where to locate america's new capital? -- 9/30/19

Today's selection -- from The Great American Land Bubble by Aaron Sakolski. States competed aggressively to have America's new national capital located within their border. They knew that the economic benefit would be significant:

"'In America', wrote the Duke de La Rochefoucauld in 1797 'where more than in any other country in the world, a desire for wealth is the prevailing passion, there are few schemes which are not made the means of extensive speculations; and that of erect­ing the Federal City presented irresistible temptations, which were not in fact neglected.' Thus, observed the philosophical French émigré after he had visited the embryonic national capital located on 'banks of the Potowmack.' The framers of the Constitution, wishing to have a seat for the federal government, independent of the terri­tory or jurisdiction of any state, provided that Congress shall '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 the Government of the United States.'

"The question of a national capital had been suggested even during the dark days of the Revolution; and in the critical period following the peace with England, but no action accomplishing this end had been taken. In the meantime; however, speculation was rife as to a most suitable site. On January 29, 1783, before the news of the peace treaty had arrived, the trustees of the cor­poration of Kingston, N. Y., sent a memorial to the New York Legislature, praying that 'their estate be erected into a separate district for the Honorable Congress of the United States,' and they offered for this purpose 'a sufficient quantity of land.' The application was formally presented to Congress by Alexander Hamilton and William Floyd, the New York delegates. The cor­poration of Annapolis, Md., made a similar offer and tendered for the purpose 300 acres in the town. Its citizens argued that Annapolis 'is more central than any other city or town in the federal states.' Both tenders were referred by Congress to the executives of the various states with a notice that the matter would be brought up for consideration the following October.

View of the City of Washington in 1792 (early 1800s)

"New Jerseyites also were desirous of having the seat of the Congress within the borders of their state. On June 19, 1783, their legislature expressed a willingness to invest Congress 'with such jurisdiction, authority and power over a district of twenty miles square as may be required by Congress, as necessary for the honor, dignity, convenience and safety of that august body.' In addition, they proposed to grant £30,000 in specie, 'for the purpose of procuring lands and erecting buildings thereon for the suitable accommodation of Congress.'

"Virginia also sent in an offer, suggesting the town of Wil­liamsburg. In addition to 300 acres of land adjoining the said city, it would 'present the palace, the capitol and all the public buildings, together with a sum of money not exceeding £100,000 this state's currency, to be expended in erecting thirteen hotels for the use of the delegates in Congress.' As an alternative, Vir­ginia offered to cede a district at any place on the Potomac, and to appropriate a sum of £100,000 in Virginia currency for hotels, as well as 100 acres of land to be used as sites for public buildings. If Maryland also desired to cede territory for the same purpose, Virginia would cooperate and bear a share of the expense.

"Thus, the hint of a location on the Potomac was given. Before Congress proceeded to the consideration of these rival offers, a mutiny of the Pennsylvania troops in Philadelphia in June, 1783, made it plain that, if this 'august assembly' of the thirteen fed­erated states was to function freely and untrammeled, it must have a seat of government independent of any other authority. No formal action was taken, however, until more than a year later, though in the meantime Congress moved to Princeton, then to Annapolis, then to Trenton, and next to New York. It seemed as if the members were 'trying out' the various locations."


Aaron Sakolski


The Great American Land Bubble


Martino Publishing


2011 Martino Publishing


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