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Congress Moves to Washington, D.C. - This Day in History - November 17, 1800

Posted on Wednesday, November 17, 2021

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On This Day in History, November 17, 1800, Congress moves to Washington, D.C. after a decade in Philadelphia.

A Depiction of the Unfinished United States Capital Building in 1800

In the first quarter century of America's history, the Capital of the United States never stayed in one place for very long. Nine cities served as the Capital during this time period that frequently saw the capital on the move to evade British attacks and domestic disturbances. Of the nine cities that served as Capital during this time though, it was Philadelphia that served by far the longest, as the Capital resided in Philadelphia for roughly 16 of the first 24 years of the nation's history. 

Philadelphia served as the first capital of the United States once Independence was declared and the Second Continental Congress, which had been meeting in Philadelphia's Independence Hall became the de facto government of the United States. In the early years during the Revolutionary War, twice the Capital was forced to leave Philadelphia to evade British capture, first to Baltimore and then to Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania. But in each instance it was understood the move was only temporary and once possible, the Capital returned to Philadelphia.

After the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union officially created the United States of America and established an official government, Philadelphia continued to serve as the Capital of the United States. The Capital survived in Philadelphia throughout the rest of the revolution, but following the conclusion of the war, a revolt of former Continental Army Soldiers and the failure of Pennylvania's government to adequately protect Congress from the revolt once again led to the Capital departing Philadelphia, but this time for a much longer period. Over the course of seven years the capital moved to Prinecton, Anapolis, Trenton, and then finally New York City, where the capital settled for five years from 1785-1790. It was during this time period that the new United States Constitution went into effect, and New York City served as the first Capital under the Constitution.

But soon after the Constitution went into effect, the Capital was on the move once again coming home to Philadelphia. The Capital was once again in Philadelphia for a decade from 1790-1800. But while the capital resided in Philadelphia, construction had already begun on a new permanent capital city which would eventually come to be named Washington, District of Columbia. By 1800, Washington, D.C., an entirely new city, built from scratch to serve as the United States Capital, was ready. While not nearly finished, the city was now suitable enough to serve its purpose. The Capital Building which had been under construction for seven years still had many years of construction ahead, but the North Wing had been completed and was ready for Congress to move in. 

Congress adjourned in Philadelphia on May 14, 1800, and then after a very long recess, officially assembled in Washington, D.C. on November 17, 1800. Washington, D.C. has been the Capital of the United States ever since.

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