How would history have been different if New York was the capital of the USA?

I’m sitting in the W in New York city right now, on 39th and 3rd. New York is of course the biggest and most important city in the USA, if not the world, a center of commerce, industry, culture, entertainment and influence.

Just recently I was also in Washington D.C. The Mall is nice but other than that it’s a boring shithole.

How do you think U.S. history would have changed if New York City had remained the capital of the United States, as it was in 1789-1790? Obviously, we can assume that what is now Washington would either not be a city at all, or would be a small and unimportant one, which New York might even be bigger, so let’s just assume that. How else would history have been changed? Or would it not have changed much at all?

(For the sake of this argument let us also assume that New York City would not have been carved into a separate “district,” but would have remained part of the State of New York.)

::Thre year old’s view::

It’s not the capital?

I suppose all the lobbyists would have wound up putting their offices in Long Island, so as to be convenient to The Hamptons.
Seriously, I’m not sure how this would change history much, with the exception of the British marching on NYC instead of DC in the War of 1812, which may also have meant that the battle responsible for the Star-Spangled Banner might not have taken place.
Beyond that, I can’t figure out much else that would be different.

Washington was situated where it was because it was on the border between the “north” and “south” - neither side wanted to give up the prestige of having the nation’s capital. If the capital had been located in the north, southren resentment might been greater and perhaps the Civil War would have occurred earlier, such as during the Nullification Crisis of 1832.

Well, speaking as a born & bred New Yorker, I’d say that in MOST respects it would’ve made no difference at all. Except…

During the Civil War, Washington DC was quite close to enemy territory, and that’s PART of the reason for George McClellan’s legendary caution. If the capital of the Union had been New York City, McClellan wouldn’t have had to be so concerned about leaving the capital exposed to a Confederate assault, and his strategy MIGHT have been bolder.

Would NYC have remained a bastion of economic power?
And if so, would that have influenced our lawmakers?

Would NYC, like today’s DC, be directly governed by Congress?
Would that have an affect on New York’s economic importance?

And what of Tammany Hall?

I submit that it would have simultaneously demeaned both NCY and the nation.

If the national leaders were committed to a grand baroque street design for the capital, like the one L’Enfant drew up for Washington in our timeline, they probably would have put the federal buildings in the Bronx, not Manhattan – more space for all those radial avenues, monumental circles, and “magnificent distances.”

Locating the national capital in NYC would have made the daily experience of being a national politician or federal bureaucrat (or any other federal-government-dependent occupation – lobbyist, attorney, capital-bureau journalist, foreign diplomat, etc.) much richer and more exciting. Beyond that, it probably would not have made any of the key political decisions in our history come out any differently. The dynamics of voting influence in the House and Senate and Electoral College would have remained the same. So would the influence of Wall Street on national politics.

In our timeline, New York City was originally just southern Manhattan. It gradually grew to encompass all of Manhattan, and annexed the Bronx by stages from 1874 to 1896. Brookly, Queens and Staten Island were merged into NYC in 1898.

My thinking is, if the NYC area had been chosen for the capital, they might have put the federal buildings in the Bronx (see above) – more space, and a wide-open blank slate for monumental construction. The Bronx would have been the “federal district,” independent of both the city and the state of New York and governed directly by Congress. Thus, it would have been outside the zone of Tammany Hall’s influence. New York City would have developed its economic importance independently of its federal government functions, and based on its position as a major Atlantic port city at the mouth of the Hudson. In our timeline, NYC’s growth really took off when the Erie Canal was opened, making the city a major stop on the shipping routes between the interior of the continent and the rest of the world; that almost certainly would have remained the same in this alternate history. The Bronx, or “Washington” as they might have renamed it, might initially have been left out of any metropolitan consolidation of the NY area, but it would have been close enough to be intertwined with the life of the metropolis. Probably, for efficiency’s sake, it would have been annexed into the city eventually, the federal district shrunk to just the National Mall area or its equivalent (as has been proposed for Washington, DC).

The OP asked us to speculate about NYC had it remained the capital after 1790. Well, in that pre-Erie Canal, pre-RR era there was plenty of undeveloped real estate on Manhattan Island proper to create a monumental capital city, so there would be no need to plop it down in lower Westchester Co. (today’s Bronx). However, it’s worth mentioning that supposedly there were boosters from Kings County (better known as today’s Brooklyn) who tried to persuade Jefferson to move the capital across the East River to their neck of the woods instead of Washington. They likened Brooklyn Heights to the hills of Ancient Rome.

First off, DC is one of the best cities to visit in North America. Lots of fun stuff to do. You just need to get off the tourist angle and explore a bit.

New Yorkers would be even more insufferable than they are now.

The Sneak would still be kicked out.

But really, I cannot disagree with Neurotik’s “New Yorkers would be even more insufferable than they are now.”

However, from what I can tell, today’s senators are protected from making contact with the outside world, via underground parking garages, and such. This would be quite hard to achive in New York, and should these hypothetical senators desire such a thing, in a still growing New York, the city would suffer.

Because they’re already at the maximum?


Well, for one Maryland would have been that much larger; more politically important (IE. more people = more congressmen,) and subsequently have more money from taxes.

What differences would that have made? The Civil War era would have been the most dramatic I think. Maryland really was a state divided by the civil war as many of the tobacco farmers in the southern parts of the state owned slaves, and without the Federal influence MD would have been more inclined to go with the confederates without the nation’s capital basically in the middle of the state. As it was there were many Marylanders who left and joined the confederates during the war and there were many local instances of brother fighting brother. Maryland seceding with the confederates would have been troublesome for the Union because Maryland had more of the industrial resources that the south was otherwise lacking in plus adding more soldiers to any army is never a hinderance. The biggest loss to the Union would have been losing control of the Chesapeake Bay, still a major port for shipping and military vessels. Would it have changed the outcome? Hard to say, but at least the war would have drug on for years.

I know, but Manhattan Island itself is rather strait and narrow compared with the Bronx; you could fit a more grandiose capital on the latter.

I’m not sure I follow your reasoning.

Sure, Maryland would have kept the ~60 square miles that were taken from it to make up the District of Columbia (the Virginia portion of the original 100 square miles were returned to VA in 1847). Are you making the assumption that the city of Washington would have grown to its present population even if it had not been made the site of the US national capital? It was swampland, after all, and remained of fairly low population until the Civil War – at which point it had to be protected because it was the capital. My understanding (I lived there for four years) was that the only real reason for the sizeable current population in Washington is its capital status.

That part of my post was refering more to the recent past and the present, and not related to the next paragraph concerning the Civil War. I was born in DC and lived in the suburbs for 18+ years.

Looking at the rate of land development in the area since the Civil War, even if it wasn’t the nations capital it would have eventually been developed in to a city/county because of the proximity to both the Potomac & Anacostia rivers and if you look at the property values in nearby Northern Virginia, and the surrounding Maryland counties and the Mid-Atlantic in general that “swampland” would be a very profitable place, probably evolving into a city similiar to Baltimore. Keep in mind that “if” DC were a state the population would be more than Wyoming (50th) and just short of Vermont’s. Adding that population into Maryland’s moves them up about 3 spots to about 15 or 16.

But that’s only because of DC being the nation’s capital. You wouldn’t have nearly as many people in this area if it wasn’t for the federal government and the contracting, legal, lobbying, and bureaucracy jobs in the area. If it wasn’t for DC being the nation’s capital it would have been just another small river port. Georgetown sprung up as a pleasant little shipping town because it’s the furthest navigable point on the Potomac and very convenient to the Ohio Valley. But railroads would have killed that within 50 years or so.

Without DC, not only would this area not be nearly as valuable, but Frederick wouldn’t be nearly as valuable either because people there wouldn’t be the population and housing pressures to keep pushing people further and further west. They’d only be taking the Baltimore overflow instead of both Baltimore and DC.

Sure, right now. But it wouldn’t be nearly that if DC wasn’t the nation’s capital.

One theory I’ve come across is that the growth of government since the 1920’s is directly attributable to air conditioning. Without it, DC was virtually uninhabitable in summer, and the lawmakers would recess and go home for many months at a stretch instead. Only when it became physically comfortable to stay did the job become year-round.

New York doesn’t have that problem to nearly the same extent, and it has other attractions too. Government might well have been more activist, earlier in history, if it had been there.

I guess that my point is that in the crowded East Coast (or any where else for that matter) that river front property is and has always been a hot commidity, capital city or not. Sure, many of the areas around here are byproducts of DC being the nation’s capital, but there were people living in Maryland and Virginia before DC was the capital and since all we can do is speculate on “what if” I’m speculating that river front property in the middle of two of the oldest and earliest populated states in the Mid Atlantic region would have grown into a city whether or not it was ever the capital.