Eighteenth Century Philadelphia
A Philadelphian called 18th century America the best poor man's country in the
world. It was, provided you were white and male. In 1723, Benjamin Franklin
left his brother's printing business in Boston, at age seventeen, and arrived
in Philadelphia, broke and with his pockets stuffed with dirty laundry.
Franklin's rags-to-riches story is a study in tenacity.
But luck sure had a part in it. He had landed in Philadelphia, a city of
exploding opportunity. The place and the person were ideally matched. Blessed
with a splendid harbor and ringed by fertile land, Philadelphia had recently
become the commercial capital of British America.
Almost on his own, Franklin would soon make it the cultural capital, as well.
Philadelphia was built on land that had been given by the crown to William
Penn, the son of a British admiral and a devout Quaker. Penn launched
Pennsylvania as a holy experiment, a refuge for persecuted people everywhere.
This is the theme of Edward Hicks' painting, "Peaceable Kingdom." Here, the
Garden of Eden is restored, and the wolf dwells with the lamb. While across the
Delaware River, William Penn and his band of Quakers, in their broad-brimmed
hats, conclude their treaty with the Indians.
Pennsylvania's tolerant policies, its abundant land, and its amazingly fair and
peaceful relations with the Indians made it the immigrant center of early
America, a place of tremendous ethnic and religious diversity.
This diversity was seen, even then, as distinctly American. Traveling through
Philadelphia in 1744, a Swedish botanist encountered, in a tavern, what he
described as a "very mixed company of different nations and religions." In
addition to "Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish," he reported "there
were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Seventh-Day men,
Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew. " From Philadelphia, these immigrants
spread out over the land and set up prosperous farms, raising wheat, corn, hemp
and flax, but mostly wheat. Pennsylvania became the breadbasket of the American
Other immigrants settled in the city and went into the trades. Tradesmen, or
artisans, established their homes directly above their one-man shops on the
thickly built blocks that led out from Philadelphia's crowded harbor. The
harbor was the merchant's domain.
As in Boston, aggressive businessmen, most of them English Quakers, turned what
had been planned as a religious utopia into a capitalist powerhouse. Trade
operated here as it did in New York City, the middle colonies' other great
port. Merchants took the agricultural offerings of farms and shipped them to
other colonies, to England, and from England to the wider world.
Britain's Navigation Acts mandated that most of this trade be channeled through
the ports of the mother country. But in compensation, the colonies received
English manufactured goods.
Colonial merchants then sold these, along with rum, wine, and sugar, to farmers
in the expanding hinterlands of the coastal ports.
These merchants were an urban elite: rich, powerful, and socially influential.
And they were the Northerners who depended most heavily on slaves, as well as
indentured servants. Indentured servants continued to pour into the middle
colonies largely in family groups. With slaves and property-less city and rural
workers, they told the rest of society where the bottom was.
In between the rich and the poor were property owning farmers and artisans.
Farmers made up over 90% of the American middle class, and most free white men
lived long enough to buy or inherit at least 50 acres of land, which qualified
them to vote. In proportion to population, America had the largest middle class
in the world. But prosperity and abundant opportunity should not be confused
with an even distribution of wealth.
The Political Climate
In all colonies, the rich owned an overwhelming proportion of the taxable
wealth. And everywhere, political power followed money. Although between 50 and
75% of adult free males could vote in most colonies, they usually returned the
rich and influential to seats in the increasingly assertive colonial
assemblies. The colonists saw these assemblies as New World Parliaments.
The assemblies controlled the power to tax and acted as a check on Royal
Governors, just as Parliament back in England acted as a check on the King's
power. This was an elite dominated political economy. But its distinctively
American characteristic was the general prosperity of farmers and shopkeepers
and their high level of political participation. This, at a time when only
about 15% of adult males could vote in England.
America was also, as opposed to England, a society of independent moneymakers:
shopkeeper, merchants, and farmers who sold cash crops for export. At no other
time in our history were we more a nation of entrepreneurs. And at no other
time in world history, up to this point, did the great bulk of the population
of a country enjoy a higher standard of living.
The key to it all is this: In Europe, land was scarce and expensive; labor was
cheap and available. In America, land was cheap and available; labor was scare
and expensive. This explains slavery in the South, as well as economic democracy
in the North.