Where DC REALLY Should Have Been Built

DC is hot, sweaty and relatively dreadful in the summer-time. Congress is even out of session, certainly not because the big-whigs had to get back to their farming, but more so because DC is insufferable during the summer. Those who had the means chose to escape the city and its plague of mosquitos (and the infectious diseases they breed!) Since time immemorial, residents in and around the District has pondered the misery that is summer in DC. Why would anyone have put such a large city on a swamp?

US Capitol - 1846 photograph by John Plumbe

US Capitol – 1846 photograph by John Plumbe

Founded on July 16, 1790, the location for the future District of Columbia was chosen for a few simple factors. These factors were the result of a compromise between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson as well as one decision by the the-Commander in Chief. First and foremost, they were looking for a place located a land mass inland from direct coastal access. Protected by the length of the Chesapeake and the estuary of the Potomac, DC is relatively protected from marauding Redcoats (a fact I am still ever-appreciative of!)

Second, it was supposed to be dead center in the middle of the country in 1789—the Thirteen Colonies. It would theoretically be equi-distant from all the voting state legislatures, and a proxy for the middle of the voting populace. Third, it needed to be right between the Northern Industrial states and the Southern agricultural states. It would also ensure that neither state could claim the District within its jurisdiction.

Fourth, George Washington—as President of the Union in 1790—was charged with deciding the final location. His Mount Vernon plantation was just on the other side of Alexandria. So, he chose to create the special congressional district around that and the next town northward, Georgetown. I give good reason for my suspicion shortly…

It’s also possible that the location was one part of the concessions the North gave to the South. The capital would forever be in a place so hot and muggy that only those from the Deep South would be accustomed to debating and legislating while drenched head to toe in sweat.

So where should have the District of Columbia been placed, if not at the juncture of the Potomac and the Anacostia?

A river inland from potential British attacks? Between the North and the South? In the geographic center of the American population? While not accounting for old Apple-Tree-McGee over in Mount Vernon, I’ve found a much more suitable location using the objective criteria:

The banks of the Susquehanna River at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and what I will refer to as the New District.

Derived from Google Earth.

Derived from Google Earth.

This majestic location is right in between 3 formerly major metropolitan areas in 3 different states: Harrisburg, PA, Baltimore, MD, and Wilmington, DE. It’s still a river system inland from the Atlantic—the same one (the Susquehanna is the largest feeder river for the Chesapeake Bay). The New District may have been an even more difficult spot to attack because it lays upstream from Baltimore, which to this day has an active military shipyard run by the Coast Guard.

While the location of current District was intended to be the most central location for the country at the time, they missed the mark. In 1790, the same year DC was founded, the US Census-takers for the first time derived an estimate for the geographic center of the US population. It was Kent County, Maryland, 23 miles east of Baltimore. Though the New District is a bit upstream from that, it’s the closest possible location that would have been between two states.

Which brings us to another reason that—according to the criteria at the time—the New District would have been a better fit. The Mason-Dixon Line, defined by 1767, was surveyed to define the boundaries between Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. However, after Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1781, the line became the famous divide between free states and slave states, between the North and the South, between industry and agriculture.

Why, then, would it ever have made sense to put the new nation’s capital so clearly between two slaveholding states (Maryland and Virginia) when another option between one free state and one slaveholding state (Pennsylvania and Maryland)? That’s where Wooden-Tooth George’s plantation comes into play. There are few other plausible explanations than his preferential treatment of a location near and dear to his heart—his home.

The Washington's at Mt. Vernon

The Washington’s at Mt. Vernon

The benefits of living in the New District, though, would have been incredible. First, it would have been less humid and insect-infested. Havre de Grace, which is downstream of the New District, has July temperature highs lower than those of DC and a higher comfort index. The New District is also a bit closer to the Appalachian mountains, at almost 400 feet of altitude.

In essence, it would have been a better location to put the city. There would have been fewer health problems because of fewer mosquitos. And while many people escape DC’s humid summers, our nation’s capital would have been a much more economically productive area. As a matter of fact, it was supposed to become the major business center of the East Coast. However, partially because of its climatic limitations, most of its industries are still just those associated with the government.

This leaves us with one last question—should we move the District to the New District on the cool, breezy banks of the Susquehanna? Well, now, the original banks have been flooded for a local reservoir. So it’s not quite as easy to cross as during times past. In addition, I understand that moving 200-year old stone monuments to the New District would be tougher than it looks. And it looks tough.

Maybe it’s better to leave this one in my long list of fantasies for what reality could have been like had XYZ happened. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop arguing my case.

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