Glory Day: Lancaster's Brief Stint as Our Nation's Capital

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If you’ve visited Lancaster, Penn., you probably remember it as a nice mid-sized city right in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. What you might not know is that 236 years ago today, it became our young country’s third capital city, a position it held only briefly. Very, very briefly. Let’s take a look at how Lancaster became our capital for a single day.

Get Out of Town

Things began looking grim for Philadelphia, the old capital city, in September 1777.

British forces under General William Howe had been advancing north from the Chesapeake Bay in an effort to capture the revolutionary capital, and American 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 rebellious colonists had little choice but to retreat after the British appeared on their flank. Although Washington’s forces would sporadically engage 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 waltzed unopposed into the City of Brotherly Love.

The crushing military defeat was obviously bad news for the colonial cause, but it had political repercussions, too. As the capture of Philadelphia became a foregone conclusion, the Second Continental Congress realized that it needed to find a new revolutionary capital pronto. The delegates packed up their gear and hoofed it 60 miles west of Philly 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.

Just like that, Lancaster became the third capital of the fledgling nation. (Baltimore had also briefly served as the capital between December 20, 1776 and February 27, 1777.) 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.

On the Road Again

Even a 60-mile buffer from the British forces in Philadelphia seemed a bit thin given the easy march the red coats had just made into the old capital, so after one day in Lancaster, the Continental Congress again packed its bags. This time the delegates headed to York, Penn., which offered another 20 miles of cushion from the British. Plus, York was nestled on the western side of the Susquehanna River, which made it easier to defend from potential British encroachment.

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.

Lancaster wasn’t the only unexpected capital in the country’s early days—Princeton, Annapolis, and Trenton all had stints of their own under the Articles of Confederation—but its time at the top was certainly the shortest. Today we tip our caps towards Pennsylvania in honor of the 236th anniversary of Lancaster’s brief moment in the sun.

This article originally appeared in 2011.

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September 27, 2013 - 7:05am
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