the Philadelphia/Pennsylvania Story: a Module Series

John and Sam Adams with Thomas Paine Make Pennsylvania a Radical Republic (1)


Philadelphia, one might keep in mind, was the Thirteen States most populated urban center (about 40,000)–and it would remain so until sometime in the 1820’s. Pennsylvania was the second most populated state (about 327,000 in 1780), after Virginia which exceeded a half-million. Given that Boston’s Fenway Park, the smallest stadium in professional baseball, could house all of Philadelphia’s residents, one is tempted to downplay that whatever urbanism really is–and does–Philadelphia was urbanism personified in North America.

Because Philadelphia/Pennsylvania fashioned as the “Revolution’s” capitol, its elite and population could literally watch the Continental Congress goings on. Other states/cities received reports on a much more limited basis. Take this proximity one step further, and one might suggest that whatever was going on in Philadelphia may well have consequences on the deliberations/voting in the Second Continental Congress. Indeed, the Pennsylvania state legislature was meeting on the second floor, of what is today Independence Hall, while the  Second Continental Congress met on the first.

the Philadelphia/Pennsylvania colonial policy system transitions to a democratic republic

It would be a mistake to assume the nature and composition of the revolutionary opposition to the Crown was identical across each of the major port cities. That is especially accurate if one includes opposition in the hinterland. Boston certainly had a troubled history with the British, and its Puritan elite held their own distinct cultural views on authority, religion, and the role of the colonial/state policy (despite their common structure) did vary, with Massachusetts and Virginia among the most aggressive and centralized. Pennsylvania’s colonial legislature was regarded as among the most loyal to the British crown, and conservative in its willingness to press hard for independence (and war), preferring exhaustive negotiation.

Pennsylvania’s original Quaker gentry had long since withdrawn to agricultural manor-style farming in the hinterland. German immigrants (Mennonites for example) were also tended to pacifism as did the Quakers, but post-1700 German-Lutheran immigrants , climaxing in 1749-54 came from Rhineland, to Swiss borders,  came in families, and like the Yankee Puritans included a considerable number of “artisans”, most were probably agriculturalists, in debt up to their ears or indentured workers. As early as 1727, the Pennsylvania Provincial Council required them an oath of loyalty. Over time, they diffused to create small homestead farms, often closely tied to a village center, into Pennsylvania’s eastern counties, and then to western Pennsylvania. Naturally, they contested the same lands as inhabited by the Native Americans, and the Germans, unlike Quakers were willing to seize land by chicanery, purchase or by fighting for it–a huge contrast with the style and reputation amassed by Quaker immigrants. By 1775, an estimated 75,000 Germans lived in Pennsylvania., the largest North American German population at that time.;; Farley Grubb, German Immigration into Pennsylvania, 1709-1820 (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xx: 3, Winter, 1990, pp 417-36; [66] They equaled, maybe slightly exceeded, the Scots-Irish that arrived after the French and Indian War.

Pennsylvania’s elite were a blend of landed-Quaker and some German/English land-based “semi-aristocracy”, alongside a Philadelphia finance, trade/export factors, merchants, and some early manufacturers. The city’s merchant community was deeply tied to London factors, shippers, and financial/insurance intermediaries. In the city, and adjacent suburbs, a proto-industrial emerging agglomeration had already developed.  The upper echelon of the city’s merchant elite included some of the most wealth in America, and as the Thirteen Colonies largest port had “concentrated” in 17th century context more than most ports. The city’s merchant/export elite had been further diversified by a meaningful small-scale, organic, manufacturing sector that itself was broken down into numerous products and entrepreneurial cadre. A sizable collection of “artisans”, skilled craftpersons, metal smiths, mechanics, wrights, hoopers, and journeymen, added to the normal port collection of dockworkers and cargo loading day laborers. One should be skeptical in considering these folk as “proletariat”–there were no factories prior to 1775–and given the urban path to individual prosperity they were not adverse to becoming small manufacturing owners. It is from this group that we see the first organized manifestation of the desire to challenge British colonial administration.

Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia

In 1774, in response to a public meeting called by a committee of merchants at the State House building, an organized group of artisans appeared and contested the merchant’s debate on whether or how to proceed to independence. Calling it a merchants committed, the artisans demanded “inclusivity” and injected themselves into its membership. Calling themselves, the Forty-Three, the Committee expanded rapidly, becoming the Sixty-Six, then the First One Hundred, and the Second One Hundred. Eventually they grew so large they settled on the name “the Philadelphia Committee of Inspection and Observation. With each increase in membership, the merchant component declined, and the final Committee of Inspection and Observation should be considered as a public body, vastly dominated by non-elites. This was clearly a bottoms-up grassroots urban movement, whose formalization bore some resemblance to the Petrograd Soviet of 1905. Informally known as “the City Committee”, it closely mirror similar chapters or committees that were forming throughout the nation. Up to 1775, the Philadelphia “metro” area (the largest single block of wealth and population) had been governed by the terms of William Penn’s city charter which restricted the voting franchise to a mere handful (about 400 eligible landowners) and installed a small and closed elite which had governed/administered the city for nearly a hundred years. By the end of 1775, the Committee had largely displaced the importance of the colonial municipal body, and was contesting the power and responsibilities of the Pennsylvania state legislature.

By the middle of 1775, the Committee had a majority of once poorly connected men, with no former experience with government,, a powerful street constituency in favor of American independence as a way to economic equality. With the departure of the Pennsylvania proprietary governor, executive and police power lapsed to the Committee and other allied groups throughout the countryside. The Committee’s power in practical terms greater than that of the … state assembly … threatened to call a [state-wide] convention [which would] replace [it] [[99] Hogeland, pp. 57-8.

John Dickinson

The Committee was tilted strongly toward political independence, while the state legislature, requiring an oath from its delegates to be loyal to the King, were markedly less inclined to anything other than negotiation. Its governor had held office since 1768, and would declare himself a Loyalist and later return to London. Opposition to independence by the state legislature caused, one of its more powerful delegates, John Dickinson–an aggressive proponent of strident negotiation against British colonial practices–to convince the incoming First Continental Congress to meet at Carpenters Hall, not at the State House down the street. Events moved fast in 1774 and by the spring of 1775 when the Second Continental Congress came to town, Dickinson had become “speaker” of the state legislature, which had grudgingly gravitated toward serious negotiation of American grievances–but not yet independence. Dickinson, the state’s delegation leader to the Second Continental Congress convinced the body to move to the second floor of the State House–where Dickinson felt he could better leverage his power to check the Congress’s more aggressive independence proponents (the two Adamses, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, and Richard Henry Lee). Dickinson envisioned himself as a last bastion of a negotiated compromise, and the principal obstacle to a rapidly impending confrontation. That position finally caused him to separate himself from the Committee, with which he had up to that point managed to hold a leadership position. The Committee’s growing determination to overthrow the state assembly, therefore, meant destruction of Dickinson’s principal power base, and leverage in the debate/voting of the Continental Congress. Since the Committee possessed no legal status its challenged amounted to a coup against the established legal government of Pennsylvania.

The events and politics outlining the rise of the Committee and radical lower classes inserting themselves into the drive for revolution and war are not disputed. I have refrained from characterizing this insurgency as “workers”, preferring instead to call them “artisans”, hopefully minimizing the implication the proletariat is on the rise. In my view it is way too early for that semi-Marxist characterization. The dispute concerning our artisans’ participation in the politics of 1776 concerns its effectiveness: how successful, how “meaningful” was that insurrection in affecting the course of events? On the whole, the criticism is made that in most colonies it was not decisive, that the revolutionary movement was an upper-class–what I have labeled as elite Founding Fathers. That perspective is more correct for most colonies, less so for Massachusetts, and not correct for Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania matters because it housed the Second Continental Congress which blurred into the proto-Articles of Confederation capitol, and because of its size and urban prominence. What happened in Philadelphia may have “stayed in Pennsylvania”, but that mattered  to both our discussion on the Articles as the Laboratory of future American ED, and its usefulness in developing the elite-mass distinction that soon became identified with American Populism.

William Hogeland, on whom I have relied considerably, at this point makes a major, and in my opinion well-documented argument that the politics of the Second Continental Congress, divided over whether to declare independence or pursue sustained negotiation, overlapped with and profoundly affected the course of Pennsylvania politics–with very serious implications on our history of American ED. The politics revolved around John Dickinson, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and leader of the Second Continental Congress negotiation movement, and a collection of strident Founding Fathers, such as Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, and Sam and John Adams. The publication of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a Philadelphia political participant in January 1776 radicalized the constituency of the Committee, as did the on the spot reporting/rumor of the course of debate.

Hogeland details how Sam (and John) Adams “infiltrated” the meetings of the Committee and other similar Sons of Liberty-like chapters in the immediate Philadelphia hinterland. In the hopes of undermining Dickinson, and moving toward adoption of what would be the Declaration of Independence, the Sam and John maneuvered the Continental Congress into seriously threatening the seating of the Pennsylvania delegation led by Dickinson. At the same time their infiltration of the literally hundred town and village militia committees, organized around the Sons of Liberty format, that had formed up throughout the state. Composed of rank-in-file local militia, with their elected officers, these chapters called themselves “Committees of Privates”; as such these committees broke through the strictures of property ownership, and by their simple existence and activism demanded an enlarged franchise no longer restricted to property-owners of substance. While committees of this nature could be found in other of the colonies, the wedge opened by an aggressive Committee of Inspections and Observations created an urban and hinterland mass movement–against which Dickinson and the Pennsylvania reconciliation moderates could not withstand. By mobilizing the Committee’s and Privates’s constituencies constant turmoil in the streets, taverns and coffeehouses created an atmosphere that was not supportive of conservative “negotiation first” Founding Fathers.

Worse, the Committee of Inspections called for a new election for a Constituent Assembly whose purpose was to write a new “revolutionary era” state constitution that would effectively remove any legitimacy held by the State’s Assembly, and would likely substitute it for a radically different state legislature. Since Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Congress were chosen by the State Assembly, the Pennsylvania’s Congress delegation would almost certainly be reconfigured. Attacked now on two sides,Dickinson hoped to head off the Committee’s demand for a new and radical Pennsylvania state constitution by holding an election to the State Assembly for May 1. That election broke the political dam, and the waters of Committee-led revolutionary lower class radicalism were unleashed. In the next twenty days, the newly-elected State Assembly would be overthrown, John Adams would successfully deny seating to its delegation in the Continental Congress, and an entirely new election to a Constituent Assembly would be set. In May the Continental Congress intensely debated whether of not to develop a Declaration of Independence, which today’s readers should realize, was a de facto Declaration of War. The events of May and June in the streets, towns and villages of Pennsylvania combined with the goings on in the Continental Congress led to the abrupt approval of the Declaration of Independence formally on July 4th. The “mobs” of Philadelphia, like the “mobs” of Paris fifteen years in the future provided the surge of momentum that led to a revolution. Can this be tainted with the word Populism”? Let’s briefly recount the proceedings of the famous twenty days.

the Second Continental Congress Deliberates

Independence Day in Center Square Philadelphia, 1776

On May 1, 1776 Dickinson held his election to the state assembly. The results were that moderates (pro negotiation) won, and retained their control over the State Assembly. Moderates won three seats to the legislature; independents only one. But something quirky occurred in that election.

First, only Philadelphia’s legislative seats were affected by the election, not its poorer neighboring suburbs (Southwark and Northern Liberties); second, while Philadelphia’s franchise legally was restricted to white males owning fifty acres of land or more–about 400 Philadelphia citizens–an estimated 1860 voted–four and one-half times that seemingly allowed by franchise law. The explanation for this is that compliance with property eligibility was confirmed by an oath taken at the polling place; apparently the election commissioners were rather trusting–or fearful. Thirdly, the election was incredibly close. With such small numbers of voters, a switch of just eleven votes would have shifted the results so that three independents, and only one moderate would have been elected [13] John K. Alexander, “A Year Famed in the Annals of History: Philadelphia in 1776“, in Dennis Clark (ED), Philadelphia: 1776-2076:.a Three Hundred Year View (Kennikat Press, 1975), p. 25. The non-property-holders who no doubt lied to the election commissioners who themselves chose not to challenge the oath, likely allowed considerable numbers of new voters into what had previously been an extremely closed franchise. That the Committee was behind this enlarged electorate there should be little doubt.

The May 1st election sprung John Adams into frenzied action in the Continental Congress–they had lobbied hard previous to May 1st to unseat the Dickinson delegation in the various Committee of Privates in Philadelphia–they forced Dickinson to allow the election to be held in the western counties, where Adams believed radicals would win. The results were unexpected; the moderates had won by retaining their hold on Philadelphia. Dickinson, still requiring the oath to the King seated the new State Assembly, planned on seating the new legislature on May 20th. From that point on a coalition of the Committees of the Privates, the Philadelphia Committee of Inspections and the Continental Congress radical fringe led by the Adams’s was determined to overthrow the State Assembly, and replace it with a new state Constitution which would elect a new State Assembly.

The secret alliance worked the new game from two directions, the Congress and the street. The Adamses and their allies in the State [Assembly] maneuvered the Congress into supporting the movement on the street; the street via the Committee {of Inspections] galvanized the militia Privates and other ordinary people to support the independence faction in the Congress. John Adams and Richard Henry Lee carried the ball in the Congress. In the first week of May 1776, they began trying to introduce a resolution in which the Congress would advise the various states to throw out existing governments and put in new ones. The resolution’s real target was Pennsylvania [99] Hogeland, Founding Finance, pp. 61-3.

Dickinson fought back against the resolution; he was able to secure an amendment that weakened it considerably. A week after the May 1 state election two British frigates shelled Philadelphia for two days, watched (and presumably dodged) by thousands of Philadelphians. Reporting a few days later, newspapers claimed the British had just hired 20,000 Hessian Germans for duty in America–which added fuel to the fire. Events escalated so rapidly afterward that for all practical purposes the political atmosphere in Pennsylvania demanded immediate independence–leaving the newly-elected state legislature as the odd man out. Over that weekend Adams wrote another more specific to Pennsylvania resolution–citing the oath to the King made that Assembly ineligible to seating in the Congress (BTW other state legislatures still required an oath also). Hotly contested by James Wilson, Adam’s new resolution passed on Friday (May 15). [77] .John K. Alexander, “A Year Famed in the Annals of History: Philadelphia in 1776“, in Dennis Clark (ED), Philadelphia: 1776-2076:.a Three Hundred Year View (Kennikat Press, 1975), p. 23ff

The Adamses were working hard to press matters hard in the Congress in order to increase momentum on the streets, which was now concentrating on preventing the seating of the new State Assembly on May 20th.  The Thursday night before the resolution’s May 15th vote the Committee held a large meeting in Carpenter’s Hall, and drafted a petition for citizens to sign. On the next night, May 15th an even larger meeting in front of the State House [where both Legislature and Congress were working] was held, with lots of signatures signed. That night the Committee called for a major “meeting” again in front of the State House for the morning of May 20th.  “On the morning of May 20 the State House yard filled with thousands of people [an estimated 4,000], ordinary Philadelphians, a group not qualified by property ownership. In a driving rain, they shouted their disapproval of Dickinson’s Assembly, and adopted by loud voice vote, resolutions to call a provincial [state] convention and a constitutional convention [to] institute a new government in Pennsylvania [99] Hogeland, Founding Finance,  p. 65.

The formal coup was carried out by a combined Committees of the Privates, on June 10th when the resolutions adopted by the protesters, were approved by the Committee of the Privates. “The Committee of the Privates formally ended Dickinson’s sway. The Pennsylvania government, founded by William Penn in 1681 went down to a coup that, while bloodless, was military” [99] Hogeland, Founding Finance, p. 65.. The approved Philadelphia Committee resolution was then carried to the individual Committee of the Privates throughout the state. In the meantime, Adamses, with Jefferson drafting the content, steered the Continental Congress to approval and signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 2-4. It was the nine weeks that shook the world. In those nine weeks, one sees in motion the Two Revolutions included in America’s War of Independence–one by masses, the other of elites. From this point on two approaches to American economic development would logically, if not inevitably, follow.

The New Pennsylvania Revolutionary Policy System

When the Declaration was read out on July 2nd, the city was swept with enthusiastic large groupings demanding independence and new governance. In the post-Declaration atmosphere, a state-level commission (headed by Franklin) wrote a new state constitution, adapting the state to revolutionary aims effectively was taken over by the radical populist group, creating arguably the most “democratic” policy system in the Thirteen States.

By mid-July the Philadelphia Committee of Inspection met to announce its election for a  Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, and approved its own voter eligibility standards. The voting franchise was enlarged to white males over 21 who were resident for at least a year and on the tax rolls–and it extended the franchise to suburbs, left in a political limbo by the old franchise . Eligibility was restricted to those who took an oath swearing they held no loyalty to the King. This was the most “democratic” franchise ever adopted in America to that point–in fact, the !789 American Republic did not begin to equal it until the 1840’s. A new election to elect delegates to write a new constitution was called for July 8th–literally only a couple of days later. No records remain of voting from that election, but the delegates elected were new faces, presumably populists who were willing to take the required oath for Independence before they could be seated. That oath included a willingness to “establish and support a government in this province [state] [based on] the authority of the people only[99] A Year Famed in the Annals of History: Philadelphia in 1776“.

In short, the “deck” of those who would write the new Constitution “was stacked” with either elite radicals Benjamin Franklin, Dickinson’s historic worst enemy, would chair the Constitutional Convention, and populists–not the moderate merchant elite (certainly not the loyalist Tory elite, tarnished now by their previous reluctance were pushed aside. Debate during  the Constitutional Convention was most intense regarding property restrictions on the franchise–between moderates who wished to retain them at previous levels, and those who wanted NO property requirements, preferring “all men be put on a level with respect to this grand right of voting at elections“. The latter won the day. If your goal was government “of the people”, this constitution may well have come the closest in American history to produce it in the Early Republic era.  [99] Alexander, “A Year Famed in the Annals of History: Philadelphia in 1776“, in Dennis Clark (ED), Philadelphia: 1776-2076:.a Three Hundred Year View (Kennikat Press, 1975), pp. 25-9.

1776 Pennsylvania Constitution

Making a long story short, the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention produced a new state constitution–and did NOT submit it for voter referendum but rather the Constitutional Convention  approved it and proclaimed it as the state’s “organic law” on September 28th.

The Committee of Inspections and Observations had, for all practical purposes, conducted a coup d’etat, and replaced the older colonial legislature with its new radical state legislature.

The franchise and the government created by the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution would last until replaced in 1790 by a more “workable”–but still “liberal” state constitution. That meant Pennsylvania state government, home of the Articles capitol, was the most democratic, i.e mass-based, policy system in the new nation–and would remain so under the 1789 American Constitution.

The 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution “on average” got a passing grade. One aspect, its Declaration of [Individual] Rights was prescient and outstanding–to be used as a model for our future Bill of Rights–but another aspect, its structure of governance got a “F-” as a grade. All power was centralized in a unicameral legislature which by virtue of its all adult white male tax-payer status  was arguably the most open policy system in the world at that time. The legislature was entrusted with the title “voice of the “people”, and directly or indirectly all functions of government, judiciary, executive and legislative, were fused in it.The Colonial Governor was replaced by a 12-member Supreme Council, elected by the unicameral state legislature; the governor had no veto. The legislature could remove all state and local officials and judges for “misbehavior or maladministration“. A Council of Censors could, every seven years, recommend termination (i.e. sunset”) of an “unjust law”. There was, of course, no separation of powers or checks and balances–and ultimate power resided in who was elected to the legislature in a given election.

Embedded into the state constitution was “The Test”–an Oath to support the populist constitution and a fairly radical set of values and statements relative to the time. Failure to take the Test, sign the Oath, removed the individual from the voting lists. Loyalists were out, and many moderates refused the Oath as well. The dominance of the populists over the state legislature, the Supreme Council, and elections continued, with some ebbs and flows, through 1782, when things began to change. Demands for constitutional change, with the populists defending the existing radical constitution and the moderates chipping away at it–removing the Test in 1783–carried forward throughout the whole of the Articles period (through 1789).

A more realist depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware

The faults of this structure were revealed quickly, and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution became of benchmark of “what not to do” when the 1787 federal constitution was debated. The extreme partisanship and polarization we take for granted today, were also hallmarks of the Pennsylvania policy process during this period.

Not to worry, the matter was soon taken care of by British General Howe who by early December had marched to Brunswick NJ with the announced intention of seizing Philadelphia; the Continental Congress relocated, as did many Philadelphians. That situation dramatically changed when Washington, in desperation, crossed the Delaware twice on Christmas eve and the New Year, and won stinging victories against Howe’s rear guard at Trenton and Princeton. Howe halted for the winter. They would return, however, in September the next year–not leaving it for two years in 1779. The Continental Congress moved to York and Washington to a Philadelphia suburb, Valley Forge. Eastern Pennsylvania –where most resided–was well within the front lines of the war–until 1780.

In any case, revolutionary war populists were elected in the 1777 election, to the delight to non-elite voters. That Pennsylvania was half-conquered by the British in the next year, there would be no real change in the composition of the legislature until the British left the state in late 1779. The overall policy system, superimposed on a still dominant deference culture meant populist activists dominated. My review of the performance of government suggests post-1776 Pennsylvania state policy-making, was at best only one or two steps removed from a libertarian anarchy. The effect on Pennsylvania politics was closely akin to a class war, a clash of cultures–and the American Revolution war effort and Articles governance was caught in the middle of it.

Pennsylvania’s old aristocracy, now either force to leave the state, if not North America, was further fractured by strife between the pro-revolutionary war faction and the working/middle class constituencies of the Committee of Inspections and Observations, and the hinterland Sons of Liberty-like agrarian chapters. Neither wanted anything to do with the other. While the Committee constituency was primarily urban and artisan/working class, their victory and the 1776 state Constitution opened the doors into state government to Scots-Irish and hinterland  “western” farmers. That struggle was further intensified by the plight of veterans, demobilized without pension or fair compensation–and then frequently taken advantage of by their revolutionary leaders, our Founding Fathers. Once elected after 1780, they radicalized as the state entered into a depression once the war had successfully been brought into a victorious conclusion in 1781-3. That struggle, described in the next module, was critical to future of the Articles, but also to the shape and context of American economic development. In the process, what had been a essentially urban movement in 1776, became by a decade later an agricultural-rural contest with the monied eastern Founding Fathers. Pennsylvania through the mid-1780’s had become ground zero for an emerging Populist Movement.

Pennsylvania’s old aristocracy who for years past had kept the lower classes of farmers, artisans and small tradesmen from any share in the government by the devices of unequal representation and property qualifications for voting regarded the Revolution with apprehension. Their social inferiors had joined the Sons of Liberty and welcomed the Revolution as an opportunity to overthrow the eastern oligarchy, and as a result, Pennsylvania was sidetracked during the war into a sectional and social struggle that prevented the state from throwing its full weight behind the revolutionary cause. The remnants of the old ruling class struggled against the newly enfranchised westerners for almost ten years. [99] Janet Wilson, the Bank of North America and Pennsylvania Politics, 1781-87, (1942)  p.3

During this period there was little we could associate with a normal, peacetime policy system. The state government created by the 1776 Pennsylvania State Constitution was pretty much adrift, despite the state’s status as second most populous among the Thirteen Colonies, and Philadelphia as the Thirteen States largest urban center. While populists fell out of favor after 1782, a new state constitutional convention in 1789, while retaining, if not improving upon the Declaration of Rights, introduced checks and balances and separation of powers into its proposal which was submitted successfully for referendum–becoming the Constitution of 1790.

The next module details Robert Morris’s banking institutionalization, the context in which it occurred, and the legislative reaction that followed. In the module after that, we next move to the Populist reaction to banks, as a Federalist MED nation/state-building institutionalization strategy..