American Capitals: A Historical Geography

American Capitals: A Historical Geography

by Christian Montès

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State capitals are an indelible part of the American psyche, spatial representations of state power and national identity. Learning them by heart is a rite of passage in grade school, a pedagogical exercise that emphasizes the importance of committing place-names to memory. But geographers have yet to analyze state capitals in any depth. In American Capitals, Christian Montès takes us on a well-researched journey across America—from Augusta to Sacramento, Albany to Baton Rouge—shedding light along the way on the historical circumstances that led to their appointment, their success or failure, and their evolution over time.             While all state capitals have a number of characteristics in common—as symbols of the state, as embodiments of political power and decision making, as public spaces with private interests—Montès does not interpret them through a single lens, in large part because of the differences in their spatial and historical evolutionary patterns. Some have remained small, while others have evolved into bustling metropolises, and Montès explores the dynamics of change and growth. All but eleven state capitals were established in the nineteenth century, thirty-five before 1861, but, rather astonishingly, only eight of the fifty states have maintained their original capitals. Despite their revered status as the most monumental and historical cities in America, capitals come from surprisingly humble beginnings, often plagued by instability, conflict, hostility, and corruption. Montès reminds us of the period in which they came about, “an era of pioneer and idealized territorial vision,” coupled with a still-evolving American citizenry and democracy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226080512
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/10/2014
Series: University of Chicago Geography Research Papers
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 19 MB
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About the Author

Christian Montès is professor of geography at the Université Lumière Lyon 2 and the author of L’Amérique du Nord: Les Etats-Unis and Les transports dans l’aménagement urbain à Lyon. He lives in Lyon, France.

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American Capitals

A Historical Geography



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08051-2



A New Light on American Cities and Territorial Processes

Like most boys living in the west-end of Chillicothe [during the 1850s], my entry into school life was through the Western Building, and, naturally, by way of good old Miss Pierson's room. I have yet a lively recollection of her early discovery of my predilection for geography, and of her choosing me, when visitors were present, to name and point out the State-Capitals; this pleasure was always tempered by the fear that New Hampshire's capital would be called for, and pride had a fall when such was the case, for the nearest my infantile lips could pronounce it was "corn-cob," and I dreaded their laugh raised at my expense.


According to Michel de Certeau (1988), historical investigation has only one way to resolve the dilemma between the social status of contemporary historians—the fact that the past is a construction of the present—and the necessary "virginity" of researchers: surprise—surprise with regard to a text, a silence, or an absence of archives. This study originated in a personal surprise at the small size of most American state capitals. The second surprise was that nobody has written a global history of these cities, the only exceptions being a few popular or juvenile works. It is perhaps because memorizing state capitals at school has left scholars—all of them former pupils like Mr. Renick, cited above—with the idea that these cities are to be taken for granted and not seen as possible subjects of intellectual investigation (figure 1.1 nevertheless reminds readers of their names and locations). More than forty years ago, an American geographer asked the same question I am asking today (Browning 1970). He did so in a journal article intended for schoolteachers rather than for the academic world, and since then nobody has taken his first approach to the question further than his perceptive but general remarks.

A Very Diverse Corpus

Although capitals appear alike on national maps (a star most of the time), they form a highly heterogeneous corpus, reflecting the absence of any uniform "national mind" in the United States of America. According to the 2010 census, our state capitals ranged in population from 7,855 (Montpelier, VT) to 7,559,060 (Boston combined statistical area [CSA]), and their share of the state's population ranged from 0.66? (Annapolis) to 152.1% for Providence, Rhode Island (exceeds 100? because the metropolitan area of Providence extends beyond Rhode Island's boundaries). Nor does any regional convergence emerge. For instance, the once clear difference between New England, where towns were founded at first, and southern tidewater plantations, which were almost without towns, is no longer perceptible in the current size of state capitals. The reverse might even be true. In New England, which includes the six states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, three capitals are small cities, and three are large (Boston, Hartford, and Providence). In the Southeast, Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, and Richmond are conurbations of a million or more people; Montgomery, Jackson, Columbia, and Harrisburg also have metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) between 0.3 and 1 million people. Of the capitals in that region, only Frankfort, Annapolis, and Dover are small cities. The same opposition is present in the percentage of a state's population living in its capital: 1.26%, 9.20%, 11.12%, 33.92%, 115.4%, and 152.1% for New England, versus 0.66%, 1.63%, 1.95%, 7.84%, 11.86%, 15.73%, 17.24%, 18.08%, 25.05%, and 54.39% for the Southeast.

Table 1.1 underlines the fact that the study of capitals cannot be reduced to small-town analysis, a field that has undergone recent renewal, mostly from a cultural point of view. Nor does it belong to medium-sized city analysis (Hollingsworth and Hollingsworth 1979). The situation has changed since the 1950s because many capitals have become metropolises, from Atlanta to Salt Lake City and Austin. Indeed, the 2010 census revealed that 24? of state capitals had fewer than fifty thousand inhabitants in their municipalities, 28? had more than a quarter of a million inhabitants, and 34? had a million or more in their CSAs or MSAs. The difficulty in classifying state capitals was well expressed in the appraisal of Columbia, South Carolina's seat of government: "It's a wonderful city.... It's still a big small town—it's small enough that you are always running into someone you know, but not so small that you know everyone." Such diversity shows that the history of American state capitals is complex and needs some explanation.

Fundamental Questions

By a Capital I mean a city which is not only the seat of political government, but is also by the size, wealth, and character of its population the head and centre [sic] of the country, a leading seat of commerce and industry, a reservoir of financial resources, the favored residence of the great and powerful, the spot in which the chiefs of the learned professions are to be found, where the most potent and widely read journals are published, whither men of literary and scientific capacity are drawn.


First we require a definition of the word capital. Following Bryce's definition would lead to the conclusion that there is no "real" capital in the country, echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, who thought that the decentralization of power brought by the absence of a real capital was the cause of the survival of democratic institutions in America. But to work on an a priori definition is not the best way to analyze the question. First, Bryce's definition refers to European centralized states rather than to the American federal system, in which urban primacy and politics follow a diff erent logic (Glaeser 1999). Second, his definition is based on the broadest interpretation of the word capital; the Latin word caput means "head," and he stated that a capital must be at the head of the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. This study takes the opposite course, studying the actual status of political capitals in the organization of the United States instead of the position they should or might have. I also analyze how American leaders or citizens looked at their capitals and how they envisioned them. The executive secretary of the American Civic Association asked some interesting questions about the essence of state capitals.

Where should the State buildings be located? How many of them should be centralized in the State capitals? What provision should be made for future expansion? What is the desirable location of the business district of the capital city in relation to State buildings? ... What do the State officials owe the capital city? How can the city fathers serve the State? ... Have the citizens of the State a feeling of ownership and pride in the State capital? Should the State capital be located in a commercial or industrial city? Should it be near the center of the State? Should the State universities and other State institutions be located in the State capital? Should all of the executive departments be centralized in the capital city? (James 1925–26, 387–88)

Paul W. Pollock answered these questions, perhaps a little too emphatically, when he argued that "the state capitals still form the nucleus of our country's vital nervous system. They are the life-force of our economic and political society. As such, they together exert incalculable influence on all areas of American life." (Pollock 1960, foreword). Putting these questions and ideas in a broader perspective yields the thesis that underlies this book: studying state capitals is a useful way to look at some fundamental questions regarding the United States of America.

There are three fundamental concerns: the building of the national territorial structure; how the American democracy worked during that period; and the evolution of the American city and the inhabitants' relationship to it. To address these concerns, three geographical levels must be taken into account: a state capital is a capitol (a building; both words are pronounced identically), a municipality (a fact usually overlooked), and the state it symbolizes. All levels have precise boundaries that are both exclusive and inclusive (a Texan is not an Oregonian, for instance).

The first issue arising from that framework is the status of state capitals in the national democratic balance. The fact that American democracy is based on the idea that power must be as decentralized as possible—the definition of possible varying according to the ebbs and flows of federalist ideas—has been thoroughly studied. But the operation of this idea at the local level has been given far less attention, and such studies have mostly tended to scrutinize the municipal level. Capitals have only been treated from the political point of view, as places where decisions are taken at the state level, and almost never from the spatial point of view. Nor have they been looked at through the lens of the changing relationships between the private sector and the public sector, especially during current deregulation and privatization processes, although capitals epitomize such relationships.

The second issue concerns the status of capitals in the American urban system: Do they form a parallel system, disconnected from the classic system, largely based on economic criteria? Capitals were indeed part of the construction of the states and the urban system, but in a spatial framework that is quite varied. Does the capital of tiny Rhode Island have a status similar to the capital of Alaska? This leads us to inquire into the role of state boundaries in the building and workings of the United States, and still further into the relationships between the political and economic realms. State capitals, with some exceptions (such as Boston, Atlanta, and Indianapolis) developed much more slowly than most other American cities. The reason was not the will to be secluded from economics. On the contrary, capitals also dreamed of becoming economic metropolises. This is clearly put by a member of Michigan's House of Representatives in his comment on the victory of Lansing at the end of the 1847 capital contest: "To me and my constituents in Clinton County, it was the opening and building of roads from Pontiac and Ann Arbor and for seventy miles into the wilderness where we lived. It was opening for us a way to markets and bringing us again into connection with the civilization from which we had unwisely but voluntarily exiled ourselves" (Upton 1990, 402).

The capitals' developmental delay is often charged to a corrupt government on one hand, and to a relatively unenlightened citizenry on the other. Only in the most recent generation or two have these factors changed for the better. A more generous interpretation of state capitals reads them as the currently fading expression of the Jeff ersonian ideal—a democracy based upon small but educated farmers. All but eleven of the state capitals were selected during the nineteenth century, thirty-five of them before 1861, an era of pioneer and idealized territorial vision. Washington, DC, the national capital city, could therefore have served as the model for state capitals, just as the national capitol building came to be virtually the standard design for state capitols. The Washington model removed the political capital from economic centers. The choice of Washington grew from a compromise between North and South. By contrast, state capitals grew each in their own way, out of the flux and hurly-burly that was American development. Local elites tried to win state capital status not only for economic advantage but also for the political stability that such a status might provide. Most of the time, however, stability proved elusive, and state capitals migrated—often westward, like the pioneers. Capitals shifted as political factions grabbed control and railway companies fought over new territories. The United States is "littered" with towns that once dreamed of the capital's crown—like Prince Charmings—but were either unable to catch it or unable to retain it.

Do state capitals consequently express an imbalance between form and function? A historian of Frankfort, Kentucky's capital, wrote that "as early as 1977, some of the city's business and political leaders were voicing concern over Frankfort's image as a 'company town' whose economy was excessively dominated by state government" (Kramer 1986, 386). Are state capitals akin to company towns, dominated by one function? Are they in essence public company towns? The difference is that in this case, the one function—government—never ceases to reinforce itself. Unlike business, government almost never goes bust. Are state capitals more than simply symbolic towns? Most Americans believed—and still do—that political power is the key to the solution of most problems and to the advancement of society. Capital cities were and are the embodiment of such power, which brings us back to the first issue, American democracy.

A Study in Complexity

What would be the best scientific approach to understanding the choice and subsequent evolution of colonial, territorial, and state capitals? The major question is how to encompass four centuries of history for about 180 cities throughout the United States (all former and current capitals). We must also take into account that this would be the first book on the subject. A multifocused approach seems the best way to convey the complexity of the processes and to take into account the variety of sources available. My intention is to lay a sound foundation for an intellectual debate on American state capitals, as Donald Meinig did (in a far broader way) for the historical geography of the United States. To achieve such an aim, following a single theoretical path would be too narrow an approach. This does not mean that there is no major point of entry into the subject. This study is based on a transversal approach close to Immanuel Wallerstein's notion of space-time (2004). The analysis is cultural (and not culturalist), because culture has to deal with the political and economic as well as the spatial processes at stake. This means that I try to go beyond linearity through the building of a model that reveals a certain permanence as well as rendering (sources allowing) multiple temporalities. I also try to go beyond general processes to study groups, individuals, and representations (such as the small town). My approach is fundamentally incremental and tries to build an explanatory model progressively, without imposing it a priori and without predetermining its components. It is based on possible hypotheses—coming from various disciplines—among which I try to determine the most probable ones. As always in social sciences, this model is seen only as a means, not an end.

The use of narration goes with that cultural approach: it provides chronological frameworks, suspense around moments of crisis rendered through "stories" that off er some part of individuality, and models that take into account explanations based on the long term. I refuse dogmatism and wish to shed various kinds of light on the richness of my subject. If we must find an academic slot for this study, historical geography would be the best one, since it has long been characterized by "liberal eclecticism" (Holdsworth 2002).

I fully agree with David Hamer, who wrote, "Why should historians feel inhibited about doing research just because they are unable to find some convenient category in which to slot their work?" (Hamer 1990, 3). Ted Margadant, in his study of urban rivalries in Revolutionary France, expressed how difficult it is for such an analysis to follow the well-trodden paths of historical research and how necessary it is to broaden the analytical scope. According to him—and I heartily concur—that difficulty is the very interest of the study:

The social historians have assumed that conflicts within towns were more important than conflicts between towns; most institutional historians have overlooked the extraordinary efforts that townspeople made to gain the new directories and lawcourts; and cultural historians have ignored the fundamental beliefs that these townspeople shared about the economic interests at stake in the reorganization of the kingdom. The subject of urban rivalries over the institutions of the state does not fit easily into any of these interpretative frameworks. Its anomalous position has the advantage of bringing a different angle of vision to bear on contentious issues within the field of revolutionary historiography. (Margadant 1992, 443–44)


Excerpted from American Capitals by CHRISTIAN MONTÈS. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1                Capitals: A New Light on American Cities and Territorial Processes 2                Capitals as Places of Memory 3                Geographical Patterns in the Migration of Capitals 4                In Search of Explanatory Models 5                Capital Choice and the Balance of Power 6                Evolution of State Capitals to the 1950s: The “Purgatory Years” 7                State Capitals since the 1950s: The Renaissance of Forgotten Cities 8                Validating Models through a Chronological and Concrete Analysis: Three Case Studies 9                Losing Status: The Place of Former Capitals in Today’s America 10              State Capitals Today: Symbols of American Democracy   Acknowledgments Appendix 1: Demographic and Historical Tables Appendix 2: A Brief Chronology of Colonial, Territorial, and State Capitals Notes References Index

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