Perhaps appropriately for such an enclave of iconoclasm, Madison  did not even exist when it was picked as the capital site. Judge James Duane Doty lured legislators away from the original capital—tiny Belmont—with offers of free land in what were no doubt termed lush river valleys to the northeast. Territorial legislators, probably dismayed by the isolation of Belmont, fell over themselves to pass the vote. Not one white person lived in the Madison area at the time.
Originally dubbed “Taychopera” (Four Lakes), these marshy lowlands were home to encampments of Winnebago Indians. The first whites trekking through the area—most heading for lead mines in the southwest—remarked upon it in journals as a preternaturally beautiful, if wild, location. One early soldier wrote that “the country...is not fit for any civilized nation of people to inhabit. It appears that the Almighty intended it for the children of the forest.”
It remained that way until 1837, when a solitary family set up a rough log inn for workers who arrived to start construction on the Capitol. (Bars doubled as the first churches, this being Wisconsin.)
In 1848, the territory became a state, just as finishing touches were being added to the Capitol; there was still not even a semblance of established roads. A munificent Milwaukee  millionaire, Leonard Farwell, showed up and, most likely aghast at the beastly conditions, started on major infrastructure work.
Civil War spending expanded the city rapidly; afterwards, Madison had nearly 500 factories of all sorts. By the 20th century, more than 19,000 inhabitants lived in Madison. Still, despite the numbers, wild animals gamboled through the remaining thickets, and one contemporary Eastern visitor remarked that Madison resembled nothing much more than an exaggerated village, down to a village’s mannerisms and conduct.
One historian said of most of Madison's  past, “The historian finds little of stirring interest; and that little almost always the reflex of the legislature.” From the boozy, brawling first legislators, Madison has always had a sideshow accompaniment to its vast cultural arenas. This was perhaps never more manifest than in the 1960s, during implosions over the Vietnam War, when Madison truly became the Mad City—one of the nation’s foremost leftist concentrations.
Overtones of radicalism still exist, but the city really doesn’t seem to get too worked up about much anymore. Everyone’s too busy biking around the lakes or people-watching on State Street  (if not hustling for that graduate seminar).