Imagining St. Louis as the capital of the US

It is fascinating to consider (1) a different capital in the United States in the center of the country and (2) a different center to the Midwest:

Photo by Nick Haynes on

In some ways, Arenson says, St. Louis was at the heart of these questions. Geographically, it was located where North, South and West came together. It had been a slave state, but had not seceded. It was central to many railroad lines. And it was growing at a remarkable place—it would rise from the country’s 24th most populous city in 1840 to the fourth biggest in 1870.

No one was more convinced of the importance of St. Louis than local businessman and booster Logan Uriah Reavis. Reavis was a remarkable man, with a remarkable appearance. He wore a long, messy red beard and walked bent over a cane due to a childhood illness. Born in Illinois in 1831, he failed in his early career as a schoolteacher “when the students ridiculed him ceaselessly,” according to Arenson’s book. In 1866, he arrived in St. Louis intent on starting a newspaper and elevating the image of his adopted hometown.

Reavis wasn’t the first to suggest the city as a new capital for the nation. In 1846, St. Louis newspapers claimed that the move would be necessary to govern a country that grew significantly in size after the end of the Mexican-American War. But Reavis may have been the most outspoken supporter of the cause. He presciently envisioned a United States stretching not just out to California but up to Alaska and down to the Gulf of Mexico. And he saw St. Louis as the obvious place for the government of this mega-United States: “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic.” In contrast, he wrote, Washington was a “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige.”…

In response, between 1867 and 1868, three House representatives from the Midwest proposed resolutions to move the capitol toward the middle of the country. As historian and educational publisher Donald Lankiewicz writes for History Net, the first two of these stalled in the Ways and Means committee. But a third, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine in February 1868, came to a vote on the floor. Eastern congressmen saw the proposal to move the seat of government to somewhere in the “Valley of the Mississippi” as a joke. But it shocked them with the amount of support it received, ultimately failing by a vote of just 77 to 97.

This story sounds very American: local boosters combined with an expanding frontier and disorder after the Civil War to produce a vision for a new capital in a booming city. Even though this did not come to fruition, it sounds like there was a short window in which is could have happened. And then what would have happened to Washington, D.C., one of the most important cities today?

I also cannot help but contrast this to the fate of St. Louis after this era. I recently showed my urban sociology class the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. This documentary puts the infamous public housing project in the context of a city that peaked in population in 1950, lost residents in white flight, and is racially segregated. Add this to the competition with Chicago for the center of the Midwest and St. Louis might be a great story of a city that did not live up to its lofty dreams.

Mexico City changes its name

Last week, Mexico City officially received a new name:

President Enrique Peña Nieto officially changed the capital’s name to “Mexico City” on Friday as part of a reform to devolve power from the federal government, allowing the city’s mayor to name senior officials including the police chief…

The reform moves Mexico City – the area of nearly nine million people surrounded on three sides by the grungy suburbs of Mexico State – closer towards becoming a state in its own right…
Campaigners – mostly on the left – started pushing for an end to the Federal District after the devastating 1985 earthquake, after an inept federal response left millions to fend for themselves. Leftwing movements rose from the wreckage, achieved political reforms and won the first mayoral and assembly elections in 1997…

Some analysts warned of potential confusion caused by adding a capital called “Mexico City,” to a country already named Mexico, whose biggest state is the “State of Mexico”.

It sounds like nothing may change from the outside. However, relationships between the city government and federal government as well as city residents and other residents of Mexico may be impacted.

Perhaps city residents who live in a major city that also doubles as a national capital have a unique urban experience? This article suggests that Mexico has a centralized system, centered in Mexico City, which may mirror other countries (London in England, Paris in France, etc.) where the most important city is also the capital. In contrast, other countries have capitals outside of their major city with the United States as a prime example with a space away from New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

NATO blunder or deep-seated Chicago wish to be recognized as the capital of Illinois

I know a lot of people were having fun at NATO’s expense yesterday after it made several errors in a video ahead of the upcoming summit in Chicago. One of them was particularly interesting:

A video about Chicago posted Thursday on the website of NATO’s in-house television news network,, could leave leaders fumbling the facts at the international water cooler.

First, there’s the matter of Illinois’ capital city.

“More than 60 heads of state and government will meet to discuss crucial matters of security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area,” a narrator’s voice says as the five-minute video plays panning shots of Chicago. “And so, the leaders of the member nations of the organization created by the 1949 Washington Treaty will meet in the capital of Illinois this time.”

What in the name of Abraham Lincoln? The summit was moved to Springfield?

While the capital of Illinois is indeed Springfield, I wonder if this doesn’t hint at a secret wish of Chicagoans for the city, whose region has roughly 70% of the state’s population, to be the actual capital. As the most populous city as well as the economic powerhouse for the state, why not simply move the government operations there as well? Doesn’t Chicago effectively function as the capital anyway? Now I know official state business takes place in Springfield but think about the power and influence politicians from the Chicago area wield. Think of the economic impact Chicagoland has on the state. Think of the images many Chicago area residents have of those who live “downstate.”

An argument could also be made about the need to move capitals to reflect changing realities. Springfield wasn’t the first capital in Illinois and the earlier capitals were all further south, reflecting where the population of the state was at the time. Indeed, Chicago was a small community into the late 1830s and northeastern Illinois was relatively unsettled compared to the rich farmland further south. Geographically, Springfield made sense. I think you may be able to apply some of this geographic logic to a few other state capitals as well such as Albany compared to New York City and Sacramento compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco. Going even further, Washington D.C. emerged as a new city because of a compromise between different factions (Alexander Hamilton’s wished for the nation’s capital to be a big city, New York City specifically). Imagine what a powerhouse New York City could be in global city rankings if it also had Washington D.C.’s share of governmental influence? (Ironically, the United Nations, the foremost global governance organization, is based in New York City even as the capital of the United States is not.)

Granted, you would expect an organization like NATO to get the capital of Illinois correct. But perhaps their error simply reflects what Chicago leaders think…