New York City: the capital of the United States

It lasted little more than one year.

But between April 1789—when George Washington was sworn in as the first president (at left)—and July 1790, New York was the nation’s capital.

What was the city, with a population of just 28,000, like back then? Rich and crude.

“Men and women of the upper class dressed in the latest fashion from London or Paris and attended balls,” explains a 1989 New York Times article.

“But the streets were unpaved, narrow and crooked, often unlighted at night and frequently impassable because of wandering pigs.”

Despite these problems, many citizens, as well as brand-new secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton, wanted New York to be the permanent capital.

The city’s advantages: it was equidistant between New England and the South and had all the hotels, restaurants, and other amenities a proper capital needed.

Problem was, Thomas Jefferson, the new secretary of state, hated New York. He thought the nation’s capital should be located in “a new rural setting on the Potomac, across from his native Virginia,” write Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: An Illustrated History.

Jefferson and Hamilton were deadlocked on the issue—until Jefferson agreed to acquiesce to Hamilton’s demand for the Federal government to assume states’ Revolutionary war debts.

In turn, Hamilton abandoned the dream of keeping the city the nation’s capital.

[Illustration at left: View of Broad Street by George Holland, 1797. Federal Hall, where Washington was sworn in, is in the center; above, the George Washington statue at the modern-day Federal Hall, commemorating his inauguration]

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6 Responses to “New York City: the capital of the United States”

  1. rocco dormarunno(akafivepointsguy) Says:

    In an interesting footnote to Washington’s swearing-in in Manhattan, the organizers were so caught up in the hub-bub that the idea of bringing a Bible skipped everyone’s minds, or so the story goes:

    “Everything was ready for the administration of the oath of office to the president of the new government, when it was found that there had not been provided a Holy Bible on which the President-elect could swear allegiance to the Constitution, Jacob Morton, who was Marshal of the parade and at that time, Master of St. John’s Lodge, was standing close by, and, seeing the dilemma they were in, remarked that he could get the altar Bible of St. John’s Lodge, which met at the “Old Coffee House,” corner of Water and Wall Streets. Chancellor Livingston begged him to do so. The Bible was brought, and the ceremony proceeded.”

    –from the Free Masons of St. John’s Lodge No. 1

  2. Meechybee Says:

    I was happy to see a portion of the railing shown in the painting back on view at the New-York Historical Society — it’s amazing how many artifacts of Colonial NYC are on display there.

  3. Washington Square Park’s first, forgotten arch | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] As recognizable as it is, it’s not the original arch built six years earlier to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s presidential inauguration. […]

  4. Lower Manhattan Skyline Evolution (1900 to 2018) Video Rendering Says:

    […] the 230 years since it served as the de-facto capital, Manhattan grew from a city of 28,000 people walking on crooked, narrow, […]

  5. LV Johnson Says:

    I was in an online trivia game that alleged PHILADELPHIA was the capital during that time
    I knew that was not correct!

  6. George Washington never slept in this Bowling Green mansion built for him | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] carvings of the arms of the state wasn’t designed for any old member of Gotham’s elite. New York in 1789 was the capital of the new United States. And city fathers intended Government House to be the official home of all […]

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