Capital of the United States Era


Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, served as the nation’s capital for one decade in the 1790s. It was a decade of nation-building in many ways, from the drama of politics to the creation of a national culture. The U.S. Congress, meeting in the County Court House (Congress Hall), passed the Naturalization Acts, a Fugitive Slave Act, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. With so many of the young nation’s prominent citizens present, Philadelphia became a magnet for artists who arrived to paint portraits of politicians and other notables. The city also became a capital of African American community-building with the rise of leaders such as Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and James Forten.

The first U.S. Census found the city of Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs of Southwark and the Northern Liberties to be the most populous urban center in the new nation. Philadelphia’s fortunes — and misfortunes — extended beyond its boundaries. The city’s commercial ties extended to interior Pennsylvania with the construction of the Lancaster Turnpike in 1793-95. And when yellow fever hit in 1793, Philadelphians with the means to do so fled to the countryside of Grays Ferry, Germantown, and South Jersey.

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Related Reading

Bowling, Kenneth R. and Donald R. Kennon, eds. Neither Separate Nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000.

Branson, Susan. These Fiery Frenchified Dames: Women and Political Culture in Early National Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Brigham, David R. Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale’s Museum and Its Audience. Washington: Smithsonian University Press, 1995.

Davis, Allen F. and Mark H. Haller, eds. The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973.

Finger, Simon. The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Hutchins, Catherine E. Shaping a National Culture: The Philadelphia Experience, 1750-1800. Winterthur: Henry F. DuPont Winterthur Library and Museum, 1994.

Meranze, Michael. Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Powell, J.M. Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.

Remer, Rosalind. Printers and Men of Capital: Philadelphia Book Publishers in the New Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Rilling, Donna J. Making Houses, Crafting Capitalism: Builders in Philadelphia, 1790-1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Willson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980.

Smith, Billy G. Life in Early Philadelphia: Documents from the Revolutionary and Early National Periods. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1995.

—–. The “Lower Sort”: Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750-1800. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Winch, Julie. Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Wright, Robert E. The First Wall Street: Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, & the Birth of American Finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy