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This Day in History: George Washington chooses site for capital

On this day in 1790, George Washington signs a law designating an area near the Potomac River as America’s new national capital. The law also provided that the President should choose the exact spot along the river.

Washington would soon do exactly that. He chose a site not too far from Mount Vernon.

The congressional vote wrapped up a long debate on the matter. The new Constitution did not provide a location for the new capital, except to note that “the Seat of the Government of the United States” would be designated by the “Acceptance of Congress” and that this district should “not exceed[ ] ten Miles square.” 

The matter was hotly contested. Seemingly everyone wanted the prize! There were several candidates, but three of the main contenders were New York (where Congress was currently sitting), Pennsylvania, and a southern site near Virginia and the Potomac.

At about the same time, Congress was debating the possibility of assuming all Revolutionary War debts held by the states. The matter was a contentious one, partly because some southern states (especially Virginia) had less debt than the northern states.

In the end, a deal was brokered over a dinner hosted by Thomas Jefferson and attended by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. The South would agree to the assumption of states’ debts, but in return it would gain the new capital. Philadelphia would serve as a temporary capital while the new one, by the Potomac, was being built.

One New York editor immediately expressed disapproval: “The true reason of the removal of Congress from this city will be explained to the people in the course of a very few days. To the lasting disgrace of the majority in both houses it will be seen, that the Pennsylvania and Patowmack interests have been purchased with twenty-one and one-half million dollars” (the size of the assumed debts).

Jefferson disagreed. He thought the deal brokered was a good one—or at least necessary. He wrote to James Monroe that it was needed for “the sake of union.” Without some kind of compromise, the national credit “will burst and vanish, and the states separate to take care everyone of itself.”  To another correspondent, he wrote that the deal was the “least bad of all the turns the thing can take.”

In short, the country, its Constitution, and its credit were all still very new. Would we fall apart so easily during one of our first disagreements? Would we lose our credibility with foreign countries?

On the other hand, we STILL fight about the debt, don’t we?! And we hear at least some of the same arguments about it.

Interestingly, Jefferson later changed his mind and decided that the deal was one of the worst mistakes of his political career. “It was unjust,” he said, “and was acquiesced in merely from a fear of disunion, while our government was still in its infant state.”

Hmm. Was the compromise a good one? Or merely the first in a string of bad compromises, made for emotional reasons?

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