The New National Capital

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The Trenton area first received the news of the surrender of Great Britain's Lord Cornwallis a week after it occurred, on Saturday, October 27, 1781. The public celebration was one of the most joyful events to take place in the area since it was witness to the death and destruction of the Revolution.

Governor William Livingston lead the celebration in Trenton as the leaders of all the surrounding communities joined in the joyous news. Those local officials also were working on a grand goal for the Mercer County area - they believed it could play a greater role in the political affairs of the state and the nation, neither of which yet had a permanent seat of government. It should be noted that New Jersey's first state legislature met in 1776 in Princeton.

When it became clear that American independence was soon at hand, the New Jersey Committee of Correspondence asked the state's 13 counties to elect delegates to what is now called the First Provincial Congress. Those 85 representatives that were selected first met together right here in Mercer County. For several years before a final state capital was founded, Trenton served as the place of business for a newly formed government.

During the 1780's, the people of the Revolution were beginning to focus their energies on creating our new nations' capital. In order for an area to be considered, it had to meet 6 specific criteria. They were:

1. It is neither a state capital nor commercial city.
2. It must have access to navigable waters.
3. It must be able to receive prompt intelligence from all the states and from Europe.
4. It must be in a state whose constitution guards against public turbulence.
5. It must be centrally located geographically.
6. It must be independent of all state and local jurisdiction.

It seems that these conditions were set because of the confining nature that Philadelphia, which acted as the first national capital, inflicted on the members of Congress. To the delight of many New Jersey leaders, Trenton ideally fit all the conditions.

In 1783 while meeting in Princeton, the Congress was much taken with Trenton and the Mercer County region. So much were they enamored with the area, that they actually agreed to build the seat of the nation's capital right along the Delaware River in Trenton. This decision angered the Southern members of the congressional delegation so much that the leaders of New Jersey decided on a compromise. The nation's new capital would actually be a dual capital - with one meeting place designed to be located in Trenton, and the second to be built near Georgetown, which is located in present day Washington, D.C.

When this compromise was reached, the leading engineers and carpenters of the day began to travel to Trenton to begin work on the new national capital. During that time, the Continental Congress met in Trenton in the winter of 1784. Again, the Congress was so pleased with the area that it voted an increase of $100,000 (in 1784 money) to be used to build the necessary buildings in the area for the capital's work.

But before any official work got underway, or any monies were delivered to begin construction, one member of the Continental Congress stood loud in opposition of the entire compromise. His name - General George Washington.

By the end of 1785, a full two years after the compromise began to take form, General Washington had managed to convince the entire Congress that the lands of Virginia (notably the Georgetown area mentioned previously) were the ideal place for the new nation's capital.

Thus ended Trenton's attempt to become the seat of power of the United States. But before we move on, it is interesting to point out that Trenton did act as such on several occasions even though it was not the "official" capital of the United States. Indeed, even as late as 1801, Trenton was still used several times as the working capital. Most notably, President John Adams, the second President of the United States, took an apartment at the current location of Warren Street and West Hanover Street, and conducted the nation's business from there.

In the end, of course, the new capital was to become Washington, D.C., a city taken from the land of Virginia and Maryland. But that taking of land to form a new seat of national government led the New Jersey legislature to a new idea of their own.

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