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Construction Began on United States Capitol Building - This Day in History - September 18th

Posted on Friday, September 18, 2020

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On This Day in History, September 18th, Construction Began on the United States Capitol Building, 1793

George Washington Laying Cornerstone for United States Capitol Building - Mural by Allyn Cox

The Residence Act of 1790, brokered in a compromise by Alexander Hamilton, established the plan for a new Federal Capital to be built upon the Potomac River. The Residence Act also moved the Capital of the United States from New York to Philadelphia, which had previously served as the Capital of the United States throughout most of the Revolutionary War. The move to Philadelphia was intended to be temporary, and the plan was for Philadelphia to only serve as Capital city for ten years while the new Federal capital was constructed in what would become Washington, D.C. Government officials in Philadelphia, however saw the move as an opportunity to permanently secure the Capital of the United States. 

President George Washington moved forward with plans for a new Capital on the Potomac, securing land and organizing a committee to plan and build the new city. Construction of The White House began in 1792, but progress was slow and the enormous undertaking of building a new city from scratch had a difficult path forward considering America's financial struggles in its early history. Undeterred by Washington's efforts to build a new Federal capital as planned, government leaders in Philadelphia made efforts to ensure that the Federal Government felt welcome in Philadelphia. The Governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Mifflin, a general in the Revolutionary War who had served for a time as George Washington's aide, was a leading figure in this advocacy.

Mifflin authorized the expansion of Congress Hall to ensure enough room for members of Congress and also set about constructing a permanent mansion for the President of the United States in Philadelphia. The grand mansion which was located on Ninth Street, began construction in 1792, the same year construction began on the White House.

Plans to persuade the Federal Government to remain in Philadelphia were put in disarray in 1793 when Philadelphia was hit by one of the most deadly epidemics in United States History. Philadelphia's Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 killed thousands and displaced thousands more. Up to a fifth of the city's population perished in the Yellow Fever Epidemic, and the Federal government was forced to abandon Philadelphia until conditions were safe enough for their return.

While Philadelphia struggled with the Yellow Fever Epidemic, to the south George Washington was already looking toward the next Capital. On September 18, 1793, Washington traveled to Washington D.C. to celebrate the beginning of the construction of the United States Capitol Building. Washington laid the ceremonial cornerstone, and he participated in festivities that included artillery fire and brass bands.

While the government was able to return to Philadelphia after the Yellow Fever epidemic subsided, serious discussion of the Capital remaining in Philadelphia largely ceased, and efforts intensified to ensure the new Federal Capital to the South would be ready to receive the government when the time came.

Congress moved into the still unfinished United States Capitol Building on November 17, 1800 after a decade in Philadelphia. Washington did not get to see the new Capitol Building that he dedicated go into use since he had died the prior year in 1799. The grand Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia was completed in 1797, but never was used for its intended purposes. It was sold in 1800 to the University of Pennsylvania which used the building until 1829 when the University demolished the building for the construction of a new building. The University of Pennsylvania continued to use the property until their move to West Philadelphia in 1872.

You can learn more about the dark days of Philadelphia's Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 on our Yellow Fever Tour, click here for more information.

Philadelphia's Presidential Mansion that Never Was

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