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. Before the opening of a special session of Congress scheduled for mid-September 1814, he announced that meeting places and "other requisite apartments" for the Senate and House of Representatives had been prepared.(9) In his annual message, delivered three days later, he informed the public that the British attack had "interrupted for a moment only the ordinary public business" of the United States' government.(10)
Despite these assurances, several members of the House proposed relocating the capital when the special session of Congress convened. Representatives from New York and Pennsylvania in particular hoped to move the capital to one of those states. Bartlett Yancey, a Republican congressman from North Carolina, believed that while these men pretended to prefer only a temporary removal, their intent was a permanent change so that one state "will house the Congress and the other the President alternatively." Press reports indicated that several western congressmen also supported removal in hopes that the capital might eventually be located on the banks of the Ohio River more equidistant along the east-west axis of the United States.(11)
Given the proximity of the attempt to relocate the capital and the Hartford Convention, at which New England Federalists considered secession in protest of United States' involvement in the war, it is tempting to attribute this effort to the machinations of the New England Federalists. While it is true that they overwhelmingly supported relocation of the capital--81 percent (17 of 21) of the New England Federalists voted for it consistently--there is no evidence that they were responsible. During the House debate, New England Federalists rarely participated and often seemed disinterested in the proceedings. The correspondence of Massachusetts Federalist Abijah Bigelow, for example, reveals little enthusiasm for removal. Timothy Pickering, a prominent Federalist from Massachusetts, did not take his seat until after the debate began. Similarly, a Federalist congressional caucus held in October did not identify removal as a priority, and the Federalist press in New England neither gave the matter much space nor expressed much support.(12)
On 26 September, Republican representative Jonathan Fisk of New York introduced a motion before the House of Representatives to create a committee to determine the "expediency" of removing the seat of government temporarily. In offering his motion, Fisk argued that the government should operate from a safe and secure site and "a place more connected with the moneyed interest of the nation." Such a move was required, he explained, because "public confidence ... [had been] impaired, [and] public credit ... shaken' by recent events.(13)
The House agreed to consider Fisk's resolution. Of the 79 affirmative votes, men representing nonslaveholding states cast 60. Only two northerners--both Republicans--voted against the motion. There was considerably less unanimity among representatives from slaveholding states; 35 opposed the motion, but 19 (16 Republicans and three Federalists) voted for it.(14)
Both men speaking in support of Fisk's motion were New York Federalists. Arguing that Washington could not be adequately defended, Thomas P. Grosvenor rejected the assertion that a temporary removal would be a "violation of the public faith." He recommended removing the government to another location until the war ended and pledged to support its return once peace was restored. Thomas J. Oakley noted several advantages to relocation; members of Congress would enjoy more comfortable accommodations, and the government would save the considerable amount of money otherwise spent defending the present capital. Oakley also responded to concerns about the potential financial plight of local residents. While convinced that this argument was a "mere fanciful declamation," he was nonetheless willing to compensate inhabitants for their losses. He concluded, however, that the interests of the nation were more important than those of a single city.(15)
A majority of the men representing slaveholding states opposed the Fisk resolution. As expected, Virginians and …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sectionalism, Political Parties, and the Attempt to Relocate the National Capital in 1814. Contributors: Rohrs, Richard C. - Author. Journal title: The Historian. Volume: 62. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 2000. Page number: 535. © 2009 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.