Colonial Philadelphia (Pre- 1776)
It's surprising to most Americans to learn the American Revolution was not the beginning, but almost half-way through the European settlement. And before the Revolution, there were thousands of years of settlement by non-European tribes. We know more about non-European settlers than we did fifty years ago, but records are still very poor or non-existent, and not likely to catch up very rapidly. History will begin in 1492 for a very long time. Long before that, it isn't history, it's anthropology.
Art in Philadelphia
The history of art, particularly painting and sculpture, has been a long and distinguished one. If you add in the art schools, the Philadelphia national influence on artists has been a dominant one.
The 20% federal tax credit for historic preservation is said to have been the special pet of Senator Lugar of Indiana. Much of the recent transformation of Philadelphia's downtown is attributed to this incentive.
Food and Drink in Philadelphia
A flowing abundance of food sources made Philadelphia the capital of food and drink, right from earliest times.
Architecture in Philadelphia
Originating in a limitless forest, wooden structures became a "Red City" of brick after a few fires. Then a succession of gifted architects shaped the city as Greek Revival, then French. Modern architecture now responds as much to population sociology as artistic genius. Take a look at the current "green building" movement.
Tourist Walk in Olde Philadelphia
Colonial Philadelphia can be seen in a hard day's walk, if you stick to the center of town.
Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
After Independence, the weakness of the Federal government dismayed a band of ardent patriots, so under Washington's leadership a stronger Constitution was written. Almost immediately, comrades discovered they had wanted the same thing for different reasons, so during the formative period they struggled to reshape future directions . Moving the Capitol from Philadelphia to the Potomac proved curiously central to all this.
Federalism Slowly Conquers the States
Thirteen sovereign colonies voluntarily combined their power for the common good. But for two hundred years, the new federal government kept taking more power for itself.
George Washington in Philadelphia
Philadelphia remains slightly miffed that Washington was so enthusiastic about moving the nation's capital next to his home on the Potomac. The fact remains that the era of Washington's eminence was Philadelphia's era; for thirty years Washington and Philadelphia dominated affairs.
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If George Washington were still alive he would no doubt be a Republican, but the term Republican Court actually has nothing to do with R's and D's. It was a scheme deliberately cooked up by Washington and Madison to enlist support by the new government's important ladies for a modified version of a European royal court, to make thirteen colonies into a cohesive nation. A most remarkable thing about it was its frank imitation of the royal courts, something only the Father of His Country could pull off in former colonies which had just fought an eight-year war to be rid of the monarchy. It is one more great testimony to the faith of Americans in George Washington; but it also testifies to the power of enthusiastic women, once they agree on a project. Chief among the leaders in this court was Elizabeth Powel, along with her niece living around the corner on Spruce Street, Anne Willing Bingham. Recently, the Peale Society of the Academy of Fine Arts held a candlelight dinner in Mrs. Powel's magnificent second-floor dining room, while scholars of the history of the Republican Court told assembled notables of Philadelphia what had once been what, during the first ten years of the Republic.
Members of the early Congress were largely the same men as the founding fathers of the Constitutional Convention, hand-picked by Washington and Madison to persuade the legislatures of their colonial states to give up state sovereignty, for a unified nation. There was the difference that now they brought their wives to live in Philadelphia during sessions of Congress. Those women wanted to know each other and wanted to have something exciting to do together in the largest city in the nation. Their husbands knew well how politically useful it was to be socially acquainted in this way, so everybody liked the idea of suddenly becoming nationally connected. The initial idea proved unworkable. Martha Washington was supposed to become Lady Washington, reigning over weekly receptions.
|In Our Cups|
But Martha, unfortunately, wasn't up to the task, and Anne Bingham whose rich husband had taken her on lengthy tours of European royal courts, moved right in and took charge of this project. Besides her cousin Elizabeth Powel, notable members of this social whirl were the two daughters of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew, Alexander Hamilton's wife, and various members of the Shippen and Willing families. Members of the family of Lord Sterling of New Jersey, Charles Carroll of Carrolton, Maryland, Cadwaladers of various sorts, and a number of other names famous from then until even today joined their affiliations with ladies from other states through parties and even some weddings. John Adams was particularly awestruck by the poise and beauty of Anne Bingham, although Abigail Adams may not have been quite so infatuated. It was a dizzy whirl, with dinner parties the central activity just as they are in Philadelphia even today. Country bumpkins had to learn how to dress, to talk and to eat with the right spoon and keep their elbows off the table; those who could tactfully show them what was what were friends for life. Centuries later, Emily Post made a fortune writing books about these rules.
In those days, they even had their war cry, which was to raise a glass and shout back "Huzzah" in response to the proposer of a toast, who had raised his glass starting the warcry. It wasn't "Skol" or "Cheers" or "Here, here" if you knew what was what; it was "Huzzah". Most fashionable dinners had at least twenty courses, but the ladies didn't eat them. It was a whispered instruction among the ladies that they should eat before the dinner, so they could gracefully decline to gobble up goodies, and spend their time in gay conversation or waiting to be asked to dance. Drinking and eating, especially drinking, was for the men at the party, although naturally the many courses of the banquet were put in front of the ladies to be airily ignored. When George Washington was present as he often was, or even La Rochfoucault himself, it was important to remember every spoken word.
And, you know, it worked. When these important people went back home, they took the customs of the Republican Court with them. The American diplomatic corps found the equivalent of minor-league training for their efforts on behalf of the country abroad. Politics was easier if you personally knew your adversaries as well as your allies. The persistence of the same family names in the Social Register, the lists of The Four Hundred and other compilations of high society show that Anne Bingham and Elizabeth Powel did indeed know what they were doing, and for that matter, so did George Washington. If anyone else had been at the top of this heap, Thomas Jefferson stood ready to attack with all his might.
But he and even Patrick Henry didn't dare attack Washington. The aristocrats of Old Europe probably did sneer at this amateur effort, and in some circles still, do. But the inability of absolutely any other group of nations, whether European, Asian or South American, to unite peacefully is a thumb in the eye of anyone who mocks George Washington's little Philadelphia creation. And to think it all began right here, right here in the Powel House, right here in the dining room on the second floor. For that, folks, one thunderous "Huzzah!"
|A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powell: 1743-1830 David W. Maxey ISBN-13: 978-0871699640||Amazon|
Originally published: Monday, December 06, 2010; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019