New York City Becomes America’s First Capital
On September 13, 1788, New York City was established as America’s first capital under the Constitution of the United States.
New York had already hosted the nation’s legislature and served as the de facto capital since 1785. In late 1784, the Contental Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, voted to make New York City it’s meeting place until a federal district on the banks of the Delaware River near Philadelphia could be completed. They chose Old City Hall, which was then renamed Federal Hall, to serve as capital building. Federal Hall was then redesigned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who later became famous for designing the layout of Washington, D.C. Congress met for the first time in Federal Hall on January 11, 1785.
Three years later, the U.S. Constitution was ratified, outlining the roles of the national government. The new Congress had several decisions to make – including where the seat of government should be. It was an issue of great debate. Some wanted to remain in New York City, while others wanted to meet in Philadelphia, Annapolis, Baltimore, or Lancaster. Finally, on September 13, they passed an ordinance declaring the capital would remain at the “the present Seat of Congress,” specifically leaving out reference to New York City because of the bitterness felt by some.
The following year, Federal Hall was the site of Washington’s inauguration, the first meetings of Congress and the Supreme Court, and the drafting of the Bill of Rights. In 1790, talks continued on where the permanent capital would be. It was a controversial debate. Some wanted to make lower Manhattan into a federal district. Others didn’t want the capital to be in such a commercially-oriented location. In part, there were fears that the city might have aristocratic leanings, as members of high society still enjoyed British fashions and luxuries as well as court-style entertaining. After much debate, it was finally decided that New York wouldn’t make a suitable capital, largely due to financial concerns. Congress met for the last time in Federal Hall on August 12, 1790, before relocating to Philadelphia, and later Washington, D.C.
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