The Nation’s First Capitols

Most of us know that Washington DC was not the first Capitol of the US; indeed the city did not even exist until after George Washington’s term of office. Some people know that the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, but at that time the colonies had no formal government. It was not until the Articles of Confederation were written in 1778 that the colonies had an actual written constitution–but they were not ratified until 1781, and the US did not actually win its independence until 1783. During this time, the US actually had nine different capitol cities.


The original brick Capitol Building, Washington DC, 1800

When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the American colonies responded with outrage and protest, culminating in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The British Government tried to keep order by closing the Port of Boston and putting the entire city under martial law. In response the colonies formed a Continental Congress, made up of delegates from all 13 colonies, which met in Philadelphia. When the American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concorde in 1775, the Continental Congress found itself in charge of coordinating the rebellion, raising and training a Continental Army, and running the international affairs of the colonies.

After the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the Congress turned to the task of forming an actual government, and appointed a committee to write an “Articles of Confederation”. But when British forces moved towards Philadelphia, it was decided to move the Continental Congress to a safer location. The delegates evacuated Philadelphia in December 1776 and went to Baltimore, where they met in the Henry Fite tavern until February 27, 1777. In March, when it looked like the British might not take Philadelphia, the delegates returned there, but after the British defeated Washington’s army at Brandywine in September and Philadelphia lay undefended, the delegates again had to flee the city, and met again on September 27 in the courthouse in Lancaster, 80 miles away. The Continental Congress stayed there only one day before moving across the Susquehanna River to the little town of York.

In this town of 2,000 people, the Congress met in the courthouse, staying until June 17, 1778. During this period, several important events happened: on October 17, 1777, the British General John Burgoyne surrendered after his defeat in the Battle of Saratoga, and on November 15, 1777, Congress passed the Articles of Confederation and sent them to the state assemblies for ratification. On May 4, 1778, the Continental Congress approved an alliance with France, which then joined the war against England and began sending troops and ships to America. Because all of this happened while the Continental Congress was meeting here, York, Pennsylvania, today claims the title of “Nation’s First Capitol”–but it was actually the fourth.

A month after the alliance was formed with France and troops began arriving, Britain withdrew her forces from Philadelphia, and on July 2 the Continental Congress returned to the Pennsylvania State House there (now known as “Independence Hall”). On March 1, 1781, Maryland became the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, and the next day the Continental Congress renamed itself the Congress of the Confederation. With the aid of the French Army and Navy, the last large British force in the colonies, under General Cornwallis, surrendered on October 19, 1781. While this essentially ended the war, negotiations dragged out for several more years until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 granted independence to the United States of America.

With the war now over, the Continental Army disbanded and the troops expected to receive the bonus pay they had been promised. Instead, the Congress, lacking any legal power under the Articles of Confederation to levy taxes, did not have the money to pay them, and when a mob of angry ex-soldiers protested outside Independence Hall on June 27, 1783, the Congressional delegates all skipped town, assembling at Nassau Hall in nearby Princeton, New Jersey, on June 30.

For the next several years, the US Congress had no permanent home, and periodically moved from one place to another. From November 1783 to August 1784 it assembled in the Maryland State House in Annapolis, then moved to the French Arms tavern in Trenton, New Jersey, in November 1784, meeting there for almost two months before moving yet again, to the Fraunce’s Tavern in New York City, which soon became the new City Hall.

When the Articles of Confederation became unworkable, a new Constitution was written and adopted in June 1789. When the Constitution was ratified, George Washington won the first election, and held the Office of the President at his own home in Mt Vernon, Virginia. New York City Hall was meanwhile renamed Federal Hall, and Congress continued to meet there until December 1790, when it moved back to Philadelphia, convening in the Philadelphia County Building. Renamed Congress Hall, this served as the US Capitol until it was decided that a permanent capitol city was needed, and to avoid political squabbling it was decided that this should be its own Federal district that was not part of any state. In 1790 the Federal District of Columbia was formed, and construction was begun on the Capitol Building and the Presidential home that would become known as the White House. The US Congress moved into the new brick Capitol building on November 17, 1800. The domed Capitol Building used today was started in 1793 but, interrupted by the War of 1812 and the Civil War, was not usable until 1829 and not finished until 1868.


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