Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Andrew Heath

City Councils (Philadelphia)

Since Philadelphia’s founding, a council or—for over a century—councils have been central to the work of municipal government. But the way councils have been chosen, the roles they have performed, and the composition of the people who have served on them have changed markedly since the start of the eighteenth century. From the unrepresentative “closed corporation” of the colonial era, through to the diverse, democratically elected body of the early twenty-first century, councils help to illustrate wider changes in Philadelphia’s past. Their history also offers insights into long-running battles to define the balance between legislative and executive power in local administration.

[caption id="attachment_34930" align="alignright" width="217"]Photograph of William Penn's 1701 City Charter for Philadelphia. William Penn issued his City Charter for Philadelphia in 1701, broadening the municipal government’s power and creating a city council that blended legislative, executive, and judicial functions. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s colonial council resembled the “closed corporations” of English towns. By the seventeenth century, such places hardly lived up to the ideal of the self-governing city. Some form of council probably met before William Penn (1644-1718) issued his City Charter in 1701, but that document created a body on the English model, with aldermen and councilmen appointed for life. A mayor and recorder joined them on Philadelphia’s city council, which had the power to police its own members and add to its ranks but was subject to no electoral oversight. With the mayor sitting alongside the councilmen, and aldermen serving as justices of the peace, the council mingled legislative, executive, and judicial functions in one corporate body. Public pressure on city government had to be exerted through the likes of petitioning or crowd action rather than via the ballot.

While the colonial city council performed a wide range of responsibilities, it operated in an ad hoc manner. The mayor convened meetings “from time to time,” and though council members delegated executive and legislative business to subcommittees, they had no permanent standing. As Philadelphia grew, though, the importance of its council grew with it, and in the decades before independence the closed corporation regulated city life. It passed ordinances, launched public works, and oversaw markets and wharves.

The American Revolution swept away the colonial city council, and the post-revolutionary City Charter of 1789 brought major changes. The old closed corporation gave way to a municipal government more open to citizens’ influence. Voters now elected councilmen and aldermen, though the latter retained their judicial role. These representatives, chosen at large rather than by ward, initially sat together in one body, which chose the mayor from one of their own. In 1796, however, an act of the Pennsylvania legislature deprived aldermen of their seat in Council and divided the remaining councilmen into two branches. Common councilmen were elected for one-year terms, while the smaller body of Select councilmen served for two years. This bicameral system of councils persisted until just after World War I

Seeking More-Open Government

Influenced by the constitutional upheavals of the revolutionary years, citizens sought to separate the powers of city government and open its institutions to the people, albeit with mixed success. While the 1796 reform introduced a clear division between legislative and judicial branches of the municipal authorities, councilmen continued to choose the mayor until 1839, when—in the spirit of the Jacksonian era—the state legislature opened the office to the ballots of white male voters. At the same time, however, many of the mayor’s appointive powers transferred to the two branches of council. Thus a measure that seemingly separated executive and legislative powers ended up strengthening the grip of Councils in both. Well before 1839 Councils had created standing committees, chaired by Common or Select councilmen, to oversee the likes of the city’s wharves and waterworks. The development of new or expanded municipal services like gas in the 1830s gave councils considerable control over patronage and provided a platform for politicians to build the “rings” that bedeviled late nineteenth-century reform movements. For many political reformers, indeed, stripping Councils of their executive powers would become a longstanding—if frequently frustrated—ambition.   

So too would elevating (as genteel reformers liked to cast it) the social character of councilmen. In the Early Republic, eminent citizens saw service on City Councils as part of their civic duty, which also meant they could steer Philadelphia’s government in a direction that suited them. William M. Meredith (1799-1873), a future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, served as president of Select Council from 1834 to 1839. As late as the 1840s, the merchant prince Thomas Pym Cope (1768-1854) sat on Select Council. But as the city grew, and Whig, Democratic, and Nativist parties mobilized around election time, Councils’ elite hue began to fade. The story of genteel retreat from Philadelphia’s municipal politics in the Jacksonian era can be overstated, but citizens at the time certainly saw political specialists emerging at the helm.

[caption id="attachment_34931" align="alignright" width="225"]Photograph of William S. Stokley, a prominent Philadelphia politician between the 1860s and 1880s. William S. Stokley became a fixture in Philadelphia politics between the 1860s and 1880s, serving as the president of the Common and Select Councils. Depicted in this 1905 lithograph, he served as the 72nd mayor of Philadelphia. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The next major change in the structure of city government, the Consolidation Act of 1854, sought to reduce Councils’ executive role and augment the social standing of its representatives. Consolidation extended the previously two-square-mile city to encompass the entire county, swallowing up in the process a host of densely populated suburban districts run by elected boards of commissioners. Advocates of consolidation hoped the new city government would vest stronger powers in the mayor and reduce Councils to a purely legislative role. They also anticipated that the vast extent of the enlarged metropolis would attract men of experience to the bicameral councils, which were to be elected from the new city’s twenty-four wards. In practice, neither aim worked as intended. Businessmen did win office, but often used their position to ransack the city treasury (like the builder and contractor John Rice, 1812-80), or had close ties to major corporations (like the Democrat and Pennsylvania Railroad solicitor Theodore Cuyler, 1819-76). Ward representation, meanwhile, gave politicians from ethnic and working-class neighborhoods a strong base. For example, William McMullen (1824-1901), a white supremacist Irish-American Democrat from the old district of Moyamensing, became a longstanding member of Common Council in the new Fourth Ward just below South Street. And though the Consolidation Act gave the mayor control over the police, Councils still had the authority to establish city departments and elect their heads. The managers responsible for many of the city’s executive functions therefore held their positions at the whim of councilmen rather than the mayor. This allowed ambitious councilmen like William S. Stokley (1823-1902) to build a patronage base via oversight of municipal departments.

The Bullitt Bill

The Bullitt Bill, passed by the State Legislature in 1885 and named for its architect John C. Bullitt (1824-1902), marked another attempt to rein in Councils’ executive role. Reformers welcomed a measure that seemed to restore the mayor’s appointive powers, which had been held by the legislative branch of the city government since 1839. But in giving Select Council a veto on mayoral appointments, the Bullitt Bill ensured that councilmen would retain considerable influence in everyday administration. While the measure reduced the number of departments from twenty-five to nine, it did little to arrest the growth in the number of councilmen, who numbered 146 by 1919. Philadelphia’s councils developed a reputation for being venal and unwieldy.

In the Progressive Era, with efficiency the watchword, reformers set out to remake Councils once more. Reversing the precedent set in 1796, a 1919 amendment to the Bullitt Bill replaced the bicameral system with a single body, reduced the number of members to twenty-one, and replaced ward representation with a division based on the city’s eight State Senate districts. The new districts corrected the underrepresentation of growing suburbs like Germantown and West Philadelphia while the shift to four-year terms and $5,000 official salaries reflected the sense that oversight of municipal business required professional attention. To increase transparency, the mayor was required to send a budget to Council, which would then hold hearings in public on the proposals.

Once again, though, the reform failed to deliver on its promise. Members could still wield influence over executive functions. Despite a new Civil Service Commission, Council appointed its members and thus had leverage over personnel decisions. And the mayor also needed approval from Council when appointing heads of city agencies. Meanwhile, despite the city’s shift towards voting Democrat in national elections in the 1930s and a growing vote for Democratic candidates in local races, the eight Council districts tended to elect entirely Republican members. The absence of a substantial opposition bloc in Council was compounded by the tendency of Republican councilors to fight first and foremost for the interests of their districts rather than representing the metropolis as a whole. Despite these problems, proposals for another overhaul of city government stalled in the 1930s and 1940s.   

[caption id="attachment_34926" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the 97th mayor of Philadelphia, John F. Street, alongside President George W. Bush during a 2001 Independence Day Celebration. John F. Street, the 97th mayor of Philadelphia, standing next to President George W. Bush during Independence Day celebrations on July 4, 2001. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Home Rule Charter of 1951 aimed to complete the unfinished business of creating a strong mayoralty and reducing Council’s responsibilities. In part, the new charter continued reformers’ longstanding efforts to limit councilors’ capacity to interfere with executive functions. The measure deprived Council of its oversight of the civil service system, its veto over most mayoral appointments, and its capacity to interfere with procurement and construction; the mayor too could veto municipal measures. As one contemporary defender of the new system put it, reformers sought the “centralization of executive authority.” Yet councilors retained some means to check mayoral power. By controlling the finances of city government and through their ability to subpoena witnesses they could keep an eye on the actions of the administrative branch. To enact their agendas, then, mayors had to work closely with Council. Landmark policies like the 2001 Neighborhood Transformation Initiative of John F. Street (b. 1943, mayor, 2000-8) and the 2016 Sugary Drinks Tax of Jim Kenney (b. 1958, mayor, beginning 2016) all required the mayor securing majority support in the Council chamber.

Tweaking the Balance of Power

Home Rule’s architects looked to recalibrate the balance of power in other respects too. The minority party was guaranteed at least two of the seven at large seats in the new Council. As a system of limited voting meant citizens could only pick their favored five candidates for those seven seats, moreover, that minority party also had the option of concentrating their vote share through running a shorter list of nominees. The other ten seats were elected by district. Through this arrangement, it was hoped, the interests of the city would not be drowned out by the claims of each neighborhood. 

Despite the strengthening of the mayoralty, the new Council retained the power to regulate land use, which gave it considerable influence over urban development. By custom, the Council delegated decisions over land use and sale of the city’s considerable real estate to the member from the district affected. To its defenders, this practice of “councilmanic prerogative” protected local interests. A councilor, for instance, could block a development in his or her district until community concerns about parking or facilities had been met. To its critics, though, the prerogative slowed the pace of rebuilding and encouraged corrupt bargains between councilors and developers. 

[caption id="attachment_34927" align="alignright" width="300"]Modern day location of Raymond Pace Alexander's law office, which is currently a Target. Raymond Pace Alexander operated a successful African American legal practice within Philadelphia and advocated for civil rights within the city. This 2017 photograph shows the site of his law office, which currently operates as a Target. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

With the Home Rule Charter enacted in an era of rapid social change in Philadelphia, the new Council soon looked different from its predecessors. After a century of Republican control, Democrats now dominated, as the coalition of white industrial workers and a growing black population wielded influence at the polls. The civil rights attorney Raymond Pace Alexander (1897-1974), whose parents had been enslaved in their youth in Virginia, became Philadelphia’s first black councilor in 1951. That same year, Constance H. Dallas (1902-83) an independent-minded Democrat whose husband was descended from the former mayor and vice president George Mifflin Dallas (1792-1864), served as the first woman in Council. For a century between the 1854 Consolidation Act and the 1951 Home Rule Charter, the city’s councils had offered a path to power for white ethnic politicians. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the strong African American presence on Council underscored the changing demographics of the city and the strength of black political mobilization. By 2019, however, a mixture of gentrification and frustration with incumbents sometimes left veteran legislators vulnerable in Democratic primaries. Jannie Blackwell (b. 1945), who had represented West Philadelphia’s Third District since 1992, lost in 2019 to Jamie Gauthier (b. 1978), another African American candidate who drew considerable support from young, affluent voters in the precincts around University City.  

As in earlier eras, a stint on the post-1951 City Council could serve as a springboard for higher political ambitions. Earlier mayors like William S. Stokley (president of Common Council, 1865-67; president of Select Council, 1868-70) had moved from presidencies of Common or Select Council into the mayor’s office. Late twentieth-century successors like James F. Tate (1910-1983, president of Council, 1955-64) and John F. Street (president of Council, 1992-98) did likewise. Thus, while the 1951 charter placed limits on Council’s power, it gave members themselves a platform, which they could use to build a metropolitan-wide reputation. If a century of reform between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s reduced Council’s executive role, by the early twenty-first century it remained a key player in city politics.

Andrew Heath, who lived in Philadelphia between 2001 and 2008, is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. He is the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in an Age of Urban Consolidation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Street Numbering

[caption id="attachment_31809" align="aligncenter" width="546"]This page from the 1861 Philadelphia city directory shows a grid of street names and numbers. A text box in the upper right corner explains how this grid system helped city residents determine their location. This page from the 1861 Philadelphia city directory demonstrates the Decimal System of house numbering. (Internet Archive)[/caption]

Philadelphians, having pioneered the gridiron street layout in North America, also led the way in street numbering. The grid had been in place for more than a century by the time citizens began to experiment with ways to number the buildings that lined their streets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But by the Civil War, the “decimal system” of numbering addresses that persisted into the twenty-first century had been put in place.

Systematic attempts to give each building in a city a unique address began in Europe in the eighteenth century. London’s municipal authorities ordered the numbering of buildings in 1768; France followed suit three years later to abet the billeting of soldiers. Such reforms reflected both the growing power of government and the Enlightenment penchant for classification. When Philadelphia’s first city directories appeared in 1785, however, one directory listed the intersection at which heads of household resided (for example, “3rd above Chestnut”) rather than giving a specific number. Some entries were even vaguer: anyone looking for Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), for instance, would have found him at “Market Street.”

[caption id="attachment_31806" align="alignright" width="252"]This black and white portrait shows Clement Biddle. After overseeing the first United States census, Clement Biddle devised a new street numbering system for the 1791 Philadelphia city directory. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

City directories and census-taking provided an impetus to street numbering. The editor of the other 1785 directory numbered houses sequentially on one side of a street then continued the sequence back down it (a “clockwise” method commonly employed in Europe). Six years later, Colonel Clement Biddle (1740-1814) compiled a city directory that adopted a different approach. Biddle assigned odd numbers to the north and east of a street and even numbers to the south and west, with numbers on both sides of the block moving in the same direction. He had overseen the first census of the United States that same year, and just as the federal government’s head count helped Americans understand their new republic, the street numbering system aided them in navigating their biggest city. As Biddle put it in explaining the new system, the “stranger” could now find “any house whose street and number is known.”

Keeping Up in an Expanding City

Although Biddle’s system served the needs of a late eighteenth-century port (and was soon copied in Paris), it struggled to adapt to Philadelphia’s nineteenth-century growth. As builders tore down old dwellings and skipped over vacant lots, addresses became harder to assign in any coherent manner. New properties, which needed individual markers for tax assessment, tended to be numbered in the order in which they had been built rather than on their actual location. A lack of coordination between the two-square-mile city proper and the rapidly expanding independent districts beyond its borders contributed to the chaos. By 1850 the consequences were amusing and confusing. Houses with the same numerical address sometimes stood hundreds of yards apart. Fractional addresses—1/4, 1/3, 1/2—were not uncommon. One Callowhill Street block reputedly ran inwards from either end with the same numbers. “[I]t is a serious undertaking to hunt any dwelling,” complained one newspaper a few years before the Civil War. Biddle’s odd and even numbering no longer seemed adequate.

[caption id="attachment_31808" align="alignright" width="226"]This black and white photograph shows Morton McMichael in a seated position. He holds spectacles in one hand and a rolled up newspaper in the other. Morton McMichael, a newspaper publisher and politician, chaired the Executive Consolidation Committee that united Philadelphia’s outlying districts with the city proper in 1854. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In the middle decades of the nineteenth-century Philadelphians searched for a better way. A proposal to number houses by block had been brought to the attention of City Councils in 1830, but no action was taken. Calls for reform resumed during the real estate boom of the early 1850s. The city government doubted it had the legal authority to compel property owners to renumber their dwellings and councilmen wondered whether a change in the city proper would actually add to the confusion if adjacent districts did not follow suit. Morton McMichael’s (1807-79) North American newspaper, which led the drive for a new system, responded that an address was not the private property of a dwelling’s owner. Numbers, it insisted, are “an indispensable part of our communitary system,” and “must be properly regulated and enforced.” The union of the city and districts in the Consolidation Act of 1854, which McMichael helped to push through, paved the way for a metropolitan-wide change. Weeks before the new charter won legislative assent in Harrisburg the north-south streets running in from the Schuylkill, which had been numbered in ascending order from the river to Broad, were given the names they have borne since: Schuylkill Eighth Street becoming Fifteenth, and so on. This brought them into sequence with the main streets that ran parallel to them east of Broad, which from Philadelphia’s founding had, with the exception of Front (the equivalent of First) and Broad (the equivalent of Fourteenth), been numbered from the Delaware waterfront westwards.

[caption id="attachment_31807" align="alignright" width="241"]This color map shows the borders of Philadelphia after the 1854 Consolidation Act. The neighborhood limits for various areas, such as Germantown and Manayunk, are indicated by color. This 1854 map shows Philadelphia’s major streets and districts as they appeared after the Consolidation Act of the same year. The Act paved the way for major metropolitan changes, including the 1856 introduction of the Decimal System for house numbering. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

That reform paved the way for a more radical change in 1856 when the inventor and councilman John Mascher (c. 1824-1862) introduced what would become known as the “Decimal” or “Philadelphia System.” The system involved numbering blocks from east to west based upon the numerical street they intersected at their eastern ends. Houses on each block would then be given addresses from one to a hundred on Biddle’s odd/even principle. Whereas before, 220 Chestnut might have been anywhere along the street, from 1857, a visitor to the city could quickly locate it between Second and Third Streets. A similar method numbered addresses on north-south blocks, though a New York-style suggestion to rename the east-west street by number did not succeed, meaning Walnut dodged the fate of becoming South Second Avenue. Mascher’s design was copied in other gridiron cities and helped to make Philadelphia an easy metropolis to pinpoint a location long before Google Maps. Yet it was not universally welcomed at the time. Many businesses continued to use their old numbers alongside the new ones while one owner threatened to sue anyone who profited from his old address; others no doubt feared the system would be used to better tax and conscript residents.

The Suburban Challenge

Beyond the limits of the consolidated city, where the gridiron plan often gave way to meandering suburban streets, numbering proved harder to systematize. In the Main Line suburbs, for instance, a 1910 ordinance made major arteries the “zero axes” from which properties were numbered every twenty-five feet, with (in line with the Philadelphia practice) the numbers jumping by a hundred each block. Progressive era reformers, however, conceded that the “work of numbering” was “exceedingly difficult,” given the winding roads, and recommended where possible continuing Mascher’s plan using Lancaster Avenue and City Line Avenue as the twin axes. The township’s Health and Drainage Department, which had jurisdiction over street numbers, did not act on the suggestion. But whether gridded or not, streets across the region came under the sway of municipal regulation when it came to numbering households.

Philadelphia’s street numbering system seems at first glance a rational solution to the challenges of rapid growth. But reform was slow to come by and ultimately depended on the expansion of the municipal government’s administrative capacity and territorial reach. It is no coincidence that two of the most influential figures in developing numbering systems—Biddle and McMichael—were both pioneering state-builders. Nor is it a surprise that city directories, which were important allies of the business community, played a key role in developing street numbering; a metropolis built on commerce, industry, and real estate operations needed to be navigable, after all. The crucial decades in the development of street numbers in Philadelphia— the 1780s to 1860s—were years in which urbanization, capitalism, and government power remade American cities. Addresses that became taken for granted were a product of those forces.

Andrew Heath is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and is the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Mayors (Philadelphia)

The Philadelphia mayoralty, almost as old as the city itself, has changed markedly since its inception. When the post was created in the eighteenth century, citizens put up their own money in order to avoid having to serve. By the early 2000s, in contrast, candidates and supportive political action committees poured millions into mayoral elections. Tracing the office’s transformation offers insights into the social makeup of municipal politics, battles between party regulars and reformers, and long fights over the rightful place of executive authority in city government.

[caption id="attachment_31519" align="alignright" width="220"]This color portrait shows James Logan. He wears a brown coat, white scarf and powdered wig. James Logan (1674–1751), shown here in an 1831 copy of a c. 1716 portrait, occupied the mayor’s seat from 1722 to 1723. Logan represented Philadelphia’s Proprietary Party, authored scholarly articles on a range of subjects, and accumulated wealth through rum, lumber, and fur trading. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

William Penn’s city charter of 1701 granted a measure of self-government to Philadelphia but left little room for energetic activity on the part of the mayor. Mayors served one-year terms and were elected by aldermen, who held their positions for life. The position was not particularly appealing. Although some of the province’s leading men–among them Penn’s colonial secretary James Logan (1674-1751; in office 1722-23)–occupied the mayor’s seat, finding willing volunteers sometimes proved so difficult that the corporation resorted to fining aldermen who refused to serve. In 1747, Anthony Morris even fled the city to avoid the job, and the fines levied on refuseniks boosted the city treasury. Such reluctance to take up the post is understandable. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the mayoralty was unsalaried, yet often involved great personal expense in terms of time and money. The mayor accrued some appointive, regulatory, and judicial powers, but was really first among equals with the aldermen. When the colonial city charter came to an end in 1776 and Philadelphia came under the authority of the state government, the position ceased to exist. Its passing does not seem to have been lamented.

The new city charter of 1789 opened elements of city government to citizens’ control and re-created the role of mayor. Unlike its near contemporary, the federal Constitution, the charter did not establish a clear separation of powers, as the mayor (elected indirectly from the aldermen) retained a seat in Council. In 1796, however, legislators established a clearer division between the branches of municipal government, with the popularly elected councils choosing a mayor from a Board of Aldermen appointed by the governor. The mayor’s appointive powers grew and he retained his judicial role. But councils undermined his executive authority by creating committees to run city services like water and gas.  

Lawyers and Merchants

Philadelphia’s mayors in the Early Republic tended to be drawn from the upper ranks of society. Lawyers and merchants were the most frequent occupants of the post, and if few came from the city’s so-called “first families,” they were occasionally of high rank. One example is George Mifflin Dallas (1792-1864; in office 1828-9), who was the son of a secretary of the treasury, and later became vice president of the United States. But Dallas’s subsequent political success marks an exception among mayors of the period. While many citizens who held the office had served on city councils or on one of the municipal trusts, few were career politicians. The relatively weak powers of the mayor provided little of the patronage needed to cultivate political alliances.

[caption id="attachment_31518" align="alignright" width="205"]This black and white photograph shows George Mifflin Dallas. He wears a dark coat and a white shift with a ruffled collar. George Mifflin Dallas (1792–1864) occupied the Philadelphia mayoral office from 1828 to 1829. He later served in the U.S. Senate (1831–33) and as vice president of the United States (1845-49) under James K. Polk (1795–1849). He is shown here in an 1848 photograph. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Mayors nevertheless played their part in the party conflict of the era. Federalists and American Republicans vied for mayorships in the Early National era; by the mid-1830s Democrats and Whigs fought over the position. Like many offices in Jacksonian America, the mayoralty was opened to direct election, but the 1839 reform did not change the social background of incumbents, who continued to hail from the upper ranks of society. Take for example Richard Vaux (1816-95; in office 1856-8), the son of an eminent Quaker philanthropist, and a man who danced with Queen Victoria at her coronation. But if mayors rarely sprang from the “common men” themselves, they often played their part in the era’s popular politics. John Swift (1790-1873; in office 1832-38, 1839-41, 1845-49), a Whig whose twelve terms straddled the introduction of direct elections, led a mob that dumped abolitionist literature in the Delaware in 1835. Even as late as the Civil War, Mayor Alexander Henry (1823-83; in office 1858-66) appeared in person to calm the crowd.

The Consolidation Act of 1854, which made the boundaries of city and county contiguous, extended the territorial reach of the mayor’s powers but added little to the office’s executive responsibilities. Consolidation swallowed up the independent boroughs and districts that had their own municipal arrangements. Northern Liberties was unusual in having a mayor; most, like Kensington, elected a president from a board of commissioners. Advocates of the new charter had imagined the measure, by annexing fast-growing suburbs, would give Philadelphia’s mayor the stature of a state governor. Yet beyond granting a veto over legislation and extending the term of office to two years, it did little to augment the mayor’s power. To the frustration of several incumbents of the office, the post-consolidation councils reasserted executive control over city departments and left only the police force under the mayor’s direct command.

The Police Force as Political Tool

That police force, however, proved a considerable weapon in the hands of wily mayors. A handful of day constables and night watch had come under the mayor’s control in the Early Republic, but an epidemic of rioting in the 1830s and 1840s spurred the creation of a metropolitan-wide police force in 1850, which by 1854 amounted to several hundred officers. Here was a patronage pot—and a source of election-day muscle—that mayors could exploit. Robert T. Conrad (1810-58; in office 1854-56), the first post-consolidation mayor, appointed his nativist backers to the police, while his successor, the wealthy Democrat Vaux, rewarded his Irish-American supporters likewise. Vaux, who enjoyed joining the force on nightly patrols, set the standard for an activist mayor committed to enforcing the law. But mayors could be selective about the laws they chose to enforce. In 1870, for example, federal troops needed to be called in to protect black voting rights under the newly ratified Fifteenth Amendment when it became clear the Democratic mayor Daniel M. Fox (1809-90; in office 1869-72) was likely to use his police to block African Americans’ access to the polls.

Aside from the police force, though, the power of post-1854 mayors tended to come less from their stipulated responsibilities under the city charter, and more from Harrisburg-created commissions. The postwar mayor William S. Stokely (1823-1902; in office 1872-81), for instance, used his position as head of the body delegated to erect a new city hall to build a political ring. His ascent indicated that party loyalty now mattered more than social respectability in the race for office. Genteel members of the Republican Union League turned down Stokely—a journeyman confectioner in his youth—for membership. 

Stokely’s rise signaled the beginning of eight decades of Republican domination of city hall. Prior to consolidation, the two-square-mile city proper tended to return Whig mayors, while the outlying districts leaned Democratic. Early elections after 1854 proved competitive, but the Civil War and the growing importance of manufacturing to the metropolitan economy meant that by the mid-1870s voters tended to prefer a pro-tariff Republican in the mayor’s seat. The mayor, however, found it hard to translate the prestige of the office into a metropolitan-wide political organization. Executive control in the city was too fragmented, with councils, county officers, and state Republicans each protecting their own patronage pots. With the exception of a figure like Stokely, who had access to the enormous budget of the Public Buildings Commission, mayors tended to be the front men for Republican bosses rather than masters of the machine themselves.

[caption id="attachment_31521" align="alignright" width="239"]This black and white photograph shows a statue of John C. Bullitt outside City Hall. The statued figure wears a coat and vest and appears to be clutching a scroll. Philadelphia lawyer John C. Bullitt (1824–1902) introduced the “Bullitt Bill,” a revision to the city charter, in 1885. This bill gave Philadelphia mayors additional appointing powers. A statue of Bullitt, as seen in this 1912 photograph, can be found at City Hall Plaza. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

The Bullitt Bill—an 1885 revision to the city charter named after its architect, lawyer John C. Bullitt (1824-1902)—marked an attempt to consolidate executive power in the mayor. It gave the mayor the power to appoint not just a chief of police but also a head of a department of public works. Good government advocates celebrated the reform, which initially appeared to be having the desired effect. The first two officers to wield “chief executive” power after the charter revision were Edwin Fitler (1825-1896; in office 1887-91) and Edwin Stuart (1853-1937; in office 1891-95), men who impressed their contemporaries with honest stewardship. But both had to leave office under the Bullitt Bill after a single four-year term. In a city openly disparaged as “corrupt and contented,” their legacy proved short-lived.

Influence of Reformers

By the early years of the twentieth century Philadelphia politics had settled into a pattern. “Organization” Republican mayors were rarely troubled by a moribund Democratic Party (the leaders of whom were on the Republican payroll), but they did face occasional challenges from bolting reformers, who called for sweeping the Augean stables of city government. Thomas B. Smith (1869-1949; in office 1916-20), who entered politics after making his money in bail bonds and allied with Republican kingmakers the Vare brothers, is representative of the former. He was indicted while in office for his role in the election-day murder of a policemen. Rudolph Blankenberg (1843-1918; in office 1911-1916), a veteran of Gilded Age reform movements, represents the latter; his ardent progressivism sought to supplant patronage with merit as the basis for city appointments, and he expanded city services while cutting costs. But in practice, the stark line between “organization” and reform mayors can be overdrawn. Some, like John Weaver (1861-1928; in office 1903-07) flitted between the two camps for political advantage, and even the ardent reformer Blankenberg had to convince voters that he was a good Republican in principle. No reform party managed to capture the mayoralty for long, and except when the regular Republican Party was divided, reformers tended to be trounced at the polls.

The Republicans’ long dominance of City Hall came to an end after World War II. During the 1930s, the Republican Party had remained ascendant locally even as the New Deal domestic programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) swung Philadelphia into the Democratic camp in national elections and Mayor Joseph Hampton Moore (1864-1950; in office 1920-24, 1932-36) blamed the unemployed for their plight during the Great Depression. But under the leadership of two zealous young New Dealers—Joseph Clark (1901-90) and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974)—the reinvigorated Democrats won control of the mayoralty in 1952. Both Clark and Dilworth served as reforming mayors (the former in office 1952-56; the latter 1956-62), though their more important legacy for Philadelphia may have been the “Home Rule” charter of 1951, which strengthened the mayor’s executive powers, weakened the city councils, and bolstered an independent civil service. Both Clark and Dilworth came from patrician backgrounds, and their tenure hinted at a return to the tradition of upper-class service that had come to an end after the Civil War, but the age of reform they inaugurated did not last. A Democratic machine—based on alliances with organized labor rather than the ward bosses of the old Republican organization—gained control of city hall in the 1960s.   

[caption id="attachment_31522" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows Frank Rizzo and Richard Nixon at Independence Hall. They stand behind a wooden bannister while a tour guide behind the bannister looks on. Frank Rizzo (1921–91) was a highly controversial figure during his two terms as mayor from 1972 to 1980. Some saw him as a defender of law and order; others criticized his reputation for sanctioning police brutality. In this 1972 photograph, Rizzo (at right) accompanies then-President Richard Nixon (1913–94) on a tour of Independence Hall. (National Archives and Records Administration)[/caption]

Ethnic politics also began to shape the mayoralty. Dilworth’s successor, the loyal Democrat James Tate (1910-83; in office 1962-72), was the first Irish Catholic to occupy city hall. Tate in turn was succeeded by Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo (1921-91; in office 1972-80), a “big man” Dilworth had initially promoted to court favor with Italian Americans. Rizzo’s popularity among white ethnics extended well beyond South Philadelphia, and amid rising fears of violent crime, he portrayed himself (much like early post-consolidation mayors) as a defender of law and order. To African Americans and white liberals, though, his disregard for civil rights and reputation for sanctioning police brutality made him a hated figure. Rizzo’s attempt to change the Home Rule charter to enable him to run for a third term failed, though he had two more tilts at the office in 1987 and 1991, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at his campaign office.

[caption id="attachment_31536" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of Wilson Goode smiling in a crowd Wilson Goode was the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, serving from 1984 to 1992. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Since the middle decades of the nineteenth-century white ethnics had helped to determine Philadelphia’s mayoral elections, but in the years that followed Rizzo’s turbulent reign, the path to city hall passed through the African American community, which had grown in political importance due to migration from the South and white flight to the suburbs. With the Republicans now as irrelevant as the Democrats had been in the early twentieth century, Democratic primaries became the real electoral battleground. Wilson Goode (born 1938; in office 1984-92) became the first African American mayor of the city. His administration was marred by the challenge of running a shrinking city with an unsympathetic administration in Washington, and by the catastrophic decision to bomb the West Philadelphia house of the MOVE sect. Divisions among African American political leaders paved the way for the pro-business Democrat Ed Rendell (b. 1944; in office 1992-2000) to succeed Goode, though he was followed by two African Americans, the “organization” Democrat John Street (b. 1943; in office 2000-08), who in contrast to Rendell focused on outlying neighborhoods rather than Center City, and the reformist Michael Nutter (b. 1957; in office 2008-2016).  In 2016, the Irish American councilman Jim Kenney (b. 1958) took over from Nutter. These twenty-first-century incumbents played a part in a “strong mayor” system that bore little resemblance to the mayoralty of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Andrew Heath is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, and is the author of In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania

Dating to 1682, Philadelphia County’s founding coincided with the origin of the city. Although the county faded from view after its consolidation with the city in 1854, it remained important for understanding Philadelphia’s urban development, local government, and long battles for political reform.

[caption id="attachment_28884" align="alignright" width="280"] Rural landowners' names and their lots in Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks Counties appear on this map created in 1687 by Thomas Holme. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

When founding Pennsylvania, William Penn (1644-1718) followed long-established precedent by dividing his province into counties. As an ancient jurisdiction, the county had roots in the shires of England’s Saxon earls. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the shires became known as counties. Over the following centuries they became the primary administrative subdivisions for a growing state, and then in the American colonies beginning in Virginia in the 1630s. Penn followed suit, creating Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester Counties in 1682.

Over the course of the eighteenth century the Provincial Assembly and Pennsylvania State Legislature altered Philadelphia County’s borders as the colony expanded. As colonists who had migrated westward petitioned for local governments of their own, portions of Philadelphia were sliced off to form Berks (1752) and Montgomery (1784) Counties. By 1800 Philadelphia County’s boundaries had been fixed in a manner that roughly corresponded to the future city limits, running along the Delaware River from southwest to northeast and stretching over the Schuylkill River to the west.  

Local government in early Philadelphia County took place at three levels. Incorporated municipalities enjoyed rights granted by the proprietor, much in the manner of self-governing English towns. Within the county, the two-square-mile city of Philadelphia (1691) and Germantown (1691) each benefited from these privileges, although Germantown lost its charter in 1707 after devout Quakers and Pietists proved reluctant to hold local offices on religious grounds. Between that point and the Revolution, only Southwark (1762), which stood just to the south of the city proper, secured incorporation. Beyond these self-governing municipalities, county government held sway, with Philadelphia city serving as the seat. As the county covered a large rural area, it was subdivided into townships–twelve in all by 1718–that took on administrative roles. In Blockley, Bristol, and Byberry, for instance, township constables performed many of the same duties as Philadelphia’s sheriff.  

County Politics

County government played an important role in the lives of the colonists. Together with its townships, it built and maintained highways, provided for the poor, preserved the public peace, prosecuted and punished offenders, and impounded stray animals. Like a chartered corporation, Philadelphia County could hold property and could sue and be sued. As the most visible form of local government, moreover, it became a political battleground. Despite holding Pennsylvania as a feudal estate, Penn and his heirs soon had to grant the province a measure of self-rule, which extended to counties and townships. Thus while a few county officers were directly appointed, voters usually had at least some say. The proprietor, for instance, chose the county sheriff, but only from the two leading candidates at the polls. Because a far higher proportion of Philadelphia’s rural men than their urban counterparts met the property qualification for voting, participation in county politics was common, including service as directly elected officials included property assessors and tax collectors.  

[caption id="attachment_28906" align="alignright" width="300"]Color lithograph depicting large, gothic-style structure with adjacent Egyptian-revival building. A black horse-drawn carriage is shown passing in the foreground as two men look on. With its imposing stone façade, Moyamensing prison dominated Tenth and Reed Streets from 1835 to 1968, when it was finally demolished. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Colonial patterns persisted long after the proprietorship of the Penns. In the decades after American independence, growing parts of Philadelphia County sought incorporation as self-governing municipalities, a process that gathered pace in the Jacksonian era. Many of these municipalities, like Moyamensing and Kensington, stood on the edge of Philadelphia proper, separated from the city only by lines on the county map that were more imaginary than real. Others, notably Manayunk (1840) and a rechartered Germantown (1844), burgeoned as villages, miles from the growing metropolis. The vast majority of Philadelphia County remained rural, and in these areas county and township government appeared perfectly adequate, especially as more positions–including the sheriff from 1838–opened to direct election. County jurisdiction also extended into the incorporated municipalities. Residents of the city, districts, and boroughs voted for county officers and paid the county tax, which went toward the upkeep of highways, courts, bridges, and prisons; some of the biggest building schemes proposed around mid-century—including early plans for public buildings at the Broad and Market intersection—were county projects. Among such designs was Moyamensing’s imposing jail—designed by Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), fourth architect of the U.S. Capitol building—which stood from 1835 until 1968.

Philadelphia’s “turbulent era,” however, exposed the limits of county government. Between 1828 and 1849 the city was wracked by riot after riot, including the anti-Catholic violence of 1844. Much of the trouble took place in the newly incorporated suburbs. Neither city nor suburbs maintained a modern police force prior to 1845, and when crowd action got out of hand, it usually fell on the sheriff, as traditional conservator of the peace, to restore control by raising a posse comitatus (“power of the county”). Although the sheriff’s powers were broad in theory (a judge in 1844 compared them to those of a dictator in the Roman Republic), they proved weak in practice. One Kensington strike in 1843 concluded with weavers turning on the sheriff, and a year later, after the posse proved unable to stop two major mobs, the county was placed under martial law. Attempts to improve the county’s response to rioting—notably an 1841 statute that made taxpayers liable for losses incurred during riots—had little impact, and instead citizens began to look to either the creation of a professional police force or the consolidation of the city and built-up districts into one municipal government.

As if to step into the vacuum created by the want of strong municipal authorities, the county became more assertive. In 1853, the County Commissioners tried to borrow $2 million to help fund a railroad to Lake Erie. Such actions, along with the money made in fees by county and township officers, drew censure from prominent citizens; one labeled the purchase of stock “the most flagrant act of injustice ever attempted.” Frustration at spendthrift officials swelled support for a consolidation, which, when it finally came in 1854, swallowed the entire county into the city.

Consolidation’s Far-Reaching Effects

The extension of the city’s boundaries to embrace the county’s vast rural environs went far beyond the designs of most consolidators. Opposition to consolidation came largely from rural townships, where the routine work of maintaining highways and providing for the poor seemed a world away from the complex administration of a big city. In the years leading up to the Civil War residents in the remote northeast petitioned the state legislature to break away from the city and either form a new county or merge with neighboring Bucks; such secessionist sentiment in Philadelphia’s northeast persisted late into the twentieth century. But in 1854 consolidators promised county landowners spectacular returns on their property, lower rates of taxation, and the maintenance of separate poor boards. The mixture of incentives and concessions tempered hostility to annexation.

[caption id="attachment_28917" align="alignright" width="240"]A map of the city of Philadelphia, with colored sections separating sections of the city. This map depicts the districts, boroughs, and townships consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

With the 1854 charter, Philadelphians were not quite sure whether city and county had become one and the same—even the architect of the Consolidation Act expressed his doubts, and the city commissioners retained a degree of independence from councils and the mayor—but the new charter seemed to have done its work. The county board disappeared, as did the townships, except for the purpose of providing poor relief. County officials came under the city’s control, including the county commissioners, who oversaw elections and tax collection. The county continued to play a role in the justice system, but the cost of maintaining courthouses and prisons fell on the city. A single municipal treasury had authority to raise taxes and disburse funds for city and county purposes.

Yet in the late nineteenth century divisions between city and county began to reappear. The state constitution of 1874 made several offices—including commissioner and treasurer—county positions. Courts subsequently confirmed that these city officers under the Consolidation Act were constitutionally-protected county officials. To municipal reformers, such a seemingly academic distinction had serious political consequences. First, county officials could spend money of their own accord and then leave the bill with city government. This “mandamus evil,” as Progressive reformers called it, reminded residents of post-Civil War commissions that had similar powers to burden the municipal treasury. Second, elected county officials had access to a rich patronage pot and considerable income in the form of state-mandated fees. A new city charter in 1919 established a merit system for city employees, but as the county lay beyond its jurisdiction, jobs there could still go as political rewards. By the middle of the twentieth century, about a thousand county employees were excluded from Philadelphia’s civil service requirements. Long before then, however, county offices had become a boon to Republican bosses like Simon Cameron (1799-1899) and James McManes (1822-99).

Long Road to True Consolidation

The task of completing what one early twentieth-century critic called the city and county’s “half-hearted” consolidation preoccupied reformers from the Progressive era (c. 1890-1920) onward. The independent Bureau of Municipal Research, which acknowledged the “complicated and technical” relationship between the two governments, nonetheless argued in 1923 that the matter was “of sufficient importance to engage the attention of every citizen.” The bureau led the drive for “home rule”: a measure adopted in other states that gave cities the freedom to draw up their own charters without legislative interference. Calls for the consolidation of city and county offices accompanied the campaign. Given that the 1874 state constitution safeguarded county offices, this required a constitutional amendment, and a measure enabling such a reform failed in a 1937 referendum despite registering a large majority in Philadelphia.

In the post-World War II era reformers found friendlier terrain for consolidation. Democrats Joseph S. Clark (1901-90) and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) exposed swindling in the Republican city machine, and for once “corrupt and contented” Philadelphians responded. Civic organizations called for home rule and the merger of city and county functions. In 1951, they secured a home rule charter, and state voters approved an amendment allowing cities and counties to merge. By 1952, under the reform charter, the work of bringing county offices under city control was well underway.

Philadelphia’s first consolidation in 1854 had merged the territory of city and county; its second, almost a century later, brought their separate institutions together under unified control. The county “row offices,” though, did not disappear entirely. In 2017, the Sheriff, the City Commissioners, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, and the Register of Wills remained a part of city government. Reformers saw them as expensive anachronisms. The Register of Wills, for instance, was just about the only part of the municipal apparatus exempt from Philadelphia’s civil service rules. Philadelphia County died as a unit of local government, but in pockets of City Hall its legacy lived on.      

Andrew Heath is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. He is writing a book on the Consolidation of 1854.

Consolidation Act of 1854

The Consolidation Act of 1854 extended Philadelphia’s territory from the two-square-mile “city proper” founded by William Penn to nearly 130 square miles, making the municipal borders coterminous with Philadelphia County and turning the metropolis into the largest in extent in the nation, a position it held until Chicago leapt ahead in 1889. Consolidation’s supporters believed the measure would enable municipal authorities to deal with the epidemics of riot and disease that ravaged the city in the 1830s and 1840s, while giving them the power and dignity to challenge for metropolitan supremacy. Although the bid to overtake New York as the first city failed, the 1854 act led to some impressive civic achievements. Since its passage, the city’s boundaries have barely changed, and despite charter revisions in 1887 and 1951, contemporary Philadelphia still bears the imprint of the mid nineteenth-century measure.

[caption id="attachment_5688" align="alignright" width="240"]Map of the City of Philadelphia as consolidated in 1854. (HIstorical Society of Pennsylvania) Map of the City of Philadelphia as consolidated in 1854. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Until 1854, Philadelphia’s population concentrated within William Penn’s original city boundaries, between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and from what is now South Street to Vine. By 1820, however, inhabitants in the independent boroughs, districts, and townships that made up the rest of the county already outnumbered those in the city proper. Some of these suburbs were places of significance in their own right, with Spring Garden, the Northern Liberties, and Kensington, all north of the city center, ranking as the ninth, eleventh, and twelfth biggest urban settlements in the nation in the 1850 census. These districts, in common with their neighbors, had won from the Commonwealth the right to establish their own local governments, with powers to tax, borrow, and spend, and thus remained independent of Philadelphia City’s control. While they varied in their social and political character, they tended to be poorer and more Democratic than the historic center, which they sometimes referred to as the “Whig Gibraltar.”

The first organized calls for uniting the built-up portions of the county under one municipal authority came in response to two major riots in 1844. The anti-Catholic violence, which broke out in the northern suburb of Kensington and the southern district of Southwark–both neighborhoods in which Irish immigrants and native-born Protestants lived in close proximity–exposed the inadequacy of the prevailing system of law enforcement. With no uniformed officers in the county, and every jurisdiction responsible for its own policing, there was little to prevent violence from escalating. It took state militia armed with cannon to suppress the Southwark disturbance. Soon after the riots, the Public Ledger called for annexing the built-up outlying districts, and in November, citizens gathered at the County Court House (Congress Hall) to make the case for enlarging the city boundaries.

Opposition to a New Charter

The move for a new charter over the winter of 1844-5, however, came to very little. A bill was drawn up for consideration by the Commonwealth–which then, as now, held the power to create, alter, and destroy local government–but influential owners of property and city debt like Horace Binney (1780-1875) organized to oppose the proposal. Critics feared that consolidation would hand the keys of the Whig city to suburban Democrats, and that real estate owners in the prosperous city proper would be taxed to pay the interest on loans taken out by indebted outlying districts, which needed to borrow to maintain their rapid growth. The opponents of consolidation lobbied for legislation that would maintain the districts’ independence yet still address the issue of civil disorder by requiring that all built-up portions of Philadelphia retain one policeman for every 150 taxable inhabitants.

This measure failed to prevent another major riot in 1849, which sparked renewed calls for annexation. While this time the proposal enjoyed more support from the city’s merchants, manufacturers, and professionals, it failed once again in the state capital. Instead of consolidation, Harrisburg legislators established a police force under an elected marshal to deal with disorder across the built-up sections of the metropolis. The Marshal’s Police proved relatively successful in maintaining the peace, and despite endemic fighting among rival companies of volunteer firemen and street gangs, there were no major riots from 1850 to the eventual passage of the Consolidation Act in 1854.

Calls for metropolitan union nevertheless grew louder, despite the relative calm of the early 1850s. By then, municipal reformers hoped to do more than inoculate the city against the violence of the preceding decades. Many saw the district system as unnecessarily costly, as dozens of jurisdictions duplicated services that could have been provided more efficiently by a single government. Others feared that the city proper might become “an appendage to her own colonies,” as growth in industrial districts like Spring Garden and Kensington outpaced the historic center. Some no longer saw those suburbs as a financial burden, but rather as a potential source of tax revenue, because heavy investment in the Pennsylvania Railroad after its chartering in 1846 had left the city proper far more heavily indebted than its neighbors. Real estate owners in central Philadelphia complained that suburban property holders benefited from the trade that resulted from the rail link to Pittsburgh but had contributed little in the way of public funds to the railroad’s construction.

Rivalry With New York

Perhaps most importantly, though, supporters of consolidation believed that only a united Philadelphia would have the power and status to overtake New York in the struggle for metropolitan supremacy, a race the city had languished in for at least three decades as the completion of the Erie Canal (1825) and Chestnut Street’s decline as a financial center after Andrew Jackson’s attack on the Second Bank of the United States enabled Manhattan to pull ahead. As North and South clashed over the question of slavery extension, advocates of annexation for Philadelphia readily adopted the rallying cry “In Union There Is Strength” for their own cause.

In the early 1850s both of the dominant political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, promised to back annexation, but in Harrisburg, proposals for charter revision went nowhere.  To break the impasse supporters of the measure--prodded by their erstwhile opponent Binney–decided in 1853 to nominate their own slate of candidates for the Pennsylvania Assembly and Senate. In alliance with advocates of a professional fire department, they put forward a mixture of independents and regular Whig and Democratic party nominees. At the head of the ticket was Eli Kirk Price (1797-1884), a progressive real estate attorney, while the wealthy locomotive builder Matthias W. Baldwin (1795-1866) was among the candidates for the lower house. Most of the consolidation slate triumphed, and before Price went off to take his seat in the Senate, an Executive Consolidation Committee met in Philadelphia to draft a bill.

[caption id="attachment_5698" align="alignright" width="225"]Morton McMichael (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) Morton McMichael, newspaper publisher and later mayor, chaired the Executive Consolidation Committee. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Executive Consolidation Committee that convened in the Board of Trade rooms at the Merchants’ Exchange over the winter of 1853-54 represented a cross-section of Philadelphia’s economic elite. Many owned substantial real estate beyond the historic corporate boundaries, and by proposing to annex the entire county rather than just the much smaller built-up environs of the city proper, they went much further than their predecessors. Despite murmurs of protest from rural districts, the charter passed both houses and was signed into law in February. The new metropolis, encompassing industrial suburbs, romantic rural retreats, and vast stretches of farmland, came into being four months later.

Architects of the 1854 charter saw it as a victory over the self-interested politicians of the district system and the triumph of a rational, modern government over an antiquated predecessor. Executive power was invested in a mayor elected at-large for a two-year term, and voters chose the nativist playwright Robert T. Conrad as the first to hold the office. In place of the old boundaries on the county map, meanwhile, twenty-four wards sent representatives to the Common and Select Councils. Ward representation preserved an element of localism in the councils–something party politicians quickly learned to exploit–but the financial muscle and territorial reach of the enlarged city enabled urban planning on a far greater scale than previously had been possible.

Preserving Open Spaces

The Consolidation Act resulted in other important changes for newly expanded Philadelphia. Among them, the legislation gave municipal authorities the duty to preserve open spaces, and before and after the Civil War steps were taken towards creating Fairmount Park, which lay entirely beyond the boundaries of the old city proper. Standardized street names and numbers (1857), a professionalized the fire department (1871), and a new city hall at Broad and Market Streets (1871-1901) demonstrated civic authorities’ readiness to raise the city’s metropolitan status, as did the suburban expansion fueled by horse-drawn streetcar lines and other infrastructure improvements that opened up cheap land in the consolidated city for builders. When Philadelphians in the second half of the nineteenth century contrasted their city of row homes with the tenements of New York, they credited the city’s expansion with eliminating the need for “vertical slums.”

Perhaps most importantly, though, consolidation gave the municipal government the power to maintain the peace. While violence did occasionally break out–in 1871, for instance, the African American civil rights campaigner Octavius Catto was shot dead on a turbulent election day–the mayor, with his control of a large, uniformed police force, always had the resources at his disposal to prevent the kind of conflagrations that threatened to engulf the city in 1844. Under Republican stewardship, Philadelphia avoided the draft riots that occurred in New York in 1863 and the worst of the conflict between railroads and workers in the Great Strike of 1877. Citizens credited the Consolidation Act for the relative peace in a city once notorious for disorder.     

Some of these developments, however, owed more to legislation in Harrisburg than they did to actions by the city government, and by the late 1860s, the habit of state officials overriding the municipal authorities in matters pertaining to the metropolis caused frequent complaints. So too did the tendency of councilmen to claim executive power for themselves, thus weakening the powers of the mayor’s office, which consolidators had sought to strengthen. As party bosses–usually Democratic in the immigrant enclaves of South Philadelphia, but Republican in the growing suburbs–established ward strongholds, centralized city- and state-wide Republican machines distributed jobs and contracts to supporters. After the Civil War a generation of affluent reformers began to see the 1854 act more as a giant source of patronage than a measure designed to bring peace, prosperity, and economic government. They hoped another new charter, eventually passed in 1887, would improve matters, but under Republican leadership, Philadelphians remained, in Lincoln Steffens' memorable phrase, “the most corrupt and the most contented.” This was consolidation’s unanticipated legacy, but the act’s limitations should not mask its real achievements in laying the foundations of modern Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_5664" align="aligncenter" width="575"]This map depicts the districts, boroughs, and townships consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854. (City of Philadelphia) This map depicts the districts, boroughs, and townships consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1854. (City of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Andrew Heath is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, U.K. He is currently writing a book on the Consolidation of 1854.

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