Why York County Congressman Thomas Hartley Advocated Wright’s Ferry for the Capital of the United States.
My recent York Sunday News column outlined York’s enthusiastic proposal to become the permanent capital of the United States.
Motions, debates, and votes for one location or another flew in 1789 during the first Congress under the United States Constitution. (The new Congress, which convened March 4, 1789, replaced the Continental Congress, which had been operating under the Articles of Confederation.)
Thomas Hartley was one of the four Congressmen from Pennsylvania seated that first day, and he took a vigorous role in the discussions that followed on choosing the capital site.
Even though Hartley lived in York, he first made a push for Wright’s Ferry (Columbia).
Hartley wasn’t ignoring York when he made his case for Wright’s Ferry. At that particular time one site requirement, later to be changed, was that the new seat of government was to be on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. Hartley eloquently exaggerated the navigability of the Susquehanna, and told them what a fine “dish of fish” could be supplied from that river. He mentioned that Wright’s Ferry was near “two large and populous towns,” meaning York and Lancaster.
Congressman Lee asked Hartley what the distance was from Wright’s Ferry to York Town, and if that town couldn’t accommodate Congress again, as it once had. Lee even asked if the Codorus could be made navigable.
Hartley quickly assured Lee that York, ten miles from the Ferry, could accommodate Congress well, should they decide to move there immediately. He said, however, since Congress seemed to want to settle on the east bank of the Susquehanna, he was satisfied with Wright’s Ferry.
We know now that neither place was chosen, but with both Wright’s Ferry and York in consideration, we escaped not one, but two, chances to be “inside the beltway.”
See below for the whole York Sunday News column concerning York’s very serious bid to become the permanent capital.
York’s Bid to Become Permanent U.S. Capital
Can you imagine what life would be like in York County if Congress picked York as the nation’s permanent capital in 1789, instead of the piece of Maryland that became the District of Columbia? It could have happened.
Congress was meeting in New York in 1788. The Constitution had just been ratified, giving the federal government stronger central powers than it had under the Articles of Confederation. Since we had taken that step, some of the representatives and senators thought it was time the United States government settled down in one place, with some worthy buildings befitting a sovereign nation.
Various members of Congress from the New York/New England area didn’t want to consider the matter. They liked the seat of power where it was. Those from the South wanted it nearer to their states. Think how comparatively small the United States was at that time–the size of the thirteen original colonies. Pennsylvanians argued their state was the best choice because it was more or less near the geographic and population center.
Was there a place in Pennsylvania suitable for the young government? Even though Philadelphia had been capital before, there was fairly strong opposition to it being the permanent seat of government. The slave-holding South objected to the strong Philadelphia Quaker component with their abolitionist convictions.
Some of the leading towns in Pennsylvania were invited to submit a proposal and draft (map) of their community showing why it would be a good place for the headquarters of government.
One of those towns was York. James Smith (our signer of the Declaration of Independence) was chosen to chair a committee, which first met November 11, 1788. Smith had received a letter from Senator William McClay. “…mentioning that York Town would probably be put in nomination as the Seat of Congress of the United States, and requested information on certain points respecting its fitness for the above purpose.”
The committee of 14 men met again the next day to get down to work. It was: “Resolved, that Mr. Mathews, Mr. Forsyth, Mr. Kersey and Mr. Laub be requested to make a Survey & Draught of Ten Miles Square–taking the Court House for their Center.”
Also, “Resolved, that Mr. Hay, Mr. Hahn and Mr. Campbell be a Sub-Committee to ascertain the Number of Inhabitants, Houses, Trades, and the Number employed in each Trade, the number of Houses of entertainment, the Number of Boarding Houses, the Number of Publick Buildings….”
The next meeting was November 21. A contemporaneous extract of minutes from that meeting is in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. The committee had compiled an amazing amount of information in nine days. The statistics cover nearly three hand-written pages, two columns wide. There were 12 Public Buildings, four of which were stone: the Lutheran Church, Reformed Church, Moravian Church, and Roman Chapel. The rest were brick, namely the English Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, Quaker Meeting House, Court House, Academy, and three parsonages.
Inhabitants numbered 2,884, most living in 412 private dwelling houses. Other buildings consisted of 23 stores, 18 taverns, and 15 boarding houses.
Forty-six trades were listed, with the number of practitioners of each. Some were exotic, such as the one Mathematical Instrument maker, and others now obsolete: the eight Spinning Wheel makers, for example. Others are logical–if you have 30 Saddlers, 35 Shoemakers, and six Glovers, you are going to need 30 Tanners and Curriers to get all that leather processed. Fourteen clockmakers kept Yorkers on time, and I was gratified to see three chocolate makers included.
The committee also went farther afield. They listed the numbers and kinds of mills and one forge that would fall into the ten miles square draft. They figured the precise mileage from York to 14 different ferries on the Susquehanna from Harve de Grasse (45 miles) to Simpson’s (21 miles) and beyond. Ten ferries connected York County alone with the opposite bank in these pre-bridge days.
Distances were measured from 16 other towns, including Philadelphia (89 miles) Hagerstown (60 miles), Lancaster (22 miles), and George Town (100) miles–the last town never suspecting that they, and not York, would eventually become engulfed in a governmental metropolis.
The data ends with current prices of meat, grain, and wood and also places York at 39
degrees, 54 minutes North Latitude.
So York’s bid was thrown into the pot, along with Reading, Harrisburg, Carlisle, Lancaster, Trenton, and others. York seemed to get more consideration than some, but not as much as nearby Wright’s Ferry (Columbia), which seemed to be favored by our first Congressman from York, Thomas Hartley.
After much debate and unsuccessful resolutions for one place or another, a compromise was made with the South, factoring in the question of settling outstanding war debt, and the site was fixed “on the banks of the Potomac.” So York’s bid to be the nation’s permanent “first city” ended. Sadly, or not?