Since its founding in 1729, Lancaster has had a rich and varied history. One day remains unique: Sept. 27, 1777. That’s when the Pennsylvania city hosted the Second Continental Congress, turning the city into the U.S. capital for 24 hours before the leaders headed west to York.
“It’s a quirk of history, a fascinating tidbit of Lancaster’s past,” says Robin E. Sarratt, vice president of LancasterHistory.org.
While Washington has served as the U.S. capital for more than two centuries, there was little continuity in the seat of government during the nation’s earliest years, when the capital was equated with the location of Congress. Eight cities served as the capital between the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and 1785.
“As long as Congress could keep moving, they could continue to meet,” notes Janet Moore Lindman, professor of history at Rowan University in Glassboro. For Congress, she adds, “it was a question of ‘where can we go to keep the government running.’”
The times were especially turbulent between February and September 1777. The capital bounced around like a pinball among four cities in Pennsylvania and Maryland in response to wartime developments.
“It shows how unstable the country was during the Revolution,” says Philip Mead, chief historian and director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia served as the capital in the summer of 1777 after Congress left Baltimore in February. British Gen. William Howe and about 15,000 troops began advancing on the city after landing at the northern end of Chesapeake Bay in late August.
After the British defeated the Americans in the Battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress began to realize its tenuous position in Philadelphia.
Mead points to a letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Hancock as providing the impetus to head to Lancaster. On Sept. 18, 1777, after his boat came under attack on the Schuylkill, Hamilton wrote: “If Congress have not yet left Philadelphia, they ought to do it immediately without fail, for the enemy have the means of throwing a party this night in the city.”
John Adams recalled being awoken around 3 a.m. to flee. “Congress was chased like a covey of partridges from Philadelphia,” he recalled.
Wagons were used to transport the papers of Congress and individual members took a circuitous route via horse through Bethlehem and Reading to avoid the British before arriving in Lancaster, according to Mead.
Which members of Congress made it to Lancaster remains a mystery, but enough did to constitute a quorum, he notes.
“It’s very hard to figure out who was there,” Mead says of the congressional session at the city courthouse. “The transcripts of Congress don’t show it.”
In his book The Nine Capitals of the United States, Robert Fortenbaugh writes that all of the business conducted at Lancaster was “solely related to military matters. A resolution was passed to direct the Board of War to cooperate with Gen, Washington in devising and carrying into execution the most effectual measures for supplying the Army.”
The final congressional action in Lancaster was to adjourn and agree to meet in York on Sept. 30, 1777. The relocation was a defensive one, allowing leaders to put the Susquehanna River between themselves and the British forces.
Two hundred and forty years later, Lancaster will remember its moment in the spotlight this week. Matt Johnson, a city resident and professor of philosophy at Millersville University, has been a guiding force behind Capital Day, which celebrates the events of Sept. 27, 1777.
Wednesday’s festivities include a gathering at the Visitor Center exhibit in Penn Square at 5 p.m. and a celebration at Tellus360, an Irish pub and restaurant. In September and October, the Wacker Brewing Co., a Lancaster brewery, produces Capital Day Cream Ale to mark the occasion.
One of the highlights is a performance of “Capital Day,” a song by Johnson. Sample lyrics include: “Capital Day, Capital Day/ Let’s all celebrate Capital Day/ Get dressed up in a capital way/ Lancaster was capital today.”
“The song is performed many, some say too many times, throughout the celebration,” he says. “Like our blessed national anthem, it is based on a drinking song that once celebrated National Bohemian Beer.”
Tom Wilk is a former Inquirer copy editor and coauthor, with Jim Waltzer, of “Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities.” He can be reached at email@example.com.