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This Day in History: Flight from Philadelphia

On this day in 1777, the Continental Congress convenes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Members of Congress had fled Philadelphia the day before. They were running from the British Army, then moving to occupy the American capital.

“If Congress have not yet left Philadelphia,” Alexander Hamilton had written in mid-September, “they ought to do it immediately without fail, for the enemy have the means of throwing a party this night into the city.”

Philadelphia had been the seat of the American government for much of the Revolution, but now the British were getting close. In early September, Americans had been defeated at nearby Brandywine. The writing was on the wall. Preparations to leave Philadelphia began in earnest.

On September 14, Congress resolved that “linens, blankets and other woollens, shoes, spirits and other necessaries for the use of the army” should be removed from Philadelphia and taken to some other safe place “to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy.” The Liberty Bell and congressional papers were also moved from Philadelphia.

Despite these measures, congressional members themselves still refused to leave.

A member from North Carolina wrote of the general reluctance to leave the city. “The question for adjournment from Philadelphia,” Thomas Burke wrote, “was daily agitated in Congress, but always overruled.”

The delegates finally decided to leave when they received Hamilton’s letter. John Adams’s September 19 diary entry describes the scene: “At 3 this Morning was waked by Mr. Lovell, and told that the Members of Congress were gone, some of them, a little after Midnight.” Burke noted that, this time, the “movement was made not by a vote, but by universal consent, for every member consulted his own particular safety.”

Congress first met in Lancaster on September 27, a city that had been earlier discussed as a possible new meeting place. Thus, Lancaster was the American seat of government for one day—and one day only. Congress soon decided to adjourn and to reconvene in York, Pennsylvania.

These events had to have been a bit depressing. On September 21, Adams wrote in his diary: “Oh, Heaven! grant Us one great Soul! One leading Mind would extricate the best Cause, from that Ruin which seems to await it, for the Want of it. We have as good a Cause, as ever was fought for. We have great Resources. The People are well tempered. One active masterly Capacity would bring order out of this Confusion and save this Country.”

Was his prayer answered? Well, the events that followed were a bit of a mixed bag.

The American army near Philadelphia would lose the Battle of Germantown on October 4 and continue on to Valley Forge. That winter was long and difficult, of course, but it would also prove to be productive. Washington’s men received badly needed training and emerged as a much more disciplined fighting force. Moreover, Congress would soon receive good news from the northern army. About two weeks after Adams’s diary entry, Americans would win the second Battle of Saratoga, an event that would eventually prompt the French to join the war effort as American allies.

The Revolution is often taught in history class as if it were just a handful of big battles, scattered across the years. In reality, it was an 8-year struggle, full of twists and turns, big and small sacrifices, and intensely frightening moments followed by intensely joyful ones.

The days when the British occupied Philadelphia surely felt dark and dreary for our ancestors, just as it sometimes feels darkest before dawn. Nevertheless, a sunrise still lay ahead for the American effort.

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Primary Sources:

  • John Adams, Diary Entry (September 19, 1777)

  • John Adams, Diary Entry (September 21, 1777)

  • Journals of the Continental Congress (September 14, 1777)

  • Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Hancock (September 18, 1777)

  • Letter from Thomas Burke to Richard Caswell (September 20, 1777)



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