The silly, incorrect-by-any-objective-standard, but accurate answer is that it was centrally located. It was not New York City, and if you’re at all familiar with New York politics past and present, the NYC/Upstate division has always been a hot-button congeries of issues. But it was accessible, in the days of steamboats and early trains, to NYC, and was reasonably accessible by the Mohawk Valley and Erie Canal to the rest of Upstate. On a population-weighted basis, it was close to the center of the state (which would actually be somewhere in the Ulster County mountains, on a guess). Also, it had some political clout even in the early days. So it served as an excellent compromise candidate between the NYC people who would have preferred that the Big Apple be the state capital, and Upstaters who might have looked at Syracuse or Rome as best from the geographic-center perspective, with some influential local people pushing for it as well.
Makes sense. But if the reason is correct, why not White Plains? I know it’s only 30-plus miles from Lower Manhattan, but that was a sizable distance back then. If it was, though, too close, why not someplace not quite as remote as Albany? Newburgh, for instance. Or someplace near West Point?
The Albany area was one of the first large settlements in the northeast and was a bustling trade route even before Manhattan was. In fact, Albany was settled as early as 1609, a full fifteen years prior to the Dutch establishing the first permanent settlements on Manhattan. Albany’s royal charter dates back to 1686. Most people don’t know that about 20 years prior to the American Revolution, representatives from seven other colonies met in Albany to discuss a plan for uniting the colonies. (See Albany Congress.)
Anyway, the capital of New York for a long time was Kingston, right smack-dab in the middle of the Hudson valley. Albany was made the capital around 1790, I believe.
Politicians don’t necessarily like having the state capital at the “center of commerce or trade”. Big cities mean too many prying eyes, too raucous a local media presence, and too large a nearby population which can be mobilized to demonstrate and make demands on state government. Then, too, the largest city in a state always develops rivalry and jealousy vis-a-vis the rest of the state, and outstate politicians oppose moving the capital to the big city once it has become established elsewhere.
If the big city is toward the edge of the state (Chicago, New York, Philadelphia), this provided one more reason to keep or move the capital elsewhere–especially in an earlier era of slower transportation. Put it all together, and small, centrally located capitals are more the rule in America than the exception.
No cite, but I read once that another reason for choosing minor cities as state capitals was to insulate state legislators and officials from the “temptations” of big-city life. Also a reason for choosing small towns as the locations of state universities. (E.g., I know for a fact, from university brochures, that the remote town of Gainesville was chosen as the location of the University of Florida in 1905 for the express purpose of keeping its young men (it was originally an all-male institution) pure and moral.)
Sacramento was a relatively important city when it was made capital of California. It was the fourth one for the state (San Jose, Vallejo, and Benicia were the first three). Sacramento was a terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad.
Remember that when California became a state in 1850 hardly anybody lived in Southern California and it had scant representation in the State Legislature.
Sacramento was also known at that time for playing dirty. You won’t find a more scamming bunch than the railroad tycoons. At one point there was a committee visiting different cities to see which one should be the capitol. Some cities went to great lengths- like Capitola, which renamed itself to look like an attractive capitol. Sacramento sent out a group of people ahead of the committee to book up all the hotels, so that when the committee came they’d think that the town didn’t have enough facilities to be the capitol.
Interestingly Kingston is in Ulster County, and close to the mountains as Polycarp suggested.
Given all the preceding discussion one wonders how a city like Boston (by far the largest most important city in the state, center of commerce, and NOT centrally located) gets made the capitol.
Yabbut Albany was already the capital when Dewitt Clinton, who basically built it as Governor, was elected, so the Erie Canal can’t really be relevant to where the capital was, can it. “Hmmmm, I think we’ll build a canal here in thirtyodd years, and that Canal will be so critical to the State that’s it best to have our capital at one end of it…”
Albany (actually Troy, I believe) is the head of navigation of the Hudson River, at least for large vessels. That’s the reason that it was such an important commercial center and the terminus of the Erie Canal.
True enough, but the tycoons can’t fairly be blamed for Sacramento. It was established as the capital in 1854, before railroad construction had begun in California and long before the heyday of the tycoons.
H.W. Brands writes in The Age of Gold about the efforts of Mariano Vallejo, a wealthy ranchero, to bring the capital to
Someone should write a book about the theory and practice of state capital location, if it hasn’t already been done. Among the controversies of Southern Reconstruction were the successful attempt by biracial Georgia Republicans to move the Georgia capital from Milledgeville to less segregated and more cosmopolitan Atlanta–a rare example of a capital moving to a big city–and the ultimately unsuccesful attempt by Louisiana Republicans to move the capital from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, for the same reasons.
In our lifetimes, the only serious attempt to move a capital, of which I’m aware, occurred in Alaska which ultimately decided to stick with Juneau.
Sorry, but the real reason why Albany is the capital of NY has nothing to do with its size or location. The capital was previously in Newberg, NY, but evidently the facilities were not good enough: a new capital city was needed. Several cities vied for the honor, but Albany won out because they promised to build a capitol building and other offices at no charge to the state.
No one else made that offer. So it, like much in politics, was bribery, pure and simple.
Newberg was never capital of New York. In fact, I don’t think there’s even anywhere in New York called Newberg. There is a town of Newburgh, in Orange County, which includes an incorporated city of the same name, but that was incorporated in 1865, decades after Albany was established as the capital in 1797. Kingston was the only capital before that, from 1777 to 1797. Prior to that New York was governed by a succession of royal appointees in various forms, none of whom lived anywhere near Newburgh so far as I can tell.
The uniting reason for all these placements is historical: speculating about whether politicians like to be near the center of commerce or media is anachronistic.
Connecticut’s capital is easy to explain, for example. CT was originally two colonies, a Puritan colony around New Haven, and a commercial one on the site of what been a Dutch trading post in Hartford. The colonies merged, and these cities were co-capitals even into the 1800’s. Eventually, the legislators got tired of traveling back and forth, and picked Hartford. It was larger than New Haven at the time, and it’s state house and other government buildings were in better shape.
Bridgeport now has a larger population than either, and both the southwestern a southeastern corners have more economic clout, but changing capitals these days is a much more involved endeavor than in the Federalist period. So bureaucratic inertia keeps it in Hartford.
This can be seen in other states, as well. State capitals move about willy-nilly in the colonial or territorial periods, a bit slower in the early days of statehood, but then settle down, put in roots, and spread like ameobas.