Why are American capitals smaller than other cities?

Alright so this is something I’ve been thinking about (Im studying geography) and there’s got to be a reason for it but I just can’t figure out why. In America the capital is and has always been Washington DC which has a very small population compared to the largest American cities. This also applies at the state level - state capitals in America usually have smaller populations than larger cities in their vicinity, for example NYC isn’t the capital of its state, neither is LA, Chicago or Houston. This applies countrywide with few exceptions (there are some, I know). This seems to be the case for Canada too.

The question is why does America have this unique phenomenon while other countries do not? I’m not only talking about developing countries but also developed countries like Europe, Japan etc. - this trend is peculiar to the Americas. Thanks for the help.

Answer #1

Well, I always thought that it was because in the United States, capitals were established a long time ago, and the capitals that we have now were probably bigger compared to other places back then, or it just seemed like a logical choice (For example, Albany was made the capital of NY to protect NY from attack in the mid 1700’s)

Answer #2

Yeah but it begs the question - why didn’t the capital cities grow at the same rates as the large cities of today did? It certainly was the case everywhere else in the world - the capital cities usually grew most quickly. Sure capitals back then might have been larger in population than other cities but why aren’t they that way now?

Answer #3

For example, Chicago is a place where a lot of historical things happened. I’m pretty sure that Chicago just got famous and highly populated on its own accord. People also probably moved and stuff.

Answer #4

Yeah but why not the capitals? You can’t just attribute it to chance - not when 1. you’re talking about millions of people (luck evens out as numbers get bigger) and 2. it doesn’t happen outside of America.

Answer #5

You’re not really answering the question tbh, no offence.

Answer #6

Washington DC did not exist at the countries founding and was designed and planned as the capital city. It was made from land actually carved out of both Virginia and Maryland, and does not belong to any state. So the fact that it is not the largest city is not a surprise. I think in that respect it is very different from most countries capitals. I am not sure how most of the state capitals were chosen, but I think age has more to do with it than size. In New York, Albany is the oldest city in the state. I think it is actually the oldest city in the US. Also, New York City was the first Capital of the US, before DC, so they probably thought it would be better not to have the state capital in the same place. And also geographically, Albany is much closer to the heart of the the state, while NYC is at the extreme southeast corner.

Answer #7

There are probably lots of reasons why a capital city doesn’t grow at the same rate. One might be that as transportation technology changed, people didn’t need to live by waterways anymore. So if a capital city was a port city, it might not have grown as much as a city that was a major railroad hub. This is only speculation though, I do not know for sure.

Answer #8

Took you long enough to respond ;) thanks for the answer. You’re explaining it from a very geographically isolated viewpoint though - you’ve only offered explanations for two cities (DC and Albany). The fact is that this trend is repeated across almost the entire country, yet you don’t see it being so prevalent in other countries, developed or not. So the question is, why America, and not the world? It’s a tough question, I know ;) keep on at it if you’re bored.

Answer #9

There are a lot of reasons, correct. Which is why it’s so peculiar that American capitals tend to be smaller than their bigger, more haphazardly organised counterparts. Which is not usually the case outside of your continent.

Answer #10

Sorry, I was away for the weekend, actually I was in Washington DC… lol…
Honestly I think to answer this question fully, you would have to investigate how every single state capital was chosen. I think the reasons probably vary greatly. And there are plenty of exceptions to your analysis. Arizona, Arkansas, Colorodo, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, S. Carolina, Utah, W. Virginia, and Wyoming all have their biggest city as capital. And you should also include Minnesota, because St. Paul & Minneapolis are twin cities with a shared metro area. And many of the rest have fairly large cities that were at one time the biggest, or were capitals before the largest city even existed, like Maryland. Annapolis has been it’s capital since the early 1600s, and Baltimore wasn’t founded until 100 years later.

Answer #11

Also remember, the US (and North America) is relatively new compared to many places in the world. We have had lots of demographical changes, so it is hard to pinpoint any one reason why.

Answer #12

Again……why does this happen in America and not China, or Britain, or Germany, etc. Having many capitals that used to be the largest cities in their respective states does not negate the fact that most states in the Americas do not have their largest cities as capitals. Thanks for taking the effort and time to answer though, I’m feeling kind today :) so I’ll give both of you some points for the hard thinking.

Answer #13

I’m trying…. lol…. Ok, one more time. Not for nothing, but China’s largest city is Shanghai, not Beijing, although they are very close. London is a very old city compared to the any in the US, as are most European capitals. If you want a theory,here it is. I think the rapid expansion of the US (and North America) is probably the main cause for this phenomena. Most other large countries and their capitals are much older and were settled long ago. North America is still pretty young, and went through major expansion at the same time as the industrial revolution was occurring. That probably led to a lot of shifting of the population, and is actually still happening. And a city once considered large, quickly was surpassed by other cities. For instance, when Nevada was founded, Las Vegas didn’t even exist. It was just desert at that time. So I say it is the rapid expansion that caused it. I am not sure how accurate that is, but it sounds good, huh?

Answer #14

I know………as I’ve mentioned, this trend by no means applies 100% across the board outside of America (and vice versa for America), so you will get certain anomalies like Canberra, Beijing etc., but the overriding general pattern is as I’ve asserted. Eg in China the biggest cities are all capitals of their respective provinces, ditto for Australia, etc etc. Good theory though :)

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