Capital for a Day


The American Revolution began in 1775, and on or around July 4, 1776 (the date isn’t as precise as the document suggests), the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. They did so via a Continental Congress — a meeting of about 50 delegates from the thirteen then-colonies which met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Not only did this mark the beginning of a new nation, but it also established Philadelphia as the first capital of this new country — and simultaneously made the city a target for British troops.

In 1777, British General William Howe began his attempt to take Philadelphia. On September 11th of that year, his army, totaling about 15,000 men, met those of American General George Washington (whose forces also totaled about 15,000 men) at the Battle of Brandywine. The battle was a clear British victory — roughly 700 Americans were killed or captured with another 600 wounded. Washington was forced to retreat, and despite a few efforts here or there, the fall of Philadelphia was inevitable. The Continental Congress fled the city on September 18th and made their way to Lancaster, PA, about 65 miles away.

Lancaster seemed like a good choice. It was close enough to Philadelphia to be a viable evacuation point. Further, it was a well-known city with a courthouse, which could double as a meeting space for the Congress. But when the 50 delegates and their entourages arrived, they quickly found that the city couldn’t handle the influx of people, as the Pennsylvania Center for the Book points out. (Even the courthouse was too busy with local matters to accommodate the needs of the new nation’s leaders.) Mental Floss further notes that the distance between Philadelphia and Lancaster, while a lot for the delegates, probably wasn’t enough comfort given how easily the British soldiers had marched into Philly. So the Congress met in Lancaster for exactly one day — September 27, 1777 — before moving to York, PA.

The one-day session in Lancaster didn’t result in much. Benjamin Franklin was tapped to negotiate a treaty or alliance with France, and there’s little record of anything else being done. But that’s enough for Lancaster to be considered one of the historical capitals of the United States. In 2011, the town declared September 27th to be “Capital Day,” a city-wide holiday, with an assist from Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. It turns out that a Lancaster resident named Matt Johnson was on the show, and he also was one of the people who pushed for the holiday’s creation. During the part of the show where Trebek talks with the contestants about their backgrounds, Johnson and the game show host discussed Lancaster’s role as capital for a day, bringing a locally well-known fact to national attention.


Bonus Fact: Lancaster’s current claim to fame? It has more closed-circuit cameras per capita in its public spaces than any other U.S. city. In response to a shootout in broad daylight in 2000, townspeople decided to install a civilian-run (as opposed to police- or government-run) network of the cameras, now totaling over 150 for the city of about 60,000. The Los Angeles Times likened the Lancaster system to something out of the George Orwell dystopian novel “1984,” and despite a lot of public support in Lancaster itself, there is a sizable group who wants the surveillance system removed. Whether this was discussed on Jeopardy!, however, is unknown.

From the ArchivesBorn on the Second of July… or August: Is July 4th the right date for America’s Independence Day?

Related: A free Kindle eBook about the American Revolution. 4.8 stars on 8 reviews.