8 Forgotten Capitals of the United States
On July 16, 1790, President George Washington signed the Residence Act, which called for the construction of a permanent capital city for the United States of America along the banks of the Potomac River. When the federal government—and all 131 of its workers—finally moved there in 1800, Washington, D.C., became the ninth American capital since the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence. Explore the eight other locales that were once the seats of American power.
After the Continental Congress met inside Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall in 1774, it reassembled the following spring inside the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall), where it adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Philadelphia had various stints as the home of the Continental Congress and its successor under the Articles of Confederation, which was enacted in 1781. As stipulated by the Residence Act, Philadelphia served as the temporary capital of the United States of America between 1790 and 1800 while Washington, D.C., was being built.
As British troops closed in on Philadelphia at the end of 1776, the Continental Congress decided to abandon the city and flee south to the safer haven of Baltimore. Bypassing the city’s old courthouse, delegates instead convened on December 20, 1776, inside the spacious house and tavern of Henry Fite. The three-story brick building, redubbed “Congress Hall,” was among the largest in Baltimore and outside the possible artillery range of the British navy. Warmed by the two fireplaces inside the house’s long chamber, delegates learned of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River and his surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton. With the British threat to Philadelphia blunted, the Continental Congress reconvened inside Independence Hall on March 4, 1777. Fire destroyed the Henry Fite House in 1904.
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.
York, PennsylvaniaFinding a more secure position 25 miles west of Lancaster behind the Susquehanna River, the Continental Congress convened inside the York County Court House on September 30, 1777. During the government’s nine-month stay in the central Pennsylvania hamlet, it approved the Articles of Confederation, which took effect after its 1781 ratification by the states, and signed an alliance treaty with France. After receiving word in June 1778 that the British had evacuated Philadelphia, the Continental Congress returned to the city and found Independence Hall left “in a most filthy and sordid situation” according to New Hampshire delegate Josiah Bartlett.
Princeton, New JerseyNearly two years after the 1781 victory at Yorktown, the American government was once again forced to flee its regular home in Philadelphia—only this time it wasn’t the British threatening the delegates’ safety, but frustrated Continental Army soldiers demanding the back pay they had been promised. “In order that further and more effectual measures may be taken for suppressing the present revolt, and maintaining the dignity and authority of the United States,” delegates decided in the summer of 1783 to move 40 miles northeast to the campus of the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University). 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.
Annapolis, MarylandContinuing to avoid Philadelphia, the nomadic Congress continued its travels to the Maryland capital. Under the leaky dome of the still unfinished Maryland State House, delegates first convened on November 26, 1783. Inside the Senate chamber, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783, to return to Mount Vernon as a private citizen. Congress also ratified the Treaty of Paris in Annapolis on January 14, 1784, before leaving the Maryland capital in August 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.
Trenton, New JerseyThe Congress of Confederation ensured plenty of “spirited” debates by making its next home in the French Arms Tavern, the largest building in the future New Jersey state capital. 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.
New York City
In January 1785, the Congress of Confederation convened in New York’s old City Hall on Wall Street, and for more than five years Gotham served as the seat of American power. After the ratification of the United States Constitution, delegates met briefly at Fraunces Tavern as the old City Hall was remodeled to become the first capitol building for the new national government. On the second-floor balcony of the newly renamed Federal Hall, Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. A statue of Washington overlooking Wall Street now stands outside a reconstruction of Federal