Most of the information I've read pertains to Congress operating from different locations in the years after the U.S. was established. I believe I read that the constitution did declare New York as the capital but that Philadelphia was a temporary meeting place until Washington D.C. could be established.

It probably goes without saying for the folks here, but I'm interested in the capital (the city) not the capitol (the building). I understand there were arguably several "functional" capitals, but I'm interested in the history of officially declared capitals.

  • 2
    Short answer: Yes. See the Wikipedia page on the Residence Act for more detail. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 13:42
  • Both cities have also been the (unofficial) financial capital. Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 14:14
  • I just read the constitution and it makes no mention of the capital and does not specify New York as the capital. It does mention the Federal District but doesn't say where it should be.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 16:56

2 Answers 2


For the purpose of definition, the capital city of a country is generally taken to be its seat of government.

The United States Congress was established following the ratification of the United States Constitution, so one might argue that the "United States" came into existence at that point.

The first session of the United States Congress ("First Congress") formally began on 4 March 1789.

The First Congress passed the Residence Act in 1790. It was signed into law by George Washington on 16 July 1790. At that date, the United States Congress was located in New York, so New York was then the seat of government and so the capital city of the United States.

The Residence Act stipulated that:

... the seat of the government of the United States, shall be removed to, and until the said first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred, shall remain at the city of Philadelphia, in the state of Pennsylvania, at which place the session of Congress next ensuing the present shall be held.

So the seat of government, and therefore the capital city, moved from New York to Philadelphia from 1790 until 1800 while the new seat of government at Washington DC was being built.

So, yes, New York was the seat of government, and so the capital city, from 1789 to 1790; Philadelphia was then the capital city from 1790 to 1800; Washington DC has been the capital city since then.

Of course, if you include the predecessors of the United States Congress, then the United States can be said to have had nine capital cities.. It is just a matter of definition.

  • I find it interesting that my internal (and incorrect) definition of "capital" included some form of formal declaration. However, the common definition means that the "functional" capital (i.e., seat of government) is the formal capital. If home is where the heart is, then the capital is where the Congress is? Lol... Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 19:02
  • 2
    @Matt both come into play to some extent — in Bolivia, the law says that the capital is Sucre, and the Supreme Court is there, but the Presidential palace and the legislature are in La Paz, which is considered the "de facto" capital. There's an interesting history there.
    – hobbs
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 19:50
  • 1
    The capital of The Netherlands is Amsterdam, while the government resides in The Hague. I believe this is the only instance of this phenomenon, but I might be wrong. Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 11:42
  • Depending on your definition of capital, South Africa may have zero, 1 or 3 capitals. Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 15:07

Was New York or Philadelphia ever declared the capital of the United States

Yes when New York became the capital in (1784) and the last time Philadelphia became the capital (July 16, 1790) both were formally declared the capitals of the United States by act of Congress. Only both were named Temporary capitals in congressional acts which tried to set up Federal Districts to become the permanent home of the Federal Government.

Philadelphia was an early capital of the Continental Congress and country before, during and after the Revolutionary War over many iterations. Philadelphia lost the capital during the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783, where former members of George Washington's Continental Army marched on and ultimately captured Congress. Philadelphia was called upon by Congress to assist them but declined. This failure to respond by local officials outside of Congress’s control forced Congress to prioritize a federal district where its authority would be supreme. Congress's eventual release from these Continental Army veterans was negotiated by a young veteran then politician, Alexander Hamilton who served and distinguished himself as one of Washington's aids and lieutenants during the Revolutionary War.

The first "Federal District" was to be prepared on the banks of the Delaware River, outside of Philidelphia. New York was named the temporary home while this federal district was being prepared. When congress ultimately did return to Philadelphia, from New York the political landscape had changed and now Philadelphia was named the temporary capital and a more Southern site on the banks of the Potomac was to be the permanent nations Capital. The same Residency Act which made the site on the Potomac(future Washington DC) the permanent home of the Capital, now named Philadelphia as the temporary capital.

New York was voted to be the home of the United States Congress the year after the Philadelphia Mutiny. In 1784 Congress voted to make New York's old city hall it's temporary home as a new Federal District was being prepared on the banks of the Delaware River near Philadelphia. The first session of Congress held in New York City was Jan. 11, 1785. George Washington took the oath of office in New York City May 1,1789.

New York lost or more accurately, bargained away their claim to host the capital. Moving the capital out of New York city was part of a deal between Thomas Jefferson(Va) and Alexander Hamilton(NY) brokered by George Washington and or James Madison, July 10, 1790. This compromise moved the Capital to the South to lands donated by the States of Maryland and Virginia, in exchange the federal government assuming the Revolutionary War debt of the States. The South needed the sweetener of gaining the capital because unlike the North the South had largely paid their debt prior to the compromise. The act of Congress which codified this move was the Residence Act, July 16, 1790. This act both returned the capital to Philadelphia temporarily and established the banks of the Potomac river as the permanent site for the capital. George Washington was given the honor of selecting the exact site on the Potomac.

Prior to the Philadelphia Mutiny, the United States had about 11 Capitals before during and after the Revolutionary War; some as short as 1 day, others as long as 10 years. The common thread in Congress relocating is fleeing for their personal safety. During the war this meant fleeing from the British which would threaten to capture them, after the war it involved fleeing their own Continental Congress veterans whom congress did not, or could not pay what was owed for their service. Below is a short list of the different capitals, and how long they housed the US Congress; beneath that is a longer more detailed list of dates.

Important Dates:

  • 1774 The Continental Congress meets for the first time at Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall
  • 1774 Congress moves to the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall)
  • July 4, 1776 Continental Congress signs Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia at Independence Hall.
  • December 20, 1776, Due to British Troops, Congress Abandon's Philadelphia in favor of Baltimore Md. ( Henry Fite Tavern, known as Congress Hall )
  • March 1, 1781 - first Constitution for the United States is ratified (Articles of Confederation).
  • June 21, 1788 - US Constitution is Ratified
  • July 9, 1790. - Residence Act which called for a city to be built on the banks of the Potomac River, Washington DC, and the Federal Government with it's 130 officials to move their after it's construction.
  • 1790 - 1800. - Residence Act names Philadelphia as the temporary capital of the United States of America while the Potomac site (Washington DC) is being built.
  • March 4, 1777. - Congress Returns to Philadelphia's Constitution Hall
  • September 27, 1777, After Washington's defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, Congress again abandon's Philadelphia. On this day Congress meets at Lancaster Courthouse about 60 miles south of Philadelphia for 1 day.
  • September 30, 1777 Continental Congress convenes at a more secure location 25 miles west of Lancaster across the Susquehanna River, inside the York County Court House and stays there for Nine months. It is from York which Congress approves the first US constitution. (Articles of Confederation isn't ratified by the states until 1781.
  • June 1778, The British Leave Philadelphia and so Congress returns.
  • 1781 Washington's Victory at Yorktown ends the US Revolutionary War.
  • 1783 Congress again flee's Philadelphia due to Continental Army soldiers demanding the back pay, which would not come for several more years.
  • 1783 Congress moves to Princeton New Jersey, Princeton University, Nassau Hall for four months.
    • receives its first diplomat(Netherlands)
    • receives word of formal end of the Revolutionary War (Paris Treaty).
  • November 26, 1783, Congress Returns to Annapolis Maryland
    • Washington Resigns as Commander of Continental Army.
    • January 14, 1784, Congress Ratifies Treaty of Paris
  • November 1, 1784 Confederation Congress Moves to Trenton NJ and the French Arms Tavern.
  • January 1785 Congress Moves to New York City and stays put for 5 years
    • April 30, 1789 Washington takes oath of office in NY, Federal Hall.

Excerpt from Declaration of Independence where the United States acting collectively declared themselves both independent from Great Britain and a new entity, The United States. This date for the Declaration of Independences, July 4th 1776 is the recognized and accepted birthdate of the United States of America, not the ratification of the Constitution which was the second attempt to organize the United States as a collective.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.

  • 4
    By that definition the "United States" Congress never ratified the Paris Treaty which ended the Revolutionary war. That's right, they didn't. The treaty was actually ratified by the Congress of the Confederation. The Congress of the Confederation would be succeeded by the Congress of the United States (or United States Congress), as provided for in the US Constitution. :) Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 21:26
  • 1
    As an interesting aside, I was once told that the treaty was also never ratified by the Kingdom of Ireland, and so the US remained technically in a state of war with the Kingdom of Ireland until the Union with Ireland Act was passed in 1800 uniting the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. Another one of those little nuggets that I keep meaning to check, but never quite get around to. :) Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 21:40
  • @sempaiscuba, I think the United States was formed not when the constitution was ratified(June 21 1788), but when the colonies decided to act as a collective. The Nation considers it's birthdate July 4th, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Congress's first monument-is decision. Articles of Confederation nor the Constitution were not considered the founding of the country, nor when history starts the clock on it's achievements and milestones.
    – user27618
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 14:18
  • 1
    That is certainly a reasonable interpretation. Like I said in my answer, it's largely a matter of definition. However, the question isn't about the achievements & milestones of the United States, but about the location of its capital city, specifically, whether it was ever in New York or Philadelphia. Happily, the answer to that question is the same whichever definition you prefer. :) Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 14:38
  • 1
    I'm not sure where you think I said that the US doesn't count it's leaders prior to the constitution. I've re-read what I wrote, and I can't see it. My point about the constitution was simply this: There can be many interpretations of exactly when "the United States" came into being as an entity that would require a capital city. While many might argue that it existed earlier (as you have done), I think that everyone would agree that it certainly existed in that sense at the point where the US Constitution was ratified. Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 17:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.