Penn’s City: American Athens

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.