Penn’s Privatism

In 1790, only a handful of cities “of size” existed. New York (33,000), Philadelphia (28,500)[1] and Boston (18,320) were America’s mega cities during Washington’s administration. Philadelphia’s policy system had been set in place by William Penn himself. Penn devised a system of government (1682, Frame of Government) that reflected his Quaker egalitarian, anti-authority values. Penn like most Quakers rather disliked government intensely (the source of tyranny, religious persecution, and capricious decision-making); his colony was set up to provide as little “governance” as conditions would permit. “Meddle not with government; never speak of it, let others say and do what they please …. I have said little to you about distributing justice, or being just in power or government, for I should desire you should never be concerned therein[2].


Despite his egalitarian beliefs, Penn sold most of his colony to individual buyers (wealthy Quakers mostly). His affluent Quaker settlers when they arrived in America were steadfastly inclined to pursue private industry/farming than government. So from the get-go, Pennsylvania state and local governments were more an after-thought; the primary intent of Pennsylvania’s governance was to preserve private freedom/economic activities of its residents. Pennsylvania state government reflected Penn’s intention of creating near-autonomous, decentralized, sub-state government.


Founded originally as centers of trade and commerce … cities and towns came into being as places where people could make money. The aristocrats and businessmen who ran them recognized that in order to ensure their mutual success, they had to take steps to promote their city. This economic imperative became deeply embedded in politics because there was no separation between economic and political leadership-and because the urban population generally believed it too…. Cities could prosper only by gaining a competitive advantage over other cities as trading centers.[3]


Separation of church and state was a first-order priority. Penn’s Quaker values translated into a government characterized by a weak state government and decentralized, autonomous, fragmented, municipal governance based on separately elected administrative offices. The centerpiece was a flexible municipal incorporation process which permitted like-minded residents to incorporate a municipality of their own choosing (which later German immigrants took advantage of, creating numerous small boroughs throughout the state). Outside of Philadelphia, the borough[4] was the municipal unit of governance. “Penn believed that the original settlers to his colony should live in neatly laid out villages, in the midst of rural agricultural settings …. [but] most settlers wanted to move into dispersed farmsteads in open countryside, not in villages … rural Pennsylvanians … haphazardly located institutions in the countryside, with churches, schools, craftshops, mills, stores and taverns scattered about …. hamlets developed at crossroads, or around taverns mills and ferries …. During the course of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania became blanketed with clustered settlements”.[5]


The county, however, was the principal unit of government; the first boroughs were usually county seats which “grown like Topsy, and even in the original counties, the Quaker meetinghouse … played no role as town center[6]. Outside of Philadelphia’s hinterland, “county seats became market towns … secondary centers outside the dominance of Philadelphia”.[7] Some, Gettysburg, Chambersburg, Lebanon, were established by private entrepreneurs. Pennsylvania’s later style of city-building is personified by one of its most famous residents, the pioneer Daniel Boone, “who set out on his wanderings westward from Pennsylvania, where his Quaker ancestors … had settled[8]. Counties presided over a wide variety of numerous hamlets and boroughs and unincorporated settlements.


Penn’s Governance and Quaker Elites

Penn’s equalitarian-based Privatism permeated Pennsylvania society and politics, creating opportunity for individual rather than governmental action. Quakers found it difficult to establish a strong government because if any belief had gotten them in consistent trouble back in England, it was their volatile and innate rebellion against imposed authority. Quakers by nature, it seemed, questioned order and tradition, refused deference to elites, rejected formal religion and church hierarchies, and proclaimed salvation could only be found through individual study and revelation. Authority was unnecessary–left alone humans were all good and equal before the face of God. Anti-authoritarianism was the flip side of Penn’s equalitarianism, and government, no matter the level, was deliberately secondary, weak, and limited. It was not capitalism or the greed of its commercial elites that created this style of governance—they merely inherited it. Pennsylvania’s Privatism flowed from religious values translated into political structures and relationships. That Privatism attracted settlers who, if they did not agree with it, could profit by it or tolerate it.


Philadelphia’s colonial experience, with weak and fragmented governance and a largely absent state/ colony government, did not attract strongly religious Quakers into public service—in fact they avoided it like the plague—leaving it to others. Quakers withdrew from government to follow their Inner Light or pursue private profit. Withdrawal of Quaker elites from governance exposed the issue of the role played by elites in the formation and transference of political culture. I adopt Baltzell’s argument that “religious ideas and convictions of the earliest Bostonians and Philadelphians were of great importance in determining the distinct histories of leaderships [elites] in the two cities from colonial times to the present”.[9] It is from the religious values of early elite first settlers that our core political structures and political/administrative relationships have developed.  The nature and the content of that elite culture will subsequently play a large role in the evolution of these political structures and relationships. I believe this is particularly true for the economic development policy area, which, as I shall argue in future chapters tends to being closed in nature and restricted in its active participants.


Baltzell develops a model of elites and culture from which I draw, for simplicity’s sake, the critical finding that Quaker elites infused into Philadelphia’s elites a culture of non-participation in politics and governance, and instead valued lifestyle and private profit. The wealthiest of Philadelphia withdrew from policy-making, and government. The government they left behind was even unwilling to defend itself when later attacked by Indians (who were being displaced and attacked by Scotch-Irish and Germans). Penn’s initial government framework collapsed in his lifetime; he imported non Quakers to run the colony’s affairs—and they failed as well. That absentee Quaker elite leadership created a vacuum which was filled, mostly by the city’s commercial elites who produced Sam Bass Warner’s Privatism. It also produced a politics that was more radical, volatile, individualistic and anti-authoritarian than anywhere else in the America’s. It was no accident that Philadelphia was the capital city of the American Revolution. Philadelphia’s economic privatism coexisted wonderfully with Philadelphia political democracy[10].


Through the American Revolution and until the establishment of the Republic in 1789, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania could charitably be described “as the most vital participatory democracy in the world …. The Revolution had transformed insular, docile freeman bowing to their cultural betters, into cosmopolitan contentious citizens [who] destroyed institutions, overturned traditions, subverted received authority, [and]  rejected established elites[11]—in other words, near anarchy prevailed. Pennsylvania went through three state constitutions in twenty years (contrasted with Massachusetts which approved a state constitution in 1780 which is still in effect at the time of writing this history)[12] This is the historical heritage upon which Sam Bass Warner constructed his Private City, Philadelphia.


Warner’s Private City

Warner conceived Privatist Philadelphia as:  “… concentration upon the individual and the individual’s search for wealth. Psychologically, privatism meant that the individual should seek happiness in personal independence and in the search for wealth; socially, privatism meant that the individual should see his first loyalty as his immediate family, and that a community should be a union of such money-making, accumulating families; politically, privatism meant that the community should keep the peace among individual money-makers, and, if possible, help to create an open and thriving setting where each citizen would have some substantial opportunity to prosper.”[13]


Warner’s Privatism was “given its …meaning by the Revolutionary generation and was codified by the constitutions and charters of the United States, of Pennsylvania, and of Philadelphia[14]”.


[Philadelphia’s citizens] depended for their wages, employment, and general prosperity upon the aggregate successes and failures of thousands of individual enterprises, not upon community action. It has also meant that the physical forms of … [Philadelphia], their lots, houses, factories, and streets have been the outcome of a real estate market of profit-seeking builders, land speculators and large investors. Finally, the tradition of privatism has meant that the local politics of [Philadelphia] have depended … on the changing focus of men’s private economic activities. The tradition assumed that there would be no major conflict between private interest … and the public welfare. The modes of eighteenth century town life encouraged this expectation that if each man [and woman] would look to his own prosperity the entire town would prosper.[15]


The municipal governmental weakness/fragmentation described by Warner reflected the requirements and constraints imposed on it by state municipal charters, the state constitution itself, and past historical experience. Philadelphia’s municipal governance rested on a system of committees (resembling today’s commission form excepting the sheer number of Philadelphia’s committees) in which each committee performed a specific municipal function, loosely under mayoral-council control. The separateness and independence of these committees (and the withdrawal of wealthy Quaker elites) which characterized Philadelphia’s Privatism facilitated dominance of a lower (less wealthy) elite stratum, the commercial businessman in public affairs:


The wealthy presided over a municipal regime of little government. Both in form and function the town’s government advertised the lack of concern for public management of the community. The municipal corporation of Philadelphia, copied from the forms of an old English borough, counted for little. Its only important functions were the management of the markets and the holding of the Recorder’s Court. A closed corporation, [the municipal government] choosing its members by co-option, it had become a club of wealthy merchants…. By modern standards the town was hardly governed at all….ineffective police… streets went unpaved, the public wharves little repaired…no public schools, no public water, and at best a thin charity.[16]


Philadelphia was a community of individuals seeking jobs and profit for themselves-families. The provision of public goods was afforded little priority–and the role of the state government in municipal affairs or in the provision of public goods was noticeably absent. Warner is correct in discerning this form of Privatism did have difficulties, biases and limitations in policy-making. Its weaknesses were more readily apparent as the city expanded to become the huge industrial city. Warner’s Privatism almost certainly dominated smaller, more ethnically homogenous boroughs/cities/counties, than the diverse Philadelphia[17] and its  effects arguably were similar.


Warner does not like Privatism. He, in effect, delivers a Progressive critique on its governance. Exploring his critique helps us to understand future key distinctions between Progressivist and Privatist policy-making. Warner prefers a municipal government that can act for the benefit of the community as a whole, independent of the city’s business elites, and which makes decisions less from self-interest of those who govern, but upon a more rational “process”, evaluating costs and benefits to the community—especially the effects of policy-outcomes on the less advantaged. In the third section of this chapter, I shall return to Privatism and its distinctive “merchant-commercial”-dominated municipal policy system and its treatment of economic development policy. In the second section concentrating on population mobility, the reader will be introduced to the “southern planter”—another form of Privatism with its characteristically dominant business class.


Was this Privatism-thing successful?

Whatever its limitations, however, Philadelphia’s Privatism attracted more than its fair share of future population growth. Considerable business/economic expansion followed as well. Unmentioned by Warner is that between 1791 and 1800 Philadelphia was the nation’s capitol. Washington’s second term of office and most of the Adam’s administration operated from Philadelphia. The National Bank was headquartered in Philadelphia. Philadelphia did not miss the industrial revolution—its focus on chemicals and machine tools for example was every bit as pioneering as New England’s textile mills. Canals and railroads constructed by its business leadership ensured (admittedly hap-hazard) Philadelphia’s competitive position in the American hierarchy of cities throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. As a counter-balance to Warner, Henry Adams described Philadelphia/Pennsylvania in rather positive terms:


The only true democratic community … Pennsylvania contained no hierarchy like New England, no great families like New York, no oligarchy like the planters of Virginia and South Carolina …. Pennsylvania became the ideal American State, easy, tolerant and contented …. With twenty different religious creeds .. and a strong Quaker element made it humane …. To politics the Pennsylvanians did not take kindly. Perhaps their democracy was so deep an instinct that they knew not what to do with political power when they gained it….[18]


In such an open policy system, Philadelphia’s Privatist economic development approach evidently worked–and worked brilliantly—although it departed from Warner’s preferences. Philadelphia was a success story.


In short, Penn’s weak system of governance facilitated the development of a political culture which Woodard describes as “the most American of [his eleven] nations … welcomed people from many nations … pluralistic and [focused] on the middle class … where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate even apathetic …. Midlanders believe society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, but they are extremely skeptical of top-down governmental intervention”.[19] In Pennsylvania, municipal boroughs flourished, and still do today, but as Midlanders emigrated from Pennsylvania they brought their culture to Middle America: central Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, into the Dakotas, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska—even Chicago and St. Louis.

[1] We could add 15,000 to Philadelphia from two “cities” enumerated in the 1790 census (Northern Liberties and Southwark) which are today Philadelphia neighborhoods. New York would be adjusted as well to include Brooklyn.

[2] William Penn quoted in E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (New York, the Free Press, 1979), p. 369.

[3] Judd and Kantor, op. cit., p. 62; Judd and Cantor support and develop the notion of inter-jurisdictional competition or competitive advantage as built into early Republic cities through their inclusion of the work by Richard C Wade, The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1959). Wade’s Western cities are today’s Midwestern cities as his book examines the time period previous to the 1840’s.

[4] The Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs states that 957 boroughs exist in 2015. There are 67 counties not including the city/county of Philadelphia. Later state constitutions created townships as a unit of governance below the county to overcome the promiscuous dispersion of boroughs and hamlets that had developed.

[5] David J. Russo, American Towns: An Interpretive History (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2001), pp.  16-17.

[6] E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, op. cit., pp. 120-121.

[7] David J. Russo, American Towns, op. cit. p. 17 and p. 124.

[8] E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, op. cit., p. 121.

[9] E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, op. cit., p. 5.

[10] The Quaker colony attracted other religious/ethnic groups[10], principally Germans fleeing poverty and destruction caused by the Thirty Years War, and a horde of Scotch-Irish noted for their aggressive, individualist attitudes and behavior. Immigration reduced the Quakers to a minority of Pennsylvania’s citizenry—although wealthiest elites were chiefly Quaker. Immigrant new-comers had little interest in setting up strong government, and for the most part simply ignored what little existed. Unsurprisingly, Penn’s near anarchistic governmental system imploded during the 1755 Lenni Lenape Indian War and subsequent French-Indian War. Pennsylvania governance was so bad, the Lower Counties seceded to form Delaware. The result was “Pennsylvania very soon became a tolerant, secular, plutocratic society, plagued by sectarian politics”, E. Digby Baltzell, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, op. cit., p. 370.

[11] J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia 1609-1884 (Philadelphia, Everts, 1884), Vol. 1, p. 318, adjusted slightly to improve readability.

[12] . Pennsylvania voters since 1790 have approved four state constitutions (1790, 1838, 1873, and 1967).

[13] Sam Bass Warner, Jr., “The Environment of Private Opportunity” in the Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of its Growth, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), p. 3-4. This conception of privatism  was drawn exclusively from  Philadelphia. He and other commentators, however., often extend this Privatist version to all cities in America at this time. I am profoundly skeptical that each of the original thirteen colonies-states, their cities and private elites, shared an identical approach to the government-private sector economic development relationship.

[14] Sam Bass Warner, Jr., “The Environment of Private Opportunity” in The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of its Growth, op. cit. p. 3-4.

[15] Sam Bass Warner, The Private City, op. cit. p. xii (Introduction). Warner extends his Philadelphia findings to all American cities. I do not agree; I removed “all cities” and substituted [Philadelphia] in the above quote. The next section on Boston should validate the Philadelphia experience was less relevant to Boston than Warner would allow. Warner presents a case study of Philadelphia’s water works from which he derives three phases of Philadelphia’s municipal history. Municipal governance  was left to municipal business elites, relying on consensus decision-making tempered by “it must be good for the community” filter. As the industrial city grew, problems become more divisive, consensus fractured, and the city was unable to govern effectively. Warner concludes policy-making by business elites was managed with great difficulty and considerable inequity. Mostly, business elites pursued low-tax solutions not than long-term community-wide health solutions.

[16] Sam Bass Warner, the Private City, op. cit. p. 10; see also, Judith M. Diamondstone, “Philadelphia’s Municipal Corporation, 1701-1776,” Pennsylvania Magazine, XC (April, 1966), pp. 183-201; and Edward P. Allinson and Boise Penrose, “The City Government of Philadelphia“, Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science, V, (Baltimore, 1887), pp. 14-33.

[17] We shall see that size and homogeneity of citizenry/residents are not surprisingly important factors in a culture and its public policy process. In later years political scientists, after writing a considerable number of articles, on the subject of “reformed cities” and “unreformed cities” will arrive at conclusions not unlike what we have just drawn. Sadly, we will discuss this literature in future chapters—that’s why the book is so long.

[18] Henry Adams, the United States in 1800 (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1961), pp. 82-83.

[19] Colin Woodard, American Nations, op. cit., pp. 6-7.