William Russell Birch, a distinguished English artist known especially for his enamels of brilliant color and his miniature landscape engravings, was living at the time at his country house "Springland" north of the city. A first edition copy of his famous views of Philadelphia, uniquely documenting an early American city, was then on display in the office of subscriber Thomas Jefferson, as it would be throughout his presidency. Although Birch found it easy to come by wealthy patrons, it was his interest to display not only the architecture of the young city but also the life of its inhabitants, whatever their occupations and status. There were always people in his scenes--often throngs of people. Their presence was not considered an obstruction to the view. The City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania as it Appeared in 1800 depicts not only the grand churches of the city but also a blacksmith's shop being pulled to a new station in life as the first incarnation of Mother Bethel Church.
"Gaol in Walnut Street"
In the 1760s Philadelphians owned nearly 1,500 slaves; by 1790 that number was less than 300, and by 1820 there were only seven slaves in the city and its suburbs. When Lewis was there in 1803, free African-Americans numbered perhaps as much as 10 percent of the city's population of over 70,000.1
The buildings Birch portrayed have in turn tended to be those that have been preserved, restored or reconstructed, for which we are fortunate in the sense that the structures resurrect that particular brief period when an epic expansion began its exploratory trickle. The vigor of the expansion came close to ignoring and destroying some of the buildings we now honor by preserving. It certainly destroyed the rural countryside that once began at Ninth Street, to say nothing of the world of native peoples of the region and beyond. Birch's scenes of Philadelphia displayed the strong foothold of the Europeanization that had begun at the eastern seaboard and was about to engulf all other societies. For the people along the Missouri who examined Jefferson's portrait on a peace medal, perhaps some glimpses from Jefferson's copy of Birch's plates would have made even clearer the solemn implications of the arrival of Lewis and Clark.
"Arch Street Ferry"
"The ground on which it stands," wrote Birch in the preface to his collection of hand-colored engravings, The City of Philadelphia,...as it appeared in the Year 1800, "was less than a century ago, in a state of wild nature." Situated about 100 miles up the Delaware River from the Atlantic Ocean, it had, he wrote, "in this short time, been raised, as it were, by magic power, to the eminence of an opulent city, famous for its trade and commerce, crouded in its port, with vessels of its own producing, and visited by others from all parts of the world."
1. Gary Nash, First City (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 41-42; Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A Three-Hundred-Year History (New York: Norton), 254.
2. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 requiring the return of an escaped slave from whatever state or territory he or she had taken refuge, requiring only proof of ownership. Loosely enforced or actively opposed in Northern States, the Act was augmented by a stronger law in 1840.
3. The story of the Reverend Allen's leadership in the abolitionist movement that centered on Philadelphia during the time before, during and after the years of the Lewis and Clark expedition is told in Historic Philadelphia, at http://www.ushistory.org/tour/tour_bethel.htm.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program.