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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Philadelphia City Charter

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

William Penn (1644–1718) issued his City Charter for Philadelphia on October 25, 1701, several days before Pennsylvania’s Charter of Privileges. Creating a city council based on the English model, it greatly expanded the municipal government’s power and created positions for the mayor, recorder, aldermen, and common councilmen. The copy depicted in this photograph included notes in the margin from Penn’s Secretary, James Logan (1674–1751), who went on to become mayor of Philadelphia in 1722. The council policed its own members, with no electoral oversight. Aldermen and councilmen elected the mayor annually, with everyone else holding lifetime appointments. The mayor held executive authority, while the aldermen functioned in limited judicial capacities throughout the city.

Penn’s Charter created deficiencies that the council struggled to cope with, particularly the lack of taxation power. They relied on fines, rents, lotteries, and loans to provide basic public services, such as street maintenance and policing. To help remedy this situation, the Pennsylvania General Assembly formed popularly elected bodies within the city that held the power to tax. These bodies, which took on greater authority over the decades, made the council increasingly irrelevant among the broad population of Philadelphia. On February 17, 1776, the council held its last meeting, where they ordered the construction of a shed at Middle Ferry and considered prisoner petitions.

William Morris Meredith

Library of Congress

William M. Meredith (1799–1873) had an interest in law from an early age, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1812 at only thirteen years old. Over the next four years, he earned a master’s degree, and by 1817 gained admittance to the bar. In 1820, he had established a successful legal practice. Meredith entered the realm of politics in 1824, representing Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania General Assembly until 1828, and later becoming the president of Philadelphia’s Select Council from 1834 to 1839. Around this period, he held positions in the American Philosophical Society and on the University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees, and became the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. This 1840s photograph was taken before he became the 19th Secretary of the Treasury in March 1849 under President Zachary Taylor (1784–1850). Meredith used the power of this position to replace many Democrats around the United States with Whigs. In his later years, he argued against southern succession and became a supporter of President Abraham Lincoln’s (1809–65) policies.

William S. Stokley

Wikimedia Commons

Born in Philadelphia, William S. Stokley (1823–1902) built a successful confectionary business and entered politics through his activities with a volunteer fire company, the Franklin Hose Company. He became a member of the Common Council in 1860, serving as president from 1865 to 1867. He became president of the Select Council from 1868 to 1870. During this period, most of the city managers responsible for carrying out executive functions held their positions at the whim of councilmen. Stokley took advantage of this to build a patronage base through oversight of municipal departments. This patronage continued into his three terms as the mayor of Philadelphia from 1872 through 1881. His involvement in the construction of a new City Hall revealed the depth of his corruption. He secured the construction site at Penn Square on Broad and Market Streets, which stood within his district, and directed contracts for marble and brick to his political allies. He used this new project to solidify his relationship with rail magnates investing in the Union Line and forced the West Philadelphia Company to share its right of way along Market Street. Stokley, depicted in this posthumous 1905 lithograph, was interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia City Hall

Wikimedia Commons

By the 1830s, Pennsylvania’s legislature recognized the need for new governmental offices in Philadelphia due to the city’s rapidly expanding population but could not decide on a location. In 1871, a popular vote saw citizens select Penn Square in the city’s expanding western section over Washington Square in the old commercial center. William Stokley (1823–1902), a prominent figure within the Republican political machine dominating Philadelphia by the 1870s, championed this selection, as it fell within his district. He used this opportunity to provide patronage for his political allies, directing brick and marble contracts to them, as well as solidifying his relationship with the rail magnates investing in the Union Line.

The city chose architect John McArthur (1823–90), known for his work on the Wagner Free Institute of Science (1859) and the Public Ledger (1866), to complete the project. Over the course of thirty years, and through the expenditure of $25 million, the building slowly formed. By the time it opened in 1901, the architectural French Second Empire style had fallen out of favor. Yet, the citizens of Philadelphia came to embrace City Hall as an iconic part of the city skyline over the succeeding decades.

John F. Street

Wikimedia Commons

John F. Street (b. 1943) joined the Philadelphia City Council in 1980 as a representative of the Fifth District. By 1992, he had become the president of the City Council, and in 2000, he succeeded Ed Rendell as the 97th mayor of Philadelphia. This photograph from July 4, 2001, shows him standing alongside President George W. Bush (b. 1946) during Independence Day celebrations.

As mayor, Street sought to improve the situation for Philadelphia’s less affluent populations with projects such as his 2001 Neighborhood Transformation initiative. He had most of the city’s high-rise public housing torn down, with single-unit public housing units erected in their place. Approximately 250,000 abandoned cars headed to the scrap yard under his administration, alongside the removal of abandoned homes. The development of the Philadelphia Navy Yard remained a focus throughout his two terms, resulting in more than one-hundred-fifty businesses and twelve thousand employees entering the space. He left office in 2008 after the victory of Michael Nutter (b. 1957).

Law Office of Raymond P. Alexander

Wikimedia Commons

Born to two former slaves who migrated to Philadelphia in 1880, Raymond Pace Alexander (1897–1974) worked a variety of jobs in his youth, ranging from labor on the docks to selling newspapers. While working at the Metropolitan Opera House on Broad Street in his early teens, his employer Jack Beresin acquired a scholarship for him at Central High School. Alexander went on to graduate as the 1917 class valedictorian, receiving another scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. He became the first African American graduate from the Wharton School of Business and went on to earn a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard University. Despite his academic success and recommendation letters, several law firms rejected him. In late 1923, he established his own firm at Lombard Street in the Seventh Ward.

Within a few years, this space proved inadequate for his growing practice. Alexander relocated to the corner of Nineteenth and Chestnut Streets. This 2017 photograph shows the site of his second law office, which became a Target in 2016 . Alexander led several high-profile cases during his career, including anti-segregation lawsuits against the Chester County school districts and the Trenton Six case. His successes allowed him to become president of the National Bar Association in 1929 and a counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the 1930s. Between 1951 and 1958 he served as the first African American councilman in Philadelphia. He lived out the remainder of his life as a judge in the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia.

Related Topics

Time Periods



Related Reading

Allinson, Edward Pease, and Boies Penrose. Philadelphia: A History of Municipal Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1887.

Philadelphia Bulletin Almanac and Year Book, 1924-76.

Philadelphia’s Councilmanic Prerogative. Philadelphia: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2015.

Weigley, Russell, ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.

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