While driving from Pennington to Ewing, heading for the Benjamin Temple House on Federal City Road, the radio was on in my car, and the talk was, not surprisingly, about the goings on in Washington, D.C.
I thought, “I could be driving in the midst of that United States capital city right now, right here in Mercer County.”
Many of you may know that Federal City Road’s name derives from the fact that at one time, our fledgling country was considering locating the country’s permanent capital right here. But I’ll guess that many don’t know much more than that. I didn’t either, so I sought to find out more.
In the years directly following the end of the Revolution in 1781, the Congress of the Confederation (also called the Continental Congress) met in differing locations: New York City, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Trenton and Princeton. Meeting in Philadelphia in June of 1783, the delegates felt that there should be a permanent location for the Congress to meet.
A newspaper in 1783 described the ideal site for the government as a port, conveniently and centrally located, and capable of receiving current news; not already a state capital, commercial center or under local or state law; and having laws against “public turbulence.”
But wait, you say. Trenton’s a state capital! However, it wasn’t in 1783. Trenton did not become the New Jersey state capital until November of 1790. New Jersey was then one of several states which offered sites for the “federal city,” and actively pursued garnering support.
On October 7, 1783, meeting in Princeton, a motion was made that “buildings for the use of Congress be erected on the banks of the Delaware, near Trenton, or of the Potomac, near Georgetown, provided a suitable district can be procured on one of the rivers for a federal town.” Later that day it was resolved that the federal town should be erected on the Delaware, near the falls, either on the New Jersey side or the Pennsylvania side. A committee was organized to investigate the locations and report back.
But delegates and interested parties from the Southern states were not pleased with a location that far north (including General Washington), and the location became a topic of contention. (Imagine that!) The minority was so strong that two alternately-occupied seats of government in Trenton and Annapolis were proposed—which prompted Francis Hopkinson to describe the mechanism as “a pendulum vibrating between Annapolis and Trenton.”
Subsequent motions on the topic, during sessions in Trenton in December of 1784, appropriated a sum not to exceed $100,000 for “procuring suitable buildings for national purposes.” Three commissioners were to be selected to plan a district between two and three miles square at a location on the banks of the Delaware not more than eight miles above or below the lower falls for a Federal town.
“A Capitol, and houses for the president of Congress” were to be erected and completed in “an elegant manner,” with lots for houses for use by the states’ delegates. The citizen commissioners elected in February of 1785 were John Brown, Philemon Dickinson and Robert Morris (owner of a large estate across the river from Trenton, now known as Morrisville).
Southern delegates repeatedly tried to defeat appropriations for planning and construction, but were unsuccessful. However, in September, a move to appropriate the entire sum of $100,000 was defeated by all states except New Jersey and Massachusetts, which essentially killed the motion.
The motion remained “dead” through to September of 1787, when the Constitution was adopted and the Continental Congress expired. The new Constitution called for a district not to exceed 10 miles square, and several states, including New Jersey, made offers again. However, New Jersey’s proposal in 1789 failed, 4 to 46.
The issue was finally settled with a compromise between the Northern and Southern states (imagine THAT!), in which the southern states agreed to the new government assuming debt from the war in exchange for locating the federal city along the Potomac, at a location selected by Washington in 1791.
I say, “Huzzah” for compromise, and for New Jersey’s “federal city” being a road name only—the topic of next month’s column.