A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

York, Pennsylvania: First capital of the United States?

December 10, 2004

Dear Cecil:

I grew up in Dover, Pennsylvania, a suburb of York (of Peppermint Pattie, barbell, and air conditioner fame). I learned in school that York was the first capital of the United States (banners all over the city say so too). My wife grew up in central PA and never heard such a story. Has my hometown written itself a separate history for the sake of ego and (hopefully) tourism, or does it have a credible claim?

Cecil replies:

It does, but let's not exaggerate. York wasn't the first capital; it was the fourth. It wasn't capital of the United States of America, a usage that wasn't formalized until 1781, when the Articles of Confederation were ratified. Rather it was capital of the united states, or, to be more accurate (if a lot less catchy), the generally cooperating former English colonies of the north Atlantic seaboard except for Canada. Finally, York was never formally proclaimed the capital; it was merely capital by virtue of the fact that what passed for a national government, the Continental Congress, met there from September 1777 to June 1778. Notwithstanding these quibbles, and the fact that, as other Pennsylvanians will insist on pointing out, it's now an industrial town better known for barbells, candy, etc, York can legitimately claim to have been one of "the nine capitals of the United States" — as it's put in the title of a 1948 book in which historian Robert Fortenbaugh charmingly tells the story of York and other erstwhile capitals. Let's see the swells of Bala Cynwyd top that.

The nation's first capital was Philadelphia, then the great metropolis of North America with a population of more than 40,000. In December 1776, however, in the face of advancing British forces, the Continental Congress hurriedly adjourned to Baltimore (capital #2). The delegates were not enthusiastic about Baltimore, a muddy burg of 6,000; one ungraciously described it as an "extravagant hole." They were only too happy to return to Philly in March 1777 when the military situation stabilized.

Matters deteriorated anew in September. With Philadelphia at the point of capture, Congress again bolted, this time heading for Lancaster, Pennsylvania (capital #3). There it met for exactly one day before deciding the Brits were still too close for comfort. The delegates forthwith repaired to York (capital #4), which was safely on the other side of the Susquehanna River.

York at the time was not one of your throbbing urban centers, having 1,800 residents, 286 houses, and just over a dozen taverns. Even though there was a war on, affairs of state there were conducted at a leisurely pace — not necessarily a bad thing. As one of their first official acts, delegates resolved that "Congress shall meet precisely at ten o'Clock A.M.[,] sit to one, then adjourn to four, P.M. [presumably in the interest of Lunch]; then to meet and proceed on business." A lot of us could get used to a schedule like that.

Despite its diffident air, York was the scene of momentous events, among them the announcement of General Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, which occasioned the proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving. On November 15, 1777, Congress approved the final draft of the Articles of Confederation, which was then sent to the states for ratification. On the strength of these developments Benjamin Franklin, in Paris, concluded an alliance with France, which Congress enthusiastically endorsed on May 4, 1778. In June the British abandoned Philadelphia, to which Congress immediately returned; nonetheless while in York the fledgling nation had taken critical steps on the road to independence, and the town's citizens could rightly boast: Truly have we been hosts to history.

This is probably more than residents of subsequent capitals felt like saying. Philadelphia remained the seat of government until 1783, when Congress fled yet again, this time intimidated not by a British army but by unruly soldiers demanding back pay. Having no power to tax or otherwise compel attention, the national government and with it the capital drifted from Princeton (#5) to Annapolis (#6), Trenton (#7), and finally New York (#8), frequently failing to meet due to lack of a quorum. In 1787 fed up delegates decided to pitch the Articles of Confederation in favor of a proper constitution, which among other things provided for a permanent capital. Although a plea was made on behalf of York, sectional considerations led to the building of a new city on the Potomac, with Philly again serving as capital until Washington (#9) was declared open for business in 1800. A sleepy mud hole itself for many years, Washington is now … well, I admit it's become every bit as grand as Philadelphia — and you see where that's gotten us. Surely parties on both sides of the aisle will sympathize with the thought: Wouldn't we be better off back in York?

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