Robert Morris and the nation’s capital

Robert Morris

(Photo credit: Robert Morris statue, Philadelphia, courtesy techfun, Flickr Creative Commons)

In Philadelphia’s historic district, just south of the Second Bank of the United States, stands a statue to Robert Morris, someone most of that city’s current residents will never have heard of. But Morris was a very important man in the country’s early history. If Robert Morris had had his way, the nation’s capital today wouldn’t be in Washington, DC. It would be in Philadelphia.

Morris was born in England in 1734 but moved with his family at the age of 13 to the colony of Maryland. He made his way to Philadelphia to study and eventually became a successful merchant there—in fact, one of the richest men in the colonies. Turning to the Patriot cause, he attended the Second Continental Congress in his adopted home. As a moderate he was, like many in the colony, reluctant to make the final break with Britain. Ultimately, though, he signed the Declaration of Independence and fully embraced the Revolutionary cause. He was a big asset to that cause. During the Revolutionary War became known as the “Financier of the Revolution” due to the amount of his personal fortune he gave to the Continental Army for weapons and supplies. The Smithsonian’s Art Inventories Catalog describes the statue as depicting Morris “making his way through the snow during his mission to raise funds for Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.”

Morris remained a prominent national figure in the early Republic, serving as Superintendent of Finance under the Articles of Confederation. He attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and signed the new Constitution. Washington wanted to make him the country’s first Treasury Secretary under the Constitution. Morris declined, suggesting Alexander Hamilton’s name instead. Washington followed his advice.

With the adoption of the new Constitution in 1789, the vexed issue arose of where to locate the national capital. At the time, New York City served in that role, because that’s where the Confederation Congress—the central government operating under the much weaker Articles of Confederation—had been sitting for the previous few years. A lot of people were unhappy about that, especially in Philadelphia. Philly had lost the Congress when its members fled in the face of a (short-lived) army mutiny in 1783. The Congressmen moved around for a while, spending time in Annapolis and Trenton before settling in New York. But where would it go next? The Constitution itself, in Article One, Section 8, provided Congress with the power to create a federal capital district (“not exceeding ten miles square”). But it didn’t specify where the capitol should be located.

Philadelphia wanted the capital back. At the time Philly was bigger than New York—in fact it was still the largest city in the young United States. It was where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been debated and signed. It was where Congress had sat for most of the Revolutionary War. Surely, thought the city fathers, Philadelphia was the federal government’s natural “home.”

The trouble was, Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers weren’t the only ones wanting the national capital in their back yards. Southerners—and especially Virginians—were also pushing hard to get the capital. Many in the South saw more and more power and prestige going to the northern states, and they wanted the new capital moved south to help redress the balance. The issue was causing rancor and deadlock in the new Congress operating under the Constitution. Some worried that the issue could even split the union.

But there seemed to be some room for negotiation, especially in 1790, when Alexander Hamilton and James Madison still saw each other more as friends than as enemies. In June of that year, a back-door deal was hammered out. James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton from New York represented the two sides. Madison wanted a Southern capital and Hamilton wanted a complete overhaul of the U.S. financial system—something called the Assumption Plan. (I won’t go into the gory details, but basically it was a plan to have the federal government take over the national debt and put the nation’s messy finances in order.)

This was one of the most momentous dinner parties in the early Republic. Madison and Hamilton met at Thomas Jefferson’s home in New York City, where the terms of this “compromise of 1790” were hammered out. The two sides agreed not to block each other’s goals. Hamilton would get his financial overhaul, while Madison would get the capital moved to a site on the Potomac—what would become Washington, DC. But a question remained over where the capital should be located while the new “Federal City” was being built.

Enter Robert Morris, who still carried a lot of weight thanks to his Revolutionary war activities. In the early 1790s he was a United States senator for Pennsylvania. Morris pushed hard to have the capital moved to Philadelphia, in the teeth of New York opposition. He won. As a result of the work of Morris and others, Congress, while still in NY, passed the Residence Act in July 1790, setting the terms for the permanent location of the capital on the Potomac and the temporary capital in Philadelphia, where it would reside temporarily, for a period of 10 years. Later that year, on Dec. 6, 1790, Congress returned to Philadelphia. Many Pennsylvanians hoped that it would stay there for good.

Of course, that never happened.

Having secured the capital, Morris and the city and county commissioners of Philadelphia did everything they could to entice Congress to stay. The city offered its brand-new courthouse as a home to the House of Representatives and the Senate. That building became Congress Hall. The city and county even built a large extension to the hall, out into what is now Independence Square, and fitted out and refurnished the building—at their own expense—for its new federal role. They also offered the about-to-be-built City Hall building as a location for the new Supreme Court of the United States.

Morris himself offered his extensive mansion at 6th and Market to Washington as the President’s official residence in Philly. (Adams also later used the same residence). This became known as the “President’s House”—essentially, the first “White House.” And while that building was intended as a temporary presidential residence, Philadelphia also constructed a brand-new, purpose-built mansion for use as a permanent home for the president. (It was never used to be used for this purpose.) Remember, this was all being done at Philadelphia’s expense.

Like many others, Morris was hopeful that all this effort would pay off. Moreover, he thought the idea of moving the capital to a barren area of swampland on the Potomac was, well, mad. Surely, the years would pass, the proposed new federal city would remain unbuilt, and the capital would by default stay in Philadelphia. That’s what the Pennsylvanians thought. Even opponents of Philly, such as Virginia’s George Mason, opined that the capital could get sucked into the “Whirlpool” of Philadelphia for 50 years.

But they were wrong.

Here’s the thing. The 1790 Residence Act that mandated the new capital to move south also put control of the project largely in the hands of one man. Guess who?

Yep, George Washington—a Virginian, the most prominent man in America, and a resident of the most powerful state in the Union. Washington’s home was in Mount Vernon, just a few short miles away from where the new capital would go. Oh, and this was also the guy who had just been unanimously elected as the first president of the United States (on April 30, 1789). The Residence Act gave Washington oversight authority of the survey and planning of public buildings, and the power to appoint commissioners to oversee the project. He wanted the capital moved to his doorstep. So this was a task he undertook with some enthusiasm.

Of course, with President Washington’s wholehearted support, the Southern states pressed for the 10-year timeline to be held to. The new capital project took on a symbolic significance—it was directly associated with the new nation’s most revered founding father. Everyone knew that the capital would eventually be named after Washington.

Philadelphia couldn’t compete in the face of this determined effort to actually make the move. A couple of other factors tipped the balance further against the city. Philadelphia’s association with the abolition of slavery did nothing to help its case with Southerners. Plus the city developed a reputation for disease and pestilence as a result of two deadly yellow fever epidemics, in 1793 and 1798, which took the lives of one-tenth of the population. But it was Washington’s direct and unremitting involvement that made the move inevitable. As the 1790s wore on, any hope that Pennsylvania had of keeping the capital evaporated.

So if you get a chance to walk by Robert Morris’s statue, take a moment to stop and think about what might have been if this man had had his way.


Kenneth R. Bowling (1988). Creating the Federal City, 1774-1800: Potomac Fever.

Kenneth R. Bowling (2000). Neither Separate Nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s

Joseph J. Ellis (2002). Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

Robert Morris (sculpture). Art Inventories Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Available at

Gordon Woods, Empire of Liberty.


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