Discussions on the National Capital of the United States


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D.Gettysburg College

The new Constitution may well have said nothing about public credit or banks, but it did say something very specific about the creation of the national capital in Article 1, Section 8: a “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.”

Flag of the U.S. flying with the Capitol Building in the backgroung
The national capital is the heart of the nation. (Image: rarrarorro/Shutterstock)

The National Capital and Its Importance for the Government

The national capitals of great nations were symbols of the greatness of those nations. London, Paris, Amsterdam—these were not mere administrative locations. In the case of St. Petersburg, the creation of the Russian capital was a deliberate statement by the Russian emperor, Peter the Great, of a “window on the West” which would turn Russia decisively away from its ingrown past. 

The capital of the American Republic could hardly be less. The First Congress had only been at work for four months before the first proposal was made, on August 27, 1789, to select “a permanent residence for the General Government of the United States”, and at once it sparked a heated debate over “the principles of the Union”.

Selecting a capital, insisted Georgia representative James Jackson, was “important in every view. It might be compared to the heart of the human body; it was the centre from which the principles of life were carried to the extremities, and from these, it might return again with precision.” But that anatomical comparison carried with it the suggestion that such a heart ought to be located at the geographical center of the United States. And that was clearly not where they were presently sitting, in New York City.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Fisher Ames and His Views on Location of the National Capital

If that was the issue, objected Fisher Ames, “it might be settled in a very short time.” Calculate the “acres in the United States,” along with “the oaks and the mountains,” and “perhaps a few days may settle the business.”

Ames argued that the national capital should be located closer to where the action is. “My opinion is that the centre of Government ought to be a centre of convenience and utility; that the heart should be so placed as to propel the blood to the extremities, with the most equable and gentle motion.” 

But when the House of Representatives tried to bring the matter to a vote on September 3, the proposal bogged down in a three-way debate among advocates for a capital on the Delaware River, the Potomac River, and perhaps least likely of all the Susquehanna River.

An old painting of Mount Vernon, located on the banks of Potomac River. The river was later chosen for building the national capital.
There was a three-way debate over choosing either the Potomac River, Delaware River, or the Susquehanna River as the site for the national capital. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

When the House Voted for the National Capital Location

Not even James Madison could prevail over the tumult, and Madison, disgusted over the furor, testily told his fellow representatives that “if a Prophet” had risen in the Virginia ratifying convention “and brought the declarations and proceedings of this day into view, I firmly believe Virginia might not have been a part of the Union at this moment.” Personally, Madison favored a location on the Potomac. 

It could only have multiplied his irritation that the House, when it finally resolved the matter on September 7, voted to locate the capital: At some convenient place on the banks of the river Susquehanna, in the state of Pennsylvania; and that, until the necessary buildings were erected for the purpose, the seat of Government ought to continue in the city of New York.

Learn more about James Madison’s vices.

The Creation of the Potomac Navigation Company

Well, Madison was unwilling to take no for an answer, as were his fellow Virginians. “The business of the seat of Government is becoming a labyrinth,” he wrote to Edmund Pendleton. “We are endeavoring to keep the pretensions of the Potomac in view and to give to all the circumstances that occur a turn favorable to it.”

Madison’s fixation on the Potomac was more than just an exercise in Virginian self-importance. Like so much else in the formation of a new government, there was a savvy element of self-interest at work as well. After all, the entire process which created the Constitution began with a conference in 1785, which was supposed to resolve commercial issues on the Potomac between Virginia and Maryland. 

Commercial development of the Potomac was the principal feature in the creation of the Potomac Navigation Company, George Washington’s pet project for developing the Potomac River properties and linking them by a system of canals with the Ohio River.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

Formation of the National Capital and Development of the Potomac

There were already two “small but neat” towns on the Potomac at Alexandria and Georgetown with “good houses, some in rows, others in a line but detached, the intervals between them not being yet filled up.” Planting the national capital along the Potomac would only make the property investments of the Potomac Company more valuable. 

Washington had invested $12,000 of his own in the Potomac Company, along with another $22,000, which had come his way as a gift of the Virginia legislature. Together, all that amounted to somewhere around $1 million in modern currency. Madison, Light Horse Harry Lee, Washington’s old cavalry chief and Governor of Virginia, former Maryland governor Thomas Johnson had all invested in the Potomac Company. 

And Washington eagerly tried to sign up “adventurers” for the project in France. “Men who can afford to lay a little while out of their money,” Washington wrote to Lafayette, “are laying the foundation of the greatest returns of any speculation I know of in the world.”

Common Questions about the Discussions on the National Capital of the United States

Q: Why is the existence of a national capital necessary for nations? 

The national capital is important because it is, in fact, a symbol of the nation’s greatness. James Jackson compared it to the human heart. The capital is where the principles of life are sent to all extremities and back to the center.

Q: Why did the vote to choose the national capital fail on September 3? 

The House of Representatives tried to vote on September 3 to determine the national capital. But a three-way debate among supporters of the Potomac River, Susquehanna River, and Delaware River bogged it down.

Q: Why did George Washington want the national capital to be built on the Potomac site?

George Washington had invested a significant amount in the Potomac Company. He believed that with the national capital located along the Potomac and the region booming, the value of his investment would increase.

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