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A new capital for the United States?
A thought experiment
Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States as a result of a political bargain negotiated in the first years of the republic under the Constitution of 1787. Philadelphia had served the role of national capital during most of the time since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Philadelphia was centrally located and it was the commercial hub of the thirteen states. But Philadelphia was also the capital of Pennsylvania, and at crucial moments Pennsylvania politics intruded on the business of the national government. In 1783 the governor of Pennsylvania failed to defend Congress against an unruly mob, and the members of Congress fled for their lives. Some vowed never to return to Philadelphia.
They and others took the lesson that the national government must not be dependent on state officials for their security. The national government needed a district of its own. No existing city was willing to cede the necessary land, and so a city would have to be built from the ground up.
By the time this conclusion had been reached, Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury, was trying to persuade Congress to assume responsibility for repaying the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Southern states were reluctant, but when Hamilton floated the idea of moving the seat of the national government southward, a bargain came into view. The Southern states would go along with the debt assumption, and a federal district would be carved out of Virginia and Maryland, astride the Potomac River a bit upstream from Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.
The deal was struck, the boundaries of the federal district were laid out, and construction began on government buildings. Congress moved from Philadelphia to Washington City, as the new community was called, in December 1800. Washington has been the nation's capital from then until now.
And its location has made less and less sense with each passing decade. Washington was indeed centrally located when the republic consisted of the thirteen original states, but by the time of the move, Kentucky and Tennessee had been added to the Union, and Ohio would follow shortly. The states of the old Northwest and the old Southwest were next. Settlement leaped across the Mississippi and touched the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s, when California and Oregon were admitted as states. By then Washington was no longer even close to the center of the country.
America’s commercial and financial capital had moved from Philadelphia to New York with the opening of the Erie Canal. Washington and New York formed the axis of power in the country. This was convenient for those who trafficked in financial and political power—in fact, it was too convenient, in the judgment of the growing number of Americans who looked on Washington and New York as the places from which Eastern elites imposed their will on ordinary Americans.
The building-out of the nation's rail network during the second half of the 19th century reduced the travel time to Washington from the far corners of the country. Yet it did little to reduce the perception of Eastern domination of American life. The Populist movement of the 1890s was a manifestation of this perception.
Fast-forward to today. Washington remains a potent symbol of alienation for those who think government doesn't work, or at least doesn't work for them. The perceived division of the country into the coastal regions inhabited by elites and the heartland inhabited by ordinary people remains as strong as ever.
Suppose, as a thought experiment, the United States built a new capital. The Census Bureau, reviewing the 2020 census, has identified the population center of the United States today as being in south-central Missouri. Suppose a new federal district were carved out of Missouri and a new capital city constructed. The population center has not moved much in the last fifty years, and so a new capital could be expected to have a comparatively long shelf life.
There are all sorts of practical and political objections to this idea. It would cost a lot of money, and government officials in Washington would be reluctant to move, as would all the lawyers, lobbyists and others who make their living off the government.
But is it a bad idea? The United States is nearly 250 years old. The great majority of Americans hope it will last another 250 years. Are we to be saddled, after half a millennium, with a national capital sited to solve a political problem of the 1790s? The national capital ought to represent the nation; how can it do so when it hugs one coast of a transcontinental country? How can Americans who don’t live on the East Coast not feel distant from their government, when they are distant from it?
Other countries have moved their capitals. The emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Byzantium (and called it Constantinople). Russia moved its capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back. Mao Zedong moved China’s capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Brazil, Pakistan, Germany and Nigeria have moved their capitals. Egypt and Indonesia are planning to do so. Several American states have moved their capitals.
Would a new capital in the heartland of America make people living in the center of the country feel more connected to the national government? Almost certainly yes for some, including those who took jobs working for the government. Others doubtless would feel as alienated as ever; alienation is a condition of mind at least as much as a matter of physical distance.
Maybe the government could accomplish a similar effect by spreading out rather than relocating en masse. In fact, this is already done. There are federal offices in cities all over the country. The Federal Reserve is headquartered in Washington, but there are twelve regional Fed banks. The Supreme Court is in Washington, but most of the trials and hearings conducted by the federal judiciary take place in the district and circuit courts around the country. The National Archives is headquartered in Washington, but the fourteen presidential libraries are scattered from Massachusetts to Southern California. The Pentagon is in Washington (Arlington, Virginia, actually), but there are military bases in every state of the Union.
So, would moving the seat of government be merely symbolic? No, not merely: there would still be a lot of jobs involved.
But it would be symbolic, and that would be the point. Ronald Reagan was the first president to give his inaugural address from the western side of the Capitol, facing west. Yet he was still speaking from the East. Imagine a president speaking to the country from the center of the country. It would be like a theater in the round, a dramatic approach that makes the audience part of the performance.
Symbolic, yes, but powerful.
Of course it will never happen. Yet it's worth thinking about.