Tides of Nationhood

Page 1 of 6

by Charles F. Reed

Europeans had been claiming ownership of North America for 200 years before the Thomas Jefferson set in motion his first successful plan for exploring the West—the extent of time equal to that separating us from Lewis's arrival in Philadelphia. After six or eight generations, whatever their national origins, the Europeans considered themselves no longer guests, but indigenous, perhaps even predestined, occupiers of the American continents. Perhaps the Lenni Lenape Indians, watching these trespassers coming up the Delaware River, or the Iroquois, watching others come up the St. Lawrence, at first had reason to greet them with forbearance, but that time soon passed. The visitors meant to stay.

Figure 1

"The City & Port of Philadelphia, on the River Delaware
from Kensington"1

Philadelphia in 1800 with few buildings and many sailing ships in the harbor

Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park

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

This view, William Birch wrote in the introduction to his book of original prints, titled The City of Philadelphia . . . as it appeared in the Year 1800, "represents, with the city at large a busy preparation for commerce." The tree that dominates the scene may have been the one beneath which William Penn consummated his peace treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians. Kensington, in the foreground, was one of the two shipbuilding areas at Philadelphia. The other was at Southwark (Figure 2). —J.M.

There were good signs. The Englishmen who laid out Philadelphia in 1681 seemed inclined to establish a peaceful relationship with the native people. They called themselves friends. When other Europeans came to their city, even with language and religious differences, the Quakers did not turn them away. No forts or walls were built until 1747, when French privateers appeared in the lower Delaware. Then two batteries of cannon were arranged along the river and a volunteer defensive force was raised. The force was a proposal of the printer and scientist Benjamin Franklin; it was the beginning of his long involvement in civic affairs.

No one anticipated that the cannons shipped from England would be turned, ultimately, against soldiers from Britain. Certainly no trace of that turnabout appeared in the first lines of Franklin's text for the cornerstone of Pennsylvania Hospital:

In the Year of Christ
MDCCLV [1755]
George the Second Happily Reigning
(For He Sought the Happiness of his People)
Philadelphia Flourishing
(For its Inhabitants were Public-Spirited)

Even then, Philadelphia was slipping from control of the Quakers. By the time of the Revolution not only their severe rules of conduct but they themselves were under attack. Paradoxically, the original hosts of the open city earned opprobrium and even a few cases of banishment. The public spirit had turned against pacifism and against a preference for continuing under the crown.

In the days of Revolution that followed, another ideal society was outlined by another temporary resident of the city. Like Penn, Jefferson described a community more inclusive than that with which he was comfortable. Both Penn and Jefferson ended their lives slaveholders, but by 1780 Pennsylvania and its chief city had a plan for emancipation, albeit at a funereal pace.

Figure 2

"Preparation for War to defend Commerce
. . . the building of the Frigate Philadelphia"

Frigate Philadelphia: a large wooden boat under construction

Courtesy, Independence National Historical Park

W.H. Birch (1744–1834), Philadelphia . . . in the Year 1800, Plate 29.

The Swedish Church in the background, known as Gloria Dei or Old Swedes', was begun in 1698. The keel for the frigate Philadelphia was laid exactly a century later at Humphrey's shipyard in Southwark. It was built by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with financial assistance from many of the citizens whose city had been the new nation's capital for ten years and was feared to be vulnerable to foreign capture and occupation during the war between France and England. The danger was past by 1800, but the Philadelphia was destined to play a major role in the First Barbary War of 1801-1805, and in the creation of America's first military hero, Stephen Decatur, Jr.

The Revolutionary war left the city, and many of its red brick and white trimmed houses, a shambles. Even the State House, the building in which the Declaration and later the new Constitution were debated and approved, was at first unfit for the convening of Congress in 1778. It had been used as a hospital by the British, and a large pit outside the building contained garbage and the bodies of horses and men.

Ten years later the streets were again festive. The celebration of the ratification of the Constitution began on the 4th of July in 1788: a cannon salute at sunrise, peals from Christ Church's bells, the neighing and hoof-beats of horses—all preparing for a flag-bedecked procession of eighty-eight units of citizens of all occupations. One banner read "Peace o'er our land her olive wand extends."

After nine years as the focus of political events, it was reasonable to expect that Philadelphia would continue to be so. For a number of reasons, cities, however well located or equipped to serve, were not favored for the permanent national capital, or for that matter (in the case of Philadelphia) the state capital. Even before Washington was welcomed once more to the city, this time as resident and as President, it was known that Philadelphia's era as capital would last only a decade, through the terms of the first two Presidents. Some Philadelphians accused other Philadelphians of not trying hard enough to hold on. Indeed, there was perhaps a touch of weariness with the virulent exchanges that had come to characterize center stage in political life.

The city had known the devastation of war and occupation. Then in the 1790s, as in other American cities, yellow fever paid its disastrous visits. Philadelphia suffered an especially cruel epidemic in 1793.

At the start of the nineteenth century, for all that, there were no signs of flagging energies in any field. There were good reasons for sending Lewis there in 1803.

It is that period we now turn to examine.

1. This and all the other pictures by William Birch that appear in "Philadelphia in 1803" are published here through the courtesy of Independence National Historical Park, Karie Diethorn, Chief Curator, and with the kind assistance of library technician Andrea Ashby Leraris. The prints in the INHP collection, which originated in various portfolio sets that preceded Birch's book, The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800, measure approximately 18 by 14 ½ inches.

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