moving the capital to st. louis -- 4/4/16

Today's selection -- from Washington by Tom Lewis. After the Civil War, Washington, D.C. was in such physical shambles, and it was so far removed from the center of a country that now spanned to the Pacific Ocean, that many advocated moving the capital west to a city like St. Louis:

"The idea proved to be fleeting, but it took hold shortly after the Civil War, and by the end of the 1860s it had grown ever more insistent. Washington was beyond saving. A fresh start west of the Alleghenies would signify the change from, in the words of one edi­torial writer, the 'Old Government' that was confined to 'the nar­row slope of the Atlantic.' The nation was now the 'New Republic' blooming in the 'great field of the west.' Unencumbered by restraints of the past, representatives and senators would be better able to lead the 'new' America to unrivaled greatness and prosperity. 'I fancy,' wrote a reporter for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune in 1867, 'it will not be many generations before the National Capital will be removed beyond the Mississippi.'

Capitol 1860

"Logan Uriah Reavis, a newspaper editor, was certainly the most insistent of those advocating the relocation of the capital, but he was hardly alone. Greeley, who advised Civil War veterans to 'go West and grow up with the country,' wanted the capital to do the same, as did the editor of the Chicago Tribune. Reavis even held a 'national' con­vention in St. Louis to champion his city. Nor did these proponents of change confine their proposal merely to a new venue for the capital. The White House, the Treasury, the Capitol -- every stone, timber, and brick -- could be dismantled and reassembled near St. Louis on a bluff overlooking 'the great Father of Waters,' the Mississippi, Reavis said.

"The conditions of Washington itself strengthened the case to move the capital. Though never a major battleground, Washington was very much a war-torn city. It suffered the ravages of the hundreds of thou­sands of federal troops who encamped in hastily built shelters; patron­ized its gambling dens, saloons, and bawdy houses; and filled more than 50,000 hospital beds. The tens of thousands of newly freed and escaped former slaves who turned to the capital as a refuge only added to the city's troubles. And the exodus of many of its residents for the South and Europe left an even greater vacuum of civic leadership.

"After April, 1865, the city seemed to slip further into economic and physical decline. Hotels, boardinghouses, and restaurants no longer could rely upon the steady stream of visitors, financiers, manufacturers, and military men. Many of the workers who had packed the Navy Yard, military depots, and government offices had left with the departing sol­diers. Merchants and suppliers who had become used to their bounty found themselves facing economic collapse. The prices of many goods and housing were exorbitant; crime and disorder increased, especially as military patrols left the city; many freedmen, as blacks were still called, continued to live in squalor, on the fringe of society, and without jobs; and services that city dwellers in the North took for granted -- paved and lighted streets, running water, sewers, and some attention to public health-remained primitive. As one dyspeptic visitor during the war noted, Washington 'was built for a city of the future, and the future has not yet been realized.' In the war's aftermath the future seemed further off than ever.

"Many of the reasons for Washington's crude and unfinished state lay in more than six decades of congressional inaction and neglect. Over the years, most members of Congress had been loath to spend money for streets, transportation, lighting, and sewers, much less for schools and police, for a city they regarded as their encampment for the fall and winter months. For them the very idea of a capital occupying neutral ground on the banks of the Potomac was something of an anomaly, a curiosity of the Constitution to be tolerated during the months the houses were in session and to be forgotten when they were in recess."


Tom Lewis


Washington: A History of Our National City


Basic Books


Copyright 2015 by Tom Lewis


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