State capitals... why so small?

My wife, who is Australian, and I were discussing the capital cities of the states and territories of Australia (all 7 of them), and every single one of them, without exception, is the largest and most prominent city in that region. By contrast, that’s pretty uncommon in the US.

Looking at this list, which conveniently bolds state capitals and italicizes the largest city in each state, only 1 of the 10 biggest cities in the US is a state capital (Phoenix).

(Note that this list seems to be based purely on city limit population, not metro area, so some cities like Miami are much farther down on the list than seems “right”.)
So… any thoughts on why so many state capitals are in cities that are NOT the biggest and most prominent in the state?

My 2%: In Michigan, Detroit was originally the capital, but they moved it to Lansing to make it be more centrally located in the state.

Columbus, OH is very roughly in the middle of the state, so there may be something to that.

Yeah, back in the horse & buggy days (and still even after the railroads came) being centrally located was considered to be the most important factor.

But you have to judge each state individually. Boston is the capitol of MA and it’s the largest city in that state. Ditto Providence in RI.

But many states specifically made a city more in the geographic center the capitol and bypassed the largest city.

Also similar for our country’s capitol. Back in the early days of the republic, Wash DC was very centrally located.

In some cases, like Michigan, there were geographical concerns. Detroit was the capital until 1847, but was considered unsafe as it had been captured by the British in the War of 1812. Lansing was more central and safer by virtue of being further from the Canadian border.

Generally, though, I’d say that voters from the country and smaller cities were concerned about the largest urban center having too much influence over local politics so a compromise is reached by selecting a smaller city to be the capital. This is sort of like why Canberra is the capital of Australia: neither Melbourne nor Sydney wanted the other to be capital, so a compromise location was selected.

(Apologies for the redundancy.)

Missouri’s first capital was St Charles, which is on the Missouri River about 18 miles West of St. Louis.

Centrally located Jefferson City is the current one, still on the Missouri River though.

In some cases 150 years ago the capital was the biggest city in population.
Alaska looked into building a new capital city near Anchorage when the oil money started to flow in but turned down the idea. However a bunch of people bought up the land so all they did was end up with worthless land instead of selling it to the state.

Well, Columbus is also the largest city in Ohio. I don’t know the reasons but Ohio has a strange history with its state capitals…at one point Chilicothe was the state capital and I don’t really see why it ever would have been.

In the early years, Americans had a variety of prejudices against large cities. They bred crime, they attracted the wrong kinds of people, they were filthy and ungracious. And they saw the examples in Europe in which one large capital city dominated the rest of the country. America was still almost entirely rural before the Civil War and farm and small town politicians dominated legislatures, who were for the most part antithetical to large city trends.

For all these reasons, the early states tended to move their capitals away from the big city and to a smaller town that was both more centrally located and closer in spirit to the smaller cities around the state. You see it again when state colleges begin appearing, especially the land grant colleges after the Civil War, placed out in “college towns” in the middle of nowhere instead of the middle of the big city.

Again, this is a tendency, not an absolute. Boston is obviously an exception. But the separation of business, politics, and universities was a deliberate policy found in most of the states.

Columbus is the largest city in Ohio, but it’s only the third largest metropolitan area, after Cleveland and Cincinnati. Partly that’s because more of its suburbs have been merged into the city, so that unlike Cleveland and Cincinnati the remaining suburbs aren’t as populous. Partly it’s because it’s been increasing in population, while Cleveland and Cincinnati have been decreasing. Being the largest city in the state is a relatively recent thing.

Actually, it was approved on a couple of votes, but there was no money to pay for the effort. On the other hand, Juneau is the largest state capital in land area.

In fact, there are actually economic forces that would tend to make state capitals smaller. Others have already mentioned that state capitals are often deliberately picked to be near the geographic center of the state (in some cases, this was even a matter of law, as with the states admitted under the guidelines of the Northwest Ordinance). But the boundaries of states are often defined in terms of rivers or other bodies of water, which are the best economic sites for large cities. Considering Ohio again, Cleveland is large because (among other reasons) it’s on Lake Erie, and Cincinnati is large because it’s on the Ohio River, but that guarantees that both of those cities will be on the edges of the state.

Money-making property in port cities and railroad hubs attract development and growing populations. Govenment buildings don’t pay taxes, so stick them out in the middle of nowhere.

There was a very deliberate effort by early politicians to “spread the wealth” when it came to jobs and influence. In Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, among others, you’ll see the state capital in one city and the original state university in another.

Another big government project was (and is) prisons. Look around and you may find the state’s original prison was in yet another location.

It was one of the largest cities in the state at the time. Or I guess one of the only cities.

In the early days, it was considered undesirable by some for the state capital to be in the largest city; there was a fear that the legislators and governor would be more easily influenced by the people there to the detriment of the rest of the state. That, plus a central location, were the usual reasons for choosing the location.

But there were others. New York had a capital in Kingston, which was central to things before the Eric Canal opened things up, but the legislature decided to move. Several cities bid, but Albany won because they promised to build a capitol building.

Boston is a good example of why a state shouldn’t have its largest city as the capital. Massachusetts is a small state but it is still about a three hour drive from Boston proper to the western edge of the state on the New York border. Massachusetts is a fairly rural state overall by land area but good luck to the people who live outside of the Boston area in getting good representation. Massachusetts should have chosen like New York and set the state capital far away from its major city but it didn’t and now most of the city and state issues are hopelessly commingled with much of the state largely ignored. Making Springfield or even Worcester the state capital of Massachusetts would have spread the wealth and influence more evenly and been a much better choice.

As others have alluded to, making the state capital something other than the major city within the state is usually intentional and a wise idea.

I think this has been answered, but for the most part,

  1. capital cities were most likely moved to a convenient spot in the middle of the state (more or less).

  2. that selection was made on geography, whereas large cities were based on commerce. Government is not exactly an import-export concern, or a heavy industry, so there wasn’t much in the way of massive immigration or population growth to fill heavy industry needs.
    Look at Pennsylvania. Perfect example of a state who tried to pick a location between the two largest cities in the state at the time (and still are), and also on the southern end of the state, since both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are in the south eastern and south western parts of the state, respectively. The PA turnpike basically traverses the state through the southern section, and Harrisburg is off the same turnpike. Still closer to Philadelphia, but closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia, which is what folks in the Western part of the state wanted. It would have been even closer to Pittsburgh had the Appalachian Mt. range not cut through the state. They are to the west of Harrisburg, and this made sense early on since the larger population (Philadelphia) still wanted access to the state house.

If you look at a map of the US, almost all state capitals are in the middle of the state, either geographically or based on population centers. this made the state voters able to compromise much more easily on the topic.

This reminds of the what they say in Urbana, IL, location of University of Illinois. That when the sate was organized they had to choose locations for the state capitol, the state penitentiary and the state university and Urbana lost.