How would history be different if St. Louis, MO, were the capital of the U.S.?

Inspired by this thread: No cite, but I read once – I think it was in Arrogant Capital, by Kevin Phillips ( – that in 1865, there was legislation proposed in Congress to move the national capital from Washington, DC, to St. Louis, MO. Suppose that bill had passed?

There’s a certain logic to it. Washington was at the center, more or less, of the country in 1789 – but then there was this big westward expansion, and St. Louis was closer to the center in 1865. Even today it’s closer – not to the geographic center (that would be somewhere between Kansas City and Denver) but to the population center. St. Louis is a city neither Northern nor Southern, neither Eastern nor Western. In other words, it’s more or less equally easy/difficult for everybody to get to. It is situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, major transportation routes in the Nineteenth Century and far from negligible today. Locating the capital in St. Louis would give the Central Midwest – Something. It would not be denigrated as “the Great Flyover” by bi-coastal residents. And of course, there are military advantages – locating the capital almost as far inland as you can get makes it safer from invading troops and bomber planes. And, since Washington in 1865 was hardly even a town, the federal government wouldn’t have been giving up much in the way of capital (no pun intended) investment. They could have ceded the DC territory back to Maryland, and let the Washingtonians use the Capitol (a much less imposing structure in those days) as their city hall. Washington, MD, would have developed into a modest, pleasant riverfront city known for the “magnificent distances” of the baroque street plan laid out by Pierre L’Enfant.

Actually, I imagine a scenario where the new capital would be built across the river in East St. Louis, IL, which would be made a federal district separated from the state of Illinois. It is a much smaller city (pop. 31, 542 – than St. Louis, MO (2.6 million –, and, I’m sure, was a much smaller city in 1865, so it would have been more of a blank slate for the construction of a grandiose government city. They might have named the new capital “Cahokia,” after the local Indian mound-city ruins. (That’s what the French called it, after a local Indian clan – the city’s original name, and the name of the people who lived there, are lost forever. Being built in the late 19th Century, the capital’s prevailing architectural style might have been something very different than Federalist or Neoclassical.

Would this have altered the course of American history after 1865 in any way?

No meaningful legislation can be written after consuming toasted ravioli, pizza with Provel cheese, or the various products of the Anheuser-Busch corporation.

I mean that as both a positive and a negative, natch.

I like the idea, and propose we tack it onto the flag burning amendment now working its way thru Congress.

Faulty premise. The median center of population in 1860 and 1870 was in Ohio.

Why move your capital to a hick-burg like St. Louis? That’s what they did when they picked Washington.

Long-standing tradition? Look at Harrisburg. And Albany.

I think the OP means Geographic Center, not Population Center. When DC was built, the US was geographically quite narrow.

In fact there was a proposal, in the early decades of the Republic, to establish the national capital at Cincinatti. Nothing came of it.

Perhaps, but it must have been clear, even in 1865, that St. Louis, due to its location, was destined to grow into a great city.

Frankly, after 1949 I’m amazed that they didn’t move the capital somewhere off the coast. The opening strike of WW3 could have been a Soviet submarine detonating a nuclear weapon in the Potomac.

Never mind 1949, they should have started thinking along those lines after the British burned Washington in 1814.

I grew up in St. Louis. Maybe someday it will fulfill its destiny.

As to the OP, it really is hard to see how the actual location of the capital would make any difference. I mean, St. Louis would obviously be a very different city, but I don’t think it would make any difference in a national sense.

What if, to avoid sectional problems, there was a Constitutional Amendment requiring the capital to relocate to a new city every ten years? Sort of the geographical equivalent of a term limit.

More likely they would have followed the precedent of naming the capital after a President and named it Lincoln. It would have seemed a fitting honor in 1865, especially in Illinois.

Hey, I visited St. Louis last year. Compared to Tampa, it’s a great city! :slight_smile:

Oddly, Washington and St. Louis are the only two cities that I’ve heard “combine Southern efficiency and Northern charm”.

Washington University of St. Louis would be named St. Louis University of Washington.

Yeah, but there already was a St. Louis University.

And a correction for the OP: The population of the St. Louis metro area is around 2.6 million. The population of the city of St. Louis itself is less than 350,000.

As to the OP, I would imagine St. Louis would be a lot like Washington is today, and not too different from what it currently is - sprawled-out, with an inefficient city government and lots of crime, but many wonderful cultural institutions. More of the East Side would have been developed. A lot of it is floodplain and swampland, but so was Washington.


I’m sory to say that it took me a minute to get that. I was just mentally composing a post to describe the difficulties that frequently arose because of conflict between the city government and the county government (at least when I lived there), when it dawned on me: “Northern charm?”

At least being the capital would finally give St. Louis some kind of identity. You never saw so many people with chips on their shoulders about their place in the world - particularly on the newscasts. I remember Dick Ford getting quite pissy about Pittsburgh being ranked the #1 most livable city in America in the mid 80’s, and I recall things like desperate attempts to link news stories about John Gotti to local organized crime, like people running numbers.

So that would be a plus for St. Louis, but I think SanibelMan is pretty spot on about how things might not really look all that different for the city.

As for our capital, the cynic in me says that wherever it is located, it will be nothing but a festering pool of corruption, influence peddling, big money dealing and a side of representative democracy.

A final tacked on thought: the oppressive humidity might lead to more testy interactions among our politicians. We might have many more people telling each other to fuck off on the floor of the Senate.

I’m thinking Congress + Winnebagos = Fun!

Cows would have the vote.

The St. Louis arch would be inscribed with the names of the 59,000 dead in Vietnam.

Well, here we are, 140 years later, still waiting for destiny. Think it’ll happen anytime soon? :smiley:

Hadn’t it already been eclipsed by Chicago and its superior railroad system?