L. U. Reavis and the Capital Removal Movement

L. U. Reavis and the Capital Removal Movement

By Donald Lankiewicz
10/10/2016 • HistoryNet

Logan Uriah Reavis went few places where he did not command attention. More than his wild hair and flaming beard, his loud off-putting manner, or his dirty, ill-fitting clothes, his frenzied agitation for the removal of the national capital from the District of Columbia to the Mississippi Valley got him notice.

L. U. Reavis, as he signed his name, spent much of the late 1860s lecturing, writing, and producing a flood of books and pamphlets on the subject of capital removal. Considering the westward flow of the United States population at the time, removing the federal capital to the middle of the continental United States was not such a farfetched notion.

Central location had been for the longest time a highly valued attribute of capital cities. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described the ideal seat of government as a common center “linked to the sea as well as land, and equally linked to the whole territory.”

The founders of the United States argued in their day that centrality was the principle of equality expressed in geographic terms. “A nation is not . . . to be represented by the human body,” wrote Thomas Paine in Rights of Man in 1791, “but it is like the body contained within a circle, having a common centre, in which every radius meets; and that centre is formed by representation.”

Centrality, after all, governed the choice for the nation’s permanent capital city to be neither in the North nor the South. The Residence Act of 1790 settled the issue by assigning a site in the middle along the Potomac River.

Relocating the nation’s permanent capital was not an idea original to L. U. Reavis. From the time the seat of government moved from the temporary capital at Philadelphia to Washington in 1800 and throughout much of the nineteenth century, someone or other urged Congress to move it elsewhere.

Despite a flurry of new construction in those early days, progress on the new capital city proved slow. For the longest time Washington remained what some called “a city of streets without houses and houses without streets.” Disgusted lawmakers complained about bad roads and lack of lodging, as well as summer heat, humidity, and swampy soil. Characterizations such as “A Mudhole almost Equal to the Great Serbonian Bog” were common.

In a letter dated March 20, 1804, Massachusetts Representative Manasseh Cutler wrote to his son: “A bill has passed the second reading in the Senate to remove the seat of government to Baltimore, and making provision for transporting the public offices, and providing the necessary public buildings. When Congress is once mounted on wheels, and set a rolling, I believe it impossible to say where the government will roll to, and when it will stop.”

The bill referred to in Cutler’s letter was introduced by the Federalists who were supported by New York City and Philadelphia in their effort to “dislodge the government from that wretched site on the Potomac.” It took all of President Thomas Jefferson’s influence to ensure defeat of the bill.

On February 2, 1808, Representative James Sloan of New Jersey proposed that Washington on the Potomac be abandoned and the seat of government returned to Philadelphia on the Susquehanna. Sloan insisted, “In a great and flourishing Republic the seat of government ought to be fixed where provisions are best in quality and quantity.” Sloan’s proposal, however, lacked the necessary legislative support and, like the capital, went nowhere.

Capital removal became a more serious topic in 1814. That was the year the British occupied Washington and partially destroyed a number of public buildings including the Capitol and President’s House, now called the White House. On September 26, 1814, New York Representative Jonathan Fisk introduced a resolution to study the temporary removal of the capital “to a place of greater security and less inconvenience than the City of Washington.” Fisk’s resolution came to a vote in the House on October 3 and passed by one tie-breaking vote cast by Speaker Langdon Cheves of South Carolina.

With approval of Fisk’s resolution, a committee was appointed to study the matter and returned to the whole House with a recommendation against removal. In a stunning move, the House rejected the committee recommendation.

A bill was then prepared that provided for moving the seat of government to Philadelphia for the duration of the war, but there were two concessions made to opponents of removal. First, supporters pledged to return the seat of government back to Washington after the war; and second, money would be appropriated to rebuild Washington. Weak promises, especially since disinterest would likely keep the government in Philadelphia permanently had it been moved. When the bill came before the whole House, it was defeated by nine votes.

A second bill was then prepared only appropriating money for rebuilding the capital. Members wanting a more secure location united to oppose it. Only an active lobbying effort by the James Madison administration ensured the bill’s passage, and the nation’s capital remained in Washington.

The question of removal again became an issue in 1846. Debate this time reflected the sectional differences that were dividing the rapidly expanding country. Westerners such as Senator William Allen of Ohio promoted removal of the capital to the heartland. According to Allen, the seat of government’s location near the eastern seaboard and the country’s big cities “gave to the commercial interest a preponderating influence over legislation.” Allen, however, took no formal action in Congress to move the capital.

The Civil War was a major setback for the national capital removal movement. Rather than abandon Washington, citizens in the North rallied around it as a symbol for unity. To move the capital in time of war would have shown Union weakness and bolstered the Confederate cause. Once the war ended, however, Westerners again made capital removal a national issue.

On December 16, 1867, Illinois Representative John Logan offered a joint resolution asking for the appointment of a congressional committee “to report on the expediency of re-locating the capital of the United States.” The House referred the resolution to the Ways and Means Committee, where it stalled.

On February 3, 1868, Representative Carman Newcomb of Missouri proposed in connection with the Horticulturalist Bill the removal of the capital specifically to St. Louis County, Missouri. It likewise met the same fate as Logan’s resolution in Ways and Means.

One week later, on February 10, 1868, Wisconsin Representative Herbert Paine offered his own resolution to move the seat of government to the more general “Valley of the Mississippi.” Members of Congress from the East thought it was a joke when Paine’s resolution actually came to a vote. New York Representative James Brooks dismissively inquired, “Is not a part of New York and northern Pennsylvania in the valley of the Mississippi? [Laughter]” Brooks and his Eastern jokesters were not amused when the resolution narrowly failed 77 to 97. Fifteen members did not vote.

On June 15, 1868 John Logan tried again to get action in the House of Representatives by proposing a series of resolutions. Logan wanted the House Speaker to create a five-member committee to study “the propriety and expediency of removing the seat of government from said city of Washington, to a point near the geographical center of the United States.” But when it came to a vote, Logan’s proposal, like others before it, failed.
Conventional wisdom at the time, however, said that the nation’s capital would be relocated. But where would it go?

Competition for the next capital of the United States began in earnest by 1869. Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and even Keokuk, Iowa, all thought themselves to be the ideal site. St. Louis boasted the greatest support, even receiving an endorsement from Chicago, its commercial arch-rival in the Middle West.

Politician and newspaper editor Joseph Medill published a lengthy editorial on the subject in the Chicago Tribune on July 5, 1869. He concluded that centrality of area and population, which led a former generation to locate the capital at Washington, now prevailed in favor of St. Louis. Perhaps tongue-in-check, Medill went so far as to suggest disassembling the public buildings in Washington stone by stone and re-erecting them in St. Louis.

What the federal government needed to do, Medill declared, was to stop talking about removal and do something. He wrote: “It is time that the public mind, at least of the Western, Southwestern and Pacific States, were definitely turned to the question of the future location of our National Capital, as one demanding, not merely discussion, but speedy action.”

Meanwhile in St. Louis, L. U. Reavis was already his city’s most vocal booster. To say that Reavis was vocal, however, is understatement. He was obsessed, so much so that he thought himself predestined to make removal happen.

Reavis was born March 26, 1831, in Illinois, about a hundred miles northeast of St. Louis. After graduating eighth grade, he taught school for a few years before buying a newspaper. Reavis published The Central Illinoian [sic] until 1866, when he moved to St. Louis. There, he began writing on capital removal and lecturing anywhere anybody would listen to him. He even made two speaking tours to England.

In 1867 Reavis published St. Louis the Future Great City of the World. In it, he argued that St. Louis would become the next great American city. “The facts and circumstances which foreshadow the destiny of St. Louis—a destiny so important,” he wrote, “will not only be of vast moment to the people of the Mississippi Valley, but of this nation, and even interesting to the world.”

Two years later, in 1869, Reavis published the book that earned him the nickname by which he would be forever known—Capital Mover. In A Change of National Empire, or Arguments for the Removal of the National Capital from Washington to the Mississippi Valley, Reavis boldly predicted: “Before 1875 the President of the United States will deliver his message at the new seat of government in the Mississippi Valley.”

Some viewed Reavis as a fanatic, but his cause attracted many people of note. They included Henry Taylor Blow, former member of Congress, business leader, and one of the wealthiest landowners in St. Louis. In a letter to Missouri Representative Gustavus Finkelnberg dated February 17, 1868, Blow offered to donate five hundred acres of land as a site for the new capital. He also offered to build temporary public offices for the government’s use “at a moderate rental.” Eager to start construction, Blow received no reply to his letter.

Removal leaders in St. Louis, including Reavis and Blow, furthered their cause by calling for a National Capital Removal Convention in 1869. The call was sent out to all state and territorial governors. By doing so, St. Louis’s civic leaders single-handedly took the initiative and made the issue their own.

Despite being criticized for their boosterism, Reavis, Blow, and other removal movement leaders hosted a national convention that convened on October 20, 1869. Eighty representatives from seventeen states and territories mostly from the West attended. Delegates hailed from Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, as well as the territories of Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah.

One by one delegates lined up to the podium to rail against Washington as a bad place to keep the national capital. More importantly, they debated a series of resolutions. Chief among them summarized the geographic, economic, and strategic reasons for capital removal to the Mississippi Valley.
“Resolved, That the convenient, natural and inevitable place for the capital of the republic is in the heart of the valley, where, the center of population, wealth and power is inevitably gravitating and where government, surrounded by numerous millions of brave union-loving citizens, would be forever safe against foreign foes or sectional sedition and where it would require neither armaments nor standing armies for its protection.”

To further the removal cause, delegates also resolved to oppose further spending on buildings and infrastructure in Washington. To do otherwise, they reasoned, would be a wanton waste of the people’s money, since removal was only a matter of time.

Before adjourning on October 22, the delegates formed a permanent Executive Committee made up of one delegate from each state and territory represented at the convention. The committee elected Judge John Caton of Illinois president and L. U. Reavis secretary.

The job of the Executive Committee was to keep the message of the removal convention alive. It published the resolutions and distributed promotional pamphlets. It also dispatched public speakers as one delegate put it,  “to agitate, AGITATE, AGITATE!” until they succeed.

During the winter and spring of 1870, L. U. Reavis traveled east to stir up interest in capital removal. On February 22 he stopped in Cincinnati to arrange for a second capital removal convention. In May he was in New York City, where the press reported: “Reavis, the capital mover, is here urging a removal of the capital from Washington, D.C.,” and he states that a second national capital removal convention will be called.

On May 24, 1870, Reavis wrote a circular letter to all the states requesting governors to appoint delegates to a convention in Cincinnati to be held October 25, 1870. The purpose of this convention was to take definite steps toward the goal of removal.

The Cincinnati convention proved not to be the success Reavis had hoped. It attracted far fewer delegates than the St. Louis Convention. Organizers blamed the governors for not bothering to appoint delegates. They even reported that a yellow-fever epidemic in Texas might have affected turnout.
Reavis and the other capital movers, determined not to give up, decided to change strategy. Instead of calling national conventions, Reavis called for a “capital removal league.” That is, a dedicated group of lobbyists. The result was the creation of the National Capital Removal Association of St. Louis.

To appeal to a broader Western audience, the group also changed its focus on promoting St. Louis. Instead, the objective of the association became any appropriate place, as long it was in the West.

The group played on a growing Western paranoia that Congress was biased toward the East, especially in appropriating money for public works. Agitating for capital removal became one way to correct what the association saw as congressional discrimination again the Western states and “the evils of legislation.”

At the opening of Congress, December 5, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant recommended in his annual message to lawmakers an appropriation for the construction of a new building for the Department of State. Grant also asked for money to preserve and protect government papers that were presently housed in rented buildings, most of which were in disrepair. In all, the President asked for more than $22 million. That was more than twice the amount appropriated the year before for buildings and infrastructure in Washington.

President Grant personally lobbied lawmakers to support his capital improvements proposal. He also delivered a short speech on December 21, 1870 offering his personal opinion on capital removal and by doing so added another obstacle to the movement’s progress. He said:

As to the removal of the capital, I think that is improbable in the extreme. Nor do I believe that the removal should be subject to a mere majority of the representatives of the people elected for a single term. I think the question of removal, if ever presented, should go through the same process at least as amendments to the Constitution, even if there be the Constitutional power to remove it, which is not settled. This language may seem rather unpopular for a person coming from the part of the country I do, but it is expressed with earnestness, nevertheless, and without reserve.

L. U. Reavis countered Grant’s argument with a lengthy argument of his own against capital improvement and support for capital removal in an open letter to the President printed in the New York Tribune. Reavis then went to Washington to do his own lobbying for the cause.

Representing the National Capital Removal Association of St. Louis, Reavis petitioned Congress for a joint resolution asking the President to appoint a commission to investigate and consider the whole matter of capital removal. Reavis’s petition was sent to the Committee on Public Expenditures where after little or no discussion the petition was tabled.

Meanwhile Congress moved ahead and passed the capital improvement appropriation bill that President Grant requested. With that, the active movement for removal collapsed. L. U. Reavis lost the cause that had and would forever consume him.

Reavis returned to St. Louis where he took up writing on topics in addition to capital removal. In 1872 he published a biography of newspaper editor Horace Greeley, and in 1875 a biography of General William S. Harney, one of the best-known military figures in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

By 1883, Reavis got back into the newspaper business having started The American Tribune. The Tribune, however, had a limited circulation and was not a financial success. Nevertheless it served as an outlet for Reavis’s causes, from capital removal to expanding the rule of the United States from Panama to the North Pole.

At age 57 in June 1888, Reavis, a life-long bachelor, married poet Rebecca Morrow. The couple met after Morrow, much younger than Reavis, submitted a poem for publication in The American Tribune. The marriage certainly had to have been for love and not money. When L. U. Reavis died March 26, 1889, as a result of complications after surgery, he left a widow and two children in almost destitute circumstances.

With the death of Logan Uriah Reavis, the capital removal movement also died. Washington remained the nation’s capital, and removing it never again became the serious national issue that it had been in nineteenth century America.

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