The U.S. House of Representatives will likely pass legislation today calling for the District of Columbia to become the 51st state. It marks the farthest the push for D.C. statehood has gone in the more than 200 years of its existence. The bill’s fate in the U.S. Senate is unclear, though its prospects for passage are mixed, at best.
One of the consistent objections raised by the legislation’s opponents is that the residents of D.C. have an undue influence on Congress. Merits aside, unspoken by these opponents is a 160-year-old idea: 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. More specifically, St. Louis, Missouri. An absurd premise, perhaps, but one that was given a close look in the years after the U.S. Civil War.
“They imagined they would move the real buildings themselves,” says Adam Arenson, a historian at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War. “The image is kind of fantastical but also intriguing.”
The idea of numbering the blocks of the Capitol building for reassembly hundreds of miles away was very much of its time.
“The whole thing is only thinkable in the aftermath of the Civil War, when you have had these kinds of massive logistical innovations and when they’ve moved so many people, but also so much stuff, around on the railroads,” says Walter Johnson, historian at Harvard University and author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.
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. Johnson notes that 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.”
This was a nation that had just faced a very real threat to its continued existence, and fundamental aspects of its character were still in question. Would freed African-American men be permitted to vote? Would white southerners who had taken up arms against the country be allowed back into political life? How would the much-anticipated completion of the transcontinental railroad rearrange the economy? How far could white settlers go in expanding their presence across the continent?
In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.
Plus summers could have been even worse than in Washington.