Here’s an interesting little tidbit I stumbled across while researching for my books (you can buy The Protectorate here and The Guardians here). Most people know that the U.S. capital was established sometime in the late 1700s, but most may have forgotten (or haven’t learned) that Washington D.C. became the capital of the U.S. as a second choice… or rather a third, or fourth, or fifth choice, but I digress. Anyway, the fight over where to put the U.S. capital pitted the founding fathers against one another. And out of these arguments the U.S. capital was decided over dinner and drinks. I kid you not!
The Main Characters in the Fight Over the U.S. Capital
First of all, let’s freshen our memories over this little roadblock in time. The U.S.A. had declared independence from Great Britain and fought the American Revolution in response to unfair taxation and representation. Upon cutting ties with Great Britain, the founding fathers had a Declaration of Independence, a Bill of Rights, and all the debt that went with a war. How on Earth would the country pay their way out of it?
Enter James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. These lads played a pivotal role in where the U.S. capital ended up, but ultimately the exact location laid with another man. You might have heard of him: George Washington. But back to the other three…
Alexander Hamilton, pictured above, held the position as the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He held the belief that the federal government should consolidate all the nation’s debts. How much debt did the U.S. have at the time? Some reports mention as much as $25 million. Quite an astounding number for now let alone back then.
Anyway, Hamilton felt that consolidation of states’ debts put the U.S.A in a better position with the other countries of the world. However, this consolidation of economic power resided mainly with northeastern state bankers, financiers, and merchants. Specifically, it would strengthen the national government, establish good credit overseas, and enrich these few bankers, financiers, etc… as the country prospered. Sounds great for the financial security of the fledgling country and the few that I’ve mentioned, but what about the States?
James Madison and State Control
And James Madison said (and this is a hypothetical quote, NOT an actual one), “Yeah, sure. Of course the state of Virginia will pay more,” or something to that nature, right? Heck no! You see, Virginia along with other southern states had already paid most of their debts back. However, many northern states had paid little to nothing. Hamilton’s proposal for all states to pitch in (even more than what they’d already paid back) landed with a thud. Why should Virginia or any other state that had paid off debts be asked to fork over more money to pay off someone else’s debts? Furthermore, these states/people wanted a small central government and wished for state rights/control. They feared that a strong federal government meant corruption. Debt holders were the enemy of the country’s democracy; essentially the wealthy would buy influence in Congress.
What’s Madison to do? He put a smack down on passing Hamilton’s plan in Congress much to the dismay of Hamilton and his allies. It’s a stalemate, do not pass GO, do not collect $200, or something like that. You get the drift.
Enter Thomas Jefferson to the Rescue!
Since Congress was at an impasse, and things looked bleak (Hamilton considered resigning) Thomas Jefferson stepped in and invited both men to a dinner. Yep, dinner! But did it work? Can people who hold staunch beliefs come to a compromise? It appears so; although a few drinks surely helped to break the stalemate;-)
From this dinner on June 20, 1790, Jefferson apparently initiated the discussion that led to the Residence Act of 1790 that was subsequently passed by Congress. What was the compromise, you say? You see, there’d been lots of proposed cities for the nation’s capital, such as New York, Philadelphia, and even Fredericksburg, Virginia. Of course, the push was for a northeastern capital city. However, a stroke of genius broke the impasse and forever cemented D.C. as the U.S. capital. Hamilton agreed to put the nation’s capital somewhere along the Potomoc River, ceding land from Maryland and Virginia, which put it in the South, and Hamilton would get his consolidation of war debts; thereby founding a strong central government and the rest is history. All-in-all, the both sides claimed victory. Also, Virginia got out of paying an additional $1.5 million, which I’m sure Virginians loved.
Of course George Washington played a role!
And there you have it! But wait, there’s more… the exact location wasn’t picked by Congress. Nope, it was chosen by no other than George Washington himself. He’d longed to see it along the Potomoc, and he got his wish. Although, he’d never reside in Washington D.C. due to the Residence Act, which gave temporary capital status to Philadelphia for 10 years, he played an integral part of the capital city’s construction.
Wonders never cease! Imagine how many arguments are settled over dinner. And to think that the U.S. capital was decided over dinner and drinks makes me grin. Good thing there was no prohibition back then, eh???
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