How Do Countries Choose Their Capital Cities?

London, England. Tokyo, Japan. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

They all make our lists of places to visit, and they’re also national capitals—each city being the seat of its country’s government.

But how are capital cities chosen, anyway?

Location is often key. Many countries choose a geographically central capital in order to emphasize the equity of their government; this way, the capital isn’t as likely to be, or seem to be, biased toward one region or another. Madrid, for instance, is located almost exactly in the middle of Spain (and, to take it one step further, the middle of the Iberian Peninsula). When Nigeria decided to build a brand-new capital city, it placed Abuja, which was formally named the capital in 1991, in the center—a place signifying unity in a country often considered divided by its geography.

When a country would rather choose an existing city for its capital than build an entirely new one, population may be a primary concern. Capitals are often the most populous of a country’s cities. Today Seoul, South Korea, boasts almost 20 percent of that country’s residents; Lima, Peru, and Santiago, Chile, are each home to about a quarter of their country’s populace. In fact, when they were originally chosen as capitals, all three cities were the main population centers of their countries, though by smaller percentages than today. In 1949, soon after South Korea was established, Seoul’s population of 1.45 million was 7.2% of the country’s total population. On the eve of Peruvian independence in 1820, Lima had a population of about 64,000 out of Peru’s 1.37 million. That same year, after Chilean independence, Santiago was home to some 46,000 of Chile’s 800,000 residents.

A capital can also be a sign of political compromise, as in the United States. Initially, members of Congress proposed that the national capital be in Pennsylvania—specifically, at either Lancaster or Germantown, then a borough outside Philadelphia. They believed that a Philadelphia-adjacent capital would honor the young country’s revolutionary roots. But political scheming halted that plan: U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton—taking advantage of Southern anxieties over the prospect of a Northern capital (specifically, slaveholders’ worries that such a capital would leave lawmakers surrounded and influenced by abolitionists)—promised a Southern capital in exchange for votes for his plan to financially reorganize the country. Southern states agreed to Hamilton’s plan to help pay off war debts incurred by the North, and the United States capital eventually moved to what had been a patch of undeveloped land in Virginia and Maryland—the land that became Washington, D.C.

Sometimes a country’s choice of capital has been politically motivated without compromise. The name of Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, means “Abode of Kings” in Burmese, and the city’s origin mirrors its name. Its construction began in 2004 amid Myanmar’s chaotic transition from military rule to democracy, but, evidently, Nay Pyi Taw’s planners had never been especially worried about accessibility: it had initially been designed to house only government and military personnel.

Finally, not all countries subscribe to the idea that there must be only one national capital. Bolivia, for instance, has La Paz as its administrative capital and Sucre as its constitutional capital. South Africa has three capitals: its administrative seat in Pretoria, its legislative seat in Cape Town, and its judicial seat in Bloemfontein.

However a country decides on its capital, that city becomes an important symbol of nationhood. While being a home to its inhabitants and a place for tourists to visit, it is also the city chosen to represent the entire country to the world.

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