Where Independence Reigns

Philadelphia’s Independence Hall was home to Congress multiple times during the early years of the United States.

Someone told me after reading the article about Tennessee statehood that they never realized Philadelphia had been the U.S. Capital. I told them that officially the U.S. has had nine cities that have served as the capital. Even in Tennessee we have had four capitals: Knoxville, Nashville, Kingston, Murfreesboro, and Nashville again. Even Rheatown came close to being named our county seat instead of Greeneville, known then as Greene-Courthouse. The State of Franklin had Jonesborough and Greeneville with claims to be its capital.

I like to say Philadelphia was the capital, then wasn’t, then was again, then wasn’t again, then was, and wasn’t, should have been, but wasn’t, and now it’s not. Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities and I never grow tired of visiting there. I enjoy my visits to D.C. also. My Mom was in nursing school in D.C., and she always talked fondly of her time in the capital.

Let’s take a look at the cities that have served as our capital.

1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Continental Congress first met inside Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall in 1774. In early 1775, it reassembled inside the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, the building familiar to us all. This is where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, and the liberty bell cracked. 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 noted in my statehood article, Philadelphia served as the temporary capital of the United States between 1790 and 1800 while Washington, D.C. was being built. Carpenters’ Hall is a must see in Philadelphia and is close to Independence Hall. The Liberty Bell Center and the Museum of the American Revolution are must sees also. Don’t forget The Franklin Institute and Franklin’s Post Office. This could get lengthy, so we’ll talk Philly another day. Philadelphia is a tourist dream or nightmare, depending on the lines.

2. Baltimore, Maryland

British troops closed in on Philadelphia at the end of 1776 to settle the rebellion by arresting its leaders. The Continental Congress decided to leave the city rather than face a rope or worse. They went south to Baltimore. They chose not to occupy the town’s courthouse and instead convened inside the tavern of Henry Fite. This building was dubbed “Congress Hall.” It was here, as they drank grog by the warm fireplaces, they learned of Washington’s crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night in route to his successful surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey. The Continental Congress moved back to Philadelphia and reconvened inside Independence Hall on March 4, 1777. If you visit Baltimore and would like to visit Fite’s Tavern, it’s not there. Fire destroyed the historic building in 1904.

3. Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Many Americans like to visit Amish country while traveling in Pennsylvania. Few realize that the heart of Amish country housed the soul of the fledgling American government. I’m not sure this one should count since they were only in session for a day. Washington’s army had met the British along Brandywine Creek Sept. 11, 1777. It turned into a disastrous defeat for the Americans and left the road open for the British to occupy Philadelphia once more. The Continental Congress quickly skedaddled, this time west instead of south. Congress convened inside the Lancaster County courthouse.

Due to difficulty in acquiring suitable lodging and lingering concerns for safety, the decision was made to move farther west. This was another one-day meeting. The business discussed was just how fast they could get out of Lancaster. This courthouse, too, was destroyed by fire in 1780.

In the meantime, in November General Washington would try to dislodge the British from Philadelphia by engaging in the Battle of Germantown. Washington’s army was repulsed before limping back to the area of Whitemarsh. In late December he would march his army into winter quarters at Valley Forge to serve as a buffer between the British and the Continental Congress now relocated at …

4. York, Pennsylvania

Moving 25 miles southwest, the Continental Congress found the town of York quite agreeable. They crossed the Susquehanna River, putting several miles, Washington’s army, and the river between them and the British. They started conducting business in the York County Courthouse in September 1777. They would spend nine months here in central Pennsylvania. While in York they 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. York has preserved some of the buildings and has statues of continental leaders along its streets. After you visit the old downtown, they have that nice big Harley-Davidson factory just outside of town with tours and a museum.

5. Princeton, New Jersey

Nearly two years after the American victory at Yorktown in 1781, resulting in British surrender, the Congress 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. Not paying is nothing new for our government. It is a time-honored tradition.

Congress resolved, “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 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.

6. Annapolis, Maryland

Continuing to avoid Philadelphia, the nomadic Congress continued its travels to the Maryland capital, the home of the U.S. Navy. Meeting under the leaky dome of the still-unfinished Maryland State House, delegates first convened on Nov. 26, 1783. Inside the Senate chamber, Washington resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on Dec. 23, 1783, if you ever wondered why he resigned here, now you know. He rode off, returning to Mount Vernon and wife Martha as a private citizen. He had been away from home continually for eight years. Washington was now retired to life as a Virginia planter … or so he thought. Congress also ratified the Treaty of Paris in Annapolis on Jan. 14, 1784, officially putting an end to the war and solidifying independence, before leaving the Maryland capital in August 1784. The Maryland State House remains the oldest state capitol building in continuous legislative use, and Washington’s personal copy of his resignation speech is on display in its rotunda.

7. Trenton, New Jersey

The Congress 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 Nov. 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. The building returned to its use as a tavern before being razed in 1837 to make room for a bank. In fairness to our founders, while at Carpenters’ Hall and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, much business was conducted in City Tavern. I never visit Philadelphia without dining at City Tavern.

8. New York City

In January 1785, the Congress convened in New York’s old City Hall on Wall Street, and for more than five years it served as the seat of American power. In reality, in many ways it still is. 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. Fraunces Tavern still stands as a museum owned by the Sons of the Revolution. It was here after the war that Washington held his famous farewell with his officers. 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 Hall. During 9-11 as buildings around it crumbled, Fraunces Tavern stood steadfast. Inside was the Bible upon which Washington took his oath as president. It is owned by the New York Freemasons, and they were able to rescue it unscathed.

9. Washington, D.C.

The Residence Act of July 16, 1790, put the nation’s capital in current-day Washington, D.C. It was a swampy area picked by George Washington, who carefully chose the site on the Potomac River’s navigation head to accommodate oceangoing ships, and also be near two well-established colonial port cities. Those are Georgetown, a section of the city of Washington, and Alexandria, Virginia. It is conveniently just upriver from Mount Vernon, and the Washington Monument can just be seen from the lawn.

This location bridged the Northern and Southern states, but Washington called it “the gateway to the interior” because he hoped it would also serve to economically bind the Western territories to the Eastern Seaboard — the Tidewater and the Piedmont regions — and thereby secure the allegiance of the frontier to the new country. Remember, the West at that time was Pittsburgh to the north and Knoxville here in Tennessee. Granted, the regions along the Ohio River, including Kentucky, were opening up. Nashville was established early, but it was out in the middle of the wilderness.

One story floated was that the location of D.C. was a compromise over slavery, because a capital in a Northern state would seem too sympathetic to abolitionists. The truth is there were several factors. Having to deal with the state government in Pennsylvania was not a pleasant chore. The governor’s refusal to send state troops against the rowdy soldiers in 1783 left Congress with a grudge against Pennsylvania.

The slavery issue referenced above is a modern concoction, as the real issues were having a state government, as in Pennsylvania, trying to override the federal government. That is why Washington, D.C. is not under the umbrella of Maryland or Virginia. Just as important was it being a central location. Travel was long and hard in the 1780s. Southerners coming to the capital had longer distances to travel and the roads were bad or nonexistent. There are a lot of stories tied to this in a “he said, she said”-type epic. A lot of backroom wheeling and dealing took place as in any political move.

While we now have the marble city of Washington, D.C., there remain those bonds with the other brief capitals. Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation and the cradle of liberty. Liberty was conceived at Lexington and Concord when the “shots heard around the world” were fired.

Then I must wonder: how did Boston fail to be the capital for at least a day?

Boston is known as “the birthplace of the American Revolution” because many historic events took place there during the war. Once the Revolution started in April of 1775, Boston became an important military objective to both the British and the colonists. One would think Congress could have found a nice tavern to meet in for at least a day in Boston. That would have added a nice, even number 10 to my list of capitals. My friends, it is not so, but Boston is no less important than other cities to our nation’s independence.

Greene County historian Tim Massey is an award-winning writer for Civil War News with more than 40 photos featured on various magazine covers. He has served on various boards and held positions in several historic organizations. He can be reached at horses319@comcast.net.

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