Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
186 of 1105



CAPITAL, The National (IN U. S. HISTORY). The congress of the revolution and the confederacy was peripatetic, and at various times in its history held meetings at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton and New York. (See CONTINENTAL CONGRESS) June 21, 1783, a handful of insubordinate and unpaid militia marched into Philadelphia, where congress was sitting, and, unchecked by any efforts of the state or city authorities to keep the peace, broke up the session of congress by jeering the members and pointing muskets at the windows. This, among other incidents, gave an impulse to the desire to obtain a permanent home for the national legislature, and Oct. 7, 1783, congress resolved that a building for its use should be erected at some place near the falls of the Delaware. This was soon after modified, in deference to sectional jealousy, by requiring the erection of a suitable building near the falls of the Potomac, that the meetings of congress might alternate between the two places. After long and warm debate, congress returned to its first resolution, and decided that there should be but one capital, and commissioners were appointed to lay out a federal town near the falls of the Delaware. Dec. 23, 1784, it was resolved to meet regularly in New York city until the new town was completed. But, while money was wanting for more pressing demands, congress was unable to go any further than the plan. The commissioners made their report, but no action was taken upon it.


—The successful establishment of the constitution, with the prospect of a federal government whose wealth and resources would surpass any previous experience in America, revived the notion of a federal town. Objection was made to New York city as a permanent capital by many of the delegates from agricultural districts, who considered a commercial metropolis very ineligible, because of the direct influence which the moneyed interest might exert on congress; and objections were also made to Philadelphia by many of the southern members, who were affronted by the assiduity of the Quakers in preparing and presenting to congress propositions for the abolition of slavery. When the new congress also came to the conclusion to fix the location of the federal town in the north, placing it this time on the banks of the Susquehanna, the decision roused intense anger among the southern delegates, and Madison declared that if this action had been foreseen, his state might never have entered the Union. As a compromise, it seemed probable that congress would drift back again to the plan of two capitals, and of alternate meetings north and south, an arrangement excellently adapted for preserving the two sections in their separate integrity, and for facilitating their ultimate separation.


—The inevitable compromise finally took another form. The anti-federalists, whose strength was mainly southern, succeeded by a majority of two in the house in voting down Hamilton's plan for the assumption of state debts by the federal government. (See FEDERAL PARTY, I.) By Jefferson's mediation (though he afterward claimed that he was "entrapped" into it), two anti-federalists from the Potomac agreed to vote for Hamilton's plan, which was thereby adopted, the federalists in return agreeing to vote that the national capital should be fixed upon the Potomac, after remaining ten years at Philadelphia. The result was an act passed June 28, 1790, with the following clause "That a district of territory on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Connogocheague, be and the same is hereby accepted for the permanent seat of the government of the United States." By the same act congress was to meet at Philadelphia until the first Monday in November, 1800, and then remove to the Potomac.


—By separate cessions of Maryland in 1788 and Virginia in 1789, a federal district ten miles square was acquired, which was laid out by Washington in person, by act of March 30, 1791. The place was officially known as The Federal City until Sept. 9, 1791, when, by order of three commissioners appointed by the president, the district was named The Territory of Columbia, and the city The City of Washington.


—Congress made no adequate appropriations for the work on public buildings, and in December, 1796, Washington was compelled to make a personal appeal to the legislature of Maryland, which advanced $100,000 on the pledge of the private credit of the commissioners. Nov. 17,1800, the federal government removed to "the Indian place, with the long name, in the woods, on the Potomac." Its discomforts are feelingly described in letters of the time, and more particularly in those of Mrs. John Adams. There were few public buildings, except the capital, of which only the two wings were finished, connected by a wooden passage.


—Aug. 24-25, 1814, the British army burned the public buildings, and when congress re-assembled the two houses met in a small brick building known as Blodget's hotel. The project of establishing the capital in the north was at once revived, and liberal offers for the location were made by Philadelphia, and by Lancaster, Penn., formerly the capital of Pennsylvania. Oct. 3, 1814, a resolution for removal was carried in the house by the casting vote of the speaker, nearly the whole southern vote being in the negative. A bill for the removal was ordered to be prepared but was smothered in committee. The citizens, who were naturally anxious to prevent any removal, furnished a building which was used by congress until a portion of the present capital was finished, Dec. 6, 1819. The building was completed in 1827, being surmounted by a wooden dome. In 1851 an extension was begun, and in 1863 the whole structure was finished in its present form by the completion of the iron dome (begun in 1855), crowned by Crawford's bronze statue of freedom.


—The position of the national capital proved exceptionally fortunate during the rebellion. The necessity for securing communication with the loyal states forced the federal government into a policy far more aggressive than would have been the case if the capital had been further north. The location of Washington upon the Potomac, which the south had so eagerly desired, was one of the causes which made peaceable secession, and northern acquiescence in a division of the country, equally impossibilities.


—In 1846 Virginia's cession was retroceded, leaving only 64 square miles in the District of Columbia. This tract has always been governed directly by congress, excepting during the years 1871-74, when the experiment was tried of erecting a territorial government, with the power to raise money by tax and loan. This body rushed at once into a very extensive system of public improvements, which resulted in the creation of a debt of over $20,000,000 on an assessed valuation of less than $80,000,000. The District of Columbia is now under the supervision of commissioners, appointed by the president, but controlled by congressional legislation. Like other territories it has no voice in national elections, and the city of Washington thus presents the anomaly of a city of 147,307 inhabitants (in 1880) whose own citizens, except in local elections, are disfranchised. (See CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


—See Poore's Political Register, 1; 1 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 220, 227, and 2: 268, and authorities there cited; 6 Hildreth's United States, 528; Varnum's Seat of Government; J. Elliot's Historical Sketch of the Ten Miles Square; Howe's Virginia Historical Collections; 9 Curtis, 65; and authorities under DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA.


186 of 1105

Return to top