York prides itself on its Revolutionary War past. Parts of such a grand tradition can take on lives of their own. These stories can grow outward and upward from the events that spawned them.
This analysis, adapted from York Daily Record/Sunday News Editor Jim McClure’s “Nine Months in York Town” book, frames the debate on the question of whether York is the first capital of the United States. The author weighs in with his own view at the end.
First Capital debate explored
The issue: The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, a forerunner of the U.S. Constitution, while meeting in York Town in the fall of 1777 – 225 years ago. The Articles named the colonies “The United States of America.” The sum of all this, some contend, is that York is rightfully called “The First Capital of the United States.” Those disagreeing with this view believe evidence does not support the claim.
The timing: The First Capital concept cropped up in the early 1960s and bloomed during the bicentennial celebration in 1976. Interestingly, a proclamation celebrating the 150th anniversary of Continental Congress’ visit in 1927 does not make the claim nor does “York County’s Heritage,” a publication widely distributed in 1959. The concept made news when a newspaper article, titled “‘First Capital’ Tag May Produce Wide Controversy,” in the early 1960s portended a dispute with other cities. It suggested a series of “Historic York, Pa.” stamps might spur the rift. By 1966, W.W. Van Baman, a York attorney, was stating in a booklet marking the 225th anniversary of York: “In actual legalistic form, it is the first capital of the United States… The term United States of America was used for the first time in this provisional form of government.”
Background: “United Colonies” started appearing in the “Journals of Congress” in June 1775. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson changed “Colonies” to “States” to recognize the intent of the resolution. Congress flirted with “The United States of North America” after delegates adopted the Articles of Confederation. The treaties with France in 1778 referred to the “United States of North America.” Congress used that name in a resolution involving bills of exchange with commissioners to France in May 1778, but delegates dropped “North” on July 11, 1778.
The impact: The First Capital claim has helped orient York’s view of itself as a Colonial town. Some believe the area’s rich Revolutionary War history justifies this emphasis and that York’s Colonial heritage should be promoted. As one gauge, about 20 businesses included “First Capital” into their names in the year 2002, and more than 30 other businesses used some variation of “Yorktown.” Opponents argue that this First Capital emphasis, built on an incorrect premise, has eclipsed other significant moments in York County history.
The debate: Those studying York’s history in the past 40 years have expressed varying opinions about its First Capital status. The debate intensified in the years around the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and has been on-again, off-again since. For example, a nationally distributed Associated Press story on the recent 225th anniversary of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation picked up the claim from York city officials. Generally, the debate has placed some local researchers and historians who question the claim against others in the business community and local government, the primary promoters of the concept. Most researchers studying and writing about York County history today do not accept York as the first capital of the United States.
Comments made ‘for’ and ‘against’
Representative comment for “First Capital” designation: J.F. Rauhauser Jr., York County Bicentennial Commission president: “Then it was, on November 15, 1777 that the Articles of Confederation were officially adopted. Then it was that the participating colonies agreed ‘. . . hereby severally (to) enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for . . . common defense, the security of . . . liberty and . . . mutual and general welfare . . . .’ By Article I it was established that ‘The stile of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America.’ Until that moment The United States of America did not exist.”
Representative comment against designation: Henry C. Kessler Jr., lawyer and York College business professor, suggested that York’s signer James Smith should not be overlooked in bicentennial activities: “While we argue among ourselves the debatable issue of whether or not this action (adoption of the Articles of Confederation) of the early Congress makes York the nation’s first capital (which if true, means that George Washington would not have been our first President), we in York have a genuine hero of the Revolution…”
Arguments for designation
The familiar engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence, signed Aug. 2, 1776, by most of the Founders, uses the lower case “united States of America.” This means Congress recognized 13 united states but no United States of America.
The Declaration was not a binding document and created 13 independent states. Colonies declared themselves “free and independent” states with the right retained by each to do “all acts and things which independent states may of right do.” It took a plan of federation – the Articles of Confederation – to bring together these newly independent colonies.
The Articles did not gain ratification until 1781, but the term “ratification” gives approval back to the time of the original signing in 1778. For example, the treaties between France and the United States became effective and aid became available on their adoption date, Feb. 6, 1778, rather than their ratification date, May 4, 1778.
The U.S. Constitution in 1787 states that its purpose is “to form a more perfect union.” This suggests that the Founders recognized the Articles of Confederation as having established a nation.
In the Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863, President Lincoln stated: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty . . . .” The conception might have taken place, in Lincoln’s view, at the time of the Declaration of Independence. But the delivery, the birth, came later with the Articles of Confederation.
Arguments against designation
The Declaration of Independence, as recorded in the Journals of Congress for July 4, 1776, uses capital letters for the 13 “United States of America.” So does the Dunlap Broadside, the original printing of the document the night of July 4, 1776. But capital letters aside, the Declaration of Independence refers to the Colonies as the United States. This controverts the argument, sometimes offered, that the Articles were the first official document that referred to the United States of America. Further, the “Journals of the Continental Congress” at times referred to the country as the United States before the Articles were adopted. For example, the Journals on June 11, 1777, state: “Whereas, by the oppressive Councils and hostile operations of the British King and Parliament, the United States of America, at a time when they were totally unprovided with Fleets or Armies, Military Stores or Finances, have been forced into a War solely for the Defence of their Natural and Political Liberties…” Continental currency also carried the name “The United States” before Nov. 15, 1777.
The Articles did not gain the force of law until Maryland’s ratification in 1781. At that time, Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. Today, constitutional amendments become law with approval by the 36th state legislature, not when they gain the nod of Congress. And they are not applied to the past.
If York Town is the First Capital, Henry Laurens, president of the Second Continental Congress meeting in York Town, would be the nation’s first president.
The claim does not resonate in most nationally distributed, contemporary Revolutionary War books, both scholarly and popular, that cover the Continental Congress’ stay in York Town. Indeed, most do not explore claims by any city for First Capital status. Further, early authoritative county histories do not make the claim. Carter and Glossbrenner’s “History of York County” is one example. A recent scholarly work by a York County author also omits the claim – York College professor Paul Doutrich’s chapter on York County in “Beyond Philadelphia: The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland.”
Lincoln credited the Declaration of Independence as creating a new nation: In the Gettysburg Address delivered in 1863, Lincoln stated: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty…” In Lincoln’s view, the emphasis was on “brought forth,” meaning the nation was founded in 1776.
Pro: Fred J. Bailey, president of Colonial York Tourist Bureau, noted in 1961 that the Declaration of Independence left the real power to govern with the 13 states, not the Continental Congress:
“Though they were acting together, bound by the interest of a common cause, they remained 13 separate nations, as independent of each other as of the British Crown. To call them ‘United States’ was not enough to make them so. No true United States could be formed until the separate states agreed to sacrifice some of their governing powers. That agreement was reached in York.”
Con: John W. Heisey, director of research, Historical Society of York County, stated in 1970: “There is in our opinion no valid claim for York to consider herself the ‘first capitol of the United States,’ but we are in a minority and cannot convince the local tourist bureau and other tourism-minded people to desist from using the slogan. . . .”
For further study: The York County Heritage Trust Library, 250 E. Market St., York, contains a thick file detailing the debate.
James McClure’s evaluation: York Town gained status as the temporary national capital when the Continental Congress visited for nine months in 1777-78. Robert Fortenbaugh, a former Gettysburg College professor, included York among the capitals in his book, “The Nine Capitals of the United States.” Fortenbaugh correctly follows the path of other scholars by not calling York or any other town “First Capital” in his book. Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, ratified the treaties with France and handled many other crucial issues during that time. But in the past 40 years, the First Capital claim has overwhelmed discussions in York County on such landmark events. The arguments against the First Capital status are simply more persuasive. The decades that passed before this claim arose and the fact that respected Revolutionary War historians elsewhere do not address or recognize York’s “First Capital” status reduce the weight of the local claim.