Atlantic History Philadelphia
by
Jessica Roney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0071

Introduction

Philadelphia, founded in 1682, became the largest city in British North America, recognized as a political and economic hub and ultimately served as the first capital of the United States. Quakers founded Philadelphia and retained disproportionate political, economic, and social power long after they had lost demographic dominance. An important strain of scholarship has thus examined the Society of Friends and traced its influence on the politics and pluralism of the region. The ethnic and religious diversity of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have inspired numerous works examining and attempting to explain how it came to be and how it worked; these range from optimistic accounts that argue for a pragmatic embrace of pluralism to considerably darker interpretations that emphasize fear of Native Americans as bridging previously indifferent or hostile communities. Philadelphia receives significant attention as a critical site contributing to the origins of American financial institutions and fostering dynamic Atlantic commercial engagement. Recent work has likewise focused on the city’s contributions to the evolution of distinctively American forms of political engagement, civic associations, and partisanship, both before and after the American Revolution. Particularly around the bicentennial, a number of works focused on the mobilization of artisans and the “lower sorts.” A related strain of historiography focuses on the lives of ordinary people in the city, with extensive attention to the poor, women, African Americans, and bound labor. These works shift away from mid-20th-century scholarly interest mainly in elites and instead paint a picture of an urban community characterized after 1760 by limited social and economic mobility and resistance to social control from above. Because Philadelphia provides an impressive documentary base, one important strain of scholarship uses the city as a laboratory in which to observe historical phenomena like the public sphere and tavern life, constructions of masculinity, or the lives of single women. While such accounts are sensitive to the context of the city, Philadelphia is not in itself the main variable nor the generator of the specific phenomenon being studied. On the other end of the spectrum, some works position the city as distinctive in its size, diversity, population, and economic importance. Such works attribute to Philadelphia great importance in pioneering political, institutional, economic, constitutional, and social forms of later national and global import. Still, other scholars study Philadelphia in comparison with other places, usually in North America and often but not always other cities. In sharp contrast, however, a recent scholarly strain has pointed to the importance of the rural, western interior, both as an inculcator of political and social change, and as an example of the limitations of Philadelphia’s putative cosmopolitanism.

General Overviews

As the largest city in British North America; provincial capital; hub of economic and commercial activity; home to numerous religious and ethnic groups; cosmopolitan center of libraries, hospitals, and voluntary associations; revolutionary center; and market for numerous printers and their newspapers, it is difficult to provide anything like a “general” overview of Philadelphia. The sheer scope and variety of source material makes any such endeavor difficult. A clear chronological account is provided in Weigley, et al. 1982. Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1942 is dated but a useful starting point for an outline of the major events after about 1723. Roney 2014 outlines the evolution of Philadelphia’s civil society from the foundation the city, through the creation of municipal government, religious institutions, and diverse voluntary associations to the eve of the American Revolution. Warner 1968 remains a classic articulation of the importance of privatism and physical space in Philadelphia. Finally, Nash 2002 considers history making in Philadelphia—providing an outline of historical events through the way they were preserved and remembered by later city residents.

  • Bridenbaugh, Carl, and Jessica Bridenbaugh. Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.

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    This narrative history is rich in detail about the history of 18th-century Philadelphia. Its argument that two cultural groups, one aristocratic and one democratic, battled against one another for dominance is a product of Consensus history that has since largely been bypassed. However, this work remains a trove of facts about early Philadelphia and a good starting point for an overview, though the lack of footnotes is often frustrating.

  • Nash, Gary B. First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

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    Nash examines the contested efforts to remember and preserve Philadelphia’s past. Three institutions—the Library Company of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the American Philosophical Society—played an outsized role in constructing a historical memory of the city that prioritized certain groups at the expense of others. Featuring rich treatment of artifacts and material culture (including more than 130 images), this book has three chapters devoted to Philadelphia between settlement and the early republic.

  • Roney, Jessica Choppin. Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

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    Roney examines Philadelphia governance from 1682 to 1776. She charts the uncertain beginnings of local government, largely effected through churches; the origins, strengths, and weaknesses of the municipal corporation, founded in 1701; the importance of non-state and quasi-state-affiliated actors and organizations to civic, political, and economic life; and finally, the political coup effected in the summer of 1776 to replace provincial government with a new, revolutionary government.

  • Scharf, J. Thomas, and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 1609–1884. 3 vols. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884.

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    This is the earliest narrative history of Philadelphia, and though it is dated, it remains a valuable resource for historians of the city. Volume 1 proceeds chronologically from 1609 to the 1880s. Volumes 2 and 3 are organized thematically, with chapters on art, culture, religion, medicine, law, the military, municipal government, education, city landmarks, and so on.

  • Warner, Sam Bass, Jr. The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

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    Warner argues that privatism and a “committee system” of municipal government characterized colonial Philadelphia, which he vividly describes as a small, cramped, face-to-face walking city. The book is in three parts; the first treats Philadelphia in the 1770s.

  • Weigley, Russell F., Nicholas B. Wainwright, and Edwin Wolf. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

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    This collection of chronologically based essays narrates Philadelphia’s history from before the permanent arrival of the English up to 1982.

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