Philly the first – where was the USA’s first capital?

What was the capital of the United States? It certainly wasn’t Washington, D.C. – the nation’s current capital city wasn’t approved by the US Congress until 16 July 1790 and wasn’t founded until 1791.

So which American city can claim to be the first capital? It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer – different places served as temporary capitals at different stages in the USA’s constitutional evolution from 13 colonies to independent nation state.

The First Continental Congress met in the Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1774. This fact gives Philly a strong claim for pre-eminence in the first capital question. It certainly sells this role in history with the historical quarter around Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Constitution Centre. Philadelphia’s position was bolstered by hosting the Second Continental Congress in 1775.

The capital of America under the Articles of Confederation was a travelling political carnival, taking in Philadelphia, Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton and New York. After the Constitution was brought in force in 1789, the United States Congress first convened briefly in New York’s Federal Hall before settling in Philadelphia in 1790 until it finally moved to its new, permanent home in Washington, D.C. a decade later in 1800.

So it is impossible to say which city was the first capital of the United States without determining which United States is being discussed:

  • First Continental Congress – Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia
  • Second Contintental Congress – Independence Hall, Philadelphia
  • Articles of Confederation – Independence Hall, Philadelphia
  • United States Constitution – Federal Hall, New York City

Similarly, the Supreme Court of the United States met in different places before settling in Washington, D.C. in 1800. It first met in New York City, at the Merchants’ Exchange Building, in 1790. The Court followed Congress in moving to Philadelphia in 1791, first setting up shop in Independence Hall and then occupying the Old City Hall.

2 thoughts on “Philly the first – where was the USA’s first capital?

    • Ian

      You’re welcome! Can’t do anything more interesting than vaguely interesting – there would be all kinds of trades description issues.


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