A few years ago, an old map started circulating around the internet from 1850 with a proposed Western District of Columbia located in western Kentucky, across from the real Illinois town, named in a bout of wishful thinking, Metropolis, Illinois. I'm trying to create an alternate history scenario where this or something similar actually happened, what should my point of departure be?

Here are the requirements:

  1. Like Washington, DC, the new capital should straddle the border between two states, either along the Mississippi River (between Missouri and Illinois) or the Ohio River (between Kentucky and Illinois or Kentucky and Indiana).
  2. As I mentioned in the title, this should happen before 1900. I want the capital to sit in the Midwest long enough to create a government bureaucracy in the area as the 20th century progresses.
  3. The US should stay mostly or completely intact as in our real timeline. For instance, I do NOT want the capital to be moved as a result of the Confederacy winning the Civil War or the British retaining the Atlantic coast in the American Revolution.
  4. Bonus points for a new city created to be the capital, like Washington, DC, but I'll also accept proposals to move the capital to an existing large city like St. Louis.

In real history, there were a few semi-serious proposals to move the capital that I've found:

1814 - When the British burned down Washington, there was some discussion of moving the capital elsewhere (Philadelphia most likely), but Southern representatives wanted to keep the capital adjacent to a state where slavery was legal and argued that moving after a defeat would be a sign of weakness, so DC was rebuilt.

1846 - When a portion the District of Columbia was retroceded to Virginia, Senator William Allen of Ohio briefly argued that the capital ought to be moved west, but no legislation came from this.

1861 - Though there was never an official call for the removal of the capital during the Civil War, it is worth noting the tenuous position of Washington, DC. Virginia, on one side, was in open rebellion and home of the Confederacy's capital in Richmond. Maryland, on the other, though generally sympathetic to the union, was a slave state and martial law was enacted to keep it from seceding. The fighting came within miles of DC, and President Lincoln actually came under fire at one point.

1868 - Probably the closest any legislation came to moving the capital, a vote was held in the House of Representatives on moving the capital to the "Valley of the Mississippi", and the motion failed by only 20 votes. The following year, several western states sent official delegations to a convention to discuss moving the capital to St. Louis, but it seems no action was taken following the convention. The movement pretty much died by 1871 when President Grant was able to convince Congress to appropriate money for the improvement of Washington, DC.

I feel like sometime between 1846 and 1870 is the most plausible time to make this happen, can one of these be manipulated realistically to move the capital?

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    $\begingroup$ "Southern representatives wanted to keep the capital in a state where slavery was legal": I don't know, as an European the history of the USA was not a major priority at school, but AFAIK the capital of the USA is not in any state. The inhabitants of the capital are not even represented in Congress, isn't it so? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 6:01
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    $\begingroup$ You take the reason from 1814 and after 1865 you move capitol to new place as a sign of peace between North and South. Rainbowcity. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP you are correct, changed to "adjacent to a state where slavery was legal". DC is adjacent to Virginia and Maryland, both which were slave states, and slavery was legal in DC as well throughout most of antebellum US history. $\endgroup$
    – TzeraFNX
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @SZCZERZOKŁY - I like the double entendre with Rainbowcity. A place name but strung together as you did it has echos of "audacity" or "perspicacity". Rainbowcity now! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 15:22

4 Answers 4


Confederate Maryland

You don't need the Confederacy to win the Civil War. Just switch around some of the states. In particular, if Maryland joined the Confederacy, it would have been difficult to keep the capital in Washington, DC, as the portion of the District of Columbia containing the White House and other government buildings was ceded from Maryland. This is especially so if Virginia, or at least the eastern portion, was also in the Confederacy, as that would make the capital entirely surrounded by the Confederacy.

This is reasonable as Maryland was a slave state. So in many ways, it would have been more natural for it to join the Confederacy.

A side issue is that this would have given post-war Maryland different representation, as it would have been part of Southern reconstruction. That might have been just enough to change the balance of the 1868 vote.

Destroyed DC

The capital could have been destroyed in the Civil War. So after the Civil War, if they don't rebuild, they might eventually put the capital somewhere more centrally located.

No President Johnson

If Abraham Lincoln had survived his assassination attempt, there might have been less reconciliation with the South. Alternately, if Andrew Johnson had died in his assassination attempt, there might have been less reconciliation with the South. Having Johnson succeed Lincoln led to a much more accommodating government.

Union Lee

Lincoln offered Robert E. Lee command of the Union armies. What if he'd taken it? There would have been less confusion at the top of the Union command. Lee might have won the war prior to the 1864 election. Andrew Johnson might never have been vice-president much less president. Ulysses S. Grant might never have become famous. As the winning general, it would have been Lee who would have been president. Lee might not have felt as strongly about keeping the capital in Maryland.

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    $\begingroup$ Washington, D.C. would have been a very convenient capital for Lee. In our world, his plantation was seized by the federal government and turned into Arlington National Cemetery. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ I like the list of options. No President Johnson I think is the kicker... whether Lincoln survives, or Seward survives them both, the President will probably favor reconciliation, but will do so more competently than Johnson, so you might even get Unionist governments from Louisiana and Arkansas early to bolster a Westward capital. $\endgroup$
    – TzeraFNX
    Commented Jul 19, 2019 at 20:02

Americans do not like powerful big cities as their capitals.

Here is an American idiosyncrasy I have never seen discussed. Americans like their capital cities to be little cities, with no particular power or claim to fame except that city is the capital. In England the capital city is London, the biggest. Same for France, same for Italy. In the US it is not Philadelphia, or NYC, or Boston: it is little DC. That is echoed in every American state except Georgia: the capital is not the biggest city, but some smaller central city.

I suspect this is because of US-style democracy and a tug of war between cities which are economically powerful and rural areas, which are big and concerned about being relegated to second class. This remains a powerful dynamic in the US as seen in our last presidential election.

The capital can move when the West coast and Midwest are big enough to demand their places at the table, not the kid table in the next room. I think this should be after 1900; maybe part of the Return to Normalcy following WW1. Chicago and St Louis are mighty and the West coast is up and coming. They want to spread the wealth. The US has a new way of thinking and the interior and other coasts have gained new respect from the East. It is a new century and a good time for a change.

It makes sense that a capital should be a smaller city, central and located near the Mississippi - Metropolis, KY is on the Ohio and a straight shot along that to the Mississippi.

I like too the idea that maybe this happened in a timeline when the civil war was not so destructive and the South not so utterly crushed. Maybe the Union buys all the slaves and frees them, and the two sites agree to make laws banning the sale or purchase of slaves. There will be fewer hard feelings after an amicable settlement and a generation later it will be easier to cooperate.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You've touched on an interesting point, but you're overestimating the tendency of US States to have small capitals. There were 17 states with their capital in their largest city in 2016. Arizona's is the officially the largest, with more than half the state's population in the surrounding area. $\endgroup$
    – Nolimon
    Commented Jul 12, 2019 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ There are 16 states other than Georgia where the capital is also the largest city: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. There are plenty of states where the capital is deliberately a smaller city (e.g. Maine & Missouri), so your point isn't invalid, just not quite as supported as you thought. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2019 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ The opposite of this is extremely apparent while traveling in the former Soviet Union. The capital cities there are so large, and powerful, that they seem like parasites feeding off the rest of the country. You're basically in another country if not in the capital. 17 counter examples to 33 (or 34, if you include DC) in the U.S. is not that big of a deal. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 1:11
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    $\begingroup$ A general rule I've used in pub quizzes is that the state capital usually isn't the most famous/obvious one. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 14:02

Tweak the Civil War

The Confederacy was unlikely to succeed in the Civil War due to the North's advantages and world opinion being against them, but they could have likely stretched the war out longer.

Perhaps have Lee's confidence be reduced after Antietam such that he fights more conservatively in his Gettysburg Campaign turning it into a protracted stalemate as opposed to a dramatic defeat. The war would likely go on for an extra year or two with the Confederate army looting Union lands to keep supplied. With the Confederate army north of Washington DC, politicians relocate to a less precarious position in Philadelphia. This stalemate also buys more time for ambassadors to try and secure European intervention on behalf of the Confederates; worrying the Union. Eventually, appeals for foreign aid will fail and the North will bring its industrial might and numbers advantage to bare, forcing a Confederate surrender. However, the extra year of fighting in this reality would have more greatly soured the North's disposition towards the South, giving more progressive and militant Republicans the leverage they need to combat Southern Redeemers during Reconstruction. In the short term this would likely lead to the KKK targeting the federal government in a greater capacity than it did historically.

The combination of increased Northern resentment, Washington DC's precarious position both from Southern aggression and European intervention, a precedent of abandoning it, its proximity to inflamed sectarian violence, and increased progressive leverage all could contribute to a campaign to move the capital North and inland. This would make the capital more defensible, act as a political spite to the South, and could be used as a tool to help encourage expansion into the Free-Soil Territories.


Why create Washington in the first place?

Compromise of 1790 resulted in setting the capital in Washington D.C. as a bargaining chip for Hamilton's idea of national debt assumption.

As the Congress was in the deadlock, it is not hard to imagine a different scenario where South doesn't get the capital and Hamilton's plan fails. This could lead to major financial problems for U.S., but does sound probable.



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