Philadelphia: The Dowager Metropolis

The recent birthday of polymath Benjamin Franklin made me think about the history of his beloved city.  In the colonial period, Philadelphia was the great city of British America – a center of commerce, learning, and – as capital of Pennsylvania – politics.  For a time it was even the second largest English speaking city in the world (after London of course.)

Blocked in by the Appalachians, colonial America’s primary lines of communications were north-south and between coastal cities.  Philadelphia, roughly in the center of the colonies was well-positioned to be the hub.  When Franklin arrived, he was the perfect type of genius to take advantage of his city’s prime location.  First and foremost a newspaperman, Franklin trained printers who worked up and down the colonies and into the Caribbean.  They sent him copies of their periodicals, allowing him to monitor events and trends throughout the colonies.  From Philadelphia he could also disseminate his work throughout the colonies.

Franklin regularly cited the aphorism, “The Almighty helps he who helps himself.”  So there was no small amount of self-interest in Franklin’s work as Postmaster, where he improved colonial communications substantially.

Philadelphia could, perhaps, have become an American Paris or London – dominating the rest of the country as the pre-eminent center of politics, business, and learning.

But, when the United States was founded, Philadelphia lost its position as the great American city.  Washington was established as the political capital, Boston emerged as the cultural center, and New York emerged as the commercial capitol.  The decision to establish a new capital city made sense as a compromise between the northern and southern states.  Locating the capital in the major city of one of the largest states might have given Pennsylvania far too much sway over national affairs.  A prudent decision.  Boston’s emergence as the intellectual center was primarily due to the presence of the country’s oldest University (Harvard of course) and the related emergence of the transcendentalists – perhaps the first truly American intellectual movement.

The New York-Philadelphia rivalry was settled on geography.  Before trucks and trains, waterways were critical conduits for goods and people.  New York was built where the Hudson River meets the ocean.  The river is a critical North-South waterway that nearly links to the St. Lawrence in Canada.  The St. Lawrence reaches the Great Lakes, allowing New York trade to reach north-south but also east-west.  As the Appalachians were conquered the United States spread west.  In the early 1800s there were innumerable plans for canals the facilitate east-west trade.  The building of the Erie Canal, which linked New York to the Great Lakes effectively placed New York at the hub of American commerce.  (The Great Lakes reached throughout much of the then West.  Further, from the Great Lakes it is just a jump to the Mississippi River system.  Chicago was built at a crucial point where the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River are close.)  There were plans to build canals to link Philadelphia to the West, but they were too little too late.  New York City and State boomed in the early 1800s.  For a period in the first half of the 19th century they represented a greater proportion of U.S. population than any other state since.

Philadelphia had a last gasp at being America’s financial center.   The Bank of the United States was based in Philadelphia and if Andrew Jackson had not broken it, Philadelphia would have emerged as the financial capital of the country.  Chestnut St. not Wall St. would have become synonymous with international finance.  Considering the way in which NYC became the dominant city in international finance and commerce, this dissolution of power might not have been a bad thing.  But it was not to be.

Philadelphia did not disappear, of course, it has remained a vibrant important city.  Until the emergence of Chicago it was the country’s second metropolis.  But its moment of greatness has passed and somehow the past weighs heavily on the City of Brotherly Love.  Perhaps it is akin to Athens – still a major city, home to millions of individual stories – but no longer where the action is. 

(Aaron, interesting article, but, um, aren’t you in India?  Why are your writing about Philadelphia?)

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