Philadelphia Reflections

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

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Colonial Philadelphia (Pre- 1776)

Subcultures
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Art in Philadelphia
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Custom Tour of Private Philadelphia
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Historical Preservation
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Architecture in Philadelphia
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Shaping the Constitution in Philadelphia
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Customs, Culture and Traditions (2)
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Prohibitory Act of the British Parliament -- 1775
This is the British Act which started the Revolutionary War. The two Legislative bodies should have known better than to react in haste, but the British Parliament in London and its opponent the Continental Congress in Philadelphia -- started a Revolutionary War. Apparently Lord North issued a Prohibitory Act and John Adams responded to it, but the real hotheads were Charles Townsend and William Bradford. Everybody involved thought Independence was an improbable outcome.

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Powel House, Huzzah!

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Elizabeth Powel

If George Washington were alive we wouldn't have such a thing as political parties, at all. The term "Republican Court" had nothing to do with R's and D's. Many traditions of American high society were formed in the second-floor dining room of this house. It was the Mayor's home. The town had 30 thousand souls, fourteen wheeled vehicles, and a Quaker pacifist majority. President Washington lived a few doors away, but the streets were unpaved. It was a scheme cooked up by Washington and Madison to enlist support from the new government's important ladies. The best these males could imagine was a modified version of a European royal court, to fuse thirteen colonies into a cohesive nation. The most remarkable thing about it was its frank imitation of such 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 a great testimony to the faith of Americans in George Washington; but it also testifies to the power of enthusiastic women. Chief among the leaders in this court was Elizabeth Powel, along with her niece living around the corner on Spruce Street, Anne Willing Bingham. Before Stephen Girard came along, her 28 year old husband was the richest man in America. Recently, the Peale Society held a candlelight dinner in Mrs. Powel's magnificent second-floor dining room. Scholars of the history of the Republican Court then told assembled notables of Philadelphia what had once been what, during the first ten years of the new Republic.

Dining Room

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 former colonial states to give up new-state sovereignty for a unified nation. There was a 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 new nation. Their husbands knew how politically useful it was to be socially acquainted, 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.

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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 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. Their prominence attracted social climbers. 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 eat with the right spoon keeping 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 such rules.

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Republican Court

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.

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Amity Button

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!"


REFERENCES


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: Thursday, August 06, 2020

 

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