Unexpected Philadelphia

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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.