I recently did one of those mind-dulling quizzes on Facebook. It’s the one where they say they can tell a person’s education based on questions on U. S. history. To demonstrate how reliable the quiz is, I missed one and they concluded I had a high school education. In truth, I have a Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D. Anyway, one of the questions was which city had not served as the U.S. Capital. The series I did on the signers of the Declaration of Independence helped with this one. The answer was Boston, Massachusetts, but that got me thinking on what were the other cities. So, below, for those of you like me who cannot let research down the rabbit hole go about its merry way, are the cities, other than Washington, D. C., that served as the U.S. Capital.
First, there was no Washington, D. C. when our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it was not until July 1790 that President George Washington signed what was called the Resident Act, designed to create a permanent capital city upon the banks of the Potomac River. In 1800, Washington, D. C., became the ninth city to serve as the Capital of the United States. According to the Library of Congress, “The Residence Act, officially titled ‘An Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,’ was passed on July 16, 1790, and selected a site on the Potomac River as the permanent capital (Washington, D.C.), in ten years times. Also, this act designated Philadelphia as the temporary capital for a period of ten years. The Residence Act was the result of a compromise reached between Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison concerning the permanent location of the Federal capital. In exchange for locating the new capital on the Potomac River, Madison agreed not to block legislation mandating the assumption of the states’ debts by the Federal government.”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had a population of some 40,000. The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in September 1774. The signers of the Declaration of Independence met there again in July 1776. But Philadelphia was not the first U. S. Capital.
In 1776, the American delegates had to escape Philadelphia and the British, so they first chose to head south to Maryland. In Baltimore, Maryland, our founding fathers met at the home and tavern of one Henry Fite. “The “Henry Fite House”, located on West Baltimore Street (then known as Market Street), between South Sharp and North Liberty Street (also later known as Hopkins Place), was the meeting site of the Second Continental Congress from December 20, 1776 until February 22, 1777. Built as a tavern in 1770 by Henry Fite (1722–1789), the building became known as ‘Congress Hall’ during its brief use by Congress, and later in local history as ‘Old Congress Hall.’. It was destroyed by the Great Baltimore Fire on Sunday and Monday, February 7–8, 1904, which started a block to the southwest at North Liberty (east of North Howard) and German (later West Redwood) Streets at the John E. Hurst Company building (dry goods) and swept north to Fayette Street and finally to the east to the Jones Falls, burning most of the downtown central business district and waterfront, of which only a few modern “fire-proof” skyscrapers, though burned, had enough structural support left to save, rebuild and restore later.” (Henry Fite House) The house was chosen because it was one of the largest in Baltimore, and it was outside the range of the British Navy’s artillery. Inside the long chamber, the delegates learned of victories and defeats by Washington’s army. Eventually, the delegates returned to Philadelphia in March 1777.
York, Pennsylvania, has also made claims of being the first U. S. Capital. It is true that the delegates to the Continental Congress did meet in York, a town of only 1800 at the time, twice for a period of nine months. The first time was in 1777 and the second in 1778. The delegates had departed Philadelphia in fear of the British troops advancing on the city. The Articles of Confederation were developed during those years at York.
History Stories tells us, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was also the seat the Capital. “The present-day heart of Amish country was once the heart of the American government—if only for a day. In the late summer of 1777, the Redcoats again advanced on Philadelphia, and after Washington’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, the Continental Congress evacuated the city. Delegates fled 65 miles to the west and on September 27, 1777, met inside Lancaster’s county courthouse. Faced with the difficulty of finding suitable lodging and continued concerns about their safety, the delegates’ official business consisted mainly of deciding how quickly they could leave Lancaster. After the legislative equivalent of a cup of coffee, the Continental Congress adjourned its one-day session inside the courthouse, which was destroyed by a fire in the 1780s, and continued to move west.”
On September 28, 1781, General George Washington, commanding a force of 17,000 French and Continental troops, begins the siege known as the Battle of Yorktown against British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and a contingent of 9,000 British troops at Yorktown, Virginia, ending the American Revolution, but that was not of the last of the retreats by the American government. In 1783, the delegates again fled Philadelphia in order to escape the American Continental Army soldiers demanding payment for their services. The delegates moved 40 miles northeast to the campus of the College of New Jersey (later to be called Princeton University) in Princeton, New Jersey. The Congress of Confederation met inside Nassau Hall, the nation’s largest academic building, which ironically had been bombarded by patriot troops during the 1777 Battle of Princeton. During its four-month stay inside the enormous stone building, which still stands on the Princeton campus, the United States government received its first foreign minister, a diplomat from the Netherlands, as well as word of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolution. (History.com)
For a short period, Annapolis, Maryland, also served at the U. S. Capital. Using the Maryland State House for their meeting the delegates first convened on 26 November 1783. At the time, George Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The Treaty of Paris was also ratified there on 14 January 1784. The Maryland State House remains the oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use, and Washington’s personal copy of his resignation speech is on display in its rotunda.
The next stop on the Where Is the Capital? bandwagon was Trenton, New Jersey. Here the Congress of Confederation regularly met in the largest building in the town, the French Arms Tavern. “Delegates first convened in the three-story-high structure, leased by the New Jersey legislature, on November 1, 1784. Beyond a farewell address by the Marquis de Lafayette, little business of note took place before the Congress adjourned on Christmas Eve and decided to move on to New York City. The building returned to its use as a tavern before being razed in 1837 to make room for a bank.” (History.com)
New York City served as the seat of the U. S. Government for five years. The Congress of Confederation meat there for the first time in January 1785. The old City Hall building was renovated to become the first Capitol Building. It was renamed Federal Hall, and it was there that the newly elected first President of the United States, George Washington, took his oath of office on 30 April 1789. A statue of Washington overlooking Wall Street now stands outside a reconstruction of Federal Hall.