nation’s capital anywhere else is unimaginable. But for many citizens in the nineteenth century and even later, the transfer of the seat of government to a new and better location was an issue of the greatest importance. Only in recent decades has the idea of abandoning Washington ceased to be mentioned by serious people; in earlier times it never went away.

The original congressional debate on the seat of government, in 1790, revolved around the idea that it ought to be in a central site, which to many at the time meant along the Potomac; however, the decision was made not by reason but through a political bargain involving Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. It was agreed that Philadelphia would be the capital for ten years, and the newly created Washington the permanent seat from 1800 on. Since the time of the Declaration of Independence, the national government had essentially kept moving, and there was little to guarantee that Washington would really be a “permanent capital” for long. Nor did it quickly offer the government much incentive to remain. The city’s growth was disappointingly sluggish and its amenities few. The Irish poet Thomas Moore’s description of the town captured the feelings of many: “This embryo capital, where Fancy sees/Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees. …”

A mere eight years after the official transfer from Philadelphia, Congressman James Sloan moved that the government return to the City of Brotherly Love. All the money spent on Washington, he argued, had not sufficed to “force into existence a city.” The capital remained a national embarrassment, with the look, when Congress was not in session, of a “number of deserted, decaying villages,” and a hot climate and marshy soil that posed a constant threat to the health and even the lives of the legislators. Moreover, Sloan contended, schemes of tyranny might flourish undetected in a town so small and isolated. Let Congress, he urged, move back “nearer the centre of population” and then “let the tall trees of the forest” grow up around the abandoned buildings in Washington, “that the eyes of republican travellers may not be disgusted with the sight!”

Sloan’s efforts failed, but the city had a much narrower escape six years later, after its occupation and partial destruction by the British army in the War of 1812. A representative from New York, citing the dangerously exposed position of the capital, proposed that, for the time being, Congress move elsewhere. Many saw the motion as merely the prelude to a permanent relocation. It garnered wide support in Congress, and only the active lobbying of President Madison’s administration ensured the bill’s defeat.

Residents of the capital breathed more easily, but the question was far from settled. Elsewhere ominous signs remained. In state after state, the capital was pulled by the advance of population from its original site on the periphery to a town more centrally located—from Charleston to Columbia, South Carolina; from Savannah to Milledgeville, Georgia; from Philadelphia to Lancaster and then Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In some instances the legislature even stipulated that the new capital be located at the geographical center of the state, as determined by a surveyor. With these examples in mind, a Virginia author in 1814 saw no prospect that the national government could remain forever along the Potomac. Just as the clash of “local feelings” had led to the relocation of state capitals, so the westward flow of population would sooner or later bring calls for the removal of the seat of federal government to a more central site.

Westerners raised the same prospect. Sen. William Alien of Ohio expressed in 1846 the hope that the capital would speedily be moved away from the “great influential commercial cities on the seaboard” and into the heartland. For frontier-city promoters who had long sought such prizes as county seat-hood or a state university for their towns, this was the jackpot. One of them, William Gilpin, had maps made of his Centropolis, Missouri, showing the buildings that would one day house the national government. Disinterested observers, too, expressed the belief that the relocation of the capital was only a matter of time.

In the decades before the Civil War, the matter rarely got beyond mere prediction. When the war broke out, the District of Columbia became a rallying point for the Union. To abandon Washington while the war lasted would have seemed a sign of weakness. With the Union victorious, however, Westerners began to bring the capital issue to the fore. Chicago and Cincinnati were often mentioned, but St. Louis commanded the greatest following. Its most vocal backer was a journalist named Logan Uriah Reavis, who, during the late 1860s and early 1870s, issued a stream of pamphlets calling for removal. Reavis asserted that as centrality had been the governing factor in the choice of the Potomac site, it now pointed to St. Louis, “where the great vitalizing heart of the Republic beats in keeping with its onward march of progress and greatness.”

For a time, a move seemed a very real possibility. Walt Whitman predicted that within fifty years the capital would “migrate a thousand or two miles” and be rebuilt “on a different plan, original, far more superb.” Conventions were held to urge the relocation of the capital. The most notable, convened in Cincinnati in 1870, passed resolutions demanding that no more money be spent on the federal buildings in Washington. Bills calling for removal were introduced in Congress.

The early 1870s marked the crest of the removal movement. Novels set in the distant future continued to predict the transfer of the seat of government westward to the Mississippi valley, or even south to Central America, as the capital of a united hemisphere. Practical interest, though, declined, and every year of the status quo added to Washington’s prestige. However, occasional moments of crisis, real or perceived, could still trigger isolated calls for removal. In 1895 Cyrenus O. Ward, an obscure social theorist, denounced the power of entrenched interests in Washington, likening the humid climate of the capital to the “real estate rings that have corrupted the moral atmosphere with the sickly effluvia of their lobbies.” He urged a new site, “upon one of the delightful plateaus in some rock-ribbed corner of your vast confines,” where the natural and moral climate alike would be healthier. The Great Depression evoked a plea for removal from the eminent Southern poet-critic John Crowe Ransom. In 1933 he proposed a “Capital for the New Deal,” located “deep in the interior where our capital city ought to be,” away from the commercial East, where reactionary interests were strongest.

If such suggestions are made today, they are most likely made in jest. Few policies have less of a constituency. Modern transportation has done much to weaken the importance of centrality. The historical heritage of Washington as capital city is not something that many would be willing to surrender. While other nations have in recent decades moved or considered moving their capitals to new sites, the sheer expense alone of relocating a modern government is not to be taken lightly. Even the many politicians who make a point of “running against Washington,” and who employ the same rhetoric once used to call for a new capital, are only using the name as a symbol of something else; they no longer ever include the actual removal of the capital in their platforms.

—William B. Meyer

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.