A CAPITAL IS A CITY or town that serves as the administrative center of a political unit such as a country, state, or province. The word capital is ultimately derived from the Latin word for “head” (caput). Capitals of counties in the UNITED STATES are generally known as “county seats”; in England and IRELAND such capitals are called “county towns.” The term capital is sometimes used in a promotional sense to refer to an important product closely associated with a particular city or town. For example, Gilroy, CALIFORNIA claims to be the “Garlic Capital of the World,” while Farmington, MAINE is the “Earmuff Capital of the World.” Most political units have a single capital city, but several cases of multiple capitals do occur. BOLIVIA’s constitutional and judicial capital is Sucre, while La Paz serves as the administrative capital. The legal capital of the NETHERLANDS is Amsterdam, although The Hague functions as the governmental center. SOUTH AFRICA maintains three capitals: Pretoria (the administrative capital), Bloemfontaine (the judicial capital), and Cape Town (the legislative capital). Two U.S. states once maintained dual capitals. CONNECTICUT’s capitals were New Haven and Hartford; in the interest of efficiency, Hartford was made the sole capital in 1875. RHODE ISLAND’s capitals were Newport and Providence; Providence has been the sole capital since 1900.
Geographers sometimes distinguish between “natural” capitals and “artificial” capitals. Examples of natural capitals would be LONDON, PARIS, and MEXICO CITY, cities that dominate their countries. Historically, it was often the case that the country, or the nation, took shape from these natural capital cities outward. Artificial capitals are those that were founded by their political units specifically to serve as capitals. Examples include Canberra in AUSTRALIA, Brasilia in BRAZIL, and recently Abuja in NIGERIA and Dodoma in TANZANIA. The distinction between natural and artificial capitals is not a precise one, as all capitals were at one time chosen to fill that role. Paris, for example, became the permanent capital of FRANCE in the year 987 when Hugh Capet, who had been Count of Paris, assumed the French throne.
Many capitals have been chosen because of the perceived advantages of their location. Some governmental units have placed their capital cities at the center of their area, or perhaps at the center of their population. Indianapolis and Springfield were chosen as capitals of INDIANA and ILLINOIS in the early 19th century because those cities were located near the geographic centers of their respective states. Since the northern portions of WISCONSIN and MICHIGAN were and are relatively unpopulated, Madison and Lansing lie much nearer to the center of population of their respective states than to the geographic center. Occasionally, though, a political unit will place its capital in a city perceived to be near the center of population, only to have the center of population shift radically over time. Examples include Sacramento, California, which was chosen as the capital in 1854 at a point midway between San Francisco and the goldfields of the Sierra Nevada. Today, with the largest part of California’s population located far to the south, Sacramento is an eccentric capital. FLORIDA continues to maintain its capital at Tallahassee, midway between the state’s major early 19th-century population centers, Pensacola and St. Augustine. Now, with the largest part of Florida’s population living in southern Florida, Tallahassee has become an offcenter capital. Lying roughly midway between Australia’s two dominant cities, Canberra was chosen as the national capital following Australia’s unification in 1901, since neither Melbourne nor Sydney would allow the national capital’s functions to go to the rival city.
Other capitals have been chosen as compromise locations, balancing competing interests within their political units. Ottawa, for example, lies not only along the border between CANADA’s two largest provinces (Ontario and Quebec), but more importantly alongside the cultural divide between French and English Canada. The early United States government chose Washington, D.C., as the national capital, located at a point neither too far south nor too far north, along the Potomac River on the MARYLAND–VIRGINIA border.
When the American Civil War broke out, Washington found itself precisely on the border between the loyal Union states and the seceding Confederacy. Arlington Memorial Bridge across the Potomac now symbolically re-joins the South to the North, linking the Lincoln Memorial on the north or District of Columbia (D.C.) bank with Arlington House (the home of General Robert E. Lee) on the south or Virginia side.
Historical geographer Vaughan Cornish has argued that expanding states tend to locate their capitals, not in the center of their area or population, but rather offcenter, toward their most dynamic frontier. JAPAN, for example, moved its capital northeastward from Kyoto (“capital city”) to Tokyo (“eastern capital”) in 1868 at the same time that the Japanese were expanding their control over the northern half of the Japanese archipelago.
Berlin became the dominant German capital, located toward the frontier where Germans were pushing eastward against Slavic and Baltic peoples. After the American Revolution, the capitals of seven of the original 13 states were transferred away from coastal cities and reestablished in the interior. Incidentally, these seven states—NEW HAMPSHIRE, NEW YORK, PENNSYLVANIA, Virginia, NORTH CAROLINA, SOUTH CAROLINA, and GEORGIA—were precisely those states that possessed an open frontier to their west.