Joel Rose for NPR
Bill Robling gives tours of the Free Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood. In 1708, Quakers were easily the city's largest group.
Courtesy of the Historic Society of Pennsylvania
The original 1683 grid plan for the city of Philadelphia.
The original 1683 grid plan for the city of Philadelphia. Courtesy of the Historic Society of Pennsylvania
Joel Rose for NPR
University of Pennsylvania historian Daniel Richter says the city's founder intended Philadelphia to be more of a rural country town than a city.
As the nation marks Independence Day weekend, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday travels to Philadelphia, the nation's first capital, as part of a month-long series to find out how Americans have changed since the 18th century — and ask what it means to be an American today.
Modern Philadelphia is a commercial and cultural powerhouse. It's a city of more than 1.5 million people from diverse backgrounds. But this bustling East Coast metropolis once served as the crucible of U.S. democracy. From the early years of the Revolution to the Constitutional Convention that provided a first draft of a new nation's values, Philadelphia is at the heart of the American experience.
On the eve of the American Revolution in 1776, Philadelphia was the biggest and most important city in North America — the nation's bustling capital city, filled with a demographic mix of colonists, immigrant groups and African-Americans.
But the region's original residents were the Lenni-Lenape Indians, who lived in a number of different settlements throughout the Delaware Valley. Small groups of Swedish and Dutch settlers have moved to the region since the 16th century.
The earliest settlement that is recognizable today is Philadelphia, which was officially chartered in 1701 by William Penn. The city was dominated in those early years by the Religious Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. In 1708, about 3,500 to 4,000 people lived in Philadelphia, and Quakers were easily the largest group.
This would change as immigrants from Europe began arriving in larger numbers in the early 1700s. Drawn by the promise of religious freedom, immigrants from Germany, Ireland and beyond began flooding into the colony. Most settled within a few blocks of one another, utterly contradicting the wishes of the colony's founder, Penn.
"Essentially, Penn didn't like cities," says University of Pennsylvania historian Daniel Richter. "He imagined not so much a city as a rural country town, in which every lot would be at least half an acre in size, which would have left plenty of green space in between."
Instead, Philadelphians packed themselves in to a few areas along the Delaware River. "It was really quite a fragrant place," Richter says, "with open sewers running everywhere."
By the eve of the American Revolution, Philadelphia was the biggest city in North America — an extraordinary melting pot of languages, peoples and religions. Geographically, the city had stretched farther north and south along the Delaware River. But it remained a compact, urban settlement where rich and poor lived nearly side by side — and the entire population still lived within a mile of the river.
The density and energy of Philadelphia contributed to the Revolution and the founding of the nation.
"Nothing goes unnoticed" in such a small space, says Richter. "When things happen in the streets, when people put up an effigy and burn it, it's not something you read about in the Philadelphia Inquirer. This is something you see right outside your window."
The city was also home to a thriving African-American community. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. A decade later, the city had become the cultural, economic and political capital of the new nation, and businesses run by African-Americans were an integral part of society.
That changed when Washington, D.C., became the country's new capital in 1800. Philadelphia lost much of its political significance, though it remained an important financial center throughout the 19th century. But this, too, began to change as New York City's population surpassed Philadelphia's in the 1830s.