On this date in 1777 Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the capital of the United States for one day, after the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia because it had been captured by the British. The revolutionary government then moved still farther away to York, Pennsylvania. I’ll give a few details about Lancaster (and other dribble) first, and then move to a more general discussion about capital cities.
Lancaster was originally called Hickory Town but the city was renamed after the English city of Lancaster by native John Wright. Its symbol, the red rose, was the symbol of the House of Lancaster. There’s a certain droll irony in both Lancaster and York being capitals of the nascent United States given that they were “capitals” of rival factions during the Wars of the Roses. The House of Lancaster was represented by the red rose and the House of York by the white rose – hence wars of roses. The word “capital” here is not strictly apposite. Lancaster and York in England are more correctly styled the “county seats” of Lancashire and Yorkshire, political and military centers for the ancient duchies of Lancaster and York. Nowadays the reigning monarch is the claimant to the duchy of Lancaster, and the monarch’s 2nd son is given the title duke of York.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was part of the 1681 Penn’s Woods Charter of William Penn, and was laid out by James Hamilton in 1734. It was incorporated as a borough in 1742. Things were looking grim for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September 1777. British forces under General William Howe had been advancing north from the Chesapeake Bay in an effort to capture Philadelphia, and forces led by George Washington had moved south of Philadelphia to intercept the invading force. On September 11, Washington’s men clashed with Howe’s troops in the Battle of Brandywine.
The battle was a catastrophe for the Continental Army. Howe outmaneuvered Washington, and the colonists had little choice but to retreat after the British appeared on their flank. Although Washington’s forces sporadically engaged the advancing British soldiers over the next two weeks, the loss at Brandywine effectively ended the chances of successfully defending Philadelphia. On September 26, 1777, the British marched unopposed into the city.
On hearing the news of the defeat at Brandywine the Second Continental Congress realized that it needed to find a new revolutionary capital post haste. The delegates packed up their gear and moved quickly the 60 miles west of Philadelphia to Lancaster. On September 27, 1777, just one day after the British strolled into Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in Lancaster’s county courthouse, a building that had been constructed in the town square in 1737. The Continental Congress got some work done that day, including electing Benjamin Franklin as commissioner to negotiate a treaty with France, but the delegates didn’t have much time to get comfortable.
The 60-mile buffer between Philadelphia and Lancaster seemed a bit thin given how easily the British troops had marched into Philadelphia, so they packed their bags and moved the additional 20 miles to York, where, in addition to the extra distance, the Susquehanna River made the site more defensible. The Second Continental Congress had a longer stay in York. The delegates met in York’s courthouse from September 30, 1777, all the way through June 27, 1778, at which time the congress moved back to Philadelphia.
The Articles of Confederation of the United States stipulate that the capital is the place where Congress meets. Thus, there have been NINE capitals of the US:
Chronological Table of the Capitals
First Continental Congress
September 5, 1774 to October 24, 1774:
Philadelphia, Carpenter’s Hall
Second Continental Congress
May 10, 1775 to December 12, 1776:
Philadelphia, State House
December 20, 1776 to February 27, 1777:
Baltimore, Henry Fite’s House
March 4, 1777 to September 18, 1777:
Philadelphia, State House
September 27, 1777:
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Court House
September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778:
York, Pennsylvania, Court House
July 2, 1778 to March 1, 1781:
Philadelphia, College Hall, then State House
Congress under the Articles of Confederation
March 1, 1781 to June 21, 1783:
Philadelphia, State House
June 30, 1783 to November 4, 1783:
Princeton, New Jersey, “Prospect,” then Nassau Hall
November 26, 1783 to August 19, 1784:
Annapolis, Maryland, State House
November 1, 1784 to December 24, 1784:
Trenton, New Jersey, French Arms Tavern
January 11, 1785 to Autumn 1788:
New York, City Hall, then Fraunce’s Tavern
Congress under the Constitution
March 4, 1789 to August 12, 1790:
New York, Federal Hall
December 6, 1790 to May 14, 1800:
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County Building–Congress Hall
November 17, 1800 – present:
Washington, U.S. Capitol
We can get into a bit of quibbling match concerning whether the cities that housed Congress before the Articles of Confederation were “true” capitals, and purists often do. You can also argue whether or not the United States existed as a nation before the Treaty of Paris of 1783 which ended the Revolutionary War and recognized the independence of the nation from Britain. Nevertheless, a breakaway state can have a capital whether it is recognized by other nations or not. This, then, leads to a consideration of what constitutes a capital city.
Typically, a capital city (or simply capital) is the municipality exercising primary status in a country, state, province, or other administrative region, usually as its seat of government. A capital is most commonly a city that physically encompasses the offices and meeting places of its respective government; the status as capital is often designated by its law or constitution. In some jurisdictions, including several countries, the different branches of government are located in different settlements. In some cases, a distinction is made between the official (constitutional) capital and the seat of government, which is in another place. Capital cities that are both the centers of government and the prime economic, cultural, and intellectual centers of a nation or an empire are sometimes referred to as primate cities. Examples include Athens, Beijing, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Cairo, London, Mexico City, Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Warsaw.
The modern capital city has, however, not always existed. In the ancient and medieval world a migrating form of government, the itinerant court, was more common. This manner of ruling a country is particularly strongly associated with German history, where the emergence of a capital city took an unusually long time. The German itinerant regime (“Reisekönigtum”) was, from the Frankish period and up to late medieval times, the usual form of royal or imperial government. The Holy Roman Emperors, in the Middle Ages and even later, did not rule from any permanent central residence. They constantly traveled, with their family and court, through the kingdom.
The Holy Roman Empire did not have even a rudimentary capital city; the emperor and other princes ruled by constantly changing their residence. Imperial dwelling-places were typically palaces built by the Crown, sometimes episcopal cities. The routes followed by the court during the journeys are usually called “itineraries”. Palaces were notably erected in accessible, fertile areas – surrounded by Crown mansions, where imperial rights to local resources existed. These princely estates were scattered around the whole country. The composition of the ruler’s retinue changed constantly, depending on what area the court was passing through, and which noblemen joined their master on the trip, or left him again.
During the course of a year, impressive distances were passed through. German historians calculate for example, on the basis of royal letters and charters, that Emperor Henry VI and his entourage in 1193 (between January 28 and December 20) traversed more than 4,000 kilometers – crisscrossing the entire German area. A reconstruction of destinations gives the following chronological route: Regensburg – Würzburg – Speyer – Hagenau – Straßburg – Hagenau – Boppard – Mosbach – Würzburg – Gelnhausen – Koblenz – Worms – Kaiserslautern – Worms – Haßloch – Straßburg – Kaiserslautern – Würzburg – Sinzig – Aachen – Kaiserswerth – Gelnhausen – Frankfurt am Main – and finally Gelnhausen again.
Nowadays there is a host of different possibilities for capital cities, as there has been in the past. For example, having 2 capitals is not uncommon. Usually this means that one city is the official capital, but the national government meets in another. For example, in Chile, Santiago is the official capital, site of many government offices but the national government meets in Valparaiso. Some countries actually have no official capital cities. Neither Paris nor London are official capitals.
Then there are countries, such as Myanmar, where I live right now, that never seem to be able to make up their minds. In the past the capital was wherever the king wanted it to be. After independence from Britain it was Yangon (Rangoon). Right now the official capital is Naypyidaw but you’d never know it. Yangon is the largest city as well as the hub of business, transport, and most of the judiciary and embassies. Naypyidaw was founded in 2002 and is still pretty much a wasteland. The real reason for the move is not known. Some say it was a vanity project of political strongman general Than Shwe. But also, Naypyidaw is more centrally located than Yangon. It is also a transportation hub located adjacent to the Shan, Kayah, and Kayin states which have been historically turbulent regions because of ethnic conflict, and some leaders felt that a stronger military and governmental presence nearby might provide stability. The official explanation for moving the capital was that Yangon had become too congested and crowded with little room for future expansion of government offices.
Capital City, LLC, is a Washington DC business founded in 2011 to produce some rocking down home foods. Their website is here, https://www.shopcapitalcity.com with plenty of recipes for you. Their signature product is Mambo Sauce for chicken wings and other dishes. The recipe for the sauce is a proprietary secret of course, but this is supposed to be close. It comes (slightly modified) from here https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/almost-capital-city-mumbo-sauce/13476/?utm_term=.275b9d725c25 Pure cane syrup can be hard to find. Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup is acceptable and reasonably available in the US. Under no circumstances substitute Karo Light Corn Syrup as the original suggests.
Fake Capital City Mambo Sauce
1 cup ketchup
1 cup cane syrup
1 tbsp mild Hungarian paprika
3 tbsp hot sauce
¼ cup water
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
2 tbsp Gentleman Jack whiskey (optional)
Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir to blend well. Once the mixture comes to a steady boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Cool and use right away, or transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use. Will keep for about 2 weeks.