Tourist Walk in Olde Philadelphia
You've seen the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
Come now on a tour of the city the Founding Brothers lived in, a smaller city than today which they knew intimately. Their Colonial Philadelphia can be seen in a day's walk through the center of town.
Regional Overview: The Sights of the City, Loosely Defined
Philadelphia,defined here as the Quaker region of three formerly Quaker states, contains an astonishing number of interesting places to visit. Three centuries of history leave their marks everywhere. Begin by understanding that William Penn was the largest private landholder in history, and he owned all of it.
Up Market Street
to Sixth and Walnut
Joseph Priestley, sometimes also spelled Priestly, is surely one of the more undeservedly neglected men of history. He has been called, with justice, the Father of the Science of Chemistry. He might also be called with equal justice, the father of the First Unitarian Church . The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, at 21st and Walnut, is the first and oldest Unitarian church and was indeed started at the urging of Priestley, whose principal residence was in Northumberland PA, at the confluence of the West and North Branches of the Susquehanna. Priestly wrote a scholarly work on the teachings of Jesus, which so captivated Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson wrote him the outline of another book that needed writing. Apparently, Priestley didn't have time, so in 1803 Jefferson wrote it himself, in the four languages he was fluent in, English, French, Latin, and Greek. Although those were simpler times, there have been few if any others who have told a President of the United States that he was just too busy to respond to a presidential request, particularly when the President could then find he had time to do it himself.
Priestley's theological teachings were based on scientific reasoning. They were highly controversial views, to say the least. He rejected the concept of a Trinity (he was a Calvinist minister, mind you), the divinity of Christ, and the immortality of the soul. Essentially, he rejected the concept of an immortal soul on the reasoning that perceptions and thought were functions of material structures in the human brain (Edmund O. Wilson's idea of Consilience is largely similar), and therefore will not outlive the cerebral tissue which produced them. In 1791, mobs burned his house in Birmingham, England, his patronage was revoked, and he hastily emigrated to Philadelphia. It isn't hard to see why these ideas were particularly unpopular with the Anglican church, which is probably the main reason England made him into a non-person, and his scientific ideas were denigrated as the product of other people.
That's too bad because he really was a scientist of immense importance. As a young man, he encountered Benjamin Franklin in England and was certainly a man after Franklin's heart. He noticed funny things about gases that rose from swamps and over mercury salts, and Franklin encouraged him to systematize and analyze his observations into theory. Although he called it anti-phlogiston, he had discovered oxygen. And then hydrogen, and nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide, and hydrochloric acid. Priestley really was the first organized and coherent scientific chemist, the Father of Chemistry. Franklin, Lavoisier, and Priestley became scientific friends, and enthusiastically exchanged ideas and observations, eventually leading to Lavoisier's fundamental principle: Matter is neither created nor destroyed, it only changes its form. In the end, it made no difference; Priestly had offended some pretty large religions, and nothing he did in chemistry was going to get much attention. Perceiving the value of the land at the confluence of rivers, he made his home for the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, now three hours drive Northwest, somehow managing to maintain an active scientific, political and theological influence worldwide. Visiting this rather sumptuous estate in a little river town is well worth a tourist visit. He died in 1804, just after his friend and kindred-religionist Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States.
Priestley's life can be summarized in one of his own most quoted remarks. "In completing one discovery we never fail to get an imperfect knowledge of others of which we could have no idea before so that we cannot solve one doubt without creating several new ones."
|The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution,and The Birth of America, Steven Johnson ISBN: 978-1-59448-852-8||Amazon|
The birthplace of our nation is both smaller than you would expect and larger. The fire marshall now says no more than 83 people may rent it for a sit-down affair, or 103 for a stand-up gathering. However, the internal partitions have been removed from what was once a center-hall building with a meeting room on either side; it now is a large open room in the form of a Greek cross. At the time of the revolution, Benjamin Franklin's Library Company occupied the second floor, so the First Continental Congress had to find a way to do its work in the side rooms of the first floor, to the side of the center hall. There were 53 delegates, and presumably some staff and visitors.
That sounds rather crowded, but it was nevertheless the largest rentable public space in the city. John Adams arrived early for the convention, conniving with several other early arrivals at the City Tavern. Adams made the following notation in his diary: Monday. At ten the delegates all met at the City Tavern and walked to the Carpenters' Hall, where they took a view of the room, and of the chamber where is an excellent library; there is also a long entry where gentlemen may walk, and a convenient chamber opposite to the library. The general cry was, that this was a good room, and the question was put, whether we were satisfied with this room? and it passed in the affirmative." Alternative places to meet would have been in churches, which presented awkwardness, or in the State House (Independence Hall) which was then under the control of Tories.
France and the rebellious colonies was a complicated one, with intrigue and mistrust at every turn. One interesting episode had to do with Franklin's library on the second floor. The French ministry had sent over a spy, to size up the colonists before the French risked too much on them. So, the spy was led up to the library and allowed to overhear some bellicose conversations going on downstairs -- thoroughly stage-managed for the benefit of the "hidden" French visitor.
The Carpenters Company was a guild of what we would now call builders and architects, and architects continue to use it. The first floor usually displays a few Windsor chairs dating to the Continental Congress, covered with a rich black patina that really lets you know what a patina was. Upstairs, the staff quarters are now, well, a little on the elegant side so you can't visit. The guild was formed in 1724, and fifty years later had just completed its building, in time for its historic role in 1774.
With the whole continent available for building, it is still not entirely clear why Colonial Philadelphia crowded itself into half a square mile, with crowded little row houses on crowded little alleys. But that's the way it was, now visible in the location of Carpenters' Hall down a little cobbled alley, in the center of a block. Elfreth's Alley gives you the same feeling, and perhaps Camac, Mole, and Latimer Streets. Carpenters' is a lovely little place, with lots of interesting features, but the main interest lies in what took place there. For that, you have to read a few books.
Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827)
The Artist in His Museum
1822, Oil on canvas
(The Joseph Harrison Jr. Collection)
Courtesy of the
Academy of Fine Arts.
all of the red brick buildings on Independence Square look as though they were part of Independence Hall, but there is one exception. The building facing Fifth Street is Philosophical Hall, one of the four buildings of the American Philosophical Society. Right now, Philosophical Hall is used as a museum. It could be called the first museum in America, but not the oldest, because it had interruptions and different proprietorships. Charles Wilson Peale started his museum of curiosities there and then moved it to the second floor of Independence Hall, where he painted the famous portrait of himself holding up the curtain. In recent years, Philosophical Hall has again become a museum, holding treasures and curiosities belonging to the Philosophical Society itself. The docent is pleased to alternate between calling it America's new oldest museum, and America's oldest new museum. And, yes, the newell post has an Amity Button.
Patents were established by the Constitution when it was a piece of parchment lying on a table fifty feet away from here, and the early patent office required the submission of a working model of every application for patent. After a while, that got to be a lot of working models lying around, and many of the more interesting ones are on display in the museum. Like the model of Fitch's first steamboat or the gadget Jefferson used, to make simultaneous copies of documents he was writing. That's right near the Gilbert Stuart copy of Washington's portrait, and von Neumann's first algorithm to be stored in his stored program machine, or computer, and Neil Armstrong's speech on the moon, concerning one step for mankind and all. It's a splendid museum, full of the real stuff, in a handsome Georgian building with sparkling immaculate marble staircases.
John Fitch received a US Patent
for the Steamboat August 26, 1791
In the Eighteenth Century, Natural Philosophy was what we now call science. That's why PhDs get a degree of Doctor of Philosophy when they study chemistry and physics. The idea for forming a scientific society in America apparently originated with John Bartram. As so often happens, the originator couldn't quite get it established and had to call on Ben Franklin that impression of publicity, to get it off the ground. To be fair about it, Franklin was probably the more distinguished scientist of the two. To be even more fair about it, the organization struggled a bit until Thomas Jefferson (that's the one who was President of the United States) gave it a real publicity shove. During the depths of the 1930s depression, one of the members left it several million dollars with the stipulation that the investments should focus on common stock. Since buying stock in 1935 was widely regarded as about the stupidest thing an investor could do, this little episode reinforced a strong impression that membership in the APS is given to people who are very smart, not merely famous. The four buildings, the many fellowships, and the big endowment were largely made possible by this contraries investment decision.
There are eight hundred members, of whom 93 have won Nobel Prizes. Over the years, two hundred members have been awarded Nobel Prizes, but you must remember that the organization existed for 150 years before there was such a prize. Several U.S. Supreme Court justices are members and lots and lots of people who are famous. The docent comments that they look pretty much like everyone else. There's a rumor that Bill Gates turned down the offer of membership, so now we will just see. He's young enough to have several decades' opportunity to reconsider an offer, although the APS might just be old enough to lack interest in any second chances.
The Federalist Papers were written by three founding fathers after the Constitution had been completed and adopted by the Convention. Detecting hesitation in New York, the aim was for publication in New York newspapers to persuade that wavering State to ratify the proposal. It is natural that The Federalist was composed of arguments most persuasive to New York, putting less stress on matters of concern to other national regions. This narrow focus may explain the close cooperation of Hamilton and Madison, who must surely have suppressed some latent concerns in order to present a unified position. In view of how much emphasis the courts have placed on the original intent of almost every word in the Constitution, it seems a pity that no one has attempted to reconcile the words of the principal explanatory documents with the hostile disagreements of their two main authors, almost as soon as the Constitution came into action. Perhaps the psychological hangups would be more convincingly dissected by playwrights and poets, than historians.
John Jay wrote five of the essays, mostly concerned with foreign relations; his presence here highlights the historical likelihood that Jay might have been the one who first voiced the idea of replacing the Articles of Confederation. At least, he seems to have been first to carry the idea of a general convention for that purpose to George Washington (in a March 1786 letter). The remaining essays of The Federalist were written under the pen name of Publius by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, both of whom had a strong enough hand in crafting the Constitution, but who quickly became absolutely dominant figures in the two central political factions after the Constitution was actually in operation. And their eagerness to be central is itself telling. They were passing from a stage of pleasing George Washington with his favorite project, into furthering a platform for launching their own emerging agendas. It is true that Madison's Federalist essays were mainly concerned with relations between the several states, while Hamilton concentrated on the powers of the various branches of government. As matters evolved, Hamilton soon displayed a sharper focus on building a powerful nation; Madison scarcely looked beyond the strategies of internal political power except to see clearly that Hamilton was going to get in the way. These two areas are not necessarily incompatible. But it is nevertheless striking that two such relentlessly driven men could work together to achieve the same set of rules for the game they were about to play so unflinchingly. Thomas Jefferson had been in France during the Constitutional Convention. It was he who was most dissatisfied with the resulting concentration of power in the Executive Branch, but Madison eagerly became the most active agent for forming the anti-Federalist party, with all its hints that Washington was too senile to know the difference between a President and a King. Washington abruptly cut him off and never spoke to Madison after the drift of his opinions became undeniable. Today, it is common to slur politicians for pandering to lobbyists and special interests, but that presents only weak competition with the personal forces shaping leadership opinion, chief among them being loyalty to, and perceived disloyalty from, close political associates.
As a curious thing, both Hamilton and Madison were short and elfin, and both relied for influence heavily on their ability to influence the mind of
George Washington, who projected the power and manner of a large formidable athlete. Washington had no strong inclination to run things and, once elected, no particular agenda except to preside in a way that would meet general approval. He had mainly wanted a new form of government so the country could defend itself, and pay its soldiers. Madison was a scholar of political history and a master manipulator of legislative bodies, while Hamilton's role was to supply practically unlimited administrative energy. Washington was good at positioning himself as the decider of everything important; somehow, everybody needed his approval. On the other hand, both Madison and Hamilton were immensely ambitious and needed Washington's approval. This system of puppy dogs bringing the Master a bone worked for a long while, and then it stopped working. Washington was very displeased.
The difference between these two short men immediately appeared in the way they chose a role to play. Madison the Virginian chose to dominate the legislative process as the leader of the largest state delegation within the
House of Representatives, in those days the dominant legislative chamber. Hamilton sought to be Secretary of the Treasury, in those days the largest and most powerful department of the executive branch. It's now a familiar pattern: one wanted to form policy through dominating the board of directors, while the manager wanted to run things his way, even if that led in a different direction. Both of them knew they were setting the pattern for the future, and each of them pushed his ideas as far as they would go. Essentially, this could go on until Washington roused himself.
After a short time in office, Hamilton wrote four historic papers about two general goals: a modern financial system, and a modern economy. For the first goal, he wanted a dominant national currency with mint to produce it and a bank to control it. Second, he also wanted the country to switch from an agricultural base to a manufacturing one. You could even say he really wanted only one thing, a national switch to manufacturing, with the necessary financial apparatus to support it. Essentially, Hamilton was the first influential American to recognize the power of the Industrial Revolution which began in England at much the same time as the American Revolution. Hamilton was swept up in dreams of its potential for America, and while puzzled -- as we continue to be today -- about some of its sources, became convinced that the secrets lay in the economic theories of
David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland, and of Necker in France. Impetuous Hamilton saw that Time was the essence of opportunity; we quickly needed to gather the war debts of the various states into the national treasury, we quickly needed a bank to hold them, and a mint to make more money quickly as liquidity was needed. It seemed childishly obvious to an impatient Hamilton that manufacturing had a larger profit margin than agricultural products did; it was obvious, absolutely obvious, that this approach would inspire huge wealth for the new nation.
Well, to someone like Madison who was incredulous that any gentleman would think manufacturing was a respectable way of life, what was truly obvious was that Hamilton must be grabbing control of the nation's money to put it all under his own control. He must want to be king; we had just got rid of kings. Furthermore, Hamilton was all over the place with schemes and deals; you can't trust such a person. In fact, it takes a schemer to know another schemer at sight, even when the nature of the scheme was unclear. Madison and Jefferson couldn't understand how anyone could look at the vast expanses of the open continent stretching to the Pacific without recognizing in this must lie the nation's true destiny. Why would you fiddle with pots and pans when with the same effort and daring you could rule a plantation and watch it bloom? If anyone had used modern business jargon like "Win, win strategy", the Virginian might well have snorted back, "When you say that to me, friend, smile."
He had the kind of taudry private life and flashy public behavior that Philadelphia will only tolerate in aristocrats, sometimes.
It comes as a surprise that most of the serious, important things Alexander Hamilton did for his country were done in Philadelphia, while he lived at 79 South 3rd Street. That surprises because much of his more colorful behavior took place elsewhere. He was born on a fly-speck Caribbean island, the "bastard brat of a Scots peddler" in John Adams' exaggerated view, was orphaned and had to support himself after age 13. The orphan then fought his way to Kings College (now Columbia University) in New York in spite of hoping to go to Princeton, and has been celebrated ever since by Columbia University as a son of New York. He did found the Bank of New York, and he did marry the daughter of a New York patroon, and he was the head of the New York political delegation. As you can see in the statuary collection at the Constitution Center, he was a funny-looking little elf with a long pointed nose, frequently calling attention to himself with hyperkinetic behavior. Even as the legitimate father of eight children, Hamilton had some overly close associations with other men's wives, probably including his wife's sister. Nevertheless, he earned the affection of the stiff and solemn General Washington, probably through a gift of gab and skill getting things done, while outwardly acting as court jester in a difficult and dangerous guerilla war. There is a famous story of his shaking loose from the headquarters staff and fighting in the line at Yorktown, where he insolently stood on the parapet before the British enemy troops, performing the manual of arms. Instead of using him for target practice, the British troops applauded his audacity. Harboring no such illusions, Aaron Burr later killed him in a duel as everyone knows; it was not his first such challenge.
Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler told other stories of celeb behavior to reinforce Hamilton's New York flavor. But in the clutch, General Washington learned he could always trust Hamilton, who wrote many of his letters for him and acted as his reliable spymaster. When the first President faced signing or not signing the fateful bill to create the National Bank, a perplexed Washington had to choose between: the violent opposition of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or the bewildering complexity of Alexander Hamilton's reasoning in arcane economics. On the one hand, there was the simple principle that owing money was seemingly always evil; on the other was the undeniable truth that for every debit created, you create a balancing credit somewhere. Washington ultimately chose to go with Hamilton, whose reasonings he likely didn't understand very well. If you doubt the difficulty, try reading Hamilton's Report on the Bank, written to persuade the nation and its first President of the soundness of his ideas. And then consider the violence of even present-day arguments about such "supply side" economics.
|Nicholas Murray Butler|
All of these momentous events happened in Philadelphia at places now easily visited in a morning's stroll. But Hamilton's image as a Philadelphian, doing great things in and for Philadelphia, was forever tarnished at one single dinner he hosted. Jefferson and Madison, his political opponents but his guests, were persuaded to provide Virginia's votes for the federal takeover of state Revolutionary War debts, in return for offering New York's votes for moving the nation's capital to the banks of the Potomac. True, Pennsylvania allowed itself to be pacified with having the capital remain here for ten years while the southern swamps were being drained. But it was Hamilton who cooked up this deal and sold it to the other vote swappers. Philadelphia felt it was entitled to the capital without needing to ask, felt that Hamilton was deliberately under-counting Pennsylvania's war debts, and this city has never appreciated the insolent idea that its entitlements were forever in the hands of wine-swilling hustlers. As the economic consequences of this backroom deal became evident during the 19th Century, it was increasingly unlikely that Philadelphia would lionize the memory of the man responsible for it. Let New York claim him, if it likes that sort of thing. When Albert Gallatin, who was more or less a Pennsylvania home town boy, attacked Hamilton as a person, as a banker, and as a Federalist -- he had a fairly easy time persuading Philadelphians that this needle-nosed philanderer was an embarrassment best forgotten.
|Alexander Hamilton Ron Chernow ISBN:978-0-14-303475-9||Amazon|
|Philadelphia City Hall|
An admirer of Philadelphia Reflections recently asked who is the most under-appreciated Philadelphian, and the quick answer would be William Penn. He's inadequately praised right at the present time, perhaps, but after all the whole State of Pennsylvania is named after him, along with countless universities and institutions, and his thirty-seven foot statue is on top of City Hall. The Pennsylvanian who seems most under-appreciated on a more or less permanent basis is Andrew Hamilton.
That is definitely not Alexander Hamilton, nearly a century younger and no relation. Andrew was born in Virginia but moved to Philadelphia in 1716, aged 30. He is frequently referred to as the finest lawyer of his era in America, holding numerous public offices. He was Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1735, and 59 years old, when he took on the task of defending John Peter Zenger the New York publisher. For this successful case, he is mainly known today, but it is not true at all that he was then a young unknown lawyer trying to establish a reputation as, the lawyers say, a rainmaker. Rather, he took up the task of defending Zenger in another colony, without fee, because he felt there existed a threat to the entire judicial system and someone had to assert leadership about it. Zenger was in conflict with the Governor of New York, evidently a ruthless sort of person, and the Governor had disbarred Zenger's two defense lawyers for opposing him. Hamilton felt it was the duty of an eminent lawyer from another colony to come forward and see that justice was defended. It was surely not immodest of him to feel that even a wild and wooly governor would not dare disbar the famous chief legislative officer of Pennsylvania. There was probably still some personal risk, and even some risk to professional reputation, because Zenger seemed clearly guilty of breaking the libel laws as they were then understood.
Zenger had published articles describing the outrageous conduct of the Governor, and could not deny he had published them. In the common view, he had labeled the Governor. The judge refused to hear evidence that the published stories were true because the law stated that truth was not a defense. The only defense seemingly possible was that the stories somehow did not meet the definition of libel, and the judge suggested to Hamilton that he get on with arguing that particular escape-hatch. Hamilton, however, would have none of it.
His first statement in defense was that he and his client readily admitted the published articles met the definition of libel, so he would save the prosecutor's time presenting witnesses on the point. He turned to the jury and urged them to nullify any law which prevented injured people from making a truthful complaint, as William Penn had established they had a right to do, nearly a century earlier. In a sense, both Penn and Hamilton were going back to the Magna Charta, where a jury was seen able to set a limit on what any king could do to an Englishman. The judge intervened that a jury may do what they were instructed to do. Yes, said Hamilton, and they may do otherwise. Although the jury had surely never heard of such legal fine points, they didn't like the idea of punishing a man for telling the truth, and firmly declared that Peter Zenger was therefore not guilty of anything, including libel, for doing so.
These principles were destined to become embedded in the United States Constitution fifty years later and were greeted with great praise and published applause by Benjamin Franklin, then the young publisher of the largest newspaper in Pennsylvania. Evidently, Franklin and Hamilton sought each other out, and in time Franklin became the protege and main political associate of Hamilton in the Pennsylvania Legislature.
The Zenger case established the fame of Philadelphia lawyers for all time, and Hamilton is honored by the Philadelphia bar association as their patron saint. No doubt he welcomed the praise of his colleagues, but he certainly did not need it. He had already risen to the top before this case, and it was for that reason he took it on, not as a duty to Zenger, but as a duty to the Law. Like so many people who achieve a little eminence, he had everything to lose and nothing to gain by taking risks. But unlike a common lot of prominent people, he felt a duty to do what he had to do.
Details of the rest of Andrew Hamilton's life are surprisingly sketchy, but property records establish that he was remarkable in a lot of other ways, too. He purchased the land on which Independence Hall is situated, and gave it to the public. He purchased five hundred acres in the wilderness and founded the City of Lancaster on it. And he purchased two hundred fifty acres, later expanded to six hundred, on the high bank of the Schuylkill where European settlement had been first begun by the Dutch, at Gray's Ferry. His son built Woodlands as a country estate, established Woodland Cemetery along Woodland Avenue, and built Hamilton Village as the place in West Philadelphia where the Drexels, Weightmans, Pauls and other wealthy families put their mansions. If you like, you can stroll down the center of the University of Pennsylvania campus, on Hamilton Walk.
Someday, the glory of all this will surely return. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Railroad and successors have made the Gray's Ferry area nearly uninhabitable. Woodland sits behind a thicket of untended bramble, hidden from the trains except for the briefest glimpse if you know to look. The Veteran's Administration Hospital sits on the edge of Woodland, blocking the view unless you know to use Google Earth to see it sitting there begging to be visited. The University has turned its back on Woodland, using it mostly as a backdoor driveway toward its numerous parking garages, fearful the world might notice how close it is to deplorable slums.
ut some day, we can confidently expect that vision will re-emerge, the Schuylkill waterfront should resemble the Seine through Paris, linking Woodland to Bartram's Gardens, and perhaps on to Fort Mifflin. When that day dawns, maybe more people will also remember who Andrew Hamilton was.
|Henry Wadsworth Longfellow|
Since American relations with France are a little strained at the moment, it may not be completely welcome to hear it said that Philadelphia food is Creole. The reference is not to the several downtown French restaurants of outstanding quality, but to the two episodes when Philadelphia experienced waves of French immigration. The first of these was during the French and Indian War, when the Acadian French ("Cajun") were driven out of Nova Scotia, largely went to Louisiana and then were allowed to return. A lot of them stopped off in Philadelphia both going and coming. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow depicted, in his poem Evangeline, the tearful reunion of Evangeline and Gabriel in the hospital. And since for sixty years the Pennsylvania Hospital was the only hospital in the country, Longfellow had to put them here.
The second wave of French immigration was provoked by the guillotine in Paris, and the black revolution in French Haiti. Most people today are unaware that Talleyrand lived here, and LaRochefoucauld. The Duke of Orleans, future king of France, lived at 4th and Locust Streets, proposed to a (rich) Philadelphia lady, and was rejected by her father ("Sir, if you do not become king of France, you will be no match for her, and if you do become king, she will be no match for you.") Napoleon's brother Joseph lived at 9th and Spruce, and one of his marshals lived at 6th and Spruce. Really. Talleyrand had a deformed foot, and this somehow made him pals with Governor Morris who had a wooden leg. This friendship was part of the reason the Louisiana Purchase was possible, because they shared the favors of the same French lady, and had frequent occasion to meet. Both Franklin and Jefferson were ambassadors to France, it may be remembered, and for a while, Jefferson was quite a fan of the French Revolution, although the treatment of LaFayette by the French Revolutionaries did not exactly encourage that. The French treated Franklin like a God, but then so did Mozart and the King of England, and Franklin harbored many bitter memories of the French and Indian War all the while he was romancing the French into bankruptcy to pay for our revolution. The French refugees from Haiti brought Yellow Fever with them, and Dengue too, thus definitively terminating Philadelphia's hope of remaining the permanent capital of the nation.
It was during this Francophone period that Philadelphia cuisine acquired some characteristics which allow some food historians to call it Creole. Philadelphia Pepper Pot soup, for example, substituted tripe for terrapin. Those who know about these things say that many dishes now thought to be distinctly Philadelphian in fact had a French origin.
Charles Peterson developed the idea but was unsuccessful in popularizing it, that Spruce Street in central Philadelphia could be regarded as an architectural museum. It stretches from river to river but has no bridge or ferry landing at either end, so traffic is less. The earliest house still standing near the Delaware River was built in 1702, with successive houses just a little younger, or at least less old, as you progress toward Broad (14th) Street whose houses were built around 1880. And then onward into the early Twentieth Century, crossing Broad Street and going westward toward the Schuylkill. For a century or more West Spruce Street was where eminent specialists had offices, much like Harley Street in London, which it somewhat resembles. The medical flowering of this area was promoted by the surgical advancements of the nearby Civil War, as well as the contributions of Andrew Carnegie to moving the College of Physicians from 13th street to 21st Street, attracted toward the 7000-bed Civil War hospital which turned into Philadelphia General Hospital in West Philadelphia. A number of these houses are just plain too big to be manageable as single family houses today, and Spruce Street West has lagged Society Hill and other Easterly sections in restoring its buildings. Perhaps in a few decades, that will happen, and perhaps in the meantime, the present relics will be preserved enough to revive someday the idea of a house design museum. Meanwhile, West Philadelphia around Spruce Street has obstructed progression by plonking the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the Science Center as obstacles to residential housing development.
So let's take a simpler idea. For roughly a century, the then-richest men in America lived in one of several houses located within seven blocks of each other, easy walking distance for a tour. The first to attract notice as a self-made rich man was Robert Morris. Morris made his money in shipping, maybe even a little privateering, and then went into banking to keep his money at work. It is said that his personal fortune, adjusted for changes in the currency and economy, was once considerably larger than Bill Gates' would be today, adjusted for inflation. As most people know, Morris financed the American Revolution personally, went broke, ending up in debtor's prison. The first real mansion he lived in was opposite Independence Hall on Market Street, now celebrated as George Washington's while he was the first president. It was earlier the place where British Admiral Gates lived while he was in charge of the 1788 British occupation, and although it was also where Washington lived during most of his presidency, the house burned down in 1832. This house is not to be confused with either the house built for Washington at 9th and Market but never occupied by him or Morris's later mansions which he also never occupied because of financial difficulties. One house in the midst of Jeweler's Row was so ornate some think it contributed heavily to his later bankruptcy. A second Morris house still stands on Eighth Street at St. James Street, but it belonged to the Quaker Morris family, no relation. Other owners named Morris bought and occupied this place for a number of years, so its history is a little mixed up, presently as a fancy restaurant. A DuPont heiress once bought and fixed it up, but her husband commented no one could sleep in that house because a subway built underneath it badly rattled its timbers. Next door to the Quaker Morris house rises a fifty story apartment house, whereas a precaution against rattles, the first nine stories contain nothing but parking spaces. Since the apartment building is owned by Arabs, it is likely they are pretty rich but not necessarily richer than Bill Gates. Aside from the Market Street partial restoration, the main Robert Morris remnant is on Lemon Hill, northwardly opposite the Art Museum, whereas the main Quaker Morris house is in the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill. There are sixty or so Morris's listed in the Social Directory, so keeping the two families distinct remains a difficulty in some circles.
On the Northeast corner of Third and Spruce Street, once lived William Bingham, a former partner of Morris and later himself the richest man in America. Although sadly the house burned down, it is displayed in one of the famous prints by William Birch in his notable Eighteenth Century collection , widely available in bookstores. The striking thing about Bingham was that he was only twenty-eight years old when he achieved richest-man status and built the house, patterned after one owned by a British Duke. He made his pile three times over. First, running a privateer operation in the Caribbean for his partner Robert Morris. On returning home, he bought up any worthless Continental currency he could stuff into barrels, and then either persuaded his friend Alexander Hamilton to redeem the currency at par or heard his plan to do so. And then, as if he didn't have enough money already, he invested enough gold bars to finance the Louisiana Purchase for Jefferson, since Napoleon wanted gold, please, no paper money. Among the various things he bought as an investment was the area in upstate New York, now called Binghamton. He lost a pile of money buying the land we now call the State of Maine since post-revolutionary Westward migration turned toward Ohio rather than into his Maine holdings once the British prohibition on colonizing past the Allegheny mountains was lifted. Bingham's sister-in-law wanted to become engaged to the heir of the Crown of France, who was living in temporary exile around the corner on Walnut Street. In a famous, possibly fictional, response, the Dauphin was told, No. If you do not become the King of France, you will be no match for her "The Golden Voyage". Quite a good read, and of particular interest to Philadelphia lawyers who learn Bingham died in 1804, but his estate was not settled until 1960. The lawyer who closed the case reported his partners were less than pleased to see it go.
Stephen Girard built several houses a few steps west of Bingham on Spruce Street, identifiable by having marble facing on their lower few feet; Charles Peterson lived in one of them as the first pioneer resident of the Society Hill revival. Girard made his money in the China trade, as a ship's factor. Like Morris, he recognized America's crying need for banking in a story too complicated to repeat here and moved the Girard Bank into the First Bank of America, now a museum (Peale portraits, architectural fragments) of the Park Service on Third Street. His wife was insane, and spent most of her life at the Pennsylvania Hospital at Eight and Spruce, and was eventually buried there. Girard left thirty million dollars to found the Girard College for "poor, white, orphan boys". His 1830 will withstood all legal attacks until the mid-Twentieth Century but was eventually broken. The school now has many black girls, is bankrupt, and the definition of orphan has expanded to include any child whose parents are separated. The definition of "poor" is several times greater than the national definition of the poverty level. In his will, Girard specified that the estate should purchase what is now Schuylkill County and hold it for a century. Shortly thereafter (or just possibly very shortly before that), coal was discovered in the region and Girard College became far richer. His correspondence includes many letters to Lafitte the Pirate, so more may be heard of them.
Nicholas Biddle had "old money", which he made in the traditional way of buying real estate, particularly in Ohio. He thus made a better guess than Bingham about the likely path of westward migration. But like Morris and Girard, he needed a bank to finance the real estate. Biddle also acted as the reserve bank for the myriads of currencies then issued by individual rural banks and charged a transaction fee to translate Kentucky money into something useful in Philadelphia or abroad. Martin Van Buren, who was the political manipulator behind Andrew Jackson and who became Andrew Jackson's eventual successor, stirred up trouble about this reserve role, and Jackson "broke" Biddle's bank by withdrawing federal deposits. Jackson's complaint was that holding federal "paper" eventually resulted in a government guarantee the bank could never fail, in an echo of the present accusation of some banks being "too big to fail". Ultimately, investment banking began to take its modern formwhen in 1838, the richest man, Anthony J. Drexel, moved over the Schuylkill River on Walnut Street, amidst what is now the University of Pennsylvania, but not far from Drexel University. He walked to work each day, however, at 4th and Chestnut Streets. Drexel was the first big banker to make his fortune in banking, and when he died it was said Philadelphia banking died with him. The earlier big bankers started out with money they had made in shipping or land speculation, but Drexel somehow saw that banking was a different way to get rich, deftly filling in the gap created by Andrew Jackson shuttering Nicholas Biddle's Second Bank. Part of the idea in Van Buren's mind was to shift the focus of American banking from Philadelphia's Chestnut Street to New York's Wall Street, and he was quickly quite successful. J.P. Morgan was invited by Drexel to start a Wall Street partnership with him in correspondence with his father, Junius Morgan, who ran an international bank in London. In the era just after the Civil War, there was a great deal of money in Europe anxious to be invested in the railroads and other booming American industries. The Morgans provided a vehicle for transferring such investment capital between continents, but the Morgans were viewed as having excessively sharp practices. As it happened, Junius Morgan had been trained in this transoceanic concept by George Peabody, a former Baltimore resident who had moved to London, then, the banking capital of the world.
George Peabody earlier had also been involved with Anthony J. Drexel, and Drexel was the more successful of the two international bankers. The whole issue with European investors was whether you could trust those wild and wooly Americans, and Drexel consistently demonstrated he was entitled to be called a straight arrow. As related by a good book by Dan Rottenberg Drexel decided he needed the vigor of the Morgans and invited them to join him in a New York-Philadelphia partnership. From that point forward, JP Morgan was the shining star of honesty and straight dealing, a lesson he evidently learned from Drexel. Indeed, he and his biographers repeatedly stress this feature of him -- "I will never do business with a man I don't trust". He didn't mention women, but his behavior seems to show he probably didn't include them in the concept. Drexel, on the other hand, led a quiet sober life in West Philadelphia, reading books, starting his university, and helping his niece, who was later made a Saint in the Catholic Church, start numerous charities. Although the Drexel children more or less drifted out of sight, Drexel's business successor Stotesbury led a wild and extravagant lifestyle that is the subject of many songs and stories. His wife, for example, never washed the sheets; she always had brand new ones put on the bed. Morgan, of course, spent lots of money in a conspicuous way. The term Metropolitan identifies most of his projects, The Metropolitan Art Museum, The Metropolitan Opera, The Metropolitan Club on Fifth Avenue, with membership originally limited to his partners. The name Corsair also was a trademark, the name of his yachts, and a firm statement about his approach to things. Another difference between the Morgans and the Drexels was similarly in the New York-Philadelphia character. When Jack Morgan, the son of JP, died in the 1930's he left an estate of "only" three million dollars. It would be hard to say what the Drexel fortune was worth at that time, but it is safe to say it would dwarf that, considerably. Most of the Drexel family moved to London, but among other things, financed the restoration of the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street, a hundred feet from Trafalgar Square. When the House of Drexel was much blamed for the 1987 stock market crash, legions of Drexel defenders rose to protect the family name. Cabrini College, Eastern University, Valley Forge Military College, St. David's golf course and much of Radnor are only pieces of the Drexel holdings, today.
Charles Peterson, the famous architectural historian and preservationist, died just before his 98th birthday on August 19, 2004. It is to him we largely owe the redevelopment of Society Hill, and the design of the Independence National Park, as well as a host of restorations from the Adams Mansion of Quincy, Massachusetts, to the early French settlements along the Mississippi. He conceived of many national historic preservation projects, the most notable of which is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HASB) of the Department of the Interior.
|The Adams Mansion|
While he was most notable for large visions and huge projects, he also had a keen appreciation for fastidious accuracy in small matters, of which the Amity Button would be a vivid example. In the surviving Colonial buildings of Philadelphia, it is common to find a plain ivory coat button nailed to the top of the newel post of the main staircase. There's one in Independence Hall, another in the grand staircase of the Pennsylvania Hospital, and there is one in Charlie Peterson's own home, the one where he was the first Society Hill gentrification pioneer, a house originally built by Stephen Girard around 3rd and Spruce.
The Free Quaker
There is a strong tradition in Philadelphia that these strange buttons are Amity Buttons, nailed there by the Quaker builder at the moment when the new owner had fully settled his construction debt, symbolizing the amity between a willing buyer and a willing seller. Countless visitors to Society Hill have been shown these curious buttons, and it always seems to produce a warm glow of appreciation for the discovery. If you have one of these in your own house, you can be very proud.
Unfortunately, Charlie Peterson couldn't find any evidence for the truth of this fable, and you can be sure he subjected the matter to a totally dedicated search. You might think there would be some notations in the deeds, or in the correspondence of the day, or in the literature of the times. You would think that someone who repeats this tale would be able to relate where he got it, and that would lead to some letters in an attic, and that if you work hard enough, you will find it. But when the button matter came up, Mr. Peterson would suddenly become grim-lipped and sad, and repeat the mantra that there is no evidence to support the story. He even awarded prizes to architectural students for essays on newel posts, banisters, and stair rails, but no student essay ever turned up any authentication of the Amity Button story. Absence of evidence is of course not the same as evidence of absence, so it is remotely possible that the story will someday be vindicated.
Indeed, you have to believe there was something or other to start the story. Victor Failmetzger and his wife, who have a notable reputation for authenticating old house parts, relate that in Colonial Virginia it was common to have hollow newel posts on the stairway, and occasionally to find the deed to the house secreted in one of them. So the search goes on.
In fact, it always seemed likely that Charles Peterson very much wanted to believe the fable was true. But until some evidence turned up, he was going to go to his grave with the declaration that there existed no evidence for it.
Girard was born in Bordeaux, France and never went to school. By the age of 23, he had become a sea captain, like his father and grandfather. By the age of 27, he owned his own ship and was thus launched on a successful career in a very dangerous occupation. Depending on the destination and weather during that era, up to forty percent of sailors were lost at sea on long voyages. From the point of view of the passengers and shippers, when you were selecting a captain you wanted one who had returned unharmed from many voyages. It was irrelevant whether he had been lucky, or diligent, or had learned a lot from his relatives in the trade.
Stephen Girard did start with a handicap, being born blind in one eye. It may have been a personality disorder which drove him to precise, minute instructions to his subordinates in excruciating detail; he might now be called a "control freak" and be disliked for it. For example, he kept a handwritten copy of all letters he wrote, and at his death, there were 14,000 of them, sorted and filed. His wife went insane, and after spending years at the Pennsylvania Hospital, was buried on the grounds. If this is the price of being rich, some might consider remaining poor. During his working years in Philadelphia, he would normally get to the counting-house at 5 AM, go to his bank at noon, and go to work on his 600-acre farm in South Philadelphia after 5 PM. He said he liked farm work the best. The image left behind by this role model, then, was workaholic. Nevertheless, if you wanted to become the richest man in America, here was the pattern to follow.
Girard probably came as close as any rich man in history, to "taking it with him" when he died. His innately compulsive personality, combined with the sure knowledge that his relatives and others would probably try to break his will for their own benefit, led to the construction of a last will and testament that withstood a century of court challenges. It launched remarkable philanthropy for thousands of orphans and organized the whole Delaware Valley into an industrial machine unlike anything else in the country. Although he left the largest estate in the nation's history, that estate continued to accumulate money from his minute instructions to executors, eventually enlarging his vast fortune fifty-fold, a century after his death. In retrospect, Philadelphia might well have slowly declined into obscurity after the nation's capital moved to Washington in 1800. Instead, the coal, canal, railroad and industrial empire of the Philadelphia region became the "arsenal of the North" during the Civil War, and the main wealth generator of the Gilded Age which followed.
Girard's business career can be somewhat oversimplified as consisting of shipping at the base of his early good fortune, followed by banking during the era when banking was poorly understood and usually ineptly managed. He ended his career with an eager and successful embrace of the emerging Industrial Revolution. Throughout all of this, he characteristically took great risks for great profits, through recognizing what others were too timid to accept fully. On many occasions, his risky ventures resulted in very large losses, made acceptable by other risky ventures proving unexpectedly successful. An example would be Girard's Bank. When the Federal Government first started and then abandoned the First National Bank Girard bought up the remnants and made a great private success of banking, where he had little previous experience. He saw the potential of the canals, and later the railroads when others were content to be farmers or country gentlemen. When he was 79 years old, he purchased vast tracts of wilderness containing some outcroppings of coal, because he could foresee a great industrial future for the region. No pain, no gain.
Another way of looking at Girard was as the most prominent French-American citizen of his time. He arrived in Philadelphia at about the same time Benjamin Franklin stepped off another boat, returning from abusive treatment by British officials which finally flipped him for American independence. Franklin recognized that independence from England meant an alliance with France, or else it meant defeat. It is possible to view the American Revolution as an episode of France searching for an American foothold after its expulsion fifteen years earlier in the French and Indian War; trouble between Britain and its colonies might re-open opportunities for France. Girard was extremely friendly with Thomas Jefferson, the most Francophile of founders and early American presidents. When the War of 1812 with Great Britain threatened disaster for the new American state, Girard staked $8 million dollars, his whole fortune, on financing that war. During the entire period from 1776 to the Louisiana Purchase, America was wavering between its gratitude to France and underlying loyalty to the English-speaking community. During that long formative period, Girard the very rich Frenchman was hovering in the background, probably influencing American foreign policy more than is known, even today. But the France that Girard stood for was neither aristocratic of the LaFayette variety nor intellectual of the Robespierre sort. It was France of the French peasant, crabbed, acquisitive, and morose, forever responding to a "hidden hand" of his own self-interest in a way that paradoxically benefited his whole community, and thus would have hugely amused the Scotsman Adam Smith.
Joseph Priestley, Shaker and Mover
The father of the science of chemistry was also the founder of the Unitarian Church in America.
Carpenter's Hall now seems a little place, and it was chopped up into still smaller rooms at the time of the Continental CongressBut nevertheless it was the biggest rentable place in the largest town in the colonies, so 53 delegates crowded in and did their work.
American Philosophical Society
After the Convention:Hamilton and Madison
Two of the main authors of the Federalist Papers -- and hence of the Constitution -- ultimately proved to be acting on entirely different sets of principles, aiming for widely different goals.
Alexander Hamilton, Celebrity
He had the kind of taudry private life and flashy public behavior that Philadelphia will only tolerate in aristocrats, sometimes.
Andrew Hamilton (1676-1741)
The original Philadelphia Lawyer, Andrew Hamilton gets confused with Alexander Hamilton, no relation. Judged from his life accomplishments, Andrew was one of the most influential people in pre-Revolutionary America. And associate of Benjamin Franklin.
The French and the English fought for centuries; colonies seeking independence played one against the other. Our cooking, clothing, and architecture went French when we favored France; traces of many periods still reflect that fact.
The Richest Men in America
In ten minutes, you can walk between the Society Hill homes of Robert Morris, William Bingham, Stephan Girard, and Nicholas Biddle.
Charles Peterson and Amity Buttons
Most of our really historic buildings have an ivory button nailed to the newel post, and there is the only word of mouth to explain why. America's most famous preservation architect tried very hard to document some proof but couldn't.
Stephen Girard 1750-1831
Stephen Girard was blind in one eye and never went to school. But he was a successful sea captain, then a successful merchant, then a successful banker. In the last year of his life, he grasped the essence of the Industrial Revolution, made a successful plan for the next century, and wrote a truly remarkable will.