Capital Roulette

Another question about early America that often stumps my tour groups:

Henry Fite House
Henry Fite’s house in Baltimore, known later as Congress Hall.

“How many capitals of the United States have there actually been?”

We already know of the first two capitals since the Constitution was ratified: New York and Philadelphia.

But how about York, Lancaster, or Baltimore before that?

These former capitals are as fleeting in American memory as they were temporary.

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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???

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