The port of colonial Philadephia, one of the reasons it became so important in colonial America

The reason so many people think of Philadelphia as an important city in colonial America is largely due to the fact that the Declaration of Independence was signed there on July 4, 1776. But Philadelphia had such a larger impact on colonial America and the Atlantic World in general. 

The Early Days of Brotherly Love

When Europeans first arrived on the site of what became Philadelphia, the Lenape called it home. For several hundred years, the Lenape had inhabited lands that stretched from central Delaware, up through New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, all the way to upstate and eastern New York. 

The word Lenape roughly translates to “the original people”; which, actually seems pretty apt. When Europeans began arriving in what became colonial Philadelphia, they most likely met the Lenape when they reached the Schuylkill River. The Lenpae had lived along the banks of the Schuylkill and its tributaries for centuries, forming villages that practiced a mix of agriculture and seasonal hunting to survive.

In 1682, an English nobleman by the name of William Penn sailed up the Delaware River towards the Schuylkill. That same year, he had received a colonial charter from Kings Charles II of England. Penn hoped to found his new colony, which he later called Pennsylvania, on the pacifist philosophy of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Pennsylvania would serve as a refuge for Quakers and any other sects that came under prosecution in Anglican England, so far as they agreed to live peacefully. Due to this cheery outlook, Penn did something rather unique among Europeans at the time: he dealt with the Native Nations he encountered like they were actually people.

William Penn negotiating with the Lenape in the important colonial city of Philadelphia
Depiction of William Penn negotiating with the Lenape

Penn’s view of the New World’s indigenous population as brothers and sisters under god led him to seek out several land cession treaties to grow his American holdings; treaties, he assumed, he’d successfully procured from the Lenape. But, the Lenape had different understandings of what land treaties meant. Given the years’ worth of off-and-on skirmishes that followed Penn’s treaties with the Lenape, it seems logical they believed the treaties meant something far different.

Colonial Philadelphia Becomes the Most Important Port in America

Despite the conflicts that ensued with the Lenape over land rights, William Penn steadily grew his colony into an economic powerhouse. From the early days of its existence, Philadelphia’s location on the Delaware River made it a major player in the import-export game. Close to home, Philadelphia merchants purchased large amounts from New England fisheries, before shipping them across the Atlantic to Lisbon. The wool raised by local herders around the growing city was sent across the British Empire. And by as early as 1689, Philadelphia-based merchants began sending at least 10 ships a year to the Caribbean, which was not a cheap venture considering the threats pirates posed in those waters.

All of this economic activity caused a population boom along the shores of the Delaware and Schuylkill. Around the time that Penn founded Philadelphia, it had a population around 2,000. A mixture of the British settlers that came with Penn, and Dutch, Swedes, and Finns who had lived in the area when it was a colony of Sweden, they primarily made their living growing crops and livestock that was exported throughout the British empire. By 1730, some 50 years later, the population had more than tripled to around 7,000. By 1765, colonial Philadelphia was home to 23,000 people, making it the largest and most important city in British North America.

Just like how Philadelphia’s profitable import-export business caused a boom in the population, all those new people flocking to the City of Brotherly Love brought even more commerce. 

Ah, the circle of life… and money.

A City of American Firsts

All that money and all those people did more than just make colonial Philadelphia an important port city. The thriving economy attracted talented and ambitious men, like Benjamin Franklin, who would push Philadelphia forward from a colonial settlement to a world-class city. 

Franklin himself did much for Philadelphia. He founded the American Philosophical Society – the first such society in British North America –  as well as the first public library and the first hospital in the 13 colonies. Not to mention he conducted his famous lightning experiments in the city!

Benjamin Franklin conducting his famous lightning experiments
Benjamin Franklin conducting his famous lightning experiments

While Franklin was, and still is, the most famous Philadelphian of his day, others made their mark on the growing city as well. Benjamin Rush, a physician and important member of the American Revolution, called Philadelphia home. Apart from his political activities, Rush became known as the Father of American Psychiatry for his role in the early studies of mental illness. David Rittenhouse, largely considered the most brilliant American of his time, made important astronomical and mathematical discoveries while living in the city.

The arts, too, flourished and became a big part of why colonial Philadelphia was so important. In the 1700s, colonists and Europeans often viewed American art as backward at best. But leading painters like Benjamin West, Charles Wilson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart created an American movement around oil paintings. These three artists, among many others, worked in Philadelphia for a time during the colonial, Revolutionary, and Early Republic eras. They became famous painters of history, nature, and portraits, greatly influencing the next generation of American artists.

With so much going on, it’s easy to see why Benjamin Franklin believed colonial Philadelphia was important enough that the King and Parliament would move from London to the prosperous city!

Just a Few More Things…

The list of famous American firsts that happened in colonial Philadelphia could go on forever. But, since we don’t forever, here’s a just a few more things to note: 

  • The first hospital for the mentally ill. Founded by Thomas Bond and Benjamin Franklin in 1753, Rush would work here 30 years later. 
  • The first magazine, daily newspapers, and political cartoons in America.
  • The first college not tied to a particular religious sect. 
  • The first law firm and law school. Before this, college graduates would apprentice with lawyers who saw potential in them. 

The Declaration!

Last but least on the long list of why colonial Philadelphia was so important: the Declaration of Independence. 

When the rumblings of revolution began in the American colonies, the Continental Congress chose Philadelphia as their meeting place for several reasons. For one, it was smack dab in the middle of the 13 colonies. And, back in the days of horse drawn carriages and sailing ships, this was the fairest way to do it. Second, its huge population and prosperous economy made it a highly valuable city, a city worth having on your side in the case of war. Afraid that Philadelphians might not want in on the whole committing treason against the British Empire thing, the Congress hoped to stroke the city’s ego by making it the seat of their new colonial government.

During the second meeting of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson would give Philadelphians reason to celebrate for the rest of history: he wrote the Declaration of Independence in their city. 

While many of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, did not live up to the lofty ideals set out in this brilliant piece of writing, the Declaration has always given America a sense of self, and inspired each generation to push for new levels of freedom. This is why, despite all the other accomplishments of colonial Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence is, perhaps, the most important.

Sources on Why Philadelphia Was Important in Colonial America

  1. “Pre-History to 1854,” westphillyhistory.archives.upenn.edu
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Sarah Sharp, “Understanding Philadelphia’s Global Trade Network in the Colonial Period,” hsp.org
  5. Molly Nebiolo, “Visualizing Colonial Philadelphia,” storymaps.arcgis.com
  6. “History of Philadelphia,” britannica.com
  7. Howard Sudack, “A Remarkable Legacy,” uphs.upenn.edu
  8. “Gilbert Stuart,” britannica.com
  9. Michael Zuckerman, “City of Firsts,” philadelphiaencyclopedia.org
  10. Ibid
  11. Sudack, “A Remarkable Legacy”
  12. “History of Philadelphia,” britannica.com
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