J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Is Boston Still the Capital of Massachusetts?

When the Revolutionary War began, every colony’s capital but Williamsburg, Virginia, was either on the Atlantic Ocean or on the big Delaware River close to that ocean.

Over the next century, however, all of the American states along the Atlantic moved their capitals inland—except two. Of those eleven moves, three occurred before the war was over and another four [ADDENDUM: five] before the end of the century.

To wit:
  • New Hampshire’s capital moved from Portsmouth to Concord in 1808.
  • Massachusetts’s capital remained Boston.
  • Rhode Island’s capital rotated among the five county seats until 1854, then between Newport and Providence; it finally settled in Providence in 1900. 
  • Connecticut’s capital was defined as New Haven and Hartford jointly until 1875 when Hartford won out.
  • New York’s capital moved from New York to Albany in 1797.
  • New Jersey was formally two colonies, with Perth Amboy the capital of East Jersey and Burlington the capital of West Jersey; Trenton became the capital of the unified state in 1790.
  • Pennsylvania’s capital moved from Philadelphia to [ADDENDUM: Lancaster in 1799 and to] Harrisburg in 1812.
  • Delaware’s capital moved from New Castle to Dover in 1777.
  • Maryland’s capital remained Annapolis.
  • Virginia’s capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780.
  • North Carolina’s capital moved from New Bern to Raleigh in 1794.
  • South Carolina’s capital moved from Charleston to Columbia in 1786.
  • Georgia’s capital changed from Savannah alone to Savannah and Augusta on alternate years in 1782, Augusta in 1786, Louisville in 1796, Milledgeville in 1807, and Atlanta in 1868.
Clearly the Revolution, either as a war or as a rethinking of how government should function, had an effect on where Americans thought their state capitals should be.

Of course, when the imperial capital is across the Atlantic and communication is difficult enough, it makes sense for that government to establish its subordinate capitals on the coast. But an inland capital was easier to guard from attack by that same empire, or others. Fear of foreign navies grew larger than fear of Native Americans trying to push back white settlers. 

For some of the colonial capitals, such as New York, Savannah, and Charleston, another factor might have been that the British military held those port cities for extended times, giving them a reputation of being Tory cities. 

And finally, there was pressure from rural voters and politicians to make a state capital equally inconvenient for most people to reach and isolated from big cities full of special interests. In Maryland, Baltimore had grown much larger than Annapolis by 1790, which might have put the old capital on the side of the smaller towns. 

Which makes Boston even more of an anomaly. It held onto its capital status while remaining the state’s largest locus of people, shipping, and other business. Indeed, it still dominates the whole region.

One factor is that Boston’s rivers don’t go very far. New Yorkers could move their capital up the Hudson, Virginians up the James, Pennsylvanians to a spot on the Susquehanna, New Hampshirites to a spot on the Merrimack. But the big river inside Massachusetts is the Connecticut, which seemed too far and emptied out through another state. 


Anonymous said...

It's important to remember that Maine was part of Massachusetts in colonial times up through 1820 (the Missouri Compromise). It made sense to keep the capital on the Atlantic to have a route from that part of the MA to the seat of government.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point. Boston was more centrally located within Massachusetts, or at least equally inconvenient for a lot of citizens, before Maine became a state.

Bruce Venter said...

What about Kingston? Was it the first capital of the state of New York in 1777?

Bill Caughlan said...

Correction: Pennsylvania's capital moved from Philadelphia to Lancaster in 1799 and then from Lancaster to Harrisburg in 1812.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the added information about Lancaster!

As for Kingston, New York, I thought placing the state government there was always supposed to be a temporary wartime expedient. Did the government go back there after moving to Hurley to escape the Crown army?