Penn’s City: American Athens


“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.