Brian P. Darmody is associate vice president for corporate engagement at the University of Maryland.
Amazon announced its HQ2 decision last Tuesday, splitting the decision between Crystal City and New York. But an earlier competition to site the nation’s capital makes the HQ2 contest seem like a cakewalk.
As outlined by Kenneth R. Bowling in “The Creation of Washington D.C.,” the political and economic competition among states spanning many years on where to put the capital threatened the viability of a young United States and the workings of a new form of government.
When the first Congress convened under the Constitution in 1789 in New York City, deciding where to locate the nation’s capital was a hotly contested prize. More than 20 places were considered, including Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey; York, Pa.; and Williamsburg.
Some dynamics from the nation’s capital competition existed in the HQ2 hunt. The advocates for a Pennsylvania town renamed Wright’s Ferry “Columbia” to make it more appealing as a national capital; more than 200 years later, Georgia’s Stonecrest echoed that with an unsuccessful attempt to land HQ2 by renaming itself “Amazon.”
Surprisingly, Baltimore did not embrace the idea of the nation’s capital on the shores of the Potomac in Maryland. Baltimore preferred locations along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, believing the Port of Baltimore would be well served by traffic coming to the new capital. Last year, when Prince George’s County put in a bid for the Amazon HQ2 site, the Baltimore Sun criticized the county for submitting a bid that would compete with Baltimore. (It ignored that Montgomery County and Howard County also submitted bids, with the former named a finalist.)
Ultimately, Alexander Hamilton crafted a legislative compromise on paying states’ Revolutionary War debts in return for a site along the Potomac River being selected. But to get the compromise through with the support of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia was selected to serve as the temporary capital for a decade, while the wilderness along the Potomac River was surveyed and planning to erect federal buildings proceeded.
Upon Congress arriving in its temporary home, Philadelphia conveniently built a house for the president and allocated state funds for federal buildings, hoping Congress would get used to staying in Philadelphia and political inertia would prevail.
But George Washington’s personal persistence paid off. Congress granted him the authority to decide the exact location for the capital along an 80-mile swath of the Potomac from the Anacostia River to Williamsport, Md., near Hagerstown. (That is why the county where Hagerstown is located is named after the first president.)
Knowing the Anacostia site was getting close to Washington’s home property in Mount Vernon, Congress added the stipulation that no federal buildings could be built on the Virginia side of the Potomac, but the prohibition was eliminated in 1846 when Virginia took back the 31 square miles it had donated for the city of Washington.
Thus, the modern District of Columbia was born, and the region’s accompanying stupendous economic growth assured.
Who could have predicted that the federal government would become the world’s largest single customer for goods and services? Who could have predicted that the United States would become a global leader and that the District would become an international city?
But that decision turned a tidal mud flat (not a swamp, by the way) along the Potomac River surrounded by a few towns and farmland into a global region of power and influence. Only George Washington’s persistence made this happen. George Washington: father of the country and site selector in-chief. Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos [and owner of The Post] made a split decision — but one from which our region will benefit enormously. And, with the nation’s largest computer science program at the University of Maryland and a $1 billion Virginia Tech campus to be built in Northern Virginia, it was the right decision.