As President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, I wondered about the actual “states” of the union and their capitals.
I noticed that of the 50 U.S. states (excluding the various other territories and possessions), the capitals of these states frequently defy logic. In many cases, the state capitals are neither the largest city nor the most important and not even the most centrally located.
How did some unusual and unexpected cities became the seat of government of their states?
To get some answers on this subject, the International Business Times spoke with Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City (which at one time was briefly the capital of the U.S.).
IBT: State capitals make little sense to me. I realize each state has its own unique history and reasons for choosing their capitals, but in about two-thirds of all U.S. states, the capital is not the most populous city. Would it not make more sense to place the capital in a population center so that lawmakers, business leaders, union officials, etc., have close and easy access to each other?
Chandler: It would seem to make sense to locate state capitals in population centers, but only 17 states have their capitals in their largest cities. Politics is usually the deciding factor on location. Citizens pressure state politicians to locate the capital in their city so as to encourage economic development.
IBT: Some state capitals are located in the center of the state, like Dover, Del., and Columbus, Ohio (which may have made sense at one time). But, again, these are not population centers. Were these centrally located capitals chosen for some other reasons?
Chandler: Dover became the capital in 1777, one year after Delaware became a state. Dover was chosen, because it was deemed safer from attack from British forces than New Castle, a port city on the Delaware River and the capital of Delaware’s colonial government.
IBT: Consider the case of one of the biggest and most important states: Illinois. The capital, Springfield, is located in the exact center of the state, but it has a population of less than 300,000. Meanwhile, Chicago (located on the northeast corner of the state) has about 3 million people, including most or all of the state’s big business leaders and labor leaders. Why not just move the capital to Chicago?
Chandler: Most states have moved their capitals at least once in their history; Illinois has moved its capital three times. Kaskaskia was the site of its first capital -- the city had been the territorial capital since 1809, so it made sense to keep it there when Congress admitted Illinois to the Union in 1818.
In 1820, the capital was moved 80 miles northeast to the then largely uninhabited Vandalia; lawmakers wanted to encourage settlers to move there. Thirteen years later, the Illinois legislature held a vote for another move. Alton won the designation, but Springfield ultimately became the new home in 1839 due to the lobbying efforts of then young lawyer Abraham Lincoln.
Chicago wasn’t a contender, because it had only just been incorporated in 1837 and wouldn’t become the state’s center of commerce until the Industrial Revolution.
IBT: Florida is a truly bizarre example: The capital, Tallahassee, is located on the Panhandle in the northeastern part of the state, almost 500 miles away from the cultural and social capital, Miami. Why?
Chandler: Tallahassee is the site where Spanish conquistadores first settled in the 1600s, so the when the U.S. took over the territory, there was already a fairly substantial population and infrastructure in the city.
Tallahassee was named the capital of Florida’s territorial government in 1824, because it was it was at the midpoint between Florida’s then two largest cities, St. Augustine and Pensacola. At the time, South Florida was largely uninhabited. Senator Lee Wisenborn led a failed effort in the late 1960s to move the capital to Orlando.
IBT: I assume some capitals, like Trenton, N.J., were chosen decades ago, because they were river port cities (easier for transportation). But in today’s age of autos and airplanes, isn’t that feature irrelevant?
Chandler: History is the biggest driver as to why Trenton is New Jersey’s capital. Trenton was the site of New Jersey’s first settlements. The town was founded in 1679 by Mahlon Stacey, the leader of a group of Quakers who fled Europe because of persecution.
During the American Revolution, New Jersey’s state legislators often met in the city. Trenton became the state capital in 1790 but was also the site of the U.S. capitol during a brief period in 1784. Despite historical changes in transportation and economics, there is little political will to move a state capital. Capitals are steeped in history and full of historical and architecturally significant buildings. To move a capital, it would take a great deal of time, money and effort, all of which would temper the requisite political needed to make it happen.
IBT: Three state capitals, Frankfort, Ky., Jefferson City, Mo., and Montpelier, Vt., are not even among their state’s five largest cities. Why are these little hamlets the seats of their states?
Chandler: In 1794, the State of Kentucky appointed a board of commissioners to select its new capital. Several cities competed for the honor, but Frankfort won, because it was on the Kentucky River and was able to demonstrate how its port could quickly deliver goods and supplies to the area.
When Congress organized the Missouri Territory in 1812, St. Louis was it first capital and then St. Charles. When Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821, Jefferson City was chosen because of political pressure to locate the capital in the middle of the state and due to an organized push to help develop Jefferson City’s uninhabited lands.
Vermont became a state in 1791. Montpelier was chartered in 1781 through a land grant to Thomas Bigelow and 58 others, and the first permanent settlement was set up in 1787. It quickly grew, and this encouraged the Vermont legislature to make it the capital.
Montpelier is named after the French city. At the time, there was general enthusiasm toward honoring the French for their aid during the American Revolution.
IBT: In New York state, the capital Albany has less than 100,000 residents, while almost half of the state’s entire population lives in the New York City metropolitan area. Why not just move the capital to Manhattan? Doesn’t governor Andrew Cuomo spend most of his time in New York City anyway?
Chandler: Albany had a long history of being the center of trade and transportation during the early history of the United States. The Dutch first settled there in 1614, and the city was charted in 1687. Albany was well-situated on the Hudson River and was the site of the first railroad system. It was also one of the first cities to install an extensive public water, sewer, gas and electric system, making it a model for economic development.
In the early 1810s, it was the tenth most populous city because of its beer and ironworks industries. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s when urban sprawl and a faltering economy made the city a much less attractive place to live. However, despite this and the fact that New York City is the center of the state’s main activity, there has been little desire to move the capital south. In all likelihood, there would be a lot of resistance from upstate Republicans who would fear that putting the capital in New York City would weaken their influence over state government.
IBT: What would it take to move a state’s capital? Is it a difficult piece of legislation to pass?
Chandler: It’s unlikely that we’ll see any states decide to move their capital. Partisan politics would be one of the main impediments, and financially it would be cost-prohibitive.
States have invested significant amounts of architectural and infrastructure monies into their capitals, so moving them would require taxpayers to bear the cost of construction of new government buildings. The current U.S. economic climate would certainly keep that off the table.
IBT: I have noticed that many state capitals, such as Albany, N.Y., Trenton, N.J., and Harrisburg, Pa., are wracked by poverty, neglect, high unemployment and poor social services. Obviously, proximity to power is not helping these cities’ residents. Why is this? Shouldn’t the state capital be a gleaming, beautiful place that symbolizes the best characteristics of its state?
Chandler: Actually, it’s more of a myth that state capitals tend to be epicenters of crime and poverty. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that three state capitals and Washington, D.C., were part of a list of the 10 U.S. cities with the lowest poverty and unemployment rates. A lot of that is driven by the fact that, unlike business jobs, government jobs don’t have anywhere else to go and tend to be stable sources of employment.
Indeed, some capitals have been plagued with crime -- Trenton is a good example -- but this has a lot to do with other factors such as demography, concentrations of industry and urban decline. Many capitals are “gleaming” places of architecturally significant buildings.
IBT: This phenomenon also extends to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Although parts of the city (i.e., NW) are quite lovely, much of it is a ghetto. Isn’t this an embarrassment to the government?
Chandler: Washington, D.C. has improved dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years. Much of the crime that characterized it in the 1970s and 1980s was a result of urban decay, a deep recession that bankrupted many metropolitan areas and rising crime rates as a result of the “crack” epidemic, poverty and demographics.
A growth in government-related and technology jobs in the region over the last decade has helped make D.C. a much more livable city. In fact, it has one of the lowest unemployment and poverty rates and is at the top of the list of cities with the highest concentration of college graduates.
However, D.C. has been plagued with two problems over the course of its recent history that has created management difficulties: its dependency on the U.S. Congress for funding and its weak city government. During the 1980s, D.C.’s city government became so dysfunctional that it nearly collapsed. When Republicans control Congress, there is much less inclination to provided D.C. with more investment dollars. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s current congresswoman, is a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, so her influence is limited.
This is one of the reasons why there has been a push for D.C. statehood. The district is home to 3 million citizens without full legislative representation.
IBT: Also, Washington, D.C., became the nation’s capital way back in 1790, when it was roughly at the geographic center of a much smaller country of just 13 states along the East Coast. Wouldn’t it make more sense now to move the national capital to, say, Chicago or St. Louis?
Chandler: The location of the U.S. capital was a result of a compromise between northern and southern politicians. Neither side wanted to see the new capital located in an area that would have led to one of them getting preferential political treatment. Washington, D.C., was attractive, because it was on a large tract of undeveloped land and it was close to the Mason-Dixon line, the boundary between the north and south.
There is far too much history and tradition steeped in Washington for people to ever support moving it to the Midwest or another part of the country.