The Ill-Fated Idea to Move the Nation’s Capital to St. Louis
In the years after the Civil War, some wanted a new seat of government that would be closer to the geographic center of a growing nation
The U.S. House of Representatives will likely pass legislation today calling for the District of Columbia to become the 51st state. It marks the farthest the push for D.C. statehood has gone in the more than 200 years of its existence. The bill’s fate in the U.S. Senate is unclear, though its prospects for passage are mixed, at best.
One of the consistent objections raised by the legislation’s opponents is that the residents of D.C. have an undue influence on Congress. Merits aside, unspoken by these opponents is a 160-year-old idea: Disassemble the Capitol building, the White House and the rest of the district’s government buildings and ship the entire headquarters of the federal government to the middle of the country. More specifically, St. Louis, Missouri. An absurd premise, perhaps, but one that was given a close look in the years after the U.S. Civil War.
“They imagined they would move the real buildings themselves,” says Adam Arenson, a historian at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War. “The image is kind of fantastical but also intriguing.”
The idea of numbering the blocks of the Capitol building for reassembly hundreds of miles away was very much of its time.
“The whole thing is only thinkable in the aftermath of the Civil War, when you have had these kinds of massive logistical innovations and when they’ve moved so many people, but also so much stuff, around on the railroads,” says Walter Johnson, historian at Harvard University and author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
The fact that many people at the time could imagine that this might really work also suggests just how much the nation was in flux following the war. Johnson notes that D.C. may have seemed less inevitable as the nation’s capital given that Richmond, Virginia, the center of the Confederacy, had just hosted “a capital that a lot of people believed was a real capital.”
This was a nation that had just faced a very real threat to its continued existence, and fundamental aspects of its character were still in question. Would freed African-American men be permitted to vote? Would white southerners who had taken up arms against the country be allowed back into political life? How would the much-anticipated completion of the transcontinental railroad rearrange the economy? How far could white settlers go in expanding their presence across the continent?
In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.
No one was more convinced of the importance of St. Louis than local businessman and booster Logan Uriah Reavis. Reavis was a remarkable man, with a remarkable appearance. He wore a long, messy red beard and walked bent over a cane due to a childhood illness. Born in Illinois in 1831, he failed in his early career as a schoolteacher “when the students ridiculed him ceaselessly,” according to Arenson’s book. In 1866, he arrived in St. Louis intent on starting a newspaper and elevating the image of his adopted hometown.
Reavis wasn’t the first to suggest the city as a new capital for the nation. In 1846, St. Louis newspapers claimed that the move would be necessary to govern a country that grew significantly in size after the end of the Mexican-American War. But Reavis may have been the most outspoken supporter of the cause. He presciently envisioned a United States stretching not just out to California but up to Alaska and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And he saw St. Louis as the obvious place for the government of this mega-United States: “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic.” In contrast, he wrote, Washington was a “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige.”
Washington was also kind of a mess at the time. People had been complaining for decades about its alternately dusty and muddy streets and the swarms of mosquitoes that infested the capital. Its population in 1860 was just 75,080—less than half of St. Louis’. During the Civil War, it grew dramatically, with a heavy military presence and a growing population of Black Americans who had escaped enslavement in the Confederacy. To accommodate its growing size, some congressmen introduced new spending bills that would pay for updates to the city’s infrastructure.
In response, between 1867 and 1868, three House representatives from the Midwest proposed resolutions to move the capitol toward the middle of the country. As historian and educational publisher Donald Lankiewicz writes for History Net, the first two of these stalled in the Ways and Means committee. But a third, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine in February 1868, came to a vote on the floor. Eastern congressmen saw the proposal to move the seat of government to somewhere in the “Valley of the Mississippi” as a joke. But it shocked them with the amount of support it received, ultimately failing by a vote of just 77 to 97.
The notion of St. Louis as the new capital got another life in July 1869, when Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill published an editorial supporting the idea. Although the two cities were rivals in some respects, Medill believed that shifting the nation’s center of gravity west would benefit Chicago, too.
“Instead of the Potomac, the capital would overlook the Mississippi, so appropriately expressive of the broader tide, the deeper flow, the longer current, and the resistless force our national development has attained since that early day when the tabernacle of the government was set up amidst the solitudes of the Potomac," he wrote.
Local St. Louis-boosters promoted the idea enough to prompt land speculation around the Jefferson Barracks area, a former U.S. Army training post south of the central city, which was considered the most likely site for the federal buildings. Former congressman Henry T. Blow even offered to donate 500 acres of land for the Capitol grounds, as long as he could also build housing for federal employees nearby.
Beyond local advocacy, moving the capital rode a wave of interest among Republicans uninterested in their political allies’ embrace of the Radical Reconstruction vision of a multiracial democracy. These politicians, Arenson says, “said enough has been done for ex-slaves and wanted the country to get back to promoting the interests of white Americans.” These included Joseph Pulitzer, who, before starting his career as a newspaper publisher, served as a Missouri state representative, and German immigrant Carl Schurz, who became a U.S. senator in 1869.
Schurtz went on to become secretary of the Interior, promoting the elimination of Native American nations and the integration of Indigenous peoples into the U.S. mainstream. Johnson says that’s one indication of the way the effort to move the capital was tied to a broader imperial project. Many St. Louis boosters hoped to channel the nation’s energies into the settlement of, and extraction of resources from, the West.
“In a way it’s in the West that the North and South—the white North and the white South—are reconciled after the war,” he says. “At the expense of African Americans and Native Americans.”
In October of 1869, Reavis, Blow and other supporters of the capital removal cause hosted a national convention. Per History Net, delegates arrived from 17 states and territories. They declared their opposition to federal spending on improvements in Washington and declared that “the convenient, natural and inevitable place for the capital of the republic is in the heart of the valley, where, the center of population, wealth and power is inevitably gravitating…”
But, of the original 13 colonies, the only state to send a delegation was Pennsylvania, suggesting the limited geographical appeal of the cause. A second convention the following year in Cincinnati drew delegates from even fewer states, and organizers had little progress to report.
Gradually, support for turning St. Louis into the nation’s new capital faded away.
“The savvy political actors realize after some movement that it’s not going to happen and move on to other ways to create power for themselves,” Arenson says.
Reavis remained a true believer, but found himself increasingly alone in his ideas.
“He ends up penniless,” Arenson says.
Of course, the failure of the cause didn’t stop the westward movement of U.S. power. In 1874, Civil War hero William T. Sherman moved the headquarters of the Army from Washington to St. Louis, making it a base for his campaign to seize Native Americans’ land and protect railroad and mining interests.
“He felt, I guess, freer to pursue a kind of military exterminationist policy from St. Louis than he did from Washington,” Johnson says.
And, in what Johnson calls an “emblematic moment” in 1877, the troops that pulled out of the South, ending the Reconstruction era, ended up protecting railroads in the West.
While the effort to move the capital may have faded away quickly, and might sound absurd to us now, Arenson and Johnson say there could have been some real advantages if it had actually happened. A St. Louis capital might have countered some of the imbalance created by the concentration of powerful institutions in coastal cities.
“It is sometimes hard for people on the coasts to understand the depth of alienation that people in the middle of the country, of all kinds, feel around the notion of ‘flyover country,’” Johnson said. “And the way they feel detached from the dominant institutions in society.”
Like Reavis, some may still see Washington, D.C., as a “distant place on the outskirts of the country,” far from its “great vitalizing heart.