How many capitals has the United States had? Most people will say two, thinking of Philadelphia and Washington DC or three with the addition of New York City, but very few come up with the right answer of 9.
September 5, 1774 to October 26, 1774: The first national capital was Philadelphia, with the First Continental Congress meeting in Carpenter’s Hall. Philadelphia actually served as the nation’s capital on 9 different occasions.
May 10, 1775 to December 12, 1776: Philadelphia was deemed the national capital for the Second Continental Congress, meeting at the State House.
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December 20, 1776 to February 27, 1777: Baltimore was the next national capital for the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Henry Fite’s House. The move from Philadelphia to Baltimore was prompted by a strong British presence in Pennsylvania.
March 4, 1777 to September 18, 1777: Once again, the Second Continental Congress returned the national capital to the Philadelphia State House.
September 27, 1777: The Second Continental Congress met for one day in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at the Court House after being driven out of Philadelphia by advancing British troops. However, Lancaster wasn’t any safer than Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress left Lancaster to head further away from the British troops.
September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778: The Second Continental Congress temporarily located the nation’s capital in York, Pennsylvania Court House. It was here in York that the Articles of Confederation were drafted. Even though the term ‘United States of America’ was used in the Declaration of Independence, many historians believe that when the same term was used in the Articles of Confederation that it was the first legal document to designate the colonies as the United States of America. The reason they say the term wasn’t legal in the Declaration of Independence is that the colonies were still under British rule at that time. Consequently, York, Pennsylvania refers to itself as the nation’s first capital.
July 2, 1778 to March 1, 1781: The Second Continental Congress again relocated the nation’s capital to the Philadelphia State House, known today as College Hall.
March 1, 1781 to June 21, 1783: The nation’s capital was still located at the Philadelphia State House, but now the Congress and nation was operating under the newly adopted Articles of Confederation.
June 30, 1783 to November 4, 1783: The Congress of the Confederation located the nation’s capital at Nassau Hall on the campus of what is now Princeton, New Jersey. The reported reason why the capital was moved from Philadelphia was because they wanted to escape the mob of Continental Army soldiers that were demanding to be paid for their service. Rather than paying them with money they didn’t have, the Congress of the Confederation slipped away to Princeton. While at Princeton, General George Washington was congratulated for his victory over the British. It was here that the Congress of the Confederation received word of the formal signing of the peace treaty with Great Britain. The foreign minister from the Netherlands was the first foreign minister to be welcomed by the new nation.
November 26, 1783 to August 19, 1784: The Congress of the Confederation moved the nation’s capital to the Maryland State House in Annapolis. While meeting in Annapolis, George Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. It was here that the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified.
November 1, 1784 to December 24, 1784: The Congress of the Confederation relocated the nation’s capital to Trenton, New Jersey. They met at the French Arms Tavern, which might sound suspicious or questionable, but it was one of the larger and more accommodating buildings that met their needs at the time.
January 11, 1785 to Autumn 1788: For the next four years, the Congress of the Confederation met at what was then Fraunce’s Tavern in New York City, better known today as Federal Hall.
March 4, 1789 to August 12, 1790: The Congress of the United States of America continued to meet at Federal Hall in New York City. It was here on April 30, 1789 that George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States. One of the concerns that Washington had was the ever moving national capital. He believed that the country needed a permanent location for the capital. As a result, Congress passed the Act for Establishing the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States, better known as the Residency Act, that gave Washington the authority to select and plan a permanent location for the national capital.
At the time, there was a lot of contention between the early politicians as to where the capitol should be located. Southerners wanted the capital in the south and the northerners wanted the capital in the north with New York City and Philadelphia being the prime choices.
The Residency Act granted the federal government up to and not exceeding 10 miles square. Washington chose a sight along the Potomac River about 20 miles southwest of Baltimore. The location was both politically and geographically in the middle of the original 13 states.
Originally, the location was a diamond covering 100 square miles, that stretched to both sides of the Potomac in Maryland and Virginia. (In 1846, the land on the Virginia side of the river was returned to the state of Virginia because of the slave trade.)
Washington chose Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the national capital. L’Enfant was a Frenchman who had come to America to help fight for freedom from the British. He was tasked with laying out the ideas of Washington and build a national capital in 10 years.
December 6, 1790 to May 14, 1800: Congress returned for the last time to Philadelphia Congress Hall to conduct the nation’s business while the new permanent capital was being built.
On the day, May 15, 1800, President John Adams ordered Congress to pack up and leave Philadelphia for the last time and move to the new capital.
In September 1791, the new capital was named in honor of George Washington and the alleged discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus. The new name was Washington Territory of Columbia. In 1871, the Territory of Columbia was renamed the District of Columbia.
November 17, 1800: Congress officially met for the first time in the new permanent capital of the United States and has continued to meet there ever since.
Sources for the above includes: Washington D.C., 1800; The Compromise that Created Our Capital; President John Adams Orders Federal Government to Washington, D.C.; On This Day: Congress Moves to Washington, D.C.; The Senate Moves to Washington; The Nine Capitals of the United States; Residence Act; A Brief History of Pierre L’Enfant and Washington, D.C.; How Did Washington, D.C., Get its Name?.