Penn’s City: American Athens

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.”