William Penn's goal when he founded Philadelphia in 1682 was to create a "greene Country Towne," a vision of utopia in the new world, partially in reaction to a congested London where he had lived through the bubonic plague and great fire in the 1660s. Originally 1200 acres, Philadelphia was to be surrounded by 80 "gentlemen" farms and would be a city that "will never be burnt, and always be wholesome." It was among the first planned cities, based on Penn's original drawing of a street plan that remains virtually unchanged: a symmetrically-organized rectangle with a large central park (now City Hall Plaza), bounded by the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers.
Rounding out this utopian vision was the goal that the city embrace people of all faiths; indeed, he named Philadelphia the "City of Brotherly Love." It was partially this visionary foundation, as well as its strategic coastal location, that established Philadelphia as the ad-hoc capital of the American colonies, attracting people from many nations and creeds. By the 1750s, Philadelphia had become a worldwide mecca of culture, the arts, trade, and philosophy, and was fomenting what would be the greatest political movement of the century.
Along the way, it also became known as the "City of Firsts," as it established a flurry of institutions and organizations that were the first in America: the first public grammar school, the first life insurance company, and the first botanical garden by 1717. This string of "firsts" was augmented quickly after the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1723. Franklin seeded the fledgling city with many more of the ideas and institutions that would make it great: America's first hospital, first public library, first fire insurance company, and first fire company, enhancing the meaning of another moniker for the city, the "City of Firsts." He helped found the College of Philadelphia (the precursor to the University of Pennsylvania) and the American Philosophical Society.
After some decades of what might be called benign neglect, in the mid 1760s, Britain's King George III launched a litany of laws to curtail and tax the colonies' trade, imported goods, and to prohibit colonial currency, including the onerous Stamp Act, Townshend Act, and Tea Act, followed by the Coercive Acts that closed Boston's port. The increasingly indignant and angry colonial citizens finally convened the First Continental Congress in September 1774 at Carpenters' Hall (now part of Independence Park). This meeting was followed swiftly by the Battle of Concord in Massachusetts, and the Revolution had begun. In April 1775, the Second Continental Congress was held again in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania State House, where George Washington was selected as commander of the American forces, and where the Declaration of Independence would be signed a year later on July 4, 1776.
During the war, Philadelphia played a pivotal role from its strategic location as a center of commerce and manufacturing, but by 1777 it was occupied by the British and the colonial forces had retreated to Valley Forge. Nonetheless, four years later the war was over and independence was won, although the real work of creating a democratic nation was just beginning.
The Constitutional Convention was held in May 1787 again at the Pennsylvania State House, where George Washington was elected president of the conference, and the outcome would be the Constitution, completed in a mere four months and signed two days later. The luminaries who gathered in Philadelphia during that time to craft this document upon which centuries of law would depend included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.
Philadelphia was the capital of the new country until 1800 but long remained the most powerful city in the nation. It was not only the largest city in the U.S. but also the center of finance, and one of the busiest ports.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia became a manufacturing center with paper-related, leather, shoe, and boot industries, and coal and iron mines. Immigrants streamed into the city by the thousands, and by the mid-1850s, the city was so crowded with working poor that disease and filth were rampant, along with growing anti-immigrant sentiment, including violence against a growing anti-slavery movement. The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1833, and the Underground used the city as a major way station before the Civil War.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Philadelphia was torn between its sympathy for the South and the need for war, but ended up supporting the war with soldiers and goods.
After the war, Philadelphia continued to attract immigrants, spreading along the Delaware River and across the Schuylkill River, and was initially composed of Irish and Germans, followed by Italians, Poles, and East European Jews, as well as African Americans. On the political front, the city was dominated by the Republican Party of that time, which was successful in electing corrupt officials who controlled the city for several decades. By the early 20th Century, Philadelphia was known more for its corruption and poor quality of life than anything else, but with the advent of World War I, it retooled its factories and mills and contributed greatly to the war effort.
The years between War Wars I and II were punctuated by the influenza epidemic of 1917 when 12,000 people died, but also by the modernization of the city, including a new subway system, bridges, and the construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Once the Depression began, however, Philadelphia was hit hard with bank closings, unemployment, and the gradual growth of unions to protect workers' rights. The advent of World War II in Europe and eventually in the U.S. helped the country out of the Depression, and Philadelphia was no different, as new jobs appeared in defense-related industries.
After the war, Philadelphia's troubles of government corruption and general dilapidation came back in full force, along with economic woes caused by the flight or closure of companies that no longer had the war to sustain them. Many families and businesses moved out of the city into the suburbs, a common dilemma for all America's great cities. The next few decades until the 1990s were turbulent while the city fought bankruptcy and corruption, as well as increasing racially-motivated violence.
In 1992, Ed Rendell was elected as mayor followed by John Street in 2000, and both have been instrumental in rebuilding the city, bringing in tourists, strengthening the urban core, and attracting dynamic new growth and residents. Rendell managed to turn a budget deficit into a surplus during the boom years of the late 1990s, expanding city services and renovating much of the city center, including the construction of the new Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Avenue of the Arts, and the expansion and beautification of the Delaware waterfront. Street expanded on this effort, driving the construction of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the new sports arenas, and the refurbishment of several historical institutions.
The Philadelphia of today has regained its luster and its vibrancy, and is again a thriving city, and worthy of its history as the birthplace of the nation.