Penn’s City: American Athens


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.