Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades


Revolutionary War Era
The shot heard 'round the world.

Constitutional Era
American history between the Revolution and the approach of the Civil War, was dominated by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Background rumbling was from the French Revolution. The War of 1812 was merely an embarrassment.

Philadephia: America's Capital, 1774-1800
The Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from 1774 to 1788. Next, the new republic had its capital here from 1790 to 1800. Thoroughly Quaker Philadelphia was in the center of the founding twenty-five years when, and where, the enduring political institutions of America emerged.

History: Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies
Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies

Robert Morris' United States
Robert Morris of Philadelphia created many of the best features of the United States. His face might be carved on Mount Rushmore if he hadn't created one really bad feature, as well.

America's Revolutionary War
It seems too specific to say the Revolutionary War's causes were economic or sociologic. North America grew too busy and valuable to be governed from three thousand miles, using available tools. The Empire fell apart after it got too big.

Four Constitutions
Multi-national unions of republics are uncommon, usually brief and seldom voluntary. America has had three of them, but we only got it right the second time. Uncertain why we succeeded when many others failed, we remain skeptical of changing the rules. The Europeans, on the other hand, are uncertain whether they want to follow the Confederate States of America toward extinction, or the United States of America toward world domination. When deeply considered, it is a hard choice.

Reflections on Three Constitutions
The central difficulty in uniting sovereign Unions is to persuade nations of differing sizes and history, to agree to a uniform set of basic principles; one size seldom fits all. The double-voting solution, proposed by John Dickinson, was a major refinement of the principle of majority rule, allowing small states to co-exist with big ones without being overwhelmed. It slows agreement, but it strengthens the product.

Pre-Revolutionary Ben Franklin
Poor Richard was able to retire at the age of 42, and spent the rest of his life as a rich man, dying at the age of 82 with an eye-popping estate.

Confederation Congress, 1781-1789

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The Decision of Trenton (1782) Under the Articles of Confederation

{Trenton Makes the World Takes}
Trenton Makes the World Takes

AS the American Revolution drew to an end, the time arrived to settle the inter-state grievance of Pennsylvania and Connecticut over King Charles II's ambiguity about who owned Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley, including the city of Wilkes-Barre. However, if they were all going to be United States citizens, it didn't matter much whether the residents of Wilkes-Barre (as it was now known) were governed by the laws of Connecticut or Pennsylvania. But bloody grievances die hard, and slowly. The genteel debates envisioned by the Articles of Confederation were not not equal to settling blood feuds, but they tried. The two states selected judges to represent them, in a negotiated settlement which took place on neutral ground, Trenton, New Jersey. After protracted testimony and prolonged secret deliberation, the judges emerged with a very brief and unexplained decision: The Wyoming Valley belongs to Pennsylvania. Period.

Almost every scholar of this subject is convinced that the unwritten decision contained two other provisions. Connecticut was given a piece of Ohio, Western Reserve. And the Pennsylvania representatives privately assured the group that the Pennsylvania Legislature would in time recognize the land titles of the Connecticut settlers who were actually resident on Pennsylvania land. Unfortunately, it is hard if not impossible to enforce an agreement that is secret, and the Connecticut claim to Ohio was eventually eliminated, while the Pennsylvania promise to recognize the land titles of people whose ancestors killed our ancestors, was much delayed, watered down, and resented.

Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787: Articles of Confederation at their Best
Map of The Northwest Territory

COMING across the term "Northwest Territory" for the first time, modern students can easily confuse it with the states of Washington and Oregon, more precisely called the Pacific Northwest, thousands of miles to the west. The United States acquired this more eastern Territory from the British -- bounded on the south by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers below Canada, and West of the Appalachian Mountains -- at the second Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. Before that, the British had acquired it from the French at the first Treaty of Paris, ending the French and Indian War in 1763. Until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, this land really was the Northwestern tip of American possession, even though it is less than half-way between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was occupied by Indian tribes who much preferred dealing with wandering British fur traders, to the new threat of permanent occupation by American settler families. In part, bloody warfare with the Shawnee Indians under Tecumseh did somewhat justify the reluctance of the British to give up their chain of forts in Indian Territory friendly to them, but rapid immigration to America from Europe after the end of the war soon generated great westward pressure for settlers to move there. In general, these new immigrants were neither military veterans nor experienced woodsmen, and suffered several large massacres from Indians whose homelands were threatened. The Northwest Territory was a dangerous place for unseasoned settlers at the end of the Eighteenth century.
After the French and Indian War.

Consequently, it required four years for the new Republic to decide how to handle this sudden expansion of territory it must govern. The question of excluding slavery had already come up, along with the puzzle of managing the masses of raw European immigrants as they encountered and outraged the native Indians. Furthermore, a military alliance, which is what the Articles of Confederation amounted to, is an awkward vehicle for governing an expanding frontier wilderness, especially while it was experimenting with new forms of governance. For one thing, joint ownership by thirteen sovereignties seemed almost certain to tempt one or two of them to take it all over, provoking interstate war and possibly endless disputes between former friends. Most observers in retrospect regard the Northwest Ordinance of the Confederation Congress to be a sensible and workable product, which happened to be just about the last major act of that political body. The Constitutional Convention overlapped it.

Before the French and Indian War.

The Ordinance under the Articles of Confederation was ratified on July 13, 1787, whereas the Constitutional Convention was in session from May 14 to September 17, 1787. No doubt a smooth transition between the two was under discussion, although the Confederation Congress was an itinerant body, always struggling to produce a quorum and a place to meet. Judging from their behavior after the Constitution was ratified, some undefined proportion of the Confederation Congress may have continued to harbor States Rights resentments at being displaced by a new nationalist government. At the very least, it would only be natural for some of the Congress to be offended that Washington failed to endorse them for the Constitutional Convention. Following that, the advocates of Constitutional ratification were then fairly careless in denouncing the inadequacy of the Articles by citing the failures of the Confederation Congress as examples of it.

The Northwest Ordinance provided for a military government until a civilian one could establish itself. Conquering armies are quite accustomed to the rough uncertainties of keeping a hostile territory subdued while a declared enemy is relentlessly dealt with under a different set of rules. The Congress (soon amended to substitute the President) was to appoint temporary governors and panels of judges. A provisional civilian government was added as soon as five thousand male settlers (each owning fifty acres of land) were resident, and that provisional government was to help devise a state constitution and set of laws as soon as sixty thousand such settlers were resident. The Ordinance allowed the territory to be divided between three to five states, but the borders of five states were laid out from the start. At first, this discordance between laying out the inflexible boundaries for five states, and at the same time allowing for a variable number of states, seems careless to later generations. But the Congress had no idea how fast different states would fill with settlers, but assumed it was likely it would fill from East to West. They thus laid out the ghost outlines of five states within the territory, detaching statehoods as the minimum population filled them up.

A carefully planned, three-step progression (from military, to provisional, to statehood) turned out to be an excellent expedient for managing other new states created by an expanding frontier throughout the Nineteenth century. Those who today complain that the bicameral Legislative branch is implausible, are not merely disregarding the vital need at the Constitutional Convention for a compromise between the large and small states in a Union of three big with ten small. They must also recognize that the frontier would probably expand by acquiring lightly inhabited land and breaking it up into states, followed by immigration from the edges. Many states were destined to begin with small populations, and grow to have big ones. To maintain strict adherence to population limits for new states would probably result in peculiarly-shaped, but densely populated, states on the edges, possibly in large numbers, along with endless quarrels about suspected gerrymandering of the Senate. It may not be an accident that Elbridge Gerry, the namesake of Gerrymandering, was on the committee devising this Ordnance. The U.S. Senate has long been proud of its immunity to gerrymandering, contrasted with the evils the process regularly imposes on the House of Representatives. The Great Compromise of a bicameral legislature, giving equal Senate power to many small states, but House of Representative power to a few big ones, was only weeks from being struck; there may be some connection, here. Although the balance continually shifts, the generalization is still true that America is a Union of a few big states and many small ones. Seemingly, the election rules are not likely to change substantially. Eliminating the Electoral College, much grumbled by the big states is thus also, forever unlikely.

{Constitutional Convention}
The Varsity Comes Onto the Field

It seems useful to point out the practical utility of defining citizens who "live" in a district, as being those who provably own land there. The Northwest territory was a vast expanse of wilderness, much of which soon become the most valuable farm land in the world, with topsoil two feet thick. The rules of this land rush were that it was to be governed by Federal troops until there were five thousand male settlers, presumably the minimum sufficient to defend against hostile Indians. However, the assumption of political power, along with its ability to set the rules, offered a temptation to find ways of making the number unreasonably easy to reach, or temporarily composed of a particular political group. Demanding that eligible citizens must each own a liveable plot of farmland probably seemed wise precaution against carpet-bag "voters" being temporarily imported for the voting. A similar provision was soon included in the Constitution, although that is often held up by partisan writers as proof of aristocratic leanings among the Constitutional Framers. With land selling for fifteen cents an acre, it seems more likely it was a practical test of genuine residence, the Eighteenth century equivalent of presenting a driver's licence as identification at the polling booth. In both instances, those suspected of impersonating local voters pretend to great offense at the voicing of any suspicion of it.

The Northwest Territory eventually became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, plus a part of Minnesota. The dynamics of migration took unexpected turns. Although Ohio was the seventeenth state, admitted in 1803, Wisconsin was the thirtieth, waiting until 1848 for admission to statehood. For a while, settlement was more rapid toward the South, and near the region of the Louisiana Purchase. The Northwest Ordinance was in force without major amendment for almost fifty years.

Part of its durability can be traced to prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory. The existing Southern states were remarkably peaceful about agreeing to slavery prohibition, a reaction said to arise from tobacco growing southern states indifferent to competition to their main crop, from areas with presumably higher labor costs. When the main crop soon turned from tobacco to cotton, the anti-competitive argument apparently had less force. One cannot contemplate the horrendous impending casualties of the Civil War without wondering if massaging of the competition argument might have been put to more imaginative use during the forty-year interval of free soil agitations. Unfortunately, since politicians did not appreciate the price they were about to pay for a policy of drift, they obstructed the (probably) much smaller costs of facing the issue sooner.

Land Ordinance of 1784

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Land Ordinance of 1785

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Attendees of the Confederation Congress (1781 - 1789)

{Samuel Adams}
Samuel Adams
{Thomas Adams}
Thomas Adams
{John Banister}
John Banister
{Josiah Bartlett}
Josiah Bartlett
{Daniel Carroll}
Daniel Carroll
{William Clingan}
William Clingan
{Francis Danna}
Francis Danna
{John Dickinson}
John Dickinson
William Henry Drayton
James Duane
William Duer
William Ellery
{Elbridge Gerry}
Elbridge Gerry
{John Hancock}
John Hancock
{John Hanson}
John Hanson
{John Harviec}
John Harviec
Thomas Heyward Jr.
Samuel Huntington
Richard Hutson
{Edward Langworthy}
Edward Langworthy
{Henry Laurens}
Henry Laurens
{Francis Lightfoot Lee}
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Richard Henry Lee
{Francis Lewis}
Francis Lewis
{Henry Marchant}
Henry Marchant
John Mathews
{Gouverneur Morris}
Gouverneur Morris
Robert Morris
{John Penn}
John Penn
Joseph Reed
{Daniel Roberdeau}
Daniel Roberdeau
Roger Sherman
Jonathan Bayard Smith
{Nicholas Van Dyke}
Nicholas Van Dyke
{George Walton}
George Walton
John Witherspoon
Oliver Wolcott

Attendees of both Confederation Congress and Constitutional Convention

{Daniel Carroll}
Daniel Carroll
John Dickinson
{Gouverneur Morris}
Gouverneur Morris
Robert Morris
Roger Sherman


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The Decision of Trenton (1782) Under the Articles of Confederation
Trenton makes the world takes bridgeThe 1782 Decision of Trenton simply awarded the Wyoming Valley to Pennsylvania. Strong suspicions exist that other secret decisions were never made public. Like awarding the Western Reserve of Ohio, to Connecticut.

Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787: Articles of Confederation at their Best
The British took over the Northwest Territory from France at the 1763 Treaty of Paris. The United States then acquired it at the second Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, in 1783. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established rules for governing the Territory, as just about the last act under the Articles of Confederation.

Land Ordinance of 1784
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Land Ordinance of 1785
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Attendees of the Confederation Congress (1781 - 1789)
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Attendees of both Confederation Congress and Constitutional Convention
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