Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Hillary S. Kativa

Aeronautics and Aerospace Industry

From the aeronauts of the early republic to the jets, missiles, and rockets of the Cold War era, the growth and development of the aeronautical and aerospace industry in the Philadelphia region has exemplified a gradual shift from amateur pursuits to a more formalized industry and infrastructure. Across several centuries, the city and surrounding suburbs emerged as a hub of experimentation and innovation driven by the interests of prominent Philadelphians, by a favorable geographic locale, and by increasing interaction between industry and government, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century.

[caption id="attachment_34923" align="alignright" width="198"]Photograph of the first public demonstration of a hot air balloon flight by the Montgolfier brothers in Annonay, France. This 1909 watercolor postcard depicts the first public demonstration of a hot air balloon by Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier in Annonay, France on June 4, 1783. (Science History Institute)[/caption]

Beginning in the eighteenth century, early explorations in flight primarily followed two distinct avenues: hot-air balloons developed by brothers Joseph-Michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-Étienne (1745-99) Montgolfier in Paris and hydrogen-inflated balloons tested by the Montgolfiers’ contemporary and fellow Frenchman Jacques Alexander Caesar Charles (1746-1823). Serving as ambassador to France from 1778 to 1785, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) witnessed and reported on such experiments to associates and friends in Philadelphia, stoking American interest in aeronautical flight.

As Philadelphia, then serving as the national capital, emerged as a focal point for ballooning in the new republic, early aeronautical endeavors in the city had mixed success. On May 10, 1784, Dr. John Foulke (1757-96) successfully recorded the first balloon flight in America, a small, unmanned paper test balloon released from the courtyard of the Dutch minister’s residence. Following Foulke’s demonstration, Maryland innkeeper and lawyer Peter Carnes’ (1749-94) ascension in a tethered hot-air balloon at the city prison yard on July 17, 1784, failed spectacularly when a gust of wind knocked Carnes from the balloon before it caught fire and fell to earth. A decade later, the exploits of European balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard (1753-1809) renewed Philadelphians’ interest in aeronautics; on January 9, 1793, citizens paid $2 to $5 per ticket to witness Blanchard’s ascent from the Walnut Street Prison yard at Sixth and Walnut Streets, a spectacle sponsored and attended by President George Washington (1732-99).

Ballooning Set the Stage

[caption id="attachment_34921" align="alignright" width="144"]Photograph of Arthur T. Atherholt, President of the Aero Club of Pennsylvania. The Aero Club of Pennsylvania sponsored exhibition flights and air meets at the Point Breeze racetrack and Philadelphia Navy Yard. This photograph depicts Arthur T. Atherholt, the first president of the Aero Club, during an international race in 1907. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While public enthusiasm for ballooning waxed and waned throughout the nineteenth century, early aeronautics nonetheless fostered a public receptiveness to flying that increased as inventors turned their attentions to the problem of heavier-than-air flight. At the dawn of the twentieth century, interest in fixed-wing aircraft and other flying machines drew together a mix of scientists, engineers, part-time researchers, and enthusiasts to form a growing aeronautical community in the Philadelphia region. Notable among these individuals was George A. Spratt (1870-1934), a medical student from Coatesville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, who channeled his scientific training into the study of aerodynamics and participated in the Wright brothers’ gliding experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in the summer of 1901. Following the Wright brothers’ success in 1903, airplanes, like balloons a century earlier, gripped the public imagination and developed initially as a form of entertainment. Between 1908 and 1915, the Point Breeze racetrack and the Philadelphia Naval Yard at League Island became popular destinations for exhibition flights and air meets sponsored by the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, which formed in December 1909 from the merger of the Aero Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Aviation Society. In addition to exhibition flights, races between airplanes were also a popular attraction; locally, department store chain Gimbel Bros. (Gimbels) sponsored a 1911 contest from New York to Philadelphia that concluded at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park.

While the Aero Club of Pennsylvania, as well as aero clubs at local colleges and universities including the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford, and Swarthmore, brought a degree of organization to amateur aviation, American involvement in World War I served as a catalyst for the emergence of a true aeronautical industry in Philadelphia and the nation. As the War Department increasingly recognized the airplane’s potential for scouting, observation, and tactical support of ground troops, ambitious goals of producing 22,625 airplanes and 4,500 aircraft engines led to the construction of government-owned and operated facilities like the Naval Air Station Lakehurst (New Jersey) and the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Established in 1917, the Naval Aircraft Factory quickly became a critical hub for the manufacture of flying boats, seaplanes, motors, and other accessories; by war’s end, the facility boasted over one million square feet of floor space and employed more than 3,600 workers. The region’s contributions to the war effort also included the manufacture of component parts by Philadelphia-based firms like G.E.M. Manufacturing, which specialized in aerial cameras, and the J.G. Brill Company, which produced rough cylinder motor liners at its trolley and rail car plant at Sixty-Second Street and Woodland Avenue, as well as the training of aviators and support personnel at the Essington Aviation Station located on the former site of the Lazaretto quarantine station.

Military Influence Persists

[caption id="attachment_34922" align="alignright" width="257"]Charles A Lindbergh standing next to his monoplane, the Spirit of Saint Louis. Charles Augustus Lindbergh standing before his custom-built monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis on May 31, 1927. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Following the war, the symbiotic relationship between government and the nascent aviation industry remained critical, as military needs continued to influence industrial production and priorities, particularly in Philadelphia. Most significantly, the Naval Aircraft Factory scaled back its workforce to approximately twelve hundred workers and, throughout the 1920s, shifted focus from the production of aircraft to research and development of experimental designs. Initially, private industry followed suit and increasingly focused on the engineering and testing of materials and component parts until federal legislation expanding airmail service contracts for private carriers spurred demand for new and more efficient aircraft. Among others, aviation enthusiast Harold F. Pitcairn (1897-1960) capitalized on the 1925 Kelly Air Mail Act to establish a manufacturing facility for light utility aircraft at his Bryn Athyn airfield under the auspices of Pitcairn Aviation, the passenger service and flying school based in Willow Grove. Renewed demand for military and civil aircraft similarly spurred companies like the Huff-Daland Aero Corporation of Ogdensburg, New York, to establish a new headquarters and production plant along the Delaware River in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Notably, the arrival of Huff-Daland in 1926 coincided with the opening of Philadelphia’s first municipal airport, a 111-acre facility located in the Eastwick section of the city, while public interest in the 1927 transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh (1902-74) and his subsequent tour, which included stops in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, likewise spurred a boom in commercial airport construction, including the William Penn Airport on Roosevelt Boulevard and the Philadelphia Aircraft Company’s airfield on Easton Pike near Doylestown.

Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s strategic location along primary east-west and north-south arteries significantly spurred the development and growth of aeronautical infrastructure and industry in the city and surrounding region. Nonetheless, aircraft manufacturing and airfield construction contracted sharply during the Great Depression, as companies once again redirected their focus from aircraft manufacturing to component parts. Amidst this shift, the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia distinguished itself for its innovative use of stainless-steel and a pioneering shot-welding fabrication process used to produce aircraft materials that were stronger and more resistant to corrosion. Similarly, the production of engines, rotary wings, and propellers by companies like Fleetwings Inc. of Bristol and Jacobs Aircraft Engine Company of Pottstown helped to sustain the local aviation industry until demand for new aircraft rebounded in the lead-up to World War II. As the nation mobilized for war, the Naval Aircraft Factory once again stepped up production to meet rising demand and expanded into a wealth of experimental, highly classified projects on pilotless aircraft and guided weapons systems that underscored an ever-growing emphasis on research and development. This shift solidified further in 1943, when the Naval Aircraft Factory was renamed the Naval Air Material Center and the facility’s primary duties divided into two units: the Naval Aircraft Modification Unit, which focused on the conversion of service aircraft and special weapons work, and the Naval Air Experimental Station, which conducted laboratory and materials testing. Technological research and innovation similarly dominated wartime work at the Philadelphia-based Steam Division of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which engineered and produced the first operational American turbojet for the U.S. Navy in March 1943. 

Cold War and Beyond

[caption id="attachment_34925" align="alignright" width="245"]Photograph of airship fabric display at the Naval Air Material Center. Chemist Eleanor Vadala and Dr. Earl Hayes from the United States Defense Department examine an airship fabric display produced by the Naval Air Material Center in this 1959 photograph. (Science History Institute)[/caption]

Across the state of Pennsylvania, employment in the aircraft, engines, and parts industries peaked at approximately 45,000 workers in July 1944; from there, employment and production statistics steadily declined into the postwar period, as industries struggled with the effects of demobilization and a market over-saturated with readily available used aircraft. In response, the Naval Air Material Center doubled-down on the research and development of specialty parts and materials, including advanced catapult systems, rocket-powered ejection seats, and improved arresting gear. Similarly, in 1947, the navy’s aircraft plant in Johnsville (Warminster), Bucks County, was converted into the Naval Air Development Station and embarked upon research in aviation electronics, medicine, and unmanned aircraft. Over the next decade, the two facilities evolved further, increasingly focusing on missile and spacecraft technologies and effectively positioning themselves at the forefront of Philadelphia’s burgeoning aerospace industry.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a number of private corporations across the region  joined in these endeavors, including the Boeing Vertol facility in Ridley Park, which specialized in helicopter and rotary wing aircraft; the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) facility in Camden, New Jersey, which developed guided missile and checkout equipment; and General Electric’s Missile and Space Vehicle Department based in Philadelphia, which in 1957 received the company’s first Air Force contract to develop a reentry vehicle for intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In April 1960, General Electric broke ground on a new Space Technology Center in Valley Forge, which became the hub for the company’s Space Division and its work on a range of missile and satellite projects for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Despite the growth of private industry in the postwar period, the aerospace industry in Philadelphia arguably reached its apex in Johnsville, which in 1959 became headquarters of the Naval Air Research and Development Activities Command. In this capacity, the facility oversaw the Naval Air Engineering Center’s work on pressure suits used by Project Mercury astronauts, as well as jet and rocket engine research and centrifuge testing to measure the effects of G-force on humans. Several Gemini and Apollo program personnel and astronauts, including John Glenn (1921-2016) and Neil Armstrong (1930-2012), trained at the facility, as well as a number of X-15 space plane pilots.

True to the aerospace industry’s increasing dependence on government contracts and projects, cuts in military spending and the consolidation of facilities toward the end of the Cold War hastened the industry’s decline in the Philadelphia region in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1986, General Electric acquired the RCA Corporation and subsequently sold its entire aerospace division, including the Camden facility, to the Maryland-based Martin Marietta Corporation (later renamed Lockheed Martin) in April 1993. Similarly, the Naval Air Research and Development Activities Command in Johnsville closed in 1996 and many of its buildings were subsequently demolished in 2001, a symbolic end to the long history of the aeronautical and aerospace industry in the Philadelphia region.

Hillary S. Kativa is the Chief Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. In addition to an MLIS from Rutgers University, she holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University and received her B.A. in history and English from Dickinson College. Her research interests include American political history and presidential campaigns, public history, and material culture.

Capital of the United States (Selection of Philadelphia)

As the national capital from 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was the seat of the federal government for a short but crucial time in the new nation’s history. How and why Congress selected Philadelphia as the temporary Unites States capital reflects the essential debates of the era, particularly the balance of power between North and South. These debates, as well as the creation of new national institutions and the rise of political parties, defined Philadelphia’s decade as the capital city and created an enduring connection to the early national period.            

Philadelphia’s selection in 1790 as the temporary national capital followed the drafting of the new federal Constitution, which authorized Congress to enact legislation for the establishment of a permanent seat of government. After departing Philadelphia in 1783, Congress convened in cities as varied Princeton, New Jersey; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore, Maryland, before settling in New York in 1785. As a candidate for the permanent capital, Philadelphia’s size, wealth, and central location weighed in its favor, yet congressmen from both New England and the Southern states considered

[caption id="attachment_14593" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Congress Hall For ten years, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate met in Congress Hall, Sixth and Chestnut Streets. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philadelphia too urban, as well as hot and prone to outbreaks of disease. By and large, sectional conflicts and whether or not the capital should be a commercial city animated the debate and guided Congress’ efforts to find a location “consistent with convenience to the navigation of the Atlantic Ocean, and having due regard to the particular situation of the Western Country.”

Western Contenders

Indeed, the perceived need to secure the ever-expanding western frontier against foreign foes and indigenous independence movements keenly influenced the location of the permanent federal capital. Whereas in 1783 all proposed sites hugged tidewater or lay slightly inland, by 1787 most contenders were farther west, including Lancaster; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; and Fredericksburg, Virginia, as well as a tract of land on the Potomac jointly offered by Maryland and Virginia. Western expansion similarly informed the contest between North and South to secure the capital, as each region adopted a different geographic calculus to advance its case. While Northern advocates focused on current population centers, placing the city east of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River, Southern promoters emphasized future growth and the implicit and unstated elevation of the agrarian, slave-based economy from minority to majority status. Notably, both sides assumed a natural alliance between Southern and Western political interests, a crucial consideration given the capital’s potential to enhance the power and leverage of the region in which it was located.

By 1790, two dozen sites, located on or near the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, the Susquehanna, the Chesapeake, and the Potomac, had been proposed publicly as candidates for the capital city. The Philadelphia region figured prominently in several proposals, which alternately incorporated portions of Southwark, Northern Liberties, Byberry, and Germantown. Several prominent Philadelphians, including Tench Coxe (1755-1824), Robert Morris (1734-1806), and Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), lobbied on the city’s behalf, with Morris going so far as to offer his mansion on High Street as the presidential residence. For their part, Philadelphia’s citizens flooded Congress with petitions and the City Council pledged money for both remodeled federal housing and public buildings, including a new city hall and a courthouse built on the same square as the existing Pennsylvania State House.

Ultimately, the issue of assumption, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s (1757-1804) plan for the federal government to assume the states’ war debts, determined the capital’s permanent location. Facing resistance from states like Virginia that had already resolved their debts, Hamilton wedded the questions of assumption and the federal capital together in hopes of striking a political bargain that advanced his cause. While Robert Morris negotiated with Hamilton to establish the capital in Germantown or at the Falls of the Delaware, a deal never came to fruition. Instead, wary of Virginia’s opposition to the assumption plan, Hamilton struck a deal with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) that provided enough Northern votes for a federal capital on the Potomac. In exchange for the Pennsylvania delegation’s support, Coxe and Morris negotiated a plan to relocate the capital from New York to Philadelphia for ten years. The final compromise, the Residence Act of 1790, passed both houses of Congress in July 1790.

Skepticism Over a Capital on the Potomac

[caption id="attachment_14530" align="alignright" width="300"]image of exterior of first bank of the united states The Bank of the United States (later called the First Bank of the United States) was created and approved by Congress in 1791 after fierce debate, as a way to help the financial posture of the early government and carry the federal debt. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As New Yorkers decried the loss of the capital, Philadelphians embraced the city’s status as the temporary capital and hoped that, once the federal government settled in Philadelphia, inertia would keep it there permanently. While the Potomac seemed best situated to strengthen and preserve the connection between the North, South, and West, many were skeptical that a new capital constructed out of so-called “wilderness” was preferable to the nation’s largest city. As one Baltimore newspaper argued, the “idea of fixing their Residence in the Woods, can only be agreeable to a Congress of hermits.” A Connecticut humorist similarly proposed a constitutional amendment banning Congress from establishing itself “in an Indian wigwam …[or] in the howling wilderness.” Nonetheless, under the leadership of President George Washington (1732-99), plans for a Potomac capital continued apace as Congress reconvened in Philadelphia.

In December 1790, Philadelphia stretched approximately nine blocks north and south along the Delaware River. Per the first federal census, the population of the city and its adjacent districts was 42,520 inhabitants. While the United States Supreme Court occupied City Hall, the House of Representatives and Senate convened in what became known as Congress Hall, a Philadelphia County courthouse recently erected just west of the State House. Over the ensuing decade, these walls bore witness to several key events in the nation’s formative period, including the ratification of the Bill of Rights and Jay’s Treaty, President John Adams’ inauguration, and the passage of both the federal Fugitive Slave Act and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress also passed legislation to establish the First Bank of the United States, the U.S. Mint, and the federal tariff, thereby enacting Secretary Hamilton’s plan to create the nation’s first financial center and spur maritime commerce and commercial growth.

As the federal capital, Philadelphia boasted a diverse population that included foreign dignitaries, representatives of many Indian peoples, and a significant free black community, all of whom animated its political culture and enhanced the city’s reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in the new republic. The concentration of government activity around Sixth and Chestnut Streets notably afforded constituents easy, daily access to their representatives and increased Philadelphians’ political participation to levels unmatched over the next century. Between 1790 and 1800, Philadelphia’s elections were watched for signs of national political developments, most critically Federalists’ declining support and the rise of a two-party system. The growth of partisan politics was likewise evident in the city’s print culture, especially newspapers like the Aurora and Gazette of the United States that increasingly aligned with either the Federalist or Jeffersonian factions. As the federal government prepared to depart Philadelphia in 1800, change was on the horizon for both the nation and the city, whose loss of the federal capital arguably marked the end of its role as the preeminent American metropolis. Nonetheless, the legacy of Philadelphia’s tenure as the national capital endures in the national institutions that first took root in Philadelphia and whose physical presence provides a boon for historical tourism and a trademark of civic identity.

 Hillary S. Kativa received her B.A. in History and English from Dickinson College (2005) and her M.A. in History from Villanova University (2008). Her research interests include American political history and presidential campaigns, public history, and digital humanities.

Constitution Commemorations

[caption id="attachment_4420" align="aligncenter" width="575"] Celebrating personal history as well as the bicentennial anniversary of the Constitution in 1987, Americans of Italian Heritage march on Chestnut Street. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As a cause for commemoration, the signing of the U.S. Constitution historically has struggled to compete with the Declaration of Independence for national recognition and ardor.  In contrast to the dramatic act of independence, the framing of the national government is a more sober and complex narrative not easily celebrated with barbecues and fireworks. In Philadelphia, the site of the Constitutional Convention, commemoration of the document’s major anniversaries also has been complex and has reflected how regard for the Constitution and its connections to the city have evolved over time.

For Philadelphia and the nation, the Constitution’s major anniversaries often occurred in times of conflict that notably inspired and informed the celebrations. While the Golden Jubilee in 1837 passed largely unobserved, September 17, the date on which the Convention signed the Constitution, was recognized occasionally throughout the early 1800s. Such commemorations often served political purposes; in the 1850s, for example, Philadelphia’s Democratic Party staged commemorations as a counterpoint to the anti-immigrant nativist politicians who dominated city government. Similar tributes also cropped up during the strife of the Civil War. 

In contrast to these limited observances, the Constitution’s 100th anniversary in 1887 was treated as an opportunity to demonstrate national progress in a three-day spectacle reminiscent of the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition. A lack of Congressional interest and funding effectively ceded responsibility for the festivities to Philadelphia, which organizers styled the “Mecca of America,” much to the chagrin of rival cities such as New York. In an era of rising immigration and agitation from groups including laborers, suffragettes, and African Americans, proclamations of national unity and reverence for the storied Revolutionary past dominated the proceedings, which began on September 15 with a Civic and Industrial Procession on Broad Street. The procession featured 21,029 representatives from the city’s trade and commercial organizations, as well as 2,106 musicians and 497 massive floats depicting key moments in American history. A military parade, the largest in the nation’s history, followed the next day and celebrations concluded on September 17 at Independence Square. Attended by President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908), the ceremonies included a Marine band led by John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) and speeches that venerated Constitutional principles while overlooking any conflict regarding the document’s drafting and ratification. 

[caption id="attachment_4419" align="alignright" width="199"]A parade of progress in 1887 including the Carlisle Indian School (depicted in the background). A parade of progress in 1887 included the Carlisle Indian School (in the background is City Hall, then under construction). (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]


Centennial Draws 500,000 Visitors

Approximately 500,000 visitors and one million local residents observed the Centennial proceedings, which emphasized mass participation even though the contributions of African Americans, women, and ethnic groups were largely scripted or overlooked. Despite resistance from black and tribal leaders, participation by both African Americans and American Indians was limited to a series of “object-lessons” that celebrated progress towards the Anglo-Saxon ideal. The Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which removed Indian youth from reservations and sought to assimilate them into American society, was a centerpiece of the Civic and Industrial Procession, and a series of floats glorified the African American journey from slavery to emancipation. In both instances, organizers downplayed social conflict and stressed national harmony and unity, themes echoed in the Sesquicentennial celebrations fifty years later. 

Amidst the tumult of the Great Depression, anxiety about the strength and endurance of national principles colored the Constitution’s 150th anniversary, and the festivities captured a prevailing nostalgia for early American traditions and culture. Compared to the Centennial, the 1937 commemoration was a more national affair that, in the wake of the New Deal, reflected the federal government’s activist role in national life. Under the leadership of Congressman Sol Bloom (1870-1949), the U.S. Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission gave scant attention to Philadelphia, choosing to highlight the Constitution’s history and meaning rather than the place it was crafted. Centered in Washington, D.C., festivities were to begin on September 17, 1937, with commemorations of key dates and events following throughout the country until April 30, 1939, the anniversary of President Washington’s inauguration.

To the Commission’s dismay, Philadelphia disregarded the national plan and began its festivities on May 14, the date the Constitutional Convention convened in the city. The proceedings commenced at Independence Hall, where teachers gathered dressed as the fifty-five delegates and Mayor S. Davis Wilson (1881-1939) struck the Liberty Bell thirteen times with a wooden gavel made from a tree at Valley Forge. Over the next four months, local interest and pride in Philadelphia’s Constitutional legacy was evident in festivities staged throughout the city, including a Mummers parade on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and a water carnival on the Schuylkill featuring speedboat races, fireworks, and a floating reenactment of the signing of the Constitution. The Pennsylvania Constitution Commemoration Committee also organized school programs and essay contests that stressed Independence Hall’s connection to the Constitution, a bond reinforced by ceremonies held there on June 20, 1938, to mark Pennsylvania’s ratification of the document.

Building Toward Bicentennial

Like the Sesquicentennial, the Constitution’s Bicentennial anniversary in 1987 was also a nationwide, ongoing celebration in which Philadelphia’s festivities were one among many.  Once again, a lack of national planning and funding plagued the proceedings, which nonetheless featured a calendar of observances that built momentum to the Bicentennial itself.  In Philadelphia, the coordinating committee “We the People-200” identified key themes for programming, including the Constitution’s evolution, Philadelphia’s legacy as the first national city, and the growth of the nation.  Through exhibitions, tours, and historic dramas, organizers sought to underscore how historic sites like Independence Hall and the Second Bank of the United States created an enduring connection between Philadelphia and Constitutional history. 

Philadelphia’s Bicentennial celebrations officially commenced on Memorial Day weekend 1987 with a festival of events titled “All Roads Lead to Philadelphia.”  At Independence Hall, descendants of the Constitution’s signers greeted representatives from the original thirteen states and attendees included Vice President George H.W. Bush (1924-2018), Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907-1995), and Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey (1932-2000).  Commemorations continued throughout the summer, and on September 17 President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) addressed the nation from Independence Hall following a re-enactment of the 1788 Grand Federal Procession celebrating ratification.  The parade, which marched to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also included a 40-foot float modeled after a parchment scroll.  A massive public picnic and fireworks at Penn’s Landing concluded the day’s events.

In comparison to earlier anniversaries, the Bicentennial celebrations placed greater emphasis on the Constitution’s evolution, including the progress of African Americans and women. In Philadelphia, however, the Constitutional Convention remained at the forefront, allowing the city to briefly reclaim its mantle as the preeminent American city. The Constitution Heritage Act of 1988 likewise affirmed the city’s Constitutional legacy, authorizing creation of a National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The Center, which broke ground at 525 Arch Street on September 17, 2000, and opened to the public on July 4, 2003, aspires to increase public understanding of the history and ideas of the Constitution, a purpose that likewise pervaded each commemoration of the Constitution’s major anniversaries.

Hillary S. Kativa received her B.A. in History and English from Dickinson College ’05 and her M.A. in History from Villanova University ’08.  Her research interests include American political history and presidential campaigns, public history, and digital humanities.

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