Congress Invades York
If you are reading this, you are probably interested in York County history and know that York was the capital of the United States from the end of September 1777 through June 1778. The Revolutionary War was in full swing, and the British were occupying Philadelphia, which had been the capital of the new nation.
Congress moved west and settled in York for the duration, putting nearly a hundred miles, including the mile-wide Susquehanna River, between them and British General Howe and his troops.
It seems that many Americans of the time, when they heard Congress was meeting in York, said “York? Where’s that?” John Adams wrote wife Abigail that he had to take a circuitous route of 180 miles to avoid the British on his way to York, which he estimated was not more than 88 miles from Philadelphia.
Abigail was confused and wrote James Lovell, friend of both Adamses who was also serving in Congress at York, for clarification. She said that John said they were 88 miles from Philadelphia, but she didn’t know which way. Were they closer to Boston or further away? Lovell drew her a map.
York was a small town at the time. It was already crowded much of the time with soldiers passing through or being staged here because of the location on main routes north and south. When the members of Congress and related individuals arrived the town was about to burst. Both visitors and residents made the best of it, with varying degrees of humor.
Congressmen recorded their impressions of the York area in their letters. Some of the best known are those of John Adams, extracts of which I included in my recent York Sunday News column below:
John Adams Liked York Better than Philadelphia
When member of Continental Congress and future U.S. President John Adams is mentioned in connection with York, our town often doesn’t come off so well. Adams’s comments, however, need to be put into context.
First, there was the personality of John Adams. There is no question that he was a great patriot whose ideas helped our country attain independence, but he has also been described as undiplomatic, difficult, prickly, opinionated, contentious, and stubborn.
During his short stay in York as a member of Congress, he exchanged a number of letters with his beloved Abigail. The excepts below, from the originals in the Massachusetts Historical Society, give us a better picture of why Adams was a bit cranky at the time.
John Adams to Abigail Adams from York Town, Pennsylvania, September 30, 1777: “I am still of Opinion that Philadelphia will be no Loss to Us.
I am very comfortably situated, here, in the House of General Roberdeau, whose Hospitality has taken in Mr. S.A. [Samuel Adams], Mr. G. [Gerry] and me. My Health is as good as common, and I assure you my Spirits not the worse for the loss of Philadelphia.”
J.A. to A.A. from York Town, October 15, 1777: “I am in tolerable Health, but oppressed, with a Load of public Cares.
I have long foreseen that We should be brought down to a great Degree of Depression before the People of America would be convinced of their real Danger….
Government and Law in the states, large Taxation, and Strict Discipline in our Armies, are the only Things Wanting….
I long with the Utmost Impatience to come home–don’t send a servant for me. The Expence is so enormous that I cannot bear the Thought of it. I will crawl home, upon my little Pony, and wait upon myself as well as I can. I think you had better sell my Horse.
Abigail Adams to John Adams, Boston, October 25, 1777:
This day dearest of Friends compleats 13 years since we were solemly united in wedlock; 3 years of the time we have been cruelly seperated. I have patiently as I could endured it with the Belief that you were serving your Country….”
J.A. to A.A., York Town, October 25, 1777: “This Town is a small one, not larger than Plymouth.–There are in it, two German Churches, the one Lutheran, the other Calvinistical. The Congregations are pretty numerous, and their Attendance upon public Worship is decent. It is remarkable that the Germans, wherever they are found, are carefull to maintain the public Worship, which is more than can be said of the other Denominations of Christians…
As to News, We are yet in a painfull Suspense about Affairs at the Northward….
I am wearied with the Life I lead, and long for the joys of my Family. God grant I may enjoy it, in Peace. Peace is my dear Delight. War has no Charms for me.–If I live much longer in Banishment I shall scarcely know my own Children.
J.A. to A.A. from York Town, October 28, 1777: We have been three days, soaking and poaching in the heavyest Rain, that has been known for several years, and what adds to the Gloom is the Uncertainty in which We remain to this Moment, concerning the Fate of Gates and Burgoigne.–We are out of Patience. It is impossible to bear this suspence with any Temper.
I am in comfortable Lodgings, which is a Felicity that has fallen to the Lott of a very few of our Members. Yet the House where I am is so thronged, that I cannot enjoy such Accommodations as I wish. I cannot have a Room as I used, and therefore cannot find Opportunities to write as I once did.
The People of this Country, are chiefly Germans, who have Schools in their own Language, as well as Prayers, Psalms and Sermons, so that Multitudes are born, grow up and die here, without ever learning the English.–In Politicks they are a Breed of Mongrels or Neutrals, and benumbed with a general Torpor.
J.A. to A.A. from York Town, November 3, 1777: “We have no News, but such as is old to you. I congratulate you on the great and glorious Events in the northern Department. Congress have ordered a Thanksgiving, and have done great Honour to the Officers.
We shall finish the Confederation in a few days.”
Adams had a lot of reason to be gloomy. Congress has just forced to leave Philadelphia because of the British occupation. They had no idea how General Gates’s campaign against British General Burgoyne was going in New York. The small town of York was bursting at the seams with the sudden influx of Congress. Although Adams liked Roberdeau, he had no room there of his own.
Although the predominately German inhabitants of York were strange to Adams, he respected their religious faith. He wasn’t as pleased with their political views, which he saw as mongrel [mixed], neutral, or indifferent. Still, he did give York points over Philadelphia, which he probably didn’t like because of the many Quakers, with their pacifist views, that he found there. John Adams was never a lukewarm patriot.
In recognition of York’s role in our nation’s history, the York County Heritage Trust and the York Daily Record/Sunday News are sponsoring an essay contest for students:
— Grades 3-5: “Pick a Delegate” — Write a brief biography of one the delegates in York during the nine months Continental Congress debated and finalized the Articles of Confederation.
— Grades 6-8 and 9-12: In your own words, write an essay/letter home as if you were a congressional delegate explaining your situation here in York, the struggles you faced (and finally overcame), and the work that went into adopting the Articles of Confederation.
Length: Essays must be original student work, not previously published. Essay length should be: Grades 3-5, 300-500 words; grades 6-8, 500-800 words; grades 9-12, 800-1,000 words.
Send to: Essays must be typed and should be either e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the York County Heritage Trust, 250 E. Market St., York, Pa., 17403. Please include your name, name of your parent/guardian, complete home address, home phone number and the grade and school you are attending at the bottom of your essay.
Deadline: Oct. 31, 2008.
Awards: $250 will be given for the top essay in the three age groups. Awards are sponsored by First Capital Federal Credit Union, Colony Papers, and First Capital Engineering.
Click the links below to read more about the area during the American Revolution.
Artificers recruited for U.S. Army.
National lottery drawn in York in 1778.
What Yorkers could buy.
Woman deserts family for soldier.
York’s Camp Security prisoner of war camp.