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chapter 117: The Absence of a Capital - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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The Absence of a Capital
The United States are the only great country in the world which has no capital. Germany and Italy were long without one, because the existence of the mediæval Empire prevented the growth in either country of a national monarchy. But the wonderfully reconstructive age we live in has now supplied the want; and although Rome and Berlin are by no means to their respective states what Paris and London are to France and England, what Vienna and Pesth are to the Dual Monarchy, they may in time attain a similar rank1 in their respective nations. By a capital I mean a city which is not only the seat of political government, but is also by the size, wealth, and character of its population the head and centre of the country, a leading seat of commerce and industry, a reservoir of financial resources, the favoured residence of the great and powerful, the spot in which the chiefs of the learned professions are to be found, where the most potent and widely read journals are published, whither men of literary and scientific capacity are drawn. The heaping together in such a place of these various elements of power, the conjunction of the forces of rank, wealth, knowledge, intellect, naturally makes such a city a sort of foundry in which opinion is melted and cast, where it receives that definite shape in which it can be easily and swiftly propagated and diffused through the whole country, deriving not only an authority from the position of those who form it, but a momentum from the weight of numbers in the community whence it comes. The opinion of such a city becomes powerful politically because it is that of the persons who live at headquarters, who hold the strings of government in their hands, who either themselves rule the state or are in close contact with those who do. It is true that under a representative government power rests with those whom the people have sent up from all parts of the country. Still these members of the legislature reside in the capital, and cannot but feel the steady pressure of its prevailing seniment, which touches them socially at every point. It sometimes happens that the populace of the capital, by their power of overawing the rulers or perhaps of effecting a revolution, are able to turn the fortunes of the state. But even where no such peril is to be apprehended, any nation with the kind of a capital I am describing acquires the habit of looking to it for light and leading, and is apt to yield to it an initiative in political movements.
In the field of art and literature the influence of a great capital is no less marked. It gathers to a centre the creative power of the country, and subjects it to the criticism of the best instructed and most polished society. The constant action and reaction upon one another of groups of capable men in an atmosphere at once stimulative to invention and corrective of extravagance may give birth to works which isolated genius could hardly have produced. Goethe made this observation as regards Paris, contrasting the centralized society of France with the dispersion of the elements of culture over the wide area of his own Germany.
Now conceive a city like Paris, where the highest talents of a great kingdom are all assembled in a single spot, and by daily intercourse, strife, and emulation mutually instruct and advance each other; where the best works, both of nature and art, from all kingdoms of the earth, are open to daily inspection—conceive this metropolis of the world, I say, where every walk across a bridge or across a square recalls some mighty past, and where some historical event is connected with every corner of a street. In addition to all this, conceive not the Paris of a dull spiritless time, but the Paris of the nineteenth century, in which, during three generations, such men as Molière, Voltaire, Diderot, and the like, have kept up such a current of intellect as cannot be found twice in a single spot on the whole world, and you will comprehend that a man of talent like Ampère, who has grown up amid such abundance, can easily be something in his four-and-twentieth year.2
The same idea of the power which a highly polished and strenuously active society has to educe and develop brilliant gifts underlies the memorable description which Pericles gives of Athens.3 And if it be suggested that the growth of such a centre may impoverish the rest of a country because the concentration of intellectual life tends to diminish the chances of variability, and establish too uniform a type, some compensation for any such loss may be found in the higher efficiency which such a society gives to the men of capacity whom it draws into its own orbit.
In the case both of politics and of literature, the existence of a capital tends to strengthen the influence of what is called society, that is to say, of the men of wealth and leisure who have time to think of other matters than the needs of daily life, and whose company and approval are apt to be sought by the men of talent. Thus where the rich and great are gathered in one spot to which the nation looks, they effect more in the way of guiding its political thought and training its literary taste than is possible where they are dispersed over the face of a large country. In both points, therefore, it will evidently make a difference to a democratic country whether it has a capital, and what degree of deference that capital receives. Paris is the extreme case of a city which has been everything to the national literature and art, and has sought to be everything in national politics also. London, since the decline of Dublin and of Edinburgh, has stood without a British rival in the domain of art and letters, and although one can hardly say that a literary society exists in London, most of the people who employ themselves in writing books and nearly all those who paint pictures live in or near it. Over politics London has less authority than Paris has exerted in France, doubtless because parts of the north and west of Britain are more highly vitalized than the provinces of France, while the English city is almost too populous to have a common feeling. Its very hugeness makes it amorphous.
What are the cities of the United States which can claim to approach nearest to the sort of capital we have been considering? Not Washington, though it is the meeting place of Congress and the seat of federal administration. It has a relatively small population (in 1910, 331,069, of whom one-third were Negroes). Society consists of congressmen (for about half the year), officials (including many scientific men in the public service), members of the diplomatic corps, and some rich and leisured people who come to spend the winter. The leaders of finance, industry, commerce, and the professions are absent; there are some journalists, but few men of letters, and scarcely any artists. What is called the fashionable society of Washington, which, being small, polished, and composed of people who constantly meet one another, is agreeable, and not the less agreeable because it has a peculiar flavour, is so far from aspiring to political authority as to deem it “bad form” to talk politics.4 Its political society on the other hand has been so largely composed of officials, “professionals,” and office-seekers, as to produce an atmosphere unlike that of the nation at large, and dangerous to those statesmen who breathe it too long without interruption.
Not New York, though it is now by far the most populous city. It is the centre of commerce, the sovereign of finance. But it has no special political influence or power beyond that of casting a large vote, which is a main factor in determining the thirty-nine presidential votes of the state. Business is its main occupation: and though the representatives of literature are now pretty numerous, few of them are concerned with politics, the journals, marked as is their ability, are, after all, New York journals, and not, like those of Paris, London, or even Berlin, professedly written for the whole nation. Next come Chicago, perhaps the most typically American place in America, and Philadelphia, the latter once the first city of the Union. Neither is a centre of literature or ideas for more than its own vicinity. Boston was for a time the chosen home of letters and culture, and still contains, in proportion to her population, a larger number of men and women capable of making or judging good work than any other city. But she can no longer be said to lead abstract thought, much less current opinion. Nor can one say that any of these cities is on the way to gain a more commanding position. New York will probably retain her preeminence in population and commercial consequence, but she does not rise proportionately in culture, while the centre of political gravity, shifting slowly to the West, will doubtless finally fix itself in the Mississippi Valley.5
It deserves to be remarked that what is true of the whole country is also true of the great sections of the country. Of the cities I have named, none, except possibly Boston and Chicago, can be said to be even a local capital, either for purposes of political opinion or of intellectual movement and tendency. Boston retains her position as the literary centre of New England; San Francisco by her size has a preponderating influence on the Pacific coast. But no other great city is regarded by the inhabitants of her own and the adjoining states as their natural head, to which they look for political guidance, or from which they expect any intellectual stimulance. Even New Orleans, though by far the largest place in the South, is in no sense the metropolis of the South; and does little more for the South than set a conspicuous example of municipal misgovernment. Though no Paris, no Berlin stands above them, these great American cities are not more important in the country, or even in their own sections of the country, than Lyons and Bordeaux are in France, Hamburg and Cologne in Germany. Even as between municipal communities, even in the sphere of thought and literary effort, equality and local independence have in America their perfect work.
The geographical as well as political causes that have produced this equality are obvious enough, and only one needs special mention. The seat of federal government was in 1790 fixed at a place which was not even a village, but a piece of swampy woodland,6 not merely for the sake of preventing the national legislature from being threatened by the mob of a great city, but because the jealousies of the states made it necessary to place the legislature in a spot exempt from all state influence or jurisdiction. So too in each state the seat of government is rarely to be found in the largest city. Albany, not New York, is the capital of New York State; Springfield, not Chicago, of Illinois; Sacramento, not San Francisco, of California; Harrisburg, not Philadelphia, of Pennsylvania. This seems to have been so ordered not from fear of the turbulence of a vast population, but partly to secure a central spot, partly from the jealousy which the rural districts and smaller cities feel of the place which casts the heaviest vote, and may seek to use the state resources for its own benefit.
It is a natural result of the phenomena described that in the United States public opinion crystallizes both less rapidly and in less sharp and well-defined forms than happens in those European countries which are led by the capital. The temperature of the fluid in which opinion takes shape (if I may venture to pursue the metaphor), is not so high all over a large country as in the society of a city, where the minds that make opinion are in daily contact, and the process by which opinion is made is therefore slower, giving a somewhat more amorphous product. I do not mean that a European capital generates opinion of one type only; but that each doctrine, each programme, each type of views, whether political or economic or religious, is likely to assume in a capital its sharpest and most pronounced form, that form being taken up and propagated from the capital through the country. And this is one reason why Americans were the first to adopt the system of conventions, mass meetings of persons belonging to a particular party or advocating a particular cause, gathered from every corner of the country to exchange their ideas and deliberate on their common policy.
It may be thought that in this respect the United States suffer from the absence of a centre of light and heat. Admitting that there is some loss, there are also some conspicuous gains. It is a gain that the multitude of no one city should be able to overawe the executive and the legislature, perhaps even to change the form of government, as Paris has so often done in France. It is a gain, for a democratic country, that the feeling of what is called society—that is to say, of those who toil not, neither do they spin, who are satisfied with the world, and are apt to regard it as a place for enjoyment—should not become too marked and palpable in its influence on the members of the legislature and the administration, that it should rather be diffused over the nation and act insensibly upon other classes through the ordinary relations of private life than take visible shape as the voice of a number of wealthy families gathered in one spot, whose luxury may render them the objects of envy and the target for invective. And although types of political view may form themselves less swiftly, though doctrines may be less systematic, programmes less fully reasoned out than when the brisk intelligence of groups gathered in a capital labours to produce them, they may, when they do finally emerge from the mind of the whole people, have a breadth and solidity proportioned to the slowness of their growth, and be more truly representative of all the classes, interests, and tendencies that exist within the nation.
How far the loss exceeds the gain as respects the speculative and artistic sides of intellectual effort, it is too soon to determine, for American cities are all the creatures of the last two centuries. That which Goethe admired in Paris is evidently impossible to the dispersed geniuses of America. On the other hand, that indraught of talent from the provinces to Paris which many thoughtful Frenchmen deplore, and which has become more unfortunate since Paris has grown to be the centre of amusement for the dissipated classes of Europe, is an experience which no other country need wish to undergo. Germany has not begun to produce more work or better work since she has given herself a capital; indeed, he who looks back over her annals since the middle of last century will think that so far as scholarship, metaphysics, and possibly even poetry are concerned, she gained from that very want of centralization which Goethe regretted. Great cities realize so vividly the defects of the system they see around them that they sometimes underrate the merits that go with those defects. It may be that in the next age American cities will profit by their local independence to develop varieties greater than they now exhibit, and will evolve diverse types of literary and artistic production. Europe will watch with curiosity the progress of an experiment which it is now too late for any of her great countries to try.
 Athens, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Brussels, are equally good instances among the smaller countries. In Switzerland, Bern has not reached the same position, because Switzerland is a federation, and, so to speak, an artificial country made by history. Zurich, Lausanne, and Geneva are intellectually quite as influential. So Holland retains traces of her federal condition in the relatively less important position of Amsterdam. Madrid being a modern city placed in a country more recently and less perfectly consolidated than most of the other states of Europe, is less of a capital to Spain than Lisbon is to Portugal or Paris to France.
Conversations with Eckermann.
 Thucyd. II, 37–41.
 Washington, being situated in the federal District of Columbia, is not a part of any state, and therefore enjoys no share in the federal government. Its inhabitants vote neither for a member of Congress nor for presidential electors; and the city is ruled, greatly to its advantage, by a federal commission.
 A leading New York paper once said, “In no capital that we know of does the cause of religion and morality derive so little support against luxury from intellectual interest or activity of any description. This interest has its place here, but it leads a sickly existence as yet under the shadow of great wealth which cares not for it.” This remark is, I think, less true today of New York or Chicago or St. Louis than it would have been in 1890.
 Congress, however, did not remove from Philadelphia to the banks of the Potomac until 1800. Thomas Moore’s lines on Washington as he saw it in 1804 deserve to be quoted:An embryo capital where Fancy seesSquares in morasses, obelisks in trees;Where second-sighted seers the plain adornWith fanes unbuilt and heroes yet unborn,Though nought but woods and Jefferson they see,Where streets should run, and sages ought to be.