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As Long as We Remember...

September 28, 2011

A “Capital” History Lesson

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Yesterday, September 27, one city in the United States celebrated the anniversary of the occasion when it was the capital of the United States for one day. Can you name that city? How many cities have served as the capital of our nation since September 5, 1774?


For many well-read and knowledgeable political and history junkies, there is nothing more fun than historical trivia. Perhaps because little known gems from history give us a much needed respite from the heated discussions over contemporary politics.


It was Lancaster, PA. According to various sources, including, the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor:


“On September 27th, 1777, Samuel Adams's 55th birthday, Congress convened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then a town of 6,000 nestled into rolling hills that would have been ablaze with autumn color. The delegates reviewed correspondence and field reports from their generals, and discussed how best to supply the Army with firearms, shoes, blankets, stockings, provisions, and other necessaries.


“They also decided that the British were still too close for safety and determined that the following day they would repair to the town of York, comfortably the other side of the Susquehanna River, giving Lancaster the distinction of being the only city to have been the nation's capital for just one day.”


For whatever reason, my column July 20 on, “Mr. Jefferson’s Dinner Deal,” unleashed a wonderful series of conversations with readers over obscure dates and facts in American history.


No, Washington, DC, has not always been the capital of the United States.


And, yes indeed, before Congress first met, in what we now know as the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, on November 17, 1800, the United States seat of government meandered about the East Coast 14 times before settling down under the 8,909,200 pounds of cast iron that make up the U.S. Capitol Dome, the top of which, in case you were curious, is 209 feet lower than the Washington Monument.


Continuing the theme, that if September is not the unofficial American history trivia month, it ought to be; it was on September 18, 1793, that construction began on the Capitol with a groundbreaking ceremony in which President George Washington laid the cornerstone.


And, no, President Washington is not buried in the Capitol. Yes, a place was designed in the Capitol for President Washington to be buried there, but it was his expressed desire that he be buried at Mount Vernon. So the designated tomb area is vacant, to the best of our knowledge anyway.


And yes, the Capitol was used for Sunday church services for many years throughout its history. It was none other than our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who began the practice shortly after he took office on March 4, 1801.


Of course, that may seem a bit paradoxical to those who are aware of Mr. Jefferson’s January 1, 1802, response to a letter of congratulations from the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, in which he penned the phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state…”


However, even the Library of Congress has opined “that Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.”


Nevertheless, “Many in the United States,” notes the Library of Congress, “including the courts, have used this phrase to interpret the Founders' intentions regarding the relationship between government and religion, as set down by the First Amendment to the Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…’ However, the meaning of this clause has been the subject of passionate dispute for the past fifty years.”


Church services took place in the House of Representatives until well after the American Civil War.


Anyway, one may only be sure that most readers know that the capital of the United States was located in the Maryland State House from November 26, 1783 to August 13, 1784 – under the form of government known as the Articles of Confederation, which convened from March 1, 1781 until late summer 1788.


However, did you know that Baltimore was our nation’s capital also? “Henry Fite’s House” served as the third location of the seat of our national government from December 20, 1776, to February 27, 1777.


According to a history note found on the U.S. Senate’s website, which cites the 1948 work of Robert Fortenbaugh, “The Nine Capitals of the United States,” Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia was our first capital when the First Continental Congress met there from September 5, 1774, to October 24, 1774.


The Second Continental Congress began its deliberations at the State House in Philadelphia, from May 10, 1775 to December 12, 1776. In addition to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lancaster, the Second Continental Congress also met in York, PA from September 30, 1777 until June 27, 1778 before moving back to Philadelphia where it ended on March 1, 1781.


The Congress under the Articles of Confederation met in Philadelphia, and then Princeton, NJ, on to Annapolis, followed by Trenton, NJ and back to New York.


Under our present Constitutional form of government, the capital was located in New York, from March 4, 1789, to August 12, 1790. From December 6, 1790 until May 14, 1800, Congress met in Philadelphia – before finally arriving at its current home at the U.S. Capitol on November 17, 1800.


As for Congress’ stay in Baltimore; let’s just say, members of Congress were less than impressed. According to various sources, including, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, “They stayed for two months, and to say they were unenthusiastic about Baltimore is something of an understatement…”


And Stacy Conradt wrote in the magazine, “mental_floss,” Congress “thought Baltimore might be a good temporary home, but they were wrong: one delegate rudely called the town “an extravagant hole.” They returned to Philly as soon as possible…”


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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