Potomac Prologue

When I begin a tour of Washington, D.C., I usually start with this question:

“Does anyone know what city was the first capital of the United States?”

And the answer, usually shouted with confidence from Americans and foreigners alike, is: Philadelphia. I then congratulate them…for being half right.

Philadelphia is not a bad answer. After all, it’s the home of Independence Hall, where the Declaration was adopted and where our Constitution was drafted.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the 1770s.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the 1770s.

It was also the de facto capital throughout the Revolutionary War – at least when the Continental Congress wasn’t trying to stay one step ahead of British troops. And then there’s the iconic Liberty Bell…

So yes, the City of Brotherly Love certainly played a formative role in America’s creation. It was the capital throughout most of the Revolutionary War and immediately after. By all rights, it should have been the new country’s first capital.

But it wasn’t.

The first U.S. Congress met, and George Washington took the oath of office as our first president in…New York City.

And that logically leads to the next question: Philadelphia – what happened???

The answer: a little thing called the Pennsylvania Mutiny.

It was June 1783, and the Revolutionary War had effectively been over for about two years. The Congress of the Confederation, the precursor to the U.S. Congress, had been meeting at Independence Hall in Philadelphia since March 1781, sharing the space with the state government.

On June 20, 1783, a mob of about 400 soldiers gathered outside Independence Hall, demanding payment for their service during the war. They blocked the doors to the chamber, threatening to hold the members prisoner until they got their money.

Alexander Hamilton (Portrait: Charles Wilson Peale)

Alexander Hamilton, who was a delegate from New York and himself a veteran who had served under George Washington, came out to negotiate with the soldiers and managed to buy some time.

Ever the savvy operator, Hamilton was also working behind the scenes to disperse the mob. He met secretly with a committee to request help from the Pennsylvania Executive Council (the state’s government), who could order the state militia to protect Congress and put down the mini-mutiny.

In a letter to the state Council and its president, John Dickinson, the committee dangled the threat that the Congress would leave Philadelphia without adequate protection.

After two days considering the request, the Council refused to offer up any military assistance. Their motivations are a little murky – some say that Dickinson was siding with the veterans, or that he doubted who the militia would actually side with, or that he and the Council underestimated the threat and Congress’s ultimatum.

Whatever the reason, Congress didn’t wait around to hear it. They packed their bags and left the city that very same night.

Our representatives wouldn’t return to Philadelphia for four more years, when delegates came back to scrap the Articles

of Confederation and form a more perfect union with the Constitution.

The Liberty Bell, with Independence Hall in the background.

Philadelphia would also become the temporary capital for a decade, moving there from New York while a new federal city was being built from scratch on the banks of the Potomac River. But despite this fleeting return to prominence, Philadelphia had forever lost its claim as the nation’s inevitable capital.

But hey, it still has the Liberty Bell… 

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8 thoughts on “Potomac Prologue

  1. Derek January 16, 2013 / 8:13 pm

    Interesting article, I enjoyed it, especially being an American history major. Although I have a bone to pick, Philadelphia is the correct answer to your question; when the declaration was agreed on in July of 1776 thus establishing a sovereign nation, it included the first time we called ourselves the United States of America, ergo Philadelphia its first capital. Furthermore, when the Articles of Confederation (our first governing document) was ratified in 1781, it was again in Philadelphia. Yes, New York served as the federal capital from 1785-1789, by far not the first capital of the United States. So, New York City was not America’s first capital, Philadelphia was, but it was the capital when the Constitution was adopted.

    • Historic District January 17, 2013 / 12:28 am

      Thanks Derek! You know, you’re right – it’s all a matter of the question I ask. I should be more precise and make sure I specify the first “federal” capital. If I don’t, then my visitors are exactly right with the answer of Philadelphia. Thanks for the correction!

      • Derek January 17, 2013 / 1:29 am

        Thank you for your kind words. I apologize if I seemed to rude and undermining, that wasn’t my intention at all, but being a resident of the great city of Philadelphia and a Temple University grad, I’m proud of its steep history and it’s fall from prominence upsets me so I like to give it all the credit it can get.

      • Historic District January 17, 2013 / 5:44 pm

        Not at all! I always appreciate corrections. And I have to say, I’ve been planning a Philadelphia trip for a while now. There is such great history, and I get the sense that there is renewed energy there despite its decline over the years. I promise to write a post when I visit, and no more snark about Philly!

  2. Derek January 18, 2013 / 8:45 pm

    I look forward to reading that post, there is indeed a renewed energy and I believe you will enjoy your experience… and hey if you need a tour guide, haha.

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