Beginning in 1774, Philadelphia hosted the First Continental Congress and two years later witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the Pennsylvania State House. More than a decade later, American statesmen gathered in the same city to draft the Constitution. In short, no city performed a greater role in giving birth to the United States of America. As the largest, most diverse, and most economically vibrant entrepôt in North America, Philadelphia could rightfully claim to be the metropolis of the British American colonies and of the new American nation.
William Penn conceived of Philadelphia as a commercial and administrative center for his new colony, which had been awarded a charter in 1681 by King Charles II as a partial payment for a debt owed by the Crown to Penn’s father. Penn pledged to give city lots in Philadelphia to the first group of investors in proportion to the total amount of land they purchased in the country. This generosity was intended as an incentive for settlers to sign on to Penn’s project in the early phases of planning. Penn, as the chief proprietor, elected to name the city Philadelphia, or City of Brotherly Love, in light of his vision of the colony as a haven of toleration for religious dissenters. Penn’s coreligionists in the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, formed a large contingent of the First Purchasers of Pennsylvania land, and Philadelphia became home to a wealthy cadre of Quaker merchants.
Unlike most colonial towns, Philadelphia began with a blueprint, with William Penn and other planners as architects. Part of their design for the city, wedged between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, included city blocks arranged in a grid, four major public squares, and a central square for the city hall. Penn instructed his planners to include space in house lots for “Gardens or Orchards or fields, that it may be a greene Country towne.” Settlement proceeded, though not without controversy, as Penn and his First Purchasers squabbled for years over the assignment of town lots. Nevertheless, on the eve of the Enlightenment, Penn’s design became a model of urban planning for the English-speaking world.
By the time Philadelphia received its first charter of incorporation in 1701, reports held that nearly 7,000 people resided in the city and its adjacent suburbs a number historians believe to be too large. More reliable figures exist for later periods. Historians place Philadelphia’s population just prior to the Revolution at 24,000, and nearly three times that by 1800. This rapid growth made Philadelphia the largest city in the early republic. As a consequence of this dynamic growth, Philadelphia was wracked by political struggles throughout its early history. Penn’s decisions as proprietor triggered factional disputes between those supportive of his policies and those opposed to them. Quakers and Church of England adherents disputed matters of religion, as well as the distribution of political offices, which seemed to favor wealthy Quaker merchants.
The most politically influential group of Philadelphians were wealthy merchants like Isaac Norris, Jonathan Dickinson, and Edward Shippen, who had built great commercial empires by the 1720s and left their imprint on the city’s social and cultural life. Their wealth enabled them to live far above the standard of most urban laborers, in affluent districts like Society Hill, and their lifestyle expanded to include lavish mansions, expensive imported furniture, decorative arts, and many other cultural refinements associated with the English landed and mercantile elite. The economy the merchants helped to build enticed thousands of immigrants to the Delaware River Valley region, and by 1776 Philadelphia hummed with activity. Artisans, laborers, shopkeepers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and a sizable free black community contributed to the diverse makeup of the city and began to make their presence felt in civic affairs.
The Old State House in Philadelphia was built in 1735, by which time the municipal population exceeded 10,000. By the 1750s, Philadelphia had become the largest city and leading economic center in the North American colonies. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) By midcentury, Philadelphia served as a major hub of institutional governance and social reform in the colonies, which encouraged and channeled new forms of political and social activism. Philadelphia hosted the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends beginning in 1681, which was the largest and most influential of the yearly meetings in the colonies. Philadelphia also served as home of Christ Church, one of the largest of the Church of England congregations in British North America, which played a strategic role in forming the national Protestant Episcopal Church following the American Revolution. Presbyterians could also conceive of Philadelphia as the center of gravity for colonial Presbyterianism, as the first presbytery, synod, and General Assembly were all held in the city. Thus, Philadelphia served as the epicenter of religious development in early America, as the religious organizations of the Old World entered the colonies and became formal religious denominations.
The religious diversity and vitality of Philadelphia helped to stimulate two of the largest social and cultural movements of pre-Revolutionary America, evangelicalism and abolitionism. When William Tennent, Sr., founded the “Log College” for ministerial training near Philadelphia, he initiated a sequence of events that led to the schism of Presbyterianism into “Old Sides” and “New Sides,” fueled by the appearance of the English revivalist George Whitefield in Philadelphia in 1739. New Side Presbyterianism contributed to the development of evangelicalism, which historians of religion describe as a strain of Protestantism that stresses the importance of conversion experiences, personal piety, and the authority of the Bible. In another vein, Quakers at the 1754 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting were the first at a yearly meeting to officially denounce slavery. The Quakers also provided many of the leaders of the colonial abolitionist movement, including John Woolman and Anthony Benezet.
Benezet helped to organize the first antislavery society in colonial America in 1775, enlisting the help of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. This impulse to reform society and improve humanity grew out of the peculiar dynamics of Philadelphia urban life. As a principal hub of commercial activity, Philadelphia was situated at a crossroads on the North American seaboard for the circulation of people, goods, and ideas around the Atlantic rim, including Western Europe, Great Britain, West Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
Men like Benjamin Franklin, a printer and newspaper publisher, helped to connect Philadelphia with the main currents of Enlightenment thought. Franklin helped to form the first scientific organization in America, the American Philosophical Society, in 1743, and his subsequent research on optics and electricity placed Philadelphia among a select group of eighteenth-century cities that were transforming the landscape of human knowledge. In 1751, Franklin helped to organize the first university in America, Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania, which prefigured other Philadelphia “firsts” in the fields of science and medicine, including the first major hospital (1755) and first American medical college (1765).
Clearly, Philadelphia was at the forefront of major social, religious, intellectual, cultural, and political change in pre-Revolutionary America. Thus, it served as an unofficial “capital” of the colonies before the War for Independence. As such, it was the natural choice for the meeting of the First Continental Congress, formed in 1775 to discuss and respond to the British government’s decision to close Boston Harbor and alter the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter following the Boston Tea Party.
In early 1776, a Philadelphia printer published Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which made the case for independence and swelled the ranks of Americans calling for a constitutional separation from Great Britain. The Continental Congress approved this measure on July 2, 1776 and, two days later, accepted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which was written at his rented house at Seventh and Market Streets. During the War for Independence, Philadelphia had strategic value for both the defending American forces and their British foes. General William Howe dislodged the Congress from its seat at Philadelphia in 1777, which he hoped would divide the colonies at their economic and administrative linchpin. General George Washington understood the value of Philadelphia to the patriot cause and engaged the British army at several points in the Philadelphia environs. Encamped at Valley Forge near Philadelphia during the winter of 1777–1778, Washington transformed his band of citizen soldiers into a disciplined fighting force and demonstrated its capability in the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. From this point on, the British military had to contend with a much more determined, more motivated, and more effective American army.
After the Revolution, Philadelphia retained its status as the center of intellectual and political life for the new nation, but only for a generation. Soon, the nation’s capital would move to New York City and then to a new federal district on the Potomac River in Maryland. New York City would also overtake Philadelphia as the largest city in the United States in the 1810 census. Nevertheless, Philadelphia played a large role in shaping American culture in such diverse areas as the decorative arts, painting, literature, industrial technology, and medical research. It also built institutions that became national models in the fields of mental health, criminal rehabilitation, and poor relief. As the nation’s leading city in its formative period, Philadelphia was witness to and helped to shape the important political, intellectual, and cultural developments that gave birth to the United States of America. Jeffrey B. Webb See also: Cities; Delaware River; Franklin, Benjamin; Native Americans; Penn, William; Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania (Chronology); Susquehanna. Bibliography Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. Nash, Gary B. “City Planning and Political Tension in the Seventeenth Century: The Case of Philadelphia,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 112: 54–73. Nash, Gary B. Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. Roach, Hannah Benner. “The Planting of Philadelphia: A Seventeenth-Century Real Estate Development,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92: 3–47 (1968): 143–94. Rothman, David J. Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.