Sectionalism, Political Parties, and the Attempt to Relocate the National Capital in 1814

By Rohrs, Richard C. | The Historian, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Sectionalism, Political Parties, and the Attempt to Relocate the National Capital in 1814


Rohrs, Richard C., The Historian


In one of the most destructive episodes of the War of 1812, British forces attacked Washington, D.C., in August 1814, burning the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. Shortly after the devastating assault, several northern cities, including Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, offered to house the U.S. government as an alternative to Washington. An editorial in Philadelphia's United States' Gazette suggested that the president and Congress move the capital and "take refuge [here] ... in the bosom of a brave and loyal people"(1) Relocating the capital, supporters argued, would allow the government to operate more efficiently as local boosters volunteered to move government offices and guaranteed both military protection and "ample accommodations"(2)

Historians have described the debate in the House of Representatives on relocating the capital as sectional in nature; that is, loyalties were tied to a shared vision of local or regional identity. Although Constance McLaughlin Green, in Washington: Village and Capital, 1800-1878, acknowledges that both sectional and partisan politics influenced House members, she concludes that the decision to keep the capital in the District of Columbia was "primarily sectional in character."(3) J. C. A. Stagg's Mr. Madison's War similarly asserts that "the influence of section ... was generally stronger than that of party."(4) Donald Hickey, in his War of 1812, also maintains that the attempt to remove the capital "was not a party issue at all, but a sectional one."(5) The emphasis of these three authors, then, is on the primacy of section.

This perspective is not surprising, given the nature of the war. New England Federalists opposed the War of 1812 because they believed the nonimportation, embargo, and nonintercourse legislation of the Jefferson and Madison administrations crippled the carrying trade on which New Englanders relied. Southerners and westerners generally supported the war.

Analysis of the congressional debate and roll call votes reveals a more complex situation than the explanation offered by earlier historians. While it is true that sectional interests motivated northern and southern Federalists, as the autumn 1814 debate on relocation progressed, partisan loyalties rather than sectional interests swayed some northern Republicans. These men eventually joined their southern Republican colleagues and provided the necessary votes to ensure that the capital would remain in the District of Columbia. Outnumbered in the House, representatives of slaveholding states could not have defeated the removal effort without these northern votes.(6)

The attempt to relocate the seat of government threatened a compromise fashioned in 1790. According to that agreement, the capital was to be located in a federal district on the banks of the Potomac River in exchange for the passage of Alexander Hamilton's program of funding and assumption. Southerners anticipated several benefits of the Potomac site: it was more centrally located along the north-south axis of the eastern seaboard, and towns along the river would profit from the ensuing economic development. The other advantage, of course, was that the slaveholding states of Maryland and Virginia would encircle the national capital.

In the fall of 1814, members of President James Madison's cabinet recognized the danger of negating that earlier compromise. Secretary of the Navy William Jones warned the president that it was essential to "avert all local and party intrigue and check discussion" about removing the capital.(7) Attorney General Richard Rush agreed. He encouraged the administration to react immediately so to leave "less room ... for opinions to grow up about changing the seat of government."(8)

After the attack on Washington, Madison assured Americans that the government was operating normally. As president, Madison believed it essential to calm public apprehensions; as a southerner, he believed it was essential to prevent relocation of the capital.

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