Philadelphia's prominence in US history is a source of great civic pride. The 17th-century creation of idealistic English Quaker William Penn, the city's name comes from ancient Greek and means 'brotherly love.' A past state and national capital, Philly was where the colonies declared their Independence; it later developed into the leading industrial city in the US. The most recent century has seen it weather a roller-coaster of economic boom, bust and recovery.
Original Inhabitants & Early Colonists
King Charles II may have believed it was within his rights to give away the land that made up both Philadelphia and surrounding Pennsylvania but for centuries prior to that the region was inhabited by Algonquian-speaking Native Americans, the Lenni-Lenape. Living along the Delaware River these mostly peaceful hunter-gatherers were decimated by European diseases and, despite good early relations with Penn and his colonists, pushed ever westward by later settlers and government policy.
The first Europeans to claim the region were the Dutch, who made it part of their New Netherland colony. However, their settlement on Delaware Bay in 1631 lasted less than a year when all 28 Dutch colonists were massacred by the Lenni-Lenape. The Dutch subsequently refocused their colonial efforts along the Hudson River leaving the area around the Delaware River open to the Swedes, who showed up around 1638. They established New Sweden on Tinicum Island, near present-day Philadelphia. Over the next 17 years the Swedes and Dutch squabbled over the land. By the time Penn arrived there were some 1000 Swedes living in the region.
The Founding of Pennsylvania & Philadelphia
In 1644, with its colonies of New England developing in the north, and Maryland and Virginia likewise in the south, the British moved to consolidate its North American holdings by launching a naval offensive at the Dutch colony. When a large British fleet appeared in the waters off Manhattan, the Dutch surrendered without a shot being fired and all their lands – including what is now Pennsylvania – came under British rule.
On the death of this father, William Penn inherited estates in England and Ireland, as well an IOU for a substantial loan to King Charles II. In settlement of this debt, Penn petitioned the crown for a grant of land in America – which Charles agreed to by handing over 45,000 sq miles stretching from the west bank of the Delaware River to the Allegheny Mountains. At one fell stroke, Penn became the world's largest private landholder.
A largely benevolent one he proved, too. Penn was that rare colonist who saw Native Americans as human beings rather than savages. His dealings with the Lenni-Lenape were so fair that Pennsylvania enjoyed decades of peace with the native tribes, providing security for the new colony. It also helped that Penn was not only committed to religious tolerance and the promotion of diversity, but also came up with a pioneering design for Philadelphia – this was the first American city laid out in a grid pattern. Under such conditions Philly grew rapidly and by the late 1760s, less than a century after its birth, was the largest city in North America, with around 25,000 residents.
By the 1770s tension across the British colonies was mounting over the imposition of taxes by England. At the same time, liberal ideas of individualism, equality and freedom were spreading with a desire for a new type of government to put them into practice.
In the fall of 1774, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies gathered at the newly built Carpenters' Hall to protest the harsh measures imposed by the crown on Boston, following its so-called Tea Party. The First Continental Congress petitioned King George III and voted to boycott all British goods. However, the king was having none of it and in 1775, the 'shot heard around the world' kicked off the Revolutionary War.
In 1776, the Second Continental Congress of all 13 colonies met at the Pennsylvania State House, later renamed Independence Hall. It was here that the Declaration of Independence was hammered out and ratified on July 4. As the largest rebel city and seat of the revolutionary government, Philadelphia was targeted by the British Army and held by them for nine months from September 1777. Major Revolutionary battles around Philadelphia included Brandywine (the largest single conflict of the Revolution in number of participants) and Germantown. In December 1777 George Washington and his ill-supplied army established winter quarters at Valley Forge, 25 miles west of the city.
After France lent military support to the Patriots, the tide turned and American troops reoccupied Philadelphia in June 1778, allowing the Continental Congress to return a month later. It would be a further five years, though, before the Treaty of Paris ended the war and acknowledged the United States.
Capital of a New Nation
The years following the Revolution were a glorious period for Philadelphia. George Washington was sworn in as president in April 1789 in New York City. However, a political deal was struck with Virginia and Maryland over unpaid debts from the Revolutionary War, resulting in the new capital city being built on the Potomac River. In appeasement, Philly served as the temporary capital until 1800 while Washington DC was under construction.
George Washington's first presidential house is gone, but the buildings that hosted the US Congress and Supreme Court still stand, as do the nation's First and Second Banks. Visitors in the late 18th century commented on Philadelphia's impressive architecture and cultural institutions, and the grand life of its upper class.
However, it was also during this period that the city suffered a major calamity. In 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever killed nearly one in 10 residents, practically shutting down Philadelphia in the process. Washington decamped to the relative safety of Germantown and many others who could afford it left the city. However the physicians Benjamin Rush and Philip Syng Physick remained to treat the victims. By the turn of the century the city had recovered so successfully that its population was not far short of 68,000.
The move of the capital to Washington DC, the shift of maritime trade to the more accessible ports of New York City and a trade embargo with Britain and France all contributed to rocky economic times for Philadelphia early in the 19th century. However, the city soon bounced back by transforming itself into a center for industry and manufacturing. Textiles, iron and steel were all made here, along with ships in the US Naval Yards. Matthias Baldwin built America's first railroad locomotive in 1832; the Baldwin Locomotive Company would grow to become the world's largest builder of such engines and the city's largest industrial firm.
Growing industry created a demand for workers, attracting waves of immigrants, most notably the Irish from the 1820s through the 1850s. Their Catholic religion brought them into conflict with the mostly Protestant locals and in 1844 bloody riots erupted, leading to many deaths and the destruction of two Roman Catholic churches – a low point for the city of brotherly love.
In 1854, all of Philadelphia County was consolidated into a single city. William Penn's 2 sq miles between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers expanded to its current 143 sq miles, bringing into the city areas such as Chestnut Hill and Germantown. Until New York City went through a similar consolidation in 1898, this made Philadelphia the nation's largest city by area.
Slavery & the Civil War
Slavery was a sore point for early Philadelphia. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, were slave owners. Although the Quaker-led Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded in 1775 (and was the first in the nation), the issue of slavery was pointedly avoided when it came to drawing up the US Constitution. However, Pennsylvania was also the first state to dismantle slavery, with a gradual emancipation law in 1780, and became a hotbed of anti-slavery agitation as the nation moved towards Civil War.
The new Republican Party, dedicated to preventing the spread of slavery, held its first presidential nominating convention at Philadelphia's Musical Fund Hall in 1856. When the South seceded in 1861, the masses rallied to the Union cause. But the city's upper class tended to be either anti-war or pro-Southern due to longtime family and business ties – Philadelphia's huge textile industry was closely tied to Southern cotton.
Even so, economically, Philadelphia benefited hugely from the Civil War, which boosted demand for the manufacture of uniforms, weapons, blankets and fighting ships. It emerged from the conflict as America's leading industrial city and by the end of the century, the city housed over 7000 factories, mills and workshops, producing everything from false teeth and umbrellas to bathtubs and banjos.
Centenary of the Nation
For the 100th birthday of the US, Congress authorized Philadelphia to hold the Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park. Around 10 million visitors – a quarter of the nation's population – attended this fair housed in 249 buildings across 285 landscaped acres. Nearly every state and 50 overseas nations exhibited their wares. Fairgoers were introduced to Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and the 2500-horsepower Corliss steam engine. The only major exhibition building that survives is the former art museum, the Beaux Arts–style Memorial Hall, today home to the Please Touch Museum.
As Philadelphia moved into the 20th century, the city mostly thrived. As had happened during the Civil War, the city's industrial economy was stoked by WWI and later WWII (when the US Naval Ship Yard had 30,000 employees working around the clock). It even weathered the Depression of the 1930s better than other parts of the US. All this time the powerful Republican Party dominated the city's political landscape, despite increasingly frequent allegations of corruption and fraud.
The 1950s heralded changes in the city's political landscape, but also saw a decline in the city's fortunes, which would continue through the latter half of the 20th century. There was a mass closing down of factories as major industries, such as textile manufacturing, shifted to cheaper labor production bases overseas. By the 1980s, Philadelphia had seen its population decline by nearly half a million people since the 1950s, and the loss of nearly 300,000 industrial jobs.
This era of bad fortunes included two deadly confrontations between the police and a radical black liberation group MOVE in 1978 and 1985. Legionnaires' disease made its first appearance during a convention of the American Legion in the city in 1976.
Politically the landscape swung from one extreme to another. Controversially tough police commissioner Frank Rizzo served as mayor for two terms from 1972. The city then voted in Woodrow Wilson Goode as its first African American mayor in 1984. He was succeeded eight years later by Ed Rendell, the city's first Jewish mayor, who inherited a city with a budget deficit of $250 million and the lowest bond rating among the largest US cities.
A City Reborn
While the city's population continued its slide during the 1990s, the decade also saw the first green shoots of recovery. Rundown neighborhoods began to be gentrified, with residential areas close to downtown, such as Society Hill and Northern Liberties, benefiting most. The city's skyline was transformed as soaring skyscrapers broke the unwritten rule that no building be taller than City Hall's tower topped by William Penn's giant statue.
Much of the credit for the city's rebirth goes to two-term mayor Rendell, who was a master at mobilizing private philanthropy for civic projects, such as the Constitution Center and the Kimmel Center. In 1993, the new Pennsylvania Convention Center was opened, creating a hotel boom in the city center.
In 2000 the city hosted the Republican National Convention and 16 years later Hillary Clinton was nominated as a presidential candidate when the Democratic National Convention came to town. Tourism has been a major driver for recovery, with Philadelphia being declared by Unesco as a World Heritage City in 2015, a first for a US metropolis.