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Setting the Stage

After the states declared independence from Britain in 1776, their collective American government moved around the mid-Atlantic region until it settled farther south in Washington, D.C., in 1800. Philadelphia is well-known for its early role as host to the Continental Congresses, but states sent their representatives to capitals set up in eight different cities. Like the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. It also met in York and Lancaster, both in Pennsylvania, as well as in Baltimore, Maryland. After the Revolutionary War, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation met in Philadelphia and also in Princeton, New Jersey; Annapolis, Maryland; Trenton, New Jersey; and New York City. It was in New York that the states ratified the U.S. Constitution. For ten years afterward, between 1790 and 1800, the government met in Philadelphia before it settled permanently in Washington, D.C.

The idea of placing the capital along the Potomac River had been floating in Congress for years by 1790. A location along the Potomac was attractive as it would make the capital roughly equidistant between Maine and Georgia, at the time the northernmost and southernmost parts of the United States. Supporters of the location also pointed to the Potomac’s potential in facilitating western trade as a reason to place the Capital along the Potomac’s banks. However, prior to 1790, northerners could not be convinced to support such a southerly location.


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