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York was an important capital, fourth or first

One of the 1961 stamps onYork County history
One of the 1961 stamps onYork County history

When planning for the recent Unraveling York County’s History: An Evening with the YDR’s History Bloggers event earlier this month, each of the five bloggers (Jim McClure, Scott Mingus, Stephen H. Smith, Joan Concilo and me) was asked to choose a local history topic that tends to generate discussion.

I chose York as “First Capital,” perpetuated in the names of at least 20 local businesses. I had wondered why this first capital idea mostly dated from the last half of the 20th century, nearly 200 years after York actually served nine months as the capital of the United States, after Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lancaster. I assumed, as did some others, that it stemmed from local activities celebrating the 1976 bicentennial of our nation. I was surprised to find it really was popularized by a 1961 advertising campaign. You can read more about it in my recent Sunday News column below.

The important thing to me is that York was the seat of our government during an initially gloomy period of our history. The British occupied the former capital, Philadelphia, and the ill-equipped, ill-supplied and ill-trained army was preparing to suffer out the winter at Valley Forge. Then the good news started to come in to Continental Congress in York. British General Burgoyne surrendered his large army at Saratoga, the Articles of Confederation adoption gave structure to the confederation of states, von Steuben trained the troops at Valley Forge to be real soldiers and the French Treaties of Alliance and of Amity and Commerce were signed. France also committed to large monetary loans and military assistance. Without the above events, the war would have easily been lost, and independence not achieved. That’s why I think we should celebrate York as an important capital and not worry about its ranking.

What is this “York, the First Capital” all about?

Does York, Pa. have any claim to being the First Capital of the United States, and if not, why do we keep hearing it is? Why do over twenty York County businesses have First Capital (or Capitol) as part of their names?

Scholars have been writing for years that York was the fourth capital of nine, after Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lancaster. Princeton, Annapolis, Trenton, New York and Washington came later. Germantown, Pa. is sometimes included as a tenth seat of government, since President Washington and his cabinet met there during a 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. A good book on the subject is The Nine Capitals of the United States (1948) by Dr. Robert Fortenbaugh, long time professor and head of the history department at Gettysburg College. It is referenced on the U.S. Senate website and lists York as the fourth capital.

The major published histories of York County: Carter and Glossbrenner (1834), Rupp (1845), Gibson (1886) and Prowell (1907) cover Continental Congress meeting in York from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778 with no claims of York as First Capital. York County celebrated the Sesquicentennial of York being capital in a big way in 1927-28, but no First Capital claim seemed to come up then.

From what has come to light so far, with one exception, early seeds were planted in two Chamber of Commerce books, published in 1946 and updated 1957. They feature local businesses, but history sections make the claim that the term “United States of America” was first used in York, when Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation here on November 15, 1777. These first two books did not mention a First Capital claim, but a third similar Chamber of Commerce book in 1968 made the leap that York was the First Capital because of that November 1777 adoption. Much public relations work had been going on in the meantime, as outlined below.
In 1961 the Colonial York Tourist Bureau issued a set of 25 stamps, each showing a York County historical site. Each red and gold stamp was labeled “HISTORIC YORK, PA. FIRST CAPITAL OF THE UNITED STATES.” An accompanying brochure Stories of the Stamps, signed by CYTB President Fred J. Bailey, says “Generous purchase of Historic York stamps will help raise the funds necessary to tell more Americans about our beautiful and historic landmarks.” He suggests they be used on letters, packages, stationery and letterheads, saying: “Remember, every stamp sold will help us toward nationwide recognition of York’s important place in America history.”
Files at YCHT contain considerable information on this promotion, including a July 22, 1961 York Dispatch article headlined “FIRST U.S. CAPITAL TAG MAY PRODUCE WIDE CONTROVERSY.” The article points out that most histories and school books give either Philadelphia (where the Declaration of Independence was signed) or New York (first capital under the U.S. Constitution) credit as First Capital. CYTB President Bailey says Continental Congress had no status under law until the Articles of Confederation were adopted in York. He puts importance on the engrossed Declaration, the fancy handwritten one signed by the delegates, having “united” not being capitalized before “States.” Others have used that argument, saying it meant only that the states were working together. They either ignore or are unaware that the original Jefferson handwritten draft, and the subsequent Dunlap printed broadside both have the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in all capital letters in the first line, with Jefferson’s draft using United States of America and in the last paragraph and Dunlap repeating all capitals. (The scrivener of the engrossed copy used only one form of contemporary capitalization.) Bailey was also aware of the September 9, 1776 Congress resolve to use United States instead of United Colonies, but dismissed it as irrelevant. Perhaps he didn’t also know that paper currency printed in Philadelphia in May 1777, before Congress moved to York, replaced the previously used United Colonies with United States. The research for the advertising program is said to have been done by Bailey and the head of a local ad agency. Correspondence by Historical Society of York County (now part of York County Heritage Trust) staff with others wondering about this First Capital label indicate some viewed the campaign as being more concerned with attracting tourists than relating the truth.
In 1963 HSYC President Robert P. Turner wrote a response to an inquiry from Wendy Nielson, Constitution Hall, Philadelphia, enclosing a press release from the local ad agency showing “the rationalizing of our Tourist Bureau on the subject of York’s being the first capital of the United States.” Turner closed with “Please note also that this document [the press release] is the brain child of the Tourist Bureau.” Evidently the First Capital term was puzzling others.
The stage was set for more proliferation of the title in the next decade. After checking city directories and phone books, the first instance I can see of a business joining in was the First Capital Service Corporation, a mortgage loan company in the Shiloh area in 1972. The next was in 1976 with the First Capital Dispensing Company, a bar and grill still in business on Pershing Avenue. By then, the second major factor in the First Capital story came into play. Joining in on the United States Bicentennial, the York County Bicentennial Commission produced books, programs, and the most lasting memento, the replica Colonial Courthouse in which Congress had met. That building is now part of YCHT, and can be toured most of the year. With those projects came renewed vigor for York as First Capital. Judge John Rauhauser, President of the Bicentennial Commission penned a pamphlet for the commission The Secret History of the Birth of the Nation. His strong stand is that the United States of America did not exist until the Articles of Confederation were adopted in York on November 15, 1777, and that action, not the March 1781 final ratification by the 13th state, made York the First Capital.

My opinion is that York was the fourth capital of the United States, agreeing with most scholars, and, in fact, with most laypeople until the second half of the twentieth century. Much more can be found on the subject in the YCHT files and many online sites.

The exception? York Daily Record blogger Stephen H. Smith recently posted on his Yorks Past blog a calendar plate showing York’s colonial courthouse with a caption beneath it reading “1777 FIRST CAPITOL U.S.A. 1778.” The calendar is for 1912, so it is a real puzzler. Please contact me if you know of any other early citations.

Here is the link to Stephen Smith’s post on the 1912 plate.

This link will take you to my previous post with more about the promotional stamps.