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Unexpected Philadelphia

May 2024
16min read

A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born

Two hundred years ago Philadelphia was the natural place for the constitution-makers. There was nothing unexpected about that. Philadelphia had one hundred years behind her that were as respectable as they were impressive. Two generations after her solitary founder, William Penn, had set foot on the right bank of the Delaware, Philadelphia had become the largest city in North America, and the fourth (perhaps the third) largest city in the entire British Empire. She was the seat of the Continental Congress, the focus of the declaration of American independence, the unofficial capital of the Colonies.

Conveniently—for reasons of transport and for reasons politic—Philadelphia sat in the middle of the Atlantic seaboard, equidistant from Virginia in the South and New England in the North. This kind of balance was there in the Philadelphia atmosphere. She was Northern in her mercantile and financial avocations, in the modest non-conformism of her Quakers, in her institutionalism, in her intellectual inclinations. She was Southern in the sumptuary habits, the plantation connections, and the feminine charm of her society. A century and a half later, not-withstanding her solid Republicanism and her position north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Owen Wister, a very melancholy Philadelphian, wrote with sensitive accuracy: “Philadelphia happens to lie virtually on the border between two colonial parts of the country, distinct from each other; south of the Schuylkill the South may be fairly said to begin, and north of the Delaware the North.”


Philadelphia was, and still is, a respectable town, the proper place for what George Washington wanted to see: after the American success in arms, “the opportunity” for the United States “to become a respectable nation.” So to Philadelphia came the delegates for the great task of constitution writing in May 1787, meeting most of the time in the fair and spacious rooms of the State House (which would acquire—by custom, not by law—the name of Independence Hall only many decades later). They found things in Philadelphia that were unexpected. The politics of the city were different and more worrisome than they had thought. Much of the relative unity of the time of the First Continental Congress was gone. There had been a mutiny by the Pennsylvania Line. The name of the Constitutionalist party, which had ruled Philadelphia since the adoption of the radically democratic Pennsylvania constitution, was misleading: most of its members stood against, not for, a federal constitution. That constitution had the support of the Anti-Constitutionalists (who eventually changed their name to Federalists). In this, and other matters, the city was badly divided. There was, for example, a bitter and unceasing battle between the boards of the two rival colleges, the University of the State of Pennsylvania and the College of Philadelphia, the former supported by the Constitutionalists, the latter by their opponents. When, near the end of September, the Pennsylvania Assembly was convoked to ratify the new federal constitution, the Constitutionalists tried to obstruct the meeting, whereafter a sergeant at arms and a clerk were sent out to trawl the city in order to find members who would then produce a quorum. Another political fracas involved the venerable figure of Franklin—venerable, that is, outside of Philadelphia, where many people regarded him as an opportunist and a publicity seeker. The Anti-Federalists put him at the end of their ticket; but eventually they lost.

Heedless Philadelphians once offered to sell the liberty bell for scrap.

Washington had not expected the radicalism and the political divisions of Philadelphia. They contributed to his decision to keep the work of the Constitutional Convention private and secret. There was, however, an unexpected plus: the social rather than the political, the aesthetic even more than the intellectual atmosphere of the city. The skeptical John Adams already had been surprised by that during the First Continental Congress. He had expected a sedate town governed by somber, gray-headed Quakers. Instead he found a high level of urbanity: excellent dinner parties, rich food and drink, houses better appointed and furnished than in Boston, a charming and sometimes enchanting private —private, not public—social climate. “We took our departure,” he would write to Mrs. Adams, “from the happy, the peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia.” In the letters and the recorded remarks of Washington, Madison, and others we find similar encomiums, often directed at the brilliance and beauty of certain Philadelphia hostesses. What pleased them were not only the amenities of the social life of Philadelphia but also its material incarnations: the fine architecture and the fine houses of the city, including the best city tavern in the nation.

This is what visitors to Philadelphia still can see: the most historic square mile in the United States. It includes Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, Library Hall; the First and Second Banks of the United States; Christ Church, the Philadelphia Exchange, and many other fine structures, most of them completed during the glorious architectural century before 1835. A one-hour walk may encompass most of them; after two hours the eyes will have exhausted the Historic Square Mile. Of course this would mean walking past the buildings, stopping at times on the outside, without stepping into their interiors. This is done by thousands of tourists every day. Yet I think that perhaps the best way to sense the buildings’ presence comes in the evening, even though their doors are closed—and not only because the streets around them are empty of the throngs. There is a silent stateliness about these buildings then. Their red-bricked walls breathe an air of dignity. The sense of the past is, mysteriously, more present when they are alone. This, I think, is not merely the preference of a historian who likes solitude. Philadelphia is not Williamsburg: for the most part these historic buildings are not reconstructions, although their interiors often are. Few people know that even in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall there are only two authentic objects that were there two hundred years ago: an inkstand and George Washington’s high-backed chair. The rest are antique furnishings and fabrics purchased and brought together much later by admiring volunteers and experts of eighteenth-century America.

It is a great and widespread mistake to believe that our ancestors were more history-minded than we are. Historical consciousness, especially in the United States, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Much of the Historic Square Mile had fallen into disrepair for a century and a half. In 1828, for example, the Liberty Bell—before it was badly cracked—had been offered as scrap to a Philadelphia craftsman for four hundred dollars, since the town fathers had chosen to commission the casting of a bigger one. But he decided that drayage, that is, carting it away, would have cost too much.* The only building well taken care of was Carpenters’ Hall, finished in 1773, where the First Continental Congress met, in 1774. (It was leased to various institutions, including the Bank of Pennsylvania; consequently it was there that the first great bank robbery in the United States took place, in 1798.) In 1857 the private association of the Philadelphia Carpenters’ Company restored it (they still own it). The great Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was America’s first World’s Fair, and it had just about nothing to do with history. The Centennial was dedicated to machinery, not to history. Its buildings were three miles away from the Historic Square Mile, which was visited by relatively few people. As recently as forty years ago Independence Hall was still owned by the city. A row of low, brownish, often dilapidated commercial buildings blocked its prospect, save from the back. It was only in 1951 that the act providing for the construction of Independence National Historical Park, supported by President Truman, was put into practice, with results that have been altogether salutary, though there are exceptions —as, for example, the removal of the Liberty Bell from Independence Hall to a deadening glass pavilion in 1976, or, perhaps, the construction of a replica of the above-mentioned City Tavern in which not one brick is genuine (I have yet to meet a Philadelphian who has set foot in it).

*The strange history of the Liberty Bell deserves a footnote. It was called the New Province Bell when it was first ordered from London. It was called the State House Bell until a century ago. It arrived in 1752. At the first stroke of its large clapper, it cracked. Two Philadelphian craftsmen, Pass and Stow, had to recast it twice. Their misspelling of “Pensylvania” remains cast in eternity. Contrary to accepted opinion, it was rung not on the second or the fourth of July in 1776 but on the eighth. A new crack, which had already appeared, probably widened when the bell was rung on February 23, 1846, to celebrate Washington’s birthday. It has not been tolled since but only tapped, for all kinds of occasions, including the beginning of National Boy Scout Week in 1952. For a long time it did not receive exquisite care. There is a photograph of it being carted to Boston in 1903 for a Bunker Hill Association celebration on an open, unprotected flatcar of the Pennsylvania Railroad; in front of it stands a fat, mustachioed “Keystone cop” holding a frightened baby. In 1976 it was removed from Independence Hall and put into a glass case, like Lenin’s mummy on Red Square in Moscow. Unlike Lenin’s mummy it does not need to be waxed or painted from time to time.

Sometime before the bell was rung in 1846, the material in the crack was filed off. Out of this material some small handbells were cast and given away. One was given to the historical society, and another was given Henry Clay. And one of them was given to an ancestor of my first wife who was a city councilman in the 1830s; I have it now.

The town has the decency and sentimental warmth of a provincial city.

Let’s not complain. The Independence National Historical Park project rose together with the reconstruction of Old Philadelphia that was the work of civic-minded Philadelphians themselves, beginning in the early 1950s, in what popularly, though confusingly, is known as Society Hill. (The word Society has nothing to do with society but with the old building-grounds of the Free Society of Traders; and the reconstruction has extended well beyond the Society Hill area.) Beyond the Historic Square Mile, stretching east to the muddy banks of the Delaware, south to the solid brick row houses of working-class neighborhoods named after some of the river parishes of seventeenth-century London, and now creeping agreeably westward, came the rebuilding and the repeopling of a long-decayed and abandoned portion of Philadelphia that now is not only teeming with tourists but pulsating with everyday life.

It is true that, compared with the middle-class flow from the city, this return to Old Philadelphia has been not much more than a trickle. But the life of a city cannot be measured merely by quantities, and the quality of these refurbished houses and streets has been, by and large, very good. I like to drive my non-Philadelphian friends to this old-fashioned and newly inhabited portion of Philadelphia in the autumn, when the yellow lights bathe the streets and housefronts with an almost palpable film of coziness and comfort. We park wherever we can and start walking up and down the cobblestones and Belgian blocks of the pavements (pavements in Philadelphia are what sidewalks are in New York, and what are blocks there are squares in Philadelphia), either beginning or ending with Elfreth’s Alley. Oddly north of Market, it is the oldest continuously inhabited street, where the small, closely built houses with their tiny back gardens are both tangible evidences from a past still alive and also reminiscent of what William Penn and his successors hoped and imagined their City of Brotherly Love to be: not only a “greene Country Towne” but a city with a country heart.

A city with a country heart; and a private, rather than public, city. Its public parades and ceremonies could be impressive; but more often than not they have been merely raucous and noisy, shunned by many of the citizens. Until about one hundred years ago the better Philadelphia families would remove themselves from the city during the Fourth of July celebrations. I have yet to meet an Old Philadelphian who ventures downtown on New Year’s Day for the annual Mummers Parade, a Philadelphia custom started by a newspaperman in 1901. The 1876 Centennial began on a day of darkest downpour and continued through one of the hottest and dampest of summers. The Sesquicentennial, in 1926, was nearly a total failure: many of the exhibits and pavilions were not ready for the opening, and visitors left unimpressed. There is a long tradition of such public failures. On the way to his presidential inauguration, Washington arrived in Philadelphia beneath triumphal arches that had been erected in his honor on both banks of the Schuylkill, at Gray’s Ferry. Atop one was a large laurel wreath with which Washington was to be crowned as he passed beneath. But when the moment came, it descended with alarming abruptness over his head.


Yet George Washington liked Philadelphia. The ten years from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the capital city of the nation, were altogether a success, hardly dimmed by the sometimes vicious battles of the political factions and only briefly affected by the awful yellow fever epidemic in 1793 (when for a few weeks the seat of the President of the United States was, properly speaking, not in Philadelphia but in Germantown, part of the city now but not then). The city was vibrant, cosmopolitan, urbane—the political and diplomatic, the national and international, the economic and financial capital of the young Republic. In spite of the earlier decision to establish a new capital in a federal district between Virginia and Maryland, there was a strong possibility of keeping the government in Philadelphia; but these politic attempts were made halfheartedly, mostly because many Philadelphians themselves were not very interested.

And so in 1800 the capital of the nation moved away, to Washington; the year before, the capital of the state had moved away too; by the 1820s New York had replaced Philadelphia as the largest city and the principal port of the country; and by 1835 Philadelphia ceased to be the financial capital, after Jackson’s destruction of the Bank of the United States, which had been governed by Nicholas Biddle, an excellent Philadelphian. In that year Chicago did not yet exist; but by the end of the nineteenth century, it too surpassed Philadelphia in size.

That was a century of national growth and brag, the century when in the American language big came to mean something other than mere size. This was one of the reasons that, for a long time, historians did not devote much interest to nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Now this is changing. There is a nineteenth-century side to Philadelphia that is lovable, enduring—and unexpected. Unexpected because Philadelphia is not particularly famous for its Victorian architecture. Its charm was, and remains, more complicated than that. English visitors have noticed this, again and again: Dickens and Trollope and Kipling said parts of it were better than London. Also, to this writer, who came to Philadelphia forty years ago and liked it instantly, it was an unexpected town with all the promises of decency and the sentimental warmth of a provincial city; and there were, too, the lights through the fog settling on Rittenhouse Square, muffled and elegant, with its patrician air. The nineteenth-century atmosphere still exists, not necessarily in celebrated buildings such as City Hall but in the, again unexpected, little streets, with their unexpected and irregular names: Quince, Manning, Fawn; Camac, Panama, Chadwick; Latimer and Van Pelt-the nooks and crannies of an unplanned Philadelphia. They are suffused with a rare combination of domesticity and elegance. For, even more than being the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia was, and still is, the City of Homes. One hundred years ago more people owned their houses in Philadelphia than in any other city on earth. They also moved less than other Americans, preferring to stay in their neighborhoods. (There is another side to this, of course. Philadelphians are an incurious people, often unaware and uninterested in what happens beyond their neighborhoods. When, not so long ago, an Irish Catholic boy from, say, Manayunk, would wed a Polish Catholic girl from Tacony, people would speak of a mixed marriage.)

The fact is that Philadelphians are not too sure of themselves.

So I direct my visiting friends or students to Washington Square, behind Independence Hall; to the small Cherry Street neighborhood north of Market; to Delancey Place, which is not a place but a meandering street, with its rows of splendid town houses, darkred and gleaming-white, like Charleston’s but somehow more urban and urbane; their doorways and lintels and windows as patrician as Beacon Hill in Boston but less selfconsciously so. Yet here, unlike in Boston or Washington, I cannot really point out a single house with a famous name. And this is perhaps not surprising. After two centuries we may observe the limitations of the ambitions, and consequently of the national achievements, of so many Philadelphians. Despite her key situation in the nation (and within the Keystone State), Philadelphia produced not one President, not one serious presidential contender, not one important senator (with the solitary exception of Boss Boies Penrose), nor a Chief Justice of the United States (the great old legal traditions of the city notwithstanding; the half-admiring, half-envious phrase “smart as a Philadelphia lawyer” appeared as early as 1786, in England). Famous Philadelphia writers: almost none. Famous painters: yes—but, even more, great private collectors who, unlike their contemporary millionaires in Boston and New York and Chicago, knew what they were buying without having to rely on the word of advisers and dealers. Famous people? Not really. Honorable people? Yes. The great historian Jakob Burckhardt once wrote that it is not easy to distinguish the sense of honor from the passion for fame; yet the two sentiments are essentially different. The ambitions of the best of Philadelphians may have been the reverse of what a wag said about celebrity, that is, the fame for being well known. Respectable Philadelphians have sometimes preferred not to be well known —at least not outside Philadelphia. Esse Quam Videri (“to be more than to seem”): this Roman phrase is Old Philadelphian, and at least two Philadelphia institutions have it as their motto.

They do not always live up to it. The trouble is that Philadelphians are not too sure of themselves. They will, at times, recognize local talents, but not until the reputation of the latter has been established elsewhere. They will overcome their Philadelphian reluctance in order to conform to ideas or practices that seem to be successful and widespread elsewhere, but then the results are not propitious; and when, for instance, Philadelphia decides to follow and imitate New York (usually after a ten-or even twenty-year time lag), it is the dowager trying to be the flapper: it is unseemly and it will not last.

The United States is a very big country. It has plenty of space for unexpected places, unexpected things, unexpected people. Because of the national inclination for publicity, there are places and people and habits in America that strenuously strive to fulfill, and overdo, what is expected—or rather, what seems to be expected—of them by others. That is why, alas, so many things (and sometimes people) become caricatures of themselves: say, Times Square on New Year’s Eve or Beverly Hills on Oscar night, a resistless fate that can befall not only Las Vegas but Nantucket. Yet privacy and individuality are essential elements of the freedoms bequeathed us—which has something to do with the condition that what is unexpected is surprising as well as interesting. There is plenty of that in the history of Philadelphia even after its glorious eighteenth century.

There is St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Locust Street, around which a great legal battle raged right after the Centennial because some of its neighbors objected to the sound of its bells. There is a drinking fountain in Fairmount Park with a marble figure of Moses striking water from the rock, erected by the Catholic Total Abstinence Union. There is the old Walnut Street Theatre that assorted eager-beaver presidential publicity agents from Washington, D.C., chose for the staging of the televised presidential “debate” in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, with the respective staffs hauling in carefully apportioned “audiences” who served as theatrical props, mechanically applauding now one candidate and then the other. In the true tradition of Philadelphia—remember the wreath that threatened Washington’s noble head?—an electrical failure cut off the sound toward the end of the debate, whereafter George Washington’s august successors stood for twenty-seven minutes numb and dumb, facing the nation (and the world) without saying a word, not daring to turn toward or to talk to each other; standing uneasily behind their lecterns, they looked as if they were unable to move because their trousers had fallen down. There is, even more recently, a statue of Sylvester Stallone, entitled Rocky. The producers of the movie succeeded in placing it in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After painful debating, a compromise was made: it was moved to the front of a sports stadium in South Philadelphia.


For nearly a hundred years the highest peak of the Philadelphia skyline was the big statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. There could be no taller building in Philadelphia, according to civic custom and tradition but not, alas, to law. Alas—because it has just been topped by an office skyscraper put together by an ambitious developer.

And yet, no matter how things would change—I wrote several years ago—Philadelphia would not lose its peculiar flavor: “the gentleness, the hypocrisy, the thoughtlessness, the respect for law would remain.” What George Orwell wrote about England during the storm of the Second World War may apply to Philadelphia: “an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” Even now.

This Year in Philadelphia

A calendar of national events taking place in the bicentennial year appears elsewhere in this issue.

Travelers who visit Philadelphia in 1987 will be rewarded with a variety of special events designed to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution. The city began celebrating a year early with “Miracle at Philadelphia,” an exhibit that opened at the Second Bank of the United States on September 17, 1986. That exhibit will continue until December 31,1987, and future plans include the following:

MAY 23–25

A festival called “All Roads Lead to Philadelphia” will be held on Independence Mall, with colonial foods, crafts, and music. Visitors can attend mock trials and exercise their freedom of speech on a specially constructed soapbox.

JUNE 25–26

Art Buchwald, the syndicated columnist, and Mark Russell, the comedian, will host a conference on political humor around the world. One of the topics under discussion will be the degree of freedom allowed political humorists under various national constitutions.

JULY 3–5

The U.S. Army Band will perform at Convention Hall, marching bands from all over the country will parade down Ben Franklin Parkway, and a food festival will be held at Penn’s Landing. On July 4, recalling Philadelphia’s place in aeronautical history (the first balloon flight in American took off from the city in 1793), hot-air balloons will lift off from the Museum of Art.


Both houses of Congress will meet in a pavilion on Independence Mall to commemorate the Great Compromise, in which the large and small states agreed on a bicameral legislature, with representation by population in the House and equal representation in the Senate. This will mark the first time in our history that Congress has convened outside the seat of government.


“Only in America,” a national arts festival, opens on Independence Mall, with jazz and folk music, sculpture and murals, and theater performances.

AUGUST 22–23

Philadelphia will celebrate its maritime heritage with a festival on the Delaware riverfront. On the twenty-second, the U.S. Navy will commission a new Aegis cruiser, the USS Thomas S. Gates, named for a Philadelphian who served as Secretary of the Navy from 1957 to 1959.


This is Constitution Day. In what is being billed as the largest parade ever in America, four separate processions will converge on Independence Hall. Among the floats will be a replica of The Federalist, the fifteen-foot miniature square-rigged vessel given to George Washington by Baltimore merchants in 1788.

Visitors to Philadelphia should save time to visit some of the city’s small, privately run institutions, many of which have been in existence since 1787 or thereabouts, including:


planted on the Schuylkill River in 1728 by John Bartram, America’s first botanist. Washington and Franklin used to visit him there, and although Bartram had died by the time the Constitutional Convention met, his garden was so famous that on July 14, 1787, the delegates suspended their deliberations to visit them. To commemorate that event, this year on July 14 free buses will be available to pick people up at the Independence Park Visitor Center and take them to the garden.


founded in 1731 as America’s first subscription library—anyone who bought a share could borrow books. In 1787 it was located just a few blocks from Independence Hall, and the trustees voted to make the collection available to delegates. This year, in an exhibit called “The Intellectual Heritage of the Constitutional Era: The Delegates’ Library,” which opens May 15 and continues into early November, the Library Company will display books that were in the collection in 1787 and that the delegates might have consulted in the course of their deliberations, including works by Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Jefferson, and Adams.


founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 “for Promoting Useful Knowledge.” Its bicentennial exhibition, “Designing a Nation: Science, Technology, and the Constitution,” on view from April 30 through October 1, suggests that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Congress failed to foster the sciences. Diaries from the Lewis and Clark expeditions—a rare example of governmentsponsored research during this period—will be included in the exhibit.


founded in 1824 in honor of Benjamin Franklin and “for the promotion of the mechanic arts.” A new, multimedia presentation here, on view through the end of 1987, celebrates Franklin’s scientific experiments.


founded in 1824. An exhibit opening on June 18 and continuing until December 29, 1987, examines the Constitution after 1787, with memorabilia from the celebrations of 1887 and 1937.


founded in 1954, is an extraordinary collection of Americana in a nineteenth-century townhouse off Rittenhouse Square. An exhibit of letters and documents opening here September 15 highlights the ratification process.

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