For 2 years, New York City Was the Capital of the U.S.
Sandwiched in the space of time before Washington D.C. became the capital, and the time when Philadelphia served that function, New York effing City was the capital of the United States.
Prior to September 13, 1788, the first official day, New York had already served Congress as the functional capital for a couple of years.
The colonists were forging a new nation. There were so many details to iron out, but for a few of years, the whole country hung on to New York City like a baby learning to stand.
In 1774, the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia’s Carpenter Hall for the first time. To the people of Philly, it seemed they would wear the crown of the nation’s capital once that nation formed.
The states were still technically colonies in 1774. The continental congress tipped the first domino on July 4, 1776, signing the Declaration of Independence.
They did so at the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall. That would remain the home of Congress until 1783, but for a half dozen times when they fled to other cities for safety reasons. Remember, there was a revolution afoot.
Then, in June of 1783, a hoard of 400 unpaid revolutionary soldiers converged on Independence Hall, demanding back pay. The Governor of Pennsylvania did nothing to stop them, trapping the Congress in the Hall.
Alexander Hamilton sweet talked the crowd into letting the men of Congress leave so they could figure out how to pay the soldiers, but they never came back. First, they went to New Jersey…
What they needed was a federal capital.
The Federal District
The southern states wanted the capital in a southern state. The northern states wanted it in a northern one. Both had their obvious reasons.
The best solution was to create a federal property beholden to no state. In fact, Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power to create a federal district.
It read that such a district would…
“… become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful buildings.”
They needed to decide where. Washington, the man, had his sights on land around the Potomac River, a square of land north of his property in modern Alexandria.
Meanwhile, New York would be the capital.
New York City
When the members of Congress fled Pennsylvania in 1783, they first stopped in New Jersey for a year, it seemed New Jersey would serve as the capital. They even leased the French Arms Tavern, a three story structure, but they ultimately decided New York would make a more suitable temporary home.
In January 1785, Congress moved to the big apple unofficially.
Then, the state of New York ratified the U.S. Constitution on July 26, 1788. Because of this, Congress voted to keep the capital there until they could settle the matter of a federal district.
For two years, New York City remained the official capital of the U.S.
In 1790, on July 16, President George Washington signed the Residence Act. That Act would establish the new federal district on the banks of the Potomac River.
It would take some time to move there and set up shop, but by 1800, New York City ceded the capital to Washington D.C., happy to have held the title for a brief period.
Philly? Not so happy.