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.
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, 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.
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…