Saturday, August 4, 2012

A random thought I had yesterday...

...we Virginians are obsessed with capitals.

You dangle a capital city in front of us and we'll do just about anything. Think about it. We fought Hamilton tooth and nail on all his crazy plans, and what did it take to completely capitulate? A capital on the Potomac. You know Hamilton was laughing all the way home from that dinner party.

And in 1861 we resisted secession in vote after vote, but when Jeff Davis started checking out the real estate market in Richmond we bolted (this was actually spun as a reward ex post, but you know someone was dropping hints earlier).

And we've had three state capitals: Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Richmond. Everyone wants in on the capital action apparently, although it never made it that far off the James River. Other states apparently have had a string of capitals as well, but I think a lot of these don't count. Many were just jumps to smaller cities when war threatened, and some were cases where capitals jumped around in underpopulated territories that were just trying to nail down their real population center.

But what established colony moves a capital after almost 100 years of operation, and then again about 100 years after that - no threat of war or anything, just packing it up and moving on? This isn't a backwater like old-time Alabama or California, and it's not a case of schizophrenic sovereignty issues like Texas.

Add on top of that that we were enticed by a national capital not once, but twice, and you start to realize we've got real issues with this.


  1. Two things:

    First, I'm confused by your characterization of Hamilton's plans as "crazy". I know that as a Virginian you are inclined to side with Jefferson, but you might also consider George Washington's convictions. Hamilton's plans secured the good credit of the United States abroad, fueled a robust and expansive industrial economy founded on free labor in the north, and imposed the first Pigovian tax in American history, on whiskey. The alternative was to default on the war debt, not have a central bank, and rely on slavery-based agricultural production. I think it's obvious how fortunate we are that things went the way they did.

    Second, I'm confused by the apparent belief that states choose "population centers" as capitals. It seems to me, on the contrary, that states often choose geographically central backwater towns, which then become more populous by virtue of being the state capital. How many people do you know who live in Frankfort, Kentucky? I think Richmond is an exception to the general rule.

    1. I'm actually quite a fan of Hamilton's. Just making a broader point in a semi-serious way.

      Jefferson often got the big picture stuff much more right than he did the details.

    2. I think that's a good characterization. Something that I think is seldom appreciated about Jefferson is his pragmatism. Despite his taste for absolute principles in his rhetoric, when he held responsibility he was willing to make compromises. Once he was president, he tacitly accepted all sorts of policies that he had denounced as "tyrannical" and "aristocratic" during the 1790s. He didn't believe that the constitution gave him the authority to make the Louisiana Purchase, but he did it anyhow. I think it's a shame that this isn't thought of as part of his legacy, along with the lofty words of the Declaration, and the secularism.

  2. Having the capital quite near to Virginia made a lot of sense at the time given the mental framework of those involved.


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