Our History: When New York was the U.S. capital

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Unusual as it may seem, New York City's role as our nation's first capital is rarely more than touched upon by historians today. New York, however, served as our nation's capital for five years from 1785 to 1790, and played a vital role in the formation of our new government after the British were defeated and the Treaty of Paris ended the war.

New York City served as the seat of our nation's legislature and as de facto “capital” from the time when our government was operating under the Articles of Confederation in 1784. It was late in 1784 when the Continental Congress, in which authority was vested at the time, voted to designate New York City as its meeting place until such time as a “federal district” on the banks of the Delaware River near Philadelphia could be completed. They had designated a commission to plan the district and then moved to New York City. Old City Hall, which later became Federal Hall, was then redesigned by Pierre Charles L'Enfant to make it suitable to house the Congress. The first session of the new Congress was held here on Jan. 11, 1785.

Soon after the Constitution was considered ratified, that is when nine states had done so, during the tenure of Cyrus Griffin of Virginia as president of Congress, New York City was officially chosen as the temporary seat of the new government that was soon to be formed. In January 1789, Congress issued directives detailing the choice of presidential electors, and on Feb. 4, 1789, the guidelines for choosing the president.

The first session of the new Congress was set and convened in the city on March 4, 1789. There were only eight senators and 13 representatives present because many delegates were still en route and thus a quorum could not be achieved. When 30 of the 59 members were present, business began. Pennsylvania's Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was chosen speaker. He was the great uncle of William Augustus Muhlenberg, who played so prominent a role in the religious and educational life of early Flushing and College Point.

George Washington arrived in the city on April 30, 1789, and was inaugurated as our first president on the following day. The first act of Congress in New York City was to mandate the procedure for administering oaths of public office. By July, Congress began to organize the executive departments. The first was the Department of Foreign Affairs, soon renamed “The State Department.” Thomas Jefferson was appointed secretary of state, but since he had not yet returned from France, John Jay handled the affairs of state until his return.

In August, the War Department, under Henry Knox, was established and early in September Alexander Hamilton became secretary of the treasury. Within a few months, the attorney-general, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the postmaster general were named. In September 1789, Congress established a 1,000-man army composed of one regiment of eight infantry companies, and one battalion of four artillery companies.

George Washington drew many famous people to the city: statesmen, heroes, and celebrities, including Attorney-General Edmund Randolph, Congressman James Madison and Senator John Hancock.

It was Alexander Hamilton who, it appears, can be credited with working out the compromise that would eventually establish our federal capital on the Potomac instead of in Philadelphia. On July 10, 1790, the House of Representatives voted to locate the planned national capital on a 10-mile site along the Potomac River, with the proviso that the exact place be chosen by President Washington. Philadelphia was designated the temporary capital and Congress moved there in December of 1790.

President Washington personally selected the site for the proposed federal district and the Capitol on the Potomac. The construction of the White House began in 1792 and work on the Capitol in 1793.

In the very beginning, there had been talk of turning lower Manhattan into a federal district, and plans were made to build the presidential mansion on Governor's Island. But the selection of a permanent site for our national capital had always been a topic that evoked controversy. Correspondence of the day reveals that it appeared to be a contest between the commercially oriented city of New York and the overwhelmingly more conservative rural and agricultural population elsewhere. There also was an apparent fear that New York's populace, especially so-called “society” had aristocratic leanings. English fashions and luxuries were in favor as were more “courtly” styles of entertaining. The Boston Gazette described the city as a “vortex of folly and dissipation” and even President Washington was criticized for his elegant cream-colored coach and lavish entertaining, as well as the “exorbitant” rent ($2,500 per annum) for the executive mansion.

Added to this was the notoriety of the city as a “cauldron of financial speculation.” In the end, it appears this played a role that led to a compromise that moved Congress out of our city.

Though it was the Federalist's aim to try to keep New York City as the nation's capital, in the end it was Hamilton's financial program that prevailed. Hamilton, speaking to Senator Rufus King, was to say about his financial plan for the country's debt, that it “was the primary object, all subordinate points which oppose it must be sacrificed.” Rufus King listened, and in July Congress voted to build its permanent capital on the banks of the Potomac.

Congress met for the last time in Federal Hall in New York City on Aug. 12, 1790 and President George Washington stepped onto a barge moored at Macomb's wharf 18 days later and departed for the temporary capital in Philadelphia.

However, New York City had a destiny to fulfill. No longer a capital city, it became through the ensuing years the city of capital with the promise of becoming, indeed, the first city of the United States.