When naming a newborn, you feel the weight of the decision, the fond hope that the right name might provide a push along a hoped-for path.
Even as names seek to nudge destiny, sometimes they merely set up irony: Faith, the fiery atheist; Victor, the embittered failure.
We can’t know all the thoughts that coursed through William Penn’s mind when he chose Philadelphia as the name for his new city, tucked onto the peninsula between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill.
What we do know is that he chose boldly, aiming for the vault of heaven, daring irony to strike.
The name he gave his city combined the Greek words for love (phileo) and brother (adelphos), setting up the enduring civic nickname: the City of Brotherly Love. Then Penn gave his city a street grid, a charter and a diplomatic first act that he hoped would enable it to live up to that name.
So how did it turn out, this Holy Experiment?
In modern popular culture, the verdict is often rendered with a sneer. “City of Brotherly Love” has turned into a phrase invoked more often in sarcasm than admiration.
In 1994, a Gallup Poll named Philadelphia America’s most hostile place. The most durable stereotypes about the city cluster around its fans’ penchant for booing and the colorfulness of its crime and corruption.
So William Penn’s choice can sometimes seem less destiny than irony.
But that judgment is neither complete nor fair. It ignores so much evidence.
Thanks to its founder’s impetus, and to the furthering energy of citizens from Benjamin Franklin to Richard Allen, from Lucretia Mott to John Wanamaker, from Richardson Dilworth to Mary Scullion, Philadelphia has remained one of America’s most inventive laboratories for exploring the civic potential of brotherly love and sisterly affection.
Its history can be read as a long duel between destiny and irony, each vying to seize the upper hand in interpreting City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia hosts a continuing dialogue about what brotherly love looks like in the civic sphere.
Be clear on this: It won’t do to reduce the notion of brotherly love to saccharine sentiment, to feelings only tender and soft.
Brotherly love does not imply the absence of conflict. Have you ever seen young brothers together? Their bond, strong as cement though it might be, gets expressed often as not through competing, jousting, gibes, and dares.
Anger is also a way to express caring, and in Philadelphia’s long history, a common one. Even today, some of Philadelphia’s best rowhouse citizens, who work doggedly to keep blocks decent and children safe, regard their hometown with what can only be called an angry love. It is loyal, it endures – but it has spikes and edges.
Like the nation that chose this city (and not by accident) as the spot to declare, then define, itself, Philadelphia has struggled to define brother. Who is inside the circle, who not?
The city’s story follows a cycle: high aspiration thwarted by weakness, strife, and division, then redeemed by a new round of noble struggle, which broadens understanding and widens the circle.
Penn himself, while nobly distinguished among colonizers for his fair and respectful relations with the native Lenape, had a blind spot about blacks. He owned slaves, and excluded blacks from many of the protections of Pennsylvania’s charter. While he founded his city upon a writ of religious tolerance that made it a rare and fruitful haven, he still excluded Catholics, Jews, and Muslims from the franchise.
Some Quakers later on repaired the lapses of Penn and other forebears, becoming leaders of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones helped advance Penn’s vision of religious freedom by insisting that it extended to the black person as well.
Abolitionist Lucretia Mott also sounded the clarion call that women, too, deserved a full role in America’s civic drama – that in fact, they were vital to bringing phileo to the polis.
As Philadelphia thrived, thanks in no small part to Penn’s legacy of openness, immigrants poured in. The inevitable backlash flared, especially in the nineteenth century. The Nativist riots of 1844 in Kensington were anti-Catholic bias at its ugliest. But in the long run the disorder helped make the case for the consolidation of the city into a larger, more governable but also more diverse whole.
Back and forth through the decades the dialogue flows around the city’s public squares, noisily and sometimes violently: Will the City of Brotherly Love embrace the destiny of its name, or reject it with cruel irony?
Along with dark moments – riots and beatings and tribal corruptions - Philly has birthed great testaments to shared civic bonds, from Fairmount Park to the settlement houses to the Free Library to the Mural Arts Program.
Its National League ball team once taunted Jackie Robinson most shamefully, but the Phillies now boast two beloved African American MVPs, whose jerseys are proudly worn on backs white as well as black.
Through it all, the legacy of William Penn, his dreams, wisdom and example, still hums in the city’s blood – despite our cantankerous failings, our ritual suspicions about the latest bidders to join the circle of brothers and sisters.
Philadelphia, by its very name, is an unfinished dream of civic feeling and common purpose, an audacious wager upon the better angels of our nature.
We, the heirs and inhabitants of a city named for love, remain quick to anger, prickly and prideful, wary of the new.
It is our way, and God knows we have some reason for it.
But we are also stubborn in love, fierce in loyalty, and our embrace of those we let inside the circle is warm, protective and unfailing.
We need to let more in, and more easily, with fewer tests.
But we Philadelphians are young, still, in this Holy Experiment, and still learning.
May the Spirit that inspired civic heroes such as William Penn, Absalom Jones, Barnard Gratz and St. Katharine Drexel to the heights of brotherly love and sisterly affection continue to guide us.
Chris Satullo is Executive Director of News and Civic Dialogue at WHYY.
This essay, which also appeared in the Currents section of the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 20, 2011, and on Newsworks.org, is published in partnership with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with support from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Dunn, Mary Maples and Richard S., Editors. The Papers of William Penn, 5 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Feldberg, Michael. The Turbulent Era: Riot and Disorder in Jacksonian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Soderlund, Jean R., Editor. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.
“The Vision of William Penn.” ExplorePaHistory.com
Penn Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Places to Visit
Pennsbury Manor, Morrisville, Pa.
On the web:
Liberty on the Anvil, 1701-2001: Exploring the Legacy of Pennsylvania’s Founding Charters, online exhibit, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.