Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Capital of the United States Era

First Bank of the United StatesFirst Bank of the United States, Third and Chestnut Streets (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, served as the nation’s capital for one decade in the 1790s. It was a decade of nation-building in many ways, from the drama of politics to the creation of a national culture. The U.S. Congress, meeting in the County Court House (Congress Hall), passed the Naturalization Acts, a Fugitive Slave Act, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. With so many of the young nation’s prominent citizens present, Philadelphia became a magnet for artists who arrived to paint portraits of politicians and other notables. The city also became a capital of African American community-building with the rise of leaders such as Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and James Forten.

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The first U.S. Census found the city of Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs of Southwark and the Northern Liberties to be the most populous urban center in the new nation. Philadelphia’s fortunes — and misfortunes — extended beyond its boundaries. The city’s commercial ties extended to interior Pennsylvania with the construction of the Lancaster Turnpike in 1793-95. And when yellow fever hit in 1793, Philadelphians with the means to do so fled to the countryside of Grays Ferry, Germantown, and South Jersey.

Topics: Capital of the United States

Gallery: Capital of the United States

Timeline: Capital of the United States

Map: Capital of the United States

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