In the year 1880, when Susan Coolidge published her book, A Short History of the City of Philadelphia, From Its Foundation to the Present Time, she observed the rapid growth of the city. She wrote, “It is difficult to realize, when studying any one of our large American towns, how short a time it is since the ground on which it stands was an unbroken wilderness, upon which eye of white man had never rested” (Coolidge, Chapter 1). Indeed, to stand in Philadelphia today, one absorbs a sense of great history, ideas, and progress, feelings that seem as if they should be reserved for an older city.
Philadelphia received its charter as a city in the year 1701 (“Philadelphia History”). To compare, London was founded by the Romans around 50 AD (“AD 50”). Rome itself was founded around 750 BC (Cavazzi). Jericho, a city in Palestine, is recorded as perhaps the oldest continually habited city in the world; archaeologists date its founding to between around 9000 BC (Lambert). In spite of its relative youth, Philadelphia is the site of many important events in American and world history. Most Americans today know about the Liberty Bell, the signing of the Constitution, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, many do not know how the city of Philadelphia itself was founded, who the people were who first settled and founded what is today the fifth largest city in the United States.
Pennsylvania itself was founded as a Commonwealth by William Penn on January 5th of 1681, and the first brick house ever built in this country, William Penn’s house, was built the next year, in 1682 (“Philadelphia Firsts”). The charter for the city of Philadelphia was granted by William Penn on October 25th of 1701 (“Philadelphia History”).
However, even before this, there were settlers in the area. Around 1623, the Dutch government created Fort Nassau about three miles north of present-day Philadelphia (Coolidge, Chapter 1). Swedes were settling in the area as early as 1637. The Native Americans suffered under the Dutch, but interestingly, much less so under the Swedes, as Susan Coolidge recounts:
“In their dealings with the Indians the Swedes have the credit of inaugurating that peaceful policy which afterward bore such good fruit under William Penn. They recognized a title from the aboriginal lords of the soil as being superior to and extinguishing all other titles” (Coolidge, Chapter 1).
Naturally, there were conflicts of interest between the English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers, but this was resolved with a treaty in 1674 that transferred power of the area’s new colonies to England (Coolidge, Chapter 1).
While many people today view the United States as a nation founded and mainly influenced by Protestant-Puritan people, William Penn, the founder of Philadelphia, was not a Puritan, but a Quaker. Although the Quakers endured persecution by other majority Protestant groups as well as Catholics, in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, they rose to power. According to historian Susan Coolidge, the rising power of the Quakers marked “the moment when intellectual freedom was claimed unconditionally by the people as an inalienable birthright” (Chapter 2). William Penn had the opportunity to become a ruler with absolute power in the new Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia, but his Quaker philosophy led him to reject claiming that power. He wrote, “It is the great end of government to secure the people from the abuse of power; for liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery” (Coolidge, Chapter 2). When Americans consider documents such as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it is the philosophy of William Penn and the Quakers echoed in them that people today still risk their lives to defend. Quaker rule or law was quite different from that of other colonies, for example, in 1688 when a woman was brought to trial for witchcraft, the predominantly Quaker jury came up with the verdict, “"The prisoner is guilty of the common fame of being a witch, but not guilty as she stands indicted” (Coolidge , Chapter 3). This was the only trial for witchcraft that ever took place in Pennsylvania.
William Penn selected the site for the city of Philadelphia because its waterway was fed by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the land was heavily forested with good timber, and there were large quarries of brick clay and building stone (Coolidge, Chapter 3). It has the advantages of a port city as well as an inland city. Some have said that William Penn had an image of the city of Babylon in his mind when he designed Philadelphia (“Philadelphia History”). Here is an image of William Penn’s original design for the city.
This is, of course, much smaller than the actual city of Philadelphia is today, but it defined the original borders. Outside these borders were formed other settlements such as Southwark, Moyamensing, Northern Liberties, Kensigton, Spring Garden, Penn District, and others, which were incorporated into the city proper at different times (“Philadelphia History”). Although all of these settlements together became known as part of the city of Philadelphia, they maintained separate governments until the city was consolidated by law on February 2nd of 1854 (“Philadelphia History”).
However, to return to the earliest years of Philadelphia’s history, William Penn’s governorship was not without criticism. Some believed that the luxury of his home was indicative of a desire for royal power, even Kingship, something the settlers were against, having had enough of it in England (Coolidge, Chapter 3). Yet, William Penn left Philadelphia in 1701, sailing for England because his family did not want to stay, and died in 1718, never to return to the place he was so instrumental in founding (Coolidge, Chapter 3). His sons, Thomas and Richard Penn, were thought of unfavorably by the population because of their lack of presence and apparent desire to add to their own personal wealth with the colony.
The man who was to invigorate Philadelphia was Benjamin Franklin. Born in Boston in 1706, Ben Franklin is known for many things, and his interest in politics helped shape the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania (Coolidge, Chapter 4). From 1757 until 1775, he visited England as a Colonial reprehensive of the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Massachusetts (“The Electric”). Ben Franklin believed strongly that Americans needed to be a sovereign nation of their own, apart from England, and was instrumental in creating the Declaration of Independence. He also signed the Constitution and wrote an anti-slavery treatise (“The Electric”).
Today, Washington D.C. is the capital of the United States, but during the time of North America’s earliest settlement, Philadelphia was the most important city in establishing the new nation. It is a place of many firsts for America, including the first public school, the first public parks, the first paper mill, the first municipal fire engine, the first botanic garden, the first permanent theatre house, the site of the oldest law school in America, the first turnpike road, the first federal mint, the first penny newspaper, the first place to grant degrees of medicine to women, and much more (“Philadelphia Firsts”).
II. Philadelphia’s Founding, Part One
- A comparison to other cities of the world
III. Philadelphia’s Founding, Part Two
- The city charter and William Penn
- Settlers before the charter
- Conflicts of interest between original settlers
IV. Quaker Influence in Philadelphia
- Puritan vs. Quaker
- Unique Quaker philosophies
- Example of Puritan vs. Quaker law
V. William Penn’s Designs
- Why William Penn selected Philadelphia
- William Penn’s original design for a planned city
- The enlargement of Philadelphia
VI. William Penn’s Governorship
- William Penn’s travels and death
- William Penn’s sons
VII. Ben Franklin
- Ben Franklin’s roles and beliefs
- Ben Franklin’s political actions
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