The day Lancaster was the nation’s capital

September 27

On this day in 1777, Lancaster became the nation’s capital when fourteen members of the Continental Congress fleeing Philadelphia to escape Lord Howe and his Redcoat army met in the courthouse at Centre Square.

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This illustration shows the only contemporary image of that first “real” courthouse (background of the drawing on the left). It was drawn in 1757 by Nicolaus Garrison, Jr. The original is at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem. 

Earlier that month, on September 11 during the Battle of Brandywine, George Washington’s Continental Army fought against Sir William Howe’s British forces. The two armies clashed near Chadds Ford as Howe moved to capture Philadelphia in the longest single-day battle of the war. Furthermore, more troops fought at Brandywine than any other battle of the American Revolution. The Redcoats defeated the American rebels and forced them to withdraw northeast toward Philadelphia.

The citizens of Lancaster take to the streets to greet the arrival of the Continental Congress. Drawing by Charles X. Carlson.

Congress decided that if necessary, they would move to Lancaster, the next largest town to the west. On September 19, legislators were notified that the enemy was nearing Philadelphia. They hastily departed by a round-about route, via Trenton, Easton, Bethlehem, and Reading, finally arriving in Lancaster on September 27. With them, they brought the Declaration of Independence for safekeeping.

They also took the Liberty Bell but a wagon break-down forced them to leave it on the way. It was hidden in an Allentown church until the British threat to Philadelphia ended.

It was an exciting time, as delegates and other refugees crowded into the town, and famous personalities like John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll assembled with the Congress, probably in the courthouse, to conduct the nation’s business.

Top left going clockwise: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Charles Carroll.

Fun Fact: Charles Carroll was the last surviving member of those who signed the Declaration of Independence. He died in 1832 at the age of 95.

Courthouse Description

The original Lancaster courthouse was built in 1739. The best description of the building was recorded by William Marshe in 1744:

“It is a pretty large brick building two stories high. The ground room… is very spacious…

Fronting the justices’ bench, and on each side of it, are several long steps or stairs…. This Court House is capable to contain above 800 persons without incommoding each other.

When we had surveyed this room we went up stairs into one overhead. This is a good room, and has a large chimney… Adjoining to this room, is a smaller one…

On the top of the Court House is a kind of cupola. We ascended a ladder and got into it. From hence we had a complete view of the whole town, and the country several miles round, and likewise of part of the Susquehanna river at twelve miles distance.

The building was destroyed by fire in June 1784. A new courthouse was subsequently erected on the same site and was completed in 1787.

Official Business of the Day

However, the chief business on that historic Saturday was the safety of the government, and after discussing routine business and means to supply General Washington with the necessary arms and supplies, they decided to keep moving to safer ground, and voted to place the broad Susquehanna River between themselves and the invaders, and move to York, which became the capital until July 1778.

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