New England cities and towns used to vie for colonial and state capitals the way they now court sports stadiums, with the result that 21 New England capitals graced the land since Europeans settled the region.
Rhode Island, the tiniest state, has had the most state capitals, while Massachusetts, the largest, has had the fewest.
Connecticut once had its state capital in New York and Maine had its in Canada. Two of Vermont’s capitals have served as the seat of a national government, and Boston was at one time the capital of all New England.
The reasons for moving colonial and then state capitals had to do with conquest, migration and the ideals of the American Revolution. Americans thought they were taxed without representations, and they blamed the distance from the British Parliament. After independence, they believed they needed equal physical access to the state legislature to get represented equally.
21 New England State Capitals
From 1776 to 1812, the people of the 13 original colonies agitated to move their state capitals to the center of the state, writes Rosemarie Zagarri, in The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776-1850.
“The confidence of people in their government rested on people’s ability to know and be known by their representatives,” Zagarri wrote. After decades of westward migration, it made no sense to them to have a capital on the Atlantic coast.
Boston, the longest continuing state capital in the United States, was the one New England capital that stayed put. John Winthrop’s city on a hill had too much power to let any upstart town take the government away from it.
As is still the case, western Massachusetts resented Boston for it. The people of Springfield, Mass., commented in 1780 that “It is probably, by Reason of their different situations, that many of the more distant Towns will generally omit the full Exercise of their Rights, and that those at or near the Center of Government will exercise them in their full Extent.”
Seating the commonwealth’s government in Boston was on the list of grievances during Shay’s Rebellion.
East vs. West
Residents of Lenox objected to the Massachusetts constitution of 1778 because, as they put it, “[Article 6] has a tendency to induce the Remote parts of the State … to neglect keeping a Representative at the General Court. In a word it is making Representation unequal.”
Boston reigned as the capital of all New England when King James II created the Dominion of New England in 1686. James correctly worried the colonies were too independent and thought consolidating the colonies would solve the problem. It didn’t. The Dominion lasted all of three years. In 1689, the Boston Revolt ended the Dominion and sent Royal Gov. Edmund Andros packing.
Boston, however, wasn’t always the capital of all Massachusetts. For 70 years, Plymouth was the capital of Plymouth Colony, which included Cape Cod, Scituate, Marshfield and Duxbury, Bridgewater, Taunton, what is now New Bedford and Fall River, Dartmouth and Freetown. Plymouth could even argue a history as capital of Rhode Island, as Plymouth Plantation claimed parts of Rhode Island including Bristol, Rehoboth and Little Compton.
The Flying State Capitals of RI and Conn.
Rhode Island and Connecticut resolved the conflicts over the location of their state capitals. They decided on rotating state capitals, a solution dubbed ‘The Flying Statehouse.’
From 1639 to 1644, Portsmouth, R.I., served as the capital of the English colony of Aquidneck Island and Providence the capital of – well, Providence. For more than a century, Providence prevailed as the seat of government when the two colonies merged in 1644, with the brief interruption of Boston as the capital of the Dominion.
In 1776, Rhode Island embarked on a lively experiment, rotating its capital to each of the five county seats: Providence, Newport, East Greenwich, South Kingstown and Bristol. The experiment proved too lively. After 1853 the state legislature stopped meeting in the Kent, Washington and Bristol counties and alternated between Providence and Newport. Providence grew and Newport declined, and in 1900 the government finally settled down in Providence.
The Dutch once claimed Connecticut. Its capital was New Amsterdam, a fort at the tip of the island now known as Manhattan. In 1639 Connecticut broke off as a separate English colony. A year later, so did New Haven.
Hartford and New Haven held sway as respective state capitals, except during the three years of the Dominion of New England.
From 1701 to 1875, Hartford and New Haven were the co-capitals of Connecticut, with the General Assembly holding spring sessions in Hartford and fall sessions in New Haven. Lawmakers got fed up with the complicated arrangement and decided to settle on one city. Hartford and New Haven vied for the privilege of hosting the government, and Hartford won.
Vermont and NH
Portsmouth became the capital of New Hampshire in 1689 until 1775, with the usual caveat about Boston.
During the American Revolution, New Hampshire’s General Assembly shuttled among Concord, Hopkinton, Dover, Amherst, Charlestown and Hanover, but officially settled in Exeter. After the war, New Hampshire citizens clamored for a centrally located capital and travel-weary lawmakers agreed.
Portsmouth cautioned against the move in 1790, arguing that citizens were less likely to be represented when their state capitals were far away.
Concord became New Hampshire’s de facto capital in 1808, though not by law until 1816.
Vermont has had four capitals. The state started out as disputed territory between New York and New Hampshire. On Jan. 15, 1777, representatives meeting in the oldest town, Westminster, declared independence from both and gave themselves the name, The Republic of New Connecticut. Almost six months later, representatives of the new republic met in the biggest town, Windsor, and changed their name to the Republic of Vermont.
Vermont succumbed to the prevailing desire for a central capital in 1805, 14 years after it became a state. Windsor lost out to the small town of Montpelier, then with a population of less than 2,000.
Part of Maine was once the French colony l’Acadie, and in 1604 its capital was Ile St. Croix, now the uninhabited St. Croix Island. In 1605 Port Royal, now in Nova Scotia, became the capital of Acadia. Then by 1658 Maine had joined Massachusetts, and until 1820 its capital was Boston.
For the next 12 years, Portland served as Maine’s capital, but many lawmakers wanted to move the seat of government to a central city or town. In 1822 a committee was appointed to visit Portland, Brunswick, Hallowell, Augusta, Waterville, Belfast and Wiscasset. The Lewiston Saturday Journal reported, “In each of which towns a choice of very valuable lots was freely offered for the acceptance of the state.”
They said if it were to be on the seaboard, it should be in Wiscasset, but if inland, on Weston Hill in Augusta because of its scenic beauty. Augusta bought the hill and gave it to the state. That sealed the deal; Augusta it was.
Still Not Resolved
Architects drew up plans for a statehouse budgeted to cost $80,000. In the end it cost $138,991.34. Augusta citizens picked up $11,000 to keep the capitol, but the tug-of-war hadn’t ended. Portland, now known as ‘the deserted village’ after the capital moved, kept trying to get the government back.
On Jan 26, 1907, the Lewiston Saturday Journal reported ‘ever since 1821, the issue has been right there in the same old place. Sometimes it has been quiescent. Sometimes it has been acute. It comes in cycles–usually of ten years separation. Several times it has shaken the state from border to border. It may do so again — this session or next. In either case, Augusta must wake up. … a serious and important movement [is] forming.”
Augusta kept the capitol.
This story about the 21 New England state capitals was updated in 2023. Image of the Old Connecticut Statehouse By olekinderhook, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54816354.