The Ill-Fated Idea to Move the Nation’s Capital to St. Louis

One of the hottest arguments today is whether or not to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. Almost 160 years ago, someone had the idea to 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 to St. Louis, Missouri. It was an absurd premise, but one that was given a close look in the years after the Civil War. The idea of numbering the blocks of the Capitol building for reassembly hundreds of miles away was very much ahead of its time. 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. 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. Geographically, St. Louis was located where North, South and West came together, and it was central to many railroad lines. It was also growing at a remarkable place and would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870. 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 that of St. Louis. Gradually, support for turning St. Louis into the nation’s new capital faded away. While the effort to move the capital may have faded away quickly, and might sound absurd to us now, 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.