William Birch's Philadelphia

Page 6 of 6

"Goal in Walnut Street"

Bank of the U.S.

Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park

W.H. Birch (1744–1834), Philadelphia . . . in the Year 1800.

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

In 1794 a 34-year-old preacher named Richard Allen, a former slave who by age 20 had earned enough money from part-time jobs to purchase his own freedom, bought the tattered wooden structure pictured above from a blacksmith, and moved it to the corner of Sixth and Lombard Streets where it was to become the birthplace of the Mother Bethel ("the house of the Lord") African Methodist Episcopal Church. The irony inherent in the juxtaposition of the incipient A.M.E. Church's prime sanctuary as a symbol of fellowship and hope, with the Walnut Street Gaol (then pronounced, and now also spelled, jail) as a place of isolation and despair, would not have been lost on any Black person or white abolitionist.

In 1803, the first of Bishop Allen's education projects, a day school for black children, was operating in the church, and he had joined with Absalom Jones and James Forten in forwarding to Congress a petition to revoke the Fugitive Slave Act and abolish slavery.2

The A.M.E. church at large, still with the anvil as the icon of its origins and principles, now numbers more than 2.5 million members.

—Joseph Mussulman and Charles F. Reed

"Arch Street Ferry"

Arch Street Ferry: sailing ships docked on a wide river

Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park

W.H. Birch (1744–1834), Philadelphia . . . in the Year 1800.

"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."

The Arch Street Ferry was one of the links between the thriving metropolitan area and the farms across the river in New Jersey.

—Joseph Mussulman

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.

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.


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/mother-bethel.htm.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service Challenge Cost Share Program