Today in 1790, Congress moved the seat of government from New York to Philadelphia. The transition was the product of a political compromise, a 10-year interim solution before the capitol would be moved to the South.

The deal for the placement of the capitol was struck at a dinner party between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Frustrated with the lack of success in convincing Congress to have the state debts assumed into a singular federal debt, Hamilton pleaded with Madison to refrain from obstructing his proposal.

Madison had by this time assembled a faction of representatives that generally voted alongside himself on a variety of issues.

Madison’s compatriots generally apprehended that moneyed interests in the North would come to dominate the fledgling government, and hoped to impede a northern capitol. With Jefferson as the faction’s ideological figurehead, the faction would grow in popularity throughout the next several decades and come to be known as Republicans.

At the dinner, the two general sides eventually reached an agreement – Madison and his political allies would support Hamilton’s Assumption Bill, and Hamilton’s friends in Congress would allow the capitol to move South. As part of the resultant Residence Act of 1790, Philadelphia would be a temporary capitol for 10 years.

At Philadelphia, the Congress Hall on Sixth and Chestnut served as the seat of government until the middle of 1800. It was there that some of the most important and controversial legislation in the early republic was passed, including the Bank Bill, the Whiskey Excise, and the Sedition Act. President George Washington lived in a modest house.

Shortly thereafter, James Monroe warned that such backroom deals would enrage Virginia, tarnish the integrity of the government, and serve as a negative precedent.
Coming to regret the deal just two years later, Jefferson lamented that the “dinner deal” was the worst mistake of his political career. Feeling swindled by Hamilton, Jefferson confessed the agreement was “oppressive to the states.” He chagrined that the compromise “enabled Hamilton so to strengthen himself by corrupt services to many” so that he could “carry his bank scheme” and “change the political complexion of the government.”

Dave Benner

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