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Philadelphia: America’s First Capital

Philadelphia:  America’s First Capital

Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by: Meredith Tennant

Lenape (Delaware) Native Americans, Swedish and Dutch people were the original settlers of the area that became Philadelphia. The English arrived around 1642. Initially, settlers built huts or dug caves in the banks of the Delaware River, but by 1646 the Swedes had built the first church and the construction of a permanent city had begun.

Thirty-five years later, in 1681, a Quaker named William Penn created parks in the city, purely for the pleasure of the citizens. Penn called the city Philadelphia, which is Greek for €˜brotherly love,’ and founded it on the principles of freedom and religious tolerance. The layout of the streets was carefully planned, and buildings were mostly made from brick and stone, to reduce the risk of fire.

An 18th century map of Philadelphia

The city flourished, and in September 1774, Philadelphia was chosen as the seat for the First Continental Congress, which lasted until October the same year. In May 1775 the Second Continental Congress met, again in Philadelphia.

On the 4th July the following year Congress met and approved the text of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was not actually signed by all the delegates until a month later. On the 4th July 1777, the first United States flag was flown in Philadelphia during the first Fourth of July celebration. In the meantime, Congress had spent quite a bit of time moving from Philadelphia to Baltimore and back again, in order to stay ahead of the advancing British soldiers.

After the Revolution, Congress settled in New York. The citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress to return and remain permanently in Philadelphia, but it was declared in an Act of Congress in December 1790 that the capital would be located along the Potomac River in a district €œnot exceeding ten miles square.€ Although Philadelphia was the nation’s first capital in 1790, it was only ever going to be a temporary situation.

The President's House where George Washington and Adams both stayed

The residence for President George Washington, and then President John Adams, was a large house on Market Street, originally built by Mary Lawrence Masters, a very rich widow. Her daughter, Polly, married Richard Penn, who was the governor of the colony and also the grandson of William Penn. The newlywed couple received the Market Street mansion as a wedding present from Mrs. Masters. During the Revolution, while Washington and his soldiers were at Valley Forge, the house was the headquarters for the British General Sir William Howe. The next person to live there was the infamous traitor, Benedict Arnold. Following a fire in 1780, a man called Robert Morris bought the house and rebuilt it. He offered it to President Washington as the official residence. Washington already knew the house well, as he had regularly stayed there with the Morris family.

In 1800 the United States government and President Adams moved to Washington, where the White House was still under construction, and it is in Washington, D.C. that the nation’s capital remains.

This is the earliest known photograph of the White House taken in 1846

The White House today

Historical Fun Fact

On February 22, 1836, the Delaware River was so frozen that an ox was roasted on the ice.