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Penn’s City: American Athens

April 2024
17min read

From wilderness to foremost city of the colonies, and then to cosmopolitan capital of the Republic—this was Philadelphia’s first century

Until he journeyed to Philadelphia in 1774 to attend the meetings of the First Continental Congress, John Adams had never been out of his native New England. He had even been thinking of quietly retiring to his Braintree farm when the explosive atmosphere in and about Boston (watchful redcoats camped on the Common that summer) thrust him from his own beleaguered part of the world into the main stream of large affairs—and into the most cosmopolitan, progressive, and affluent society in colonial America.

Adams’ first opinions of the wider world that he observed along the banks of the Delaware were not altogether charitable, it was a world of differences, and, taking Boston as his criterion, he felt that it left much to be desired. To the delegate from Massachusetts the easy tolerance of Philadelphians was heterodoxy. Their general well-being was tainted by prodigality. Tested with the strong dye of Yankee Congregationalism, the city’s confusion of religious sects, the medley of disparate cultures, and the babble of strange accents indicated grave impurities in the social body. For all its “trade and wealth and regularity,” Adams concluded after a brief survey, Philadelphia was not Boston. “The morals of our people are much better,” he confided to his diary; “their manners are more polite and agreeable; they are purer English; our language is better, our taste is better, our persons are handsomer; our spirit is greater, our laws are wiser, our religion is superior, our education is better.”

Local pride can be a useful social force, but Adams carried it to an extreme that “tinctured his judgment and clinched his prepossessions.” No one, to be sure, would have mistaken the flourishing city of Philadelphia, so neatly and spaciously arranged on its treelined checkerboard, for the closed port of Boston, with its crooked, narrow streets echoing to the tramp of soldiers’ hoots, its populace exasperated almost to the point of open revolt. As to morals, manners, and the other items on Adams’ uncompromising list of particulars, it was evidently easier to detect the differences than to understand their meaning. As Montaigne wrote of the disparaging reports he had heard of the New World, it is all too simple to call any divergence from custom a barbarism and let it go at that. Philadelphia was not like Boston; in many significant ways it was not like any other place on earth.

It was, in fact, a prodigy. Within less than a century after its beginnings, William Penn’s “green countrie towne” had become the most populous and consequential city in the British colonies and stood among the first half-dozen in the empire. No city in history had grown to maturity so rapidly and so handsomely. While Philadelphia was a-borning, St. Petersburg was created by imperial fiat almost overnight on the swamp of the Neva (at an enormous cost in human suffering), so that Peter the Great might have a showplace with a window from which to look out over western Europe. But St. Petersburg was a throwback to the Paris of the Grand Monarch; Philadelphia was a portent of the future.

At Philadelphia those “schismatical factious” Quakers, a sect whose members had earlier been whipped and dragged through the streets of Boston and hanged on the Common, had opened the doors of Pennsylvania to the entire world. Here, Penn promised, would be a “free colony for all mankind.” And although all history and experience denied it, he cherished the notion that men of good will could govern themselves. By royal proclamation he was absolute proprietor, but he wrote his subjects: “You shall be governed by laws of your own makeing, and live a free, and if you will, a sober and industreous People. I shall not usurp the right of any, or oppress his person. God has furnisht me with a better resolution, and has given me his grace to keep it.... I am your true Friend.”

Early reports about the Society of Friends had made converts as far away as Russia. Penn himself had visited the Rhineland, and his letters and brochures, translated and widely circulated, sent vast numbers of discontented German peasants swarming across the Atlantic. The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Ulster needed little encouragement to flock to this promised land where neither the Irish “papists” nor the Established Anglicans could hope to influence their lives and their convictions. In 1729 James Logan, Secretary of the Province, began to fear these “Protestants of the Protestants” might take control of the colony and the Quakers become victims of their own liberal policies. At mid-century Benjamin Franklin feared it might rather be the Germans. These latter continued to arrive in a steady stream; in 1738 alone some nine thousand newcomers from the upper Rhine disembarked at Philadelphia, and most of them spread out over the black soil of the hinterland.

Dutchmen, Swedes, and Finns had already been in Penn’s land and had helped the first English colonists to settle there. From the exposed frontiers of other colonies harassed settlers were drawn to “this peaceable kingdom.” At one point neighboring Maryland was obliged to post a patrol along its border to prevent deserters from the British fleet in Baltimore from slipping away into Pennsylvania. Ben Franklin, of course, escaped to Philadelphia from the heart of Boston, and added a new, strong, and highly individual strain to the conglomeration.

“We are a people, thrown together from various quarters of the world.” reported William Smith, the Scottish Provost of the College of Philadelphia and the “Great Chain” of the city’s literary life, “differing in all things—language, manners, and sentiments. We are blessed with privileges, which to the wise will prove a sanctuary, but to the foolish a rock of offense.” Here it was most evident that, as Tom Paine pointed out, Europe, not England, was the parent country of America.

There was enough quarreling and contention among the various factions to keep the community in a healthy ferment. On the other hand, virtually everyone, regardless of his individual persuasions, had a solid stake in this thriving society, and there was enough widely scattered good sense to realize it and to keep the melting pot from boiling over. Penn had all but lifted the curse of the Tower of Babel. The revolutionary imputations of that liberation were not lost on the philosophers of the eighteenth century. Philadelphia was the Enlightenment in a microcosm. At last, Voltaire exulted, there was reasonable proof for an age of reason that men of mixed origins and different beliefs could live together on terms of equality, and prosper. Penn’s experiment had, in effect, become a prospectus of the America to be.

In June, 1776, this was emphatically demonstrated before the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia, when the “radical” elements of the colony—the frontiersmen and city workmen, the “little” people of diverse foreign strains and others of “native” English stock who had hitherto lacked due representation and participation in the government of affairs, along with still others of strong liberal feelings—gathered in a conference of their own, dismissed the proprietary government, and in the name of all the people instructed their delegates to Congress to vote for independence. No other colony had gone so far as to mix the question of internal reform with the question of its relation to England. Few of the Founding Fathers had come to Philadelphia prepared to acknowledge the principle of popular sovereignty, and the effect on them of this democratic prerevolution was enormous.




We are accustomed to think that no city can be to this nation what Paris, London, and Rome are to their respective countries: the main center, not only of government but of wealth, fashion, population, and intellectual power as well. The explosive growth of the United States in the nineteenth century discouraged any such centralization. Today there are more than half a dozen American cities larger than Washington, each with its separate claim to national distinction, its own urban standards, and its own social pretensions.

But during the formative and critical period of our history, Philadelphia enjoyed a relative importance that no American city can claim today. In the twenty-five years preceding Adams’ first visit in 1774, its population had more than tripled, putting it well ahead of both Boston and New York in the race for numbers. From 1774 to 1783 it was the nerve center of the Revolution; from 1790 to 1800 it was the federal capital; and before, during, and after those crucial times it was ornamented by a more urbane and agreeable societyfashionable, literary, and political—than could be found anywhere except in a few European capitals.

That flourishing urban culture was rooted in opulence, as such cultures generally are. Philadelphia had early become a principal market of the Delaware watershed, an area that included the richest and most carefully husbanded land in America; and as the bounty of the countryside poured into the city, the more enterprising and better-placed merchants found wealth dumped into their laps. Devout and high-minded as he was, William Penn had a cultivated taste for the good things of life, which he could usually well afford. In their turn, his most prosperous followers in the citadel of Quakerism cultivated a standard of living that even sophisticated Parisian visitors found luxurious—and unexpected. During the span of years that he lived in Philadelphia, off and on, John Adams never easily reconciled himself to the unpuritanical and lavish hospitality of these “nobles” of Pennsylvania.

Occasionally the social activities reported in his diaries seem to have seriously tried his New England conscience; as on an evening when he had dined with distinguished company at Samuel Powel’s “splendid seat” on South Third Street. He recorded “a most sinful feast again! every thing which could delight the eye or allure the taste; curds and creams, jellies, and sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty sorts of tarts, fools, trifles, floating islands, whipped sillabubs &c. &c., Parmesan cheese, punch, wine, porter, beer, &c.” But he shortly made the necessary adjustments. Describing another, comparable orgy at the “elegant and most magnificent” home of Benjamin Chew, he concluded his report triumphantly: “I drank Madeira at a great rate, and found no inconvenience in it.” A few weeks later (it was at the conclusion of his first visit) he bade adieu to “the happy, the peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia.”

It is easy to believe that the social and intellectual climate of Philadelphia had a liberalizing influence, not only on Adams, but on a great many of his contemporaries. In its heyday the city stood at the crossroads of America, both geographically and figuratively. Before the Revolution the best minds of colonial America had been brought to a focus in Philadelphia by the activity of the American Philosophical Society, the oldest and most renowned learned society in the land. The Society not only fed back a synthesis of American intellectual and scientific accomplishment to the colonies but relayed it across the Atlantic to European illuminati, many of whom were glad to accept membership in the Philadelphia Society. The botanical gardens of John Bartram were known to amateur and professional naturalists at home and abroad, including the King of England, the Queen of Sweden, and the scientists of remote Russia. The seeds and specimens Bartram sent overseas to his numerous correspondents were responsible for the naturalization in England alone of more than 150 American plants. For a time Provost Smith edited at Philadelphia the American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle, the most brilliant and original colonial periodical, in which he planned, by means of “extensive correspondence with men of learning throughout the colonies” to present to the world an interpretation of the American scene. The publication was discontinued within a year, but through its pages Smith brought to light a group of varied talents that included Francis Hopkinson, the first American composer of secular music; Thomas Godfrey, the first American dramatist to have his work professionally performed; and Benjamin West, possibly the most widely known American painter of all time—not excepting Grandma Moses, Alexander Calder, and Jackson Pollock. In some quarters of the intellectual world, America must have been identified with Philadelphia.

At Princeton in 1771 two young Philadelphia poets hailed their city as the “mistress of our world, the seat of arts, of science, and of fame,” an effusion which even a New England almanac of the same year virtually echoed. During the decade before the Revolution, the painters Charles Willson Peale, Matthew Pratt, Henry Benbridge, and Abraham Delanoy all returned from their studies abroad, largely with West, and by their reputations helped to make their city the most active artistic center in the colonies. The prosperous gentry provided abundant patronage, which, in a time when artists were not yet obliged to starve in garrets to prove their genius, made the city a shining goal for painters, portraitists mostly, from other parts. With cynical acumen, an English critic once observed that “wherever the British settle, wherever they colonize, they carry, and will always carry, trial by jury, horse racing, and portrait painting.” The latter, he claimed, “is always independent of art and has little or nothing to do with it … [portraiture] is one of the staple manufactures of the realm.” Be that as it may, in the generation before the Revolution at least three dozen portrait painters found employment for their skills in Philadelphia. As John Singleton Copley, the greatest of them, wrote in 1771, it was “a place of too much importance not to visit.”





Returning from his years abroad, Thomas Jefferson thought that Philadelphia was a handsomer city than either London or Paris. The neat symmetry of the city, indeed, excited comment from almost every visitor. Its broad, straight, paved, and tree-lined streets were to the eighteenth century an agreeable novelty in themselves, as were its innumerable and ever-gushing water pumps. Carpenters’ Hall, the handsome little home of the Carpenters’ Company and the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, was headquarters for the master builders and amateur architects who were responsible to a large extent for the solid and impressive constructions with which the city abounded. It was due to the conceptions and skills of these men that Independence Hall with its adjacent buildings, Carpenters’ Hall included, developed into the first civic center and the most delightful urban complex in America.

For his numerous contributions to the city’s development one of this group, Robert Smith, an immigrant Quaker “mechanick” from Glasgow, came to be known as the “Architect of Philadelphia”; he was a zealous member of the American Philosophical Society, and in his city home and his country place he enjoyed most of the comforts and pursued the same social satisfactions that made life agreeable for his wealthiest patrons. This sort of well-rounded fulfillment was probably more easily attainable by a working craftsman in Philadelphia than anywhere else in the colonies. The elder Samuel Powel, father of Adams’ host, was another member of the Carpenters’ Company who won honor through his craft as a “Man remarkable for his Care in promoting Regularity in the Buildings of Philadelphia” and who also amassed a considerable fortune. Although the younger Samuel never had to work, he too was a member of the Company. Just before his return from Europe, his uncle felt obliged to remind him that the artisans of Philadelphia were the peers of the English, and that the joiners of the city might be ill-pleased if Powel brought back with him furniture made abroad. He did so, but he still remained popular enough to be chosen as Philadelphia’s last pre-Revolutionary mayor.

The high life of the city—its dancing assemblies and concerts, its fishing parties on the Schuylkill, its cock fight and other wordly diversions—were hardly interrupted by the Revolution. The exclusive Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill did, in a splendid patriotic gesture, deed back to the United States the complete extraterritorial rights it had secured from colonial governors (a gesture it lived to regret during prohibition days). But during the time of the British occupation, the “heavenly, sweet, pretty redcoats” (as the Tory belles viewed the invaders) gave a ball—the famous Mischianza—of such size and splendor it is still talked about in Philadelphia. After the British quit the city and before hostilities had altogether ceased, the French minister, to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin, presented an entertainment that made even the Mischianza seem modest. “Indeed,” wrote a German visitor to Philadelphia in 1783, “the long sojourn of many foreigners, military men and others, has greatly changed manners, tastes, and ideas, widening and increasing a disposition for all pleasures.”

In April, 1790, the entire civilized world turned its attention briefly to Philadelphia as it mourned the death of Franklin, the man who had been recognized even more widely than Washington as a symbol of America. Later that year, when the federal government moved down from New York, Washington himself became Philadelphia’s first citizen. Concerned lest he should seem to derive the slightest personal advantage from his position, he rented and furnished at his own expense the house of Robert Morris, agreeing among other things to keep the mangle for ironing clothes that Mrs. Morris had chosen to leave behind only if his own mangle proved to be “equally good and convenient” and acceptable to Mrs. Morris in exchange. John Adams, first as Vice President and later as Chief Executive, was equally scrupulous, and had a miserable time accommodating his notions of domestic economy to the high price of living in Philadelphia. As long as he was given “so despicable an allowance,” he wrote his wife in 1793, he would never live at the seat of government “but at lodgings.” “Shiver my jib and start my planks if I do,” he added emphatically.

Those last ten years of the century were the most brilliant in the city’s history. The formal weekly levees of the President, and his wife’s somewhat more spirited receptions, naturally attracted the city’s most distinguished and ambitious company. Now that it was the seat of the “republican court,” the city seemed to have gone half mad and altogether prodigal in its zest for social entertainment. The indisputable leader of this society, which for wit, taste, and brilliant worldliness has never been surpassed in America, was the beautiful, gracious, enormously wealthy Mrs. William Bingham. Young Charles Bulfinch, on his way to becoming New England’s most prominent and fashionable architect, thought that with its “white marble staircase, valuable paintings, the richest furniture and the utmost magnificence of decoration,” the Bingham establishment was “far too rich for any man in this country.” Here and at Lansdowne, her country seat, her entertainments reached a level of luxury and urbanity hitherto unknown to America.

This gracious hostess, whom Abigail Adams conceded was the finest woman she had ever seen—surpassing the celebrated Duchess of Devonshire in charm and beauty, had the name of each guest at her parties called by a servant at the entrance, to be picked up by another on the stairs, and relayed in a loud voice to a third servant at the door to the drawing room. On his first exposure to this imported formality, James Monroe, hearing his name repeated so insistently, is said to have called back, “Coming—coming, as soon as I get my greatcoat off.”

As the metropolis of a new “empire,” the city became something of an international capital. Besides foreign diplomatic personnel, there were curious tourists who came to see at close range this novel experiment in republican government, which Frederick the Great said could not possibly survive as such, which Turgot hailed as “the hope of the human race,” and which, much later, seemed to H. G. Wells so fresh and unblemished that he likened it to “something coming out of an egg.” French émigrés converged on Philadelphia in successive waves following each change of authority in revolutionary France and its colonies. Some, among them even the most distinguished, came as refugees, and the city was treated to the curious spectacle of French counts teaching fencing to Quaker lads and dancing to Quaker lasses to make a living (Chateaubriand reported that even the Iroquois tribe had a French dancing master, a M. Violet). Moreau de Saint-Méry, sometime de facto president of the Commune, ran a bookstore (he also introduced America to contraceptives as a side line to his trade in literature) which became a rendezvous for the Vicomte de Noailles, Comte Rochambeau, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, the Duc d’Orléans, and other celebrated compatriots. Talleyrand prepared his international intrigues on the shores of the Schuylkill, and Brillat-Savarin, between fiddling in a theater and teaching French to make ends meet, made notes on the American cuisine, which later appeared in his Physiologie du Goût.

The impact of these elegant Parisians on Philadelphia was no greater than the impact of life in Philadelphia on them. A number of them professed to be shocked by the conspicuous luxury of the city. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt referred to entertainments as stylish and splendid as any he had seen in Europe. Brissot de Warville, noting two ladies who came to a formal dinner with “very naked” bosoms, was scandalized by “this indecency among republicans.” Moreau de Saint-Méry was intrigued by the local custom of giving houses even-numbered addresses on one side of the street and odd on the other, an idea he introduced to Paris when he returned there. Chastellux observed that here, where all ranks were theoretically equal, men followed their natural bent by giving the preference to riches. The Duc d’Orléans, later the “citizen king” Louis Philippe, but whose future was at that time uncertain, made the mistake of applying this principle by asking for the hand of William Bingham’s daughter. With the solid assurance of a Philadelphia aristocrat the young lady’s father is said to have replied, “Should you ever be restored to your hereditary position, you will be too great a match for her; if not, she is too great a match for you.”

Gilbert Stuart came to Philadelphia in 1794 to start the series of innumerable likenesses of George Washington he was to paint and to establish himself immediately as “court painter” and America’s foremost portraitist. He was an inimitable raconteur, an audacious wag, and his Chestnut Street quarters became as much a salon as a studio. In later years he enjoyed badgering his fellow Bostonians by recalling the days he spent in “the Athens of America,” and the Spartans of the North had to suffer his barbs. Massachusetts was at the time still in what Charles Francis Adams, a century later, called its “glacial period,” and for a while yet Philadelphia remained the nation’s cultural capital.

Thomas Jefferson was too much of a radical (as Franklin had been too much of a plebian) to be warmly welcomed by the elite of Philadelphia society. But he found the city beautiful, and rich in intellectual companionship as well. Franklin’s old friend Joseph Priestley, “inventor” of oxygen, had fled to Philadelphia from the wrath of Tory mobs in England, and Jefferson discussed with him plans for a new American university. Another of Franklin’s friends, the incomparable self-taught mathematician and astronomer David Rittenhouse, was the current president of the American Philosophical Society. Of his famous orrery, the planetarium of the day, Jefferson observed, “He has not, indeed, made a world, but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived, from the creation to this day.”

William Bartram, who presided over his father’s botanical gardens, within a short walk from Jefferson’s residence, did not create a world either. But with his volume of American travels, published in 1791, he provided a vision of the New World that profoundly impressed his own generation and those to come. His scientific and poetic description of the American scene as he had viewed it in all its colorful variety was a literary masterpiece of early romanticism, and to its pages Coleridge, Southey, Chateaubriand, and Wordsworth turned to inform their speculations about the world in general and America in particular.

A generation ago one of Christopher Morley’s Main Line heroes told his girl that Philadelphia “had her spell of modernism and revolution in the eighteenth century and got through with it once and for all.” That was not strictly true. For several decades after the national capital moved on to Washington in 1800, Philadelphia remained the creative focus of American art. Here American painting graduated from its colonial phase into full-fledged artistic activity with professional organization, a transition in which Charles Willson Peale played a parental role. As a craftsman, an artist, and a man of indefatigable curiosity, Peale seemed able to work out every idea that came to him. He had organized the first art school, which held a public exhibit as early as 1795. Ten years later the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was organized as the first successful public institution devoted to art. Peale’s own museum, with all the oddities included in its collections, remained one of the major cultural institutions in the United States for several decades to come, until it was finally vulgarized into a pre-Barnum side show.

Perhaps the best proof of the stored-up vitality of the city was its position as the foremost publishing center of the nation, an eminence it retained at least until the third decade of the nineteenth century. Philadelphia already had to her credit the first American edition of Shakespeare and the first American anthology. In 1807 The Columbiad of Joel Barlow, a New Englander, was published there—a book hailed as “in all respects the finest specimen of bookmaking ever produced … by an American press.” Between times, Philadelphia had given the world the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, the nation’s first professional novelist, now all but forgotten but hailed by Keats and Shelley as a “powerful genius” comparable to the renowned Schiller. And by 1824 there were completed and published two encyclopedias, of twenty-one and forty-seven volumes respectively, that could have been produced nowhere else in the nation.

Penn’s town yielded its pre-eminence slowly. As the center of business finance it was given the coup de grâce only in the 1830’s, when Andrew Jackson scuttled Nicholas Biddle’s Bank of the United States. By then, New York had become the nation’s chief seaport and the “great commercial emporium” of the land. At the close of the War of 1812, England chose New York as the dumping ground for its accumulation of manufactures, a circumstance of which the alert merchants of Manhattan took immediate and full advantage. The early, precisely scheduled packet service to Europe that shuttled in and out of New York Harbor helped to concentrate transatlantic trade there, and the steamboats that proliferated on adjacent waters quickened the distribution of goods and people from everywhere. When the Erie Canal made New York the wide-open gateway to the West, no other city could challenge its status as the metropolis of the New World.

By then ideas that had been put into play at Philadelphia had, for almost a century, exercised a dynamic influence on the development of an American state of mind. Penn’s great experiment of religious freedom had broadened into an experiment of every other sort of freedom—political, social, personal, and economic —upon which our national experience continues to pivot. By then, too, Philadelphia seemed ready to settle quietly back on its venerable reputation and, as a “hotbed of inertia,” to become the butt of countless jokes (Philadelphias love to eat snails, but they find it so hard to catch them, etc.). Yet within the last dozen years, no other city has made such a remarkable effort to recover from the paralyzing blight that has afflicted our urban centers. The exact site of Penn’s “green countrie towne” has been opened up and developed as the largest single space available at the center of an American city in the twentieth century; opened up into a vision of what a city can do for its own salvation. In this modern revolutionary stage of its history, Philadelphia has set the pace for urban America. But then, revolution and modernism are an old story in Philadelphia.


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