Capital of the United States (Selection of Philadelphia)


As the national capital from 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the seat of the federal government for a short but crucial time in the new nation’s history. How and why Congress selected Philadelphia as the temporary Unites States capital reflects the essential debates of the era, particularly the balance of power between North and South. These debates, as well as the creation of new national institutions and the rise of political parties, defined Philadelphia’s decade as the capital city and created an enduring connection to the early national period.

Philadelphia’s selection in 1790 as the temporary national capital followed the drafting of the new federal Constitution, which authorized Congress to enact legislation for the establishment of a permanent seat of government. After departing Philadelphia in 1783, Congress convened in cities as varied Princeton, New Jersey; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland, before settling in New York in 1785. As a candidate for the permanent capital, Philadelphia’s size, wealth, and central location weighed in its favor, yet congressmen from both New England and the Southern states considered

Photograph of Congress Hall
For ten years, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate met in Congress Hall, Sixth and Chestnut Streets. (Visit Philadelphia)

Philadelphia too urban, as well as hot and prone to outbreaks of disease. By and large, sectional conflicts and whether or not the capital should be a commercial city animated the debate and guided Congress’ efforts to find a location “consistent with convenience to the navigation of the Atlantic Ocean, and having due regard to the particular situation of the Western Country.”

Western Contenders

Indeed, the perceived need to secure the ever-expanding western frontier against foreign foes and indigenous independence movements keenly influenced the location of the permanent federal capital. Whereas in 1783 all proposed sites hugged tidewater or lay slightly inland, by 1787 most contenders were farther west, including Lancaster; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Fredericksburg, Virginia, as well as a tract of land on the Potomac jointly offered by Maryland and Virginia. Western expansion similarly informed the contest between North and South to secure the capital, as each region adopted a different geographic calculus to advance its case. While Northern advocates focused on current population centers, placing the city east of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River, Southern promoters emphasized future growth and the implicit and unstated elevation of the agrarian, slave-based economy from minority to majority status. Notably, both sides assumed a natural alliance between Southern and Western political interests, a crucial consideration given the capital’s potential to enhance the power and leverage of the region in which it was located.

By 1790, two dozen sites, located on or near the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, the Susquehanna, the Chesapeake, and the Potomac, had been proposed publicly as candidates for the capital city. The Philadelphia region figured prominently in several proposals, which alternately incorporated portions of Southwark, Northern Liberties, Byberry, and Germantown. Several prominent Philadelphians, including Tench Coxe (1755-1824), Robert Morris (1734-1806), and Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), lobbied on the city’s behalf, with Morris going so far as to offer his mansion on High Street as the presidential residence. For their part, Philadelphia’s citizens flooded Congress with petitions and the City Council pledged money for both remodeled federal housing and public buildings, including a new city hall and a courthouse built on the same square as the existing Pennsylvania State House.

Ultimately, the issue of assumption, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s (1757-1804) plan for the federal government to assume the states’ war debts, determined the capital’s permanent location. Facing resistance from states like Virginia that had already resolved their debts, Hamilton wedded the questions of assumption and the federal capital together in hopes of striking a political bargain that advanced his cause. While Robert Morris negotiated with Hamilton to establish the capital in Germantown or at the Falls of the Delaware, a deal never came to fruition. Instead, wary of Virginia’s opposition to the assumption plan, Hamilton struck a deal with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) that provided enough Northern votes for a federal capital on the Potomac. In exchange for the Pennsylvania delegation’s support, Coxe and Morris negotiated a plan to relocate the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years. The final compromise, the Residence Act of 1790, passed both houses of Congress in July 1790.

Skepticism Over a Capital on the Potomac

image of exterior of first bank of the united states
The Bank of the United States (later called the First Bank of the United States) was created and approved by Congress in 1791 after fierce debate, as a way to help the financial posture of the early government and carry the federal debt. (Library of Congress)

As New Yorkers decried the loss of the capital, Philadelphians embraced the city’s status as the temporary capital and hoped that, once the federal government settled in Philadelphia, inertia would keep it there permanently. While the Potomac seemed best situated to strengthen and preserve the connection between the North, South, and West, many were skeptical that a new capital constructed out of so-called “wilderness” was preferable to the nation’s largest city. As one Baltimore newspaper argued, the “idea of fixing their Residence in the Woods, can only be agreeable to a Congress of hermits.” A Connecticut humorist similarly proposed a constitutional amendment banning Congress from establishing itself “in an Indian wigwam …[or] in the howling wilderness.” Nonetheless, under the leadership of President George Washington (1732-99), plans for a Potomac capital continued apace as Congress reconvened in Philadelphia.

In December 1790, Philadelphia stretched approximately nine blocks north and south along the Delaware River. Per the first federal census, the population of the city and its adjacent districts was 42,520 inhabitants. While the United States Supreme Court occupied City Hall, the House of Representatives and Senate convened in what became known as Congress Hall, a Philadelphia County courthouse recently erected just west of the State House. Over the ensuing decade, these walls bore witness to several key events in the nation’s formative period, including the ratification of the Bill of Rights and Jay’s Treaty, President John Adams’ inauguration, and the passage of both the federal Fugitive Slave Act and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress also passed legislation to establish the First Bank of the United States, the U.S. Mint, and the federal tariff, thereby enacting Secretary Hamilton’s plan to create the nation’s first financial center and spur maritime commerce and commercial growth.

As the federal capital, Philadelphia boasted a diverse population that included foreign dignitaries, representatives of many Indian peoples, and a significant free Black community, all of whom animated its political culture and enhanced the city’s reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in the new republic. The concentration of government activity around Sixth and Chestnut Streets notably afforded constituents easy, daily access to their representatives and increased Philadelphians’ political participation to levels unmatched over the next century. Between 1790 and 1800, Philadelphia’s elections were watched for signs of national political developments, most critically Federalists’ declining support and the rise of a two-party system. The growth of partisan politics was likewise evident in the city’s print culture, especially newspapers like the Aurora and Gazette of the United States that increasingly aligned with either the Federalist or Jeffersonian factions. As the federal government prepared to depart Philadelphia in 1800, change was on the horizon for both the nation and the city, whose loss of the federal capital arguably marked the end of its role as the preeminent American metropolis. Nonetheless, the legacy of Philadelphia’s tenure as the national capital endures in the national institutions that first took root in Philadelphia and whose physical presence provides a boon for historical tourism and a trademark of civic identity.

 Hillary S. Kativa received her B.A. in History and English from Dickinson College (2005) and her M.A. in History from Villanova University (2008). Her research interests include American political history and presidential campaigns, public history, and digital humanities. (Author information current at time of publication)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


First Bank of the United States

Library of Congress

The Bank of the United States (later called the First Bank of the United States) was created and approved by Congress in 1791 after fierce debate, as a way to help the financial posture of the early government and carry the federal debt. Designed by Samuel Blodgett in a neoclassical style, the Bank of the United States building on Third Street between Chestnut and Market Streets took two years to construct and was completed in 1797. The federal government only chartered the bank for twenty years, and wealthy Philadelphian Stephen Girard purchased the bank building in 1811. Ownership of the building shifted to the City of Philadelphia after Girard's death in 1831, but the bank building remained occupied by Girard Bank until 1929. The National Park Service purchased the building for Independence National Historical Park in 1955 and restored the building's exterior for the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

State House

Library of Congress

William Birch produced this 1799 engraving of the Pennsylvania State House--later known as Independence Hall--when the building was was part of the complex serving as the Capitol of the United States. The House of Representatives, United States Senate, and Supreme Court all met here. In this rendering, a group of Native Americans who have come to negotiate a treaty is depicted in the foreground.

Congress Hall

Visit Philadelphia

For ten years, members of both the House of Representatives and Senate met in the same building at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets.
The building was constructed in 1787 as one of two buildings added to the State House Square. Originally designed as the Philadelphia County Courthouse, it was converted in 1790 for the use of the federal congress when Philadelphia became the nation's capital through the Residence Act of 1790.
After the federal government moved to Washington, D.C., in 1800, Congress Hall became a county municipal building. It was restored to its 1796 appearance through multiple renovations starting in 1913 and continuing through the twentieth century. The building became part of Independence National Historical Park, authorized by Congress in 1948.

The President's House, Watercolor

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

At the President's House, located at Sixth and High (now Market) Streets, George Washington and John Adams resided and developed policy while Philadelphia served as the nation's capital, prior to the federal government's move to the District of Columbia. This watercolor by William L. Breton depicts the President's House as it would have looked in the 1790s.

President's House Site

Visit Philadelphia

The President's House site, shown here soon after its opening in 2010, is located at Sixth and Market Streets in Independence National Historical Park. The open-air exhibit consists of partial walls that suggest the appearance of the structure while George Washington and John Adams resided there. The exhibit interprets the national policies created in the President's House, the narrative of slavery in the United States in the country's early years, and the story of nine slaves who were owned by Washington and who lived within this house during his presidency.

(Photograph by G. Widman)

The House Intended for the President

Library Of Congress

Although Philadelphia had been chosen to be the nation's temporary capital for a decade--after which Washington, D.C., would become capital--some in Pennsylvania hoped to prolong Philadelphia's role as the center of government. Toward that end, the mansion depicted here was constructed with the intention that it would be the president's home, perhaps helping to sway sentiment if the District of Columbia's development did not unfold as planned. The new house was located at High Street (modern-day Market Street) and Ninth, about four blocks from Congress Hall.

Work on the house started in 1792, two years after Philadelphia became the capital, with the expectation that it would be offered as a home to George Washington. But by the time it was completed in 1797 Washington was no longer president. So it was offered to then-president John Adams, who declined, choosing to remain in the house previously occupied by Washington (and today commemorated with the President's House exhibit at Market and Sixth Streets).

The image shown here is a hand-colored version of an engraving by William Birch & Son that appeared in the book The City of Philadelphia It Appeared in the Year 1800. The original is in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The building was used by the University of Pennsylvania until 1829, when it was demolished. Today the land where the intended president's house had been is occupied by the Robert N. C. Nix Sr. Federal Building and Post Office, built in 1937.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Bowling, Kenneth R.  Creating the federal city, 1774-1800: Potomac fever. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1988.

Bowling, Kenneth R. Neither in a wigwam nor the wilderness, competitors for the federal capital, 1787-1790. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1988.

Fortenbaugh, Richard.  The Nine Capitals of the United States. York, Pa.: Maple Press
Company, 1948.

Miller, Richard G.  Philadelphia – The Federalist City: A Study of Urban Politics, 1789-1801.
Port Washington, N.Y: Kennikat Press, 1976.

Mires, Charlene.  Independence Hall in American Memory.  Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Nash, Gary B.  First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Weigley, Russell F., ed.  Philadelphia: A 300-Year History.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1982.

Related Collections

Coxe Family Papers (Collection 2049), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

James Madison Papers, 1723–1836, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Related Places

Congress Hall, Sixth and Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia.

First Bank of the United States, 120 S. Third Street, Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall), 520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.

President’s House (Robert Morris mansion), 190 High Street (Sixth and Market Streets), Philadelphia.


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