Shepherdstown Proposed As National Capital

Huntington Herald Advertiser
July 3, 1966

The Capitol That Might Have Been

Residents of the nation's capital might be celebrating Independence Day tomorrow in what is today West Virginia - except for historical fate.

One hundred and seventy-six years ago, the citizens of Shepherdstown, in the Eastern Panhandle of today's Mountain State, made a bid to become the seat of the federal government. They lost out to the politics of the day - because they delayed in sending to President George Washington their offer.

The citizens of Shepherdstown, and the nearby community of Sharpsburg, first dreamed of being the nation's capital in 1790. In that year, Congress announced its intention to establish a permanent capital for the infant American government. Offers poured in from many cities, including the "giants" of the day - New York, Boston and Philadelphia - and less famous towns like Wilmington and Shepherdstown. *

The people of Shepherdstown felt they had a good chance to become the seat of the federal government because their town was located on the beautiful Potomac River, and the Congress had in 1790 stipulated that the new capital be located on the Potomac somewhere "between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and the Conococheague" (Creek). Moreover, Shepherdstown was not far from President Washington's family residence in Charles Town. And, finally, the President owned land in Berkeley County, established in 1772 and a prosperous Potomac region.

In the summer of 1790 the Shepherdstown dreamers talked to President Washington, and the Chief Executive asked them to forward to him the location of available lands in the area. The townsmen of Shepherdstown-Sharpsburg set to work investigating possible land sites and raising money.

During their campaign, they even acquired a newspaper - the first newspaper in what is today the state of West Virginia. That newspaper, the Potowmac Guardian and Berkeley Advertiser, was the product of one Nathaniel Willis, a native of Boston who on March 20, 1790, had established Willis's Virginia Gazette and Winchester Advertiser at Winchester, Virginia.

Willis, a Revolutionary War veteran and a participant in the famous Boston Tea Party of December 16; 1773, had published newspapers in Boston for several years before settling in Virginia. The Winchester endeavor was apparently not too successful, and Willis - possibly influenced by the effort in Shepherdstown to make that town the seat of the federal government - moved to Shepherdstown in the fall of 1790. His first issue of the Guardian rolled off the press in November of that year, shortly before the citizens of Shepherdstown- Sharpsburg wrote a long-delayed letter to President Washington.

The letter, dated December 1, 1790, explained to the President that "unavoidable accidents" had prevented the sending of the information requested by the Chief Executive. The correspondents, Henry Bedinger and William Good, expressed hope that the President could postpone the decision of locating the "permanent Residence of Congress" until a representative of the Shepherdstown-Sharpsburg citizenry could reach President Washington to state their case.

In January, 1791, the President, acting upon authorization from Congress, appointed a commission of three to direct the planning of the capital and to survey the territory on the Potomac.

In June, 1791, final acquisitions of land on the banks of the Potomac in territory set off from Maryland and Virginia were made, and on June 28 President Washington visited the Virginia-Maryland location in order to pick the spot on which the capitol buildings would be constructed. On September 18, 1793, the President laid the cornerstone of the nation's capitol building. Seven years later Congress held its first session in the buildings, the seat of government being moved from Philadelphia in 1800.

The location of the capital at Philadelphia had been part of the 1790 political deal which bypassed Shepherdstown. Alexander Hamilton, pressing for adoption of his plan for the assumption of the war (Revolutionary) debts of the states by the national government, agreed to support the location of the capital at the proposed Virginia - Maryland site in return for Virginian Thomas Jefferson's support of Hamilton's measure. To satisfy Pennsylvanians, who wanted the capital, it was agreed to establish Philadelphia as the capital for a period of 10 years.

In the scramble of politics, Shepherdstown's bid for consideration was lost. In addition, its offer had been too late. Thus, the men and women of Shepherdstown saw their dream vanish, as the capital of the United States - with all its political activity and glory - was established a few miles to the south.

The dreamers at Shepherdstown - forerunners of West Virginians - came close, yet so very far, from lasting historical fame.


West Virginia Archives and History