The Arising of Philadelphia as the Intellectual Capital of America

Friday, March 20, 2009

If America had an intellectual capital before 1740, then it would had to have been Boston. The two major printers of books in the British colonies in the late 1600’s, Samuel Green and John Foster, were both headquartered in Boston or its neighboring towns. Boston led the way on the number of active book sellers, with as many as 15 by 1740. Having Harvard college as its near neighbor also guaranteed a certain critical intellectual mass to the Boston area. But Boston was also home to an equally critical artistic mass. As Boston’s merchants prospered, they celebrated their successes by commissioning portraits of themselves. By the mid 1700’s, Boston had developed, if not exactly a school of portraiture, then at least a self-conscious concentration of highly talented portrait artists: John Smybert, John Greenwood, Joseph Badger; and the finest painter colonial America would ever produce: John Singleton Copley.

Yet, all of these achievements somehow added up to less than the sum of the Bostonian parts. Copley was exasperated that his talents had to be changed to turning out likenesses of businessmen and merchants, and he yearned for the opportunity to turn his self-taught hand to classical history painting. Was it not for preserving the resemblance of particular persons, painting would not be known in this place, Copley complained. The people generally regarded it no more than any other useful trade like carpentry or shoemaker, nor as one of the most noble arts in the world, which is not a little mortifying to me.

When the political winds of the revolution began to blow in directions that Copley found congenial, he left for New York, and in 1774, for London, never to return to America.

The Quaker’s Pennsylvania

Whatever intellectual dominance Boston enjoyed before 1740, it came mainly by default rather than design. The prize, after 1740, of being an intellectual capital, increasingly belonged not to Boston but to Philadelphia. Founded in 1682 as the capital of William Penn’s Pennsylvania, Philadelphia enjoyed nothing like a promising beginning as an intellectual capital for America.

The Quakers, William Penn’s religious society of friends, as they preferred to call themselves, was the last and most radical of the radical sects spun by English Puritanism in the 17th century. Where the Puritans had questioned the authority of bishops, the Quakers questioned the authority of any clergy. Where the Puritans refused to accept anything but the text of scripture as their religious authority, the Quakers refused to accept even that, considering it too carnal and worldly. They looked to their own religious consciousness for the testimony of the light within. And where the Puritans understood that depravity was too deeply rooted in the human heart for any discipline to expect to succeed entirely, the Quakers fully expected that they could and should attain perfection for themselves and their neighbors.

These were not people with much use for theological, philosophical or classical learning. Penn’s goal for his colony and his city was a social uniformity that would made Boston look like Las Vegas. Untrustworthy of traditional cities, Penn laid out Philadelphia as a city with broad streets meeting at right angles, so that vice and misery might have no place to hide from the inspection of those perfected by the light within. He expected the countryside around Pennsylvania would be laid out for farmers and settlers in continuous townships, with Quaker meeting houses located serenely in the center, to give order and happiness to Quaker life. For, as Penn put it, the most convenient bringing up of youth.

A Varied Landscape

Well, there are no optimists more surely destined for disappointment than those who believe in human perfectibility. William Penn became a good lesson in that kind of disappointment. Penn’s fellow Quakers showed little disposition to join him in creating a Quaker paradise in Pennsylvania. They never numbered more than a fraction of the total population, and Penn could only sell land in Pennsylvania by offering it to a wide and dismaying variety of non-Quakers, even non-English. That rapidly turned Pennsylvania into a mixture of European nationalities, religions and languages. Specially religions.

Pennsylvania became the stopping point for Mennonites from Switzerland, Dunkers from the German principalities, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Scot-Irish Presbyterians, English Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics. Some of these immigrants were fully as radical and fully as suspicious of any learning that seemed to dump on the impulse of the spirit as the Quakers. But the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the German Calvinists and the Anglicans, that together amounted to half of Pennsylvania’s population by the time of the revolution, came from traditions with long intellectual allegiances, and had a strong tendency for establishing schools to reinforce those allegiances.

When the pro-Whitefield Presbyterians split from the anti-revival Presbyterians during the Great Awakening, they had to find new ways of training pro-revival clergy. So, they ended up founding four separate theological academies, starting with the Log College. And instead of turning to finishing schools for renters, all of these academies quickly settled down to promoting learned languages, liberal arts, sciences and divinity. The Moravians, the Baptists, even the Quakers, all organized religious schools to nurture their offspring between 1720 and 1740. And anti-revival Church of England people were the leading hand behind the creation of the Academy of Philadelphia in 1751, which became the College of Philadelphia, and then the University of Pennsylvania.

By 1773, even the Lutherans in Pennsylvania had organized a German seminary. Certainly, one factor which made this proliferation of schools possible was Philadelphia’s rise to commercial power in the British colonies. From a population of 13000 in 1740, Philadelphia grew to 40000 in 1776. And its commerce down to Delaware Bay dominated the colonial coastal trade. Philadelphia’s wealth, combined with the need of its competing factions of self-justification and self-promotion, certainly provided a wide variety of forms for a good deal of self-justification and self-promotion, including 120 licenses to taverns, the American Philosophical Society, the College of Physicians and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

But Philadelphia’s richest intellectual assets laid in the remarkable cluster of Enlightenment thinkers who came to gather there between 1740 and 1790, to make Philadelphia not just America’s preeminent intellectual city, but the Enlightenment’s preeminent outpost in America. Among those thinkers, none enjoyed greatest standing, at home or abroad, than Benjamin Franklin.