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Philadelphia: History


Quakers Receive Pennsylvania Grant

At the time the first settlers of European descent arrived in the area now known as Philadelphia, it was inhabited chiefly by Native Americans who called themselves Lenni-Lenape; settlers called them Delawares. Intertribal warfare had weakened the native tribes, and the advance of colonial settlement pushed them farther west, causing great hostility.

The Netherlands laid claim to the area in 1609 when Henry Hudson, an Englishman in the Dutch service, sailed into Delaware Bay, and around 1647 the Dutch began to build trading posts. The Dutch were ousted by the English in 1664.

In 1681 England's King Charles granted William Penn the territory now known as Pennsylvania in exchange for a debt owed Penn's father. Penn, wealthy and well educated, had committed himself to the Society of Friends, also called Quakers, who practiced a form of religion generally regarded by society with suspicion because of its tenets and its insistence upon simplicity in speech and dress. Penn himself had been imprisoned four times for voicing his beliefs, and King Charles was only too happy to be rid of him and his followers.

Although he had been granted all the land in Pennsylvania, Penn chose to buy the claims of any native people still living there, which set a new standard in colonial settlers' relations with Native Americans. Penn dispatched his cousin to lay out a city, which he called Philadelphia, from the Greek for "brotherly love," and which Penn envisioned as a haven for his fellow Quakers to enjoy freedom of worship and the chance to govern themselves. He charged his cousin with laying out a "greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome." The city was laid out in a grid, with large lots, wide streets, and a provision for five city parks, four of which still survive. Historians note that Philadelphia was one of the first cities in the New World built according to a plan.

The Quakers were not only humanitarians but shrewd businesspeople as well. They offered large tracts of land at reasonable prices and advertised throughout Europe for settlers. Attracted by the liberality and tolerance of the Quaker government, and looking for better economic opportunities, thousands of immigrant families soon began arriving, including a group of German Quakers who established the first German settlement in America.

Prosperity and Culture Distinguish City

From the beginning Philadelphia was a leading agricultural area, and because of its location at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, shipyards flourished. Farm products were exchanged for sugar and rum in the West Indies, and these in turn were exchanged for English manufactured goods. Abundant natural resources, including coal and iron, helped Philadelphia become an early industrial leader. Other significant early industries included home manufacture of textiles, printing, publishing, and papermaking. By the 1770s Philadelphia was one of the most important business centers in the British Empire.

This prosperity and William Penn's principles attracted the best minds of the day to Philadelphia. Among the city's illustrious early residents was the young Benjamin Franklin, scientist and intellectual. His many accomplishments include the publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the best of the colonial newspapers; he also established the colonies' first hospital, first free library, and first learned society, the American Philosophical Society. Perceiving the need for higher education, Franklin was instrumental in the founding of the institution that later became the University of Pennsylvania.

During the late 1700s many fine private and public buildings were constructed in Philadelphia, such as Andrew Hamilton's Independence Hall. Oil painting flourished, and Philadelphia came to be known as an "Athens of America." By 1774 a sophisticated populace was chafing at the restrictions placed on them by the British king. Because of Philadelphia's strategic location near the middle of colonial settlement, and the importance of winning Quaker support, the delegates who formed the First Continental Congress in 1774 chose Philadelphia as the site for their discussions. The Second Continental Congress proclaimed the colonists' Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, and when the Revolutionary War broke out in full force, Philadelphia became the capital of the revolutionary movement. Following the American patriots' victory at Yorktown, the Constitutional Convention delegates met in Philadelphia, and in 1787 they framed the document that was to become the basis of America's governmental structure. Philadelphia then served as the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800.

In the early 1800s Philadelphia began an ambitious program of building canals and railroads and developing coal fields, thus laying the foundation of its industrial power. Philadelphia's railroad lines, which by 1834 comprised a quarter of the nation's total, expedited the development of industry.

New Residents Meet Modern Challenges

When the issue of slavery became acute, many African American leaders centered their activities in Philadelphia, and the city became the focal point of one of the most important African American communities in the nation. Philadelphia's industrial strength contributed to the Union's military and economic advantage over the South during the Civil War of 1861 to 1865.

Pennsylvania had been one of the first colonies to admit Catholics and Jews. The increasing demand for factory workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants of Irish, German, Italian, and Polish descent, who created many distinctive ethnic neighborhoods throughout the city. At the same time, the development of the railroad made commuting easier, and the city's elite began moving to the suburbs that—as they grew up along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad—became known as the "Main Line." By the 1930s the modern city had emerged, with outlying residential districts segregated by income, race, and ethnic origin.

Philadelphia's industrial progress brought with it the exacerbation of differences in wealth. After the Great Depression of the 1930s Philadelphia became a union town, and labor strikes were common. Political machines that had emerged after the Civil War became sophisticated in the ways of manipulating the political processes, particularly through the new immigrant groups. Discrimination in housing resulted in overcrowded African American districts. During the 1960s Philadelphia was shaken by race riots born of decades of inadequate housing and discriminatory practices.

A reform movement, begun in 1939, prompted Philadelphia in 1951 to adopt a new city charter and elect Mayor Joseph Clark, who began a vast urban renewal program. Slated for completion in the early 21st century, this program called for the improvement of highways and the transportation system, housing projects, and the building of more libraries, parks, and shopping and recreation centers. However, a recession and mounting social problems saw Philadelphia teetering on the edge of bankruptcy by the early 1990s.

Economic Woes Reversed

A former prosecutor, Edward G. Rendell, was sworn in as the mayor in 1992, promising "dramatic change from top to bottom." On his watch Rendell was credited with bringing labor costs into line, rallying Philadelphia's business community, bringing back strong bond ratings, and securing the 2000 Republican National Convention, as well as spurring a resurgence in development in the city, from a new $500 million convention center, to the $330 million Avenue of the Arts.

In 2000, John Street became mayor of Philadelphia. The former Philadelphia city council president had worked with Rendell and helped save the city of Philadelphia from bankruptcy, turning a $250 million deficit into the largest surplus in Philadelphia history in 1998. A lawyer and one-time activist, Street is the city's second African American mayor. Now entering his second term, Street continues to serve as a role model for his teenage son and all the city's young people of color.

Historical Information: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107; telephone (215)732-6200; fax (215)732-2680; email library@hsp.org


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