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Eighteenth Century Philadelphia

A Philadelphian called 18th century America the best poor man's country in the world. It was, provided you were white and male. In 1723, Benjamin Franklin left his brother's printing business in Boston, at age seventeen, and arrived in Philadelphia, broke and with his pockets stuffed with dirty laundry. Franklin's rags-to-riches story is a study in tenacity.

But luck sure had a part in it. He had landed in Philadelphia, a city of exploding opportunity. The place and the person were ideally matched. Blessed with a splendid harbor and ringed by fertile land, Philadelphia had recently become the commercial capital of British America.

Almost on his own, Franklin would soon make it the cultural capital, as well. Philadelphia was built on land that had been given by the crown to William Penn, the son of a British admiral and a devout Quaker. Penn launched Pennsylvania as a holy experiment, a refuge for persecuted people everywhere.

This is the theme of Edward Hicks' painting, "Peaceable Kingdom." Here, the Garden of Eden is restored, and the wolf dwells with the lamb. While across the Delaware River, William Penn and his band of Quakers, in their broad-brimmed hats, conclude their treaty with the Indians.

[Picture of inhabitants of Philadelphia]

Pennsylvania's tolerant policies, its abundant land, and its amazingly fair and peaceful relations with the Indians made it the immigrant center of early America, a place of tremendous ethnic and religious diversity.

This diversity was seen, even then, as distinctly American. Traveling through Philadelphia in 1744, a Swedish botanist encountered, in a tavern, what he described as a "very mixed company of different nations and religions." In addition to "Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish," he reported "there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Seventh-Day men, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew. " From Philadelphia, these immigrants spread out over the land and set up prosperous farms, raising wheat, corn, hemp and flax, but mostly wheat. Pennsylvania became the breadbasket of the American colonies.

Other immigrants settled in the city and went into the trades. Tradesmen, or artisans, established their homes directly above their one-man shops on the thickly built blocks that led out from Philadelphia's crowded harbor. The harbor was the merchant's domain.

As in Boston, aggressive businessmen, most of them English Quakers, turned what had been planned as a religious utopia into a capitalist powerhouse. Trade operated here as it did in New York City, the middle colonies' other great port. Merchants took the agricultural offerings of farms and shipped them to other colonies, to England, and from England to the wider world.

Britain's Navigation Acts mandated that most of this trade be channeled through the ports of the mother country. But in compensation, the colonies received English manufactured goods.

Colonial merchants then sold these, along with rum, wine, and sugar, to farmers in the expanding hinterlands of the coastal ports.

These merchants were an urban elite: rich, powerful, and socially influential. And they were the Northerners who depended most heavily on slaves, as well as indentured servants. Indentured servants continued to pour into the middle colonies largely in family groups. With slaves and property-less city and rural workers, they told the rest of society where the bottom was.

[Picture of a farmer's family]

In between the rich and the poor were property owning farmers and artisans. Farmers made up over 90% of the American middle class, and most free white men lived long enough to buy or inherit at least 50 acres of land, which qualified them to vote. In proportion to population, America had the largest middle class in the world. But prosperity and abundant opportunity should not be confused with an even distribution of wealth.

The Political Climate

In all colonies, the rich owned an overwhelming proportion of the taxable wealth. And everywhere, political power followed money. Although between 50 and 75% of adult free males could vote in most colonies, they usually returned the rich and influential to seats in the increasingly assertive colonial assemblies. The colonists saw these assemblies as New World Parliaments.

The assemblies controlled the power to tax and acted as a check on Royal Governors, just as Parliament back in England acted as a check on the King's power. This was an elite dominated political economy. But its distinctively American characteristic was the general prosperity of farmers and shopkeepers and their high level of political participation. This, at a time when only about 15% of adult males could vote in England.

America was also, as opposed to England, a society of independent moneymakers: shopkeeper, merchants, and farmers who sold cash crops for export. At no other time in our history were we more a nation of entrepreneurs. And at no other time in world history, up to this point, did the great bulk of the population of a country enjoy a higher standard of living.

The key to it all is this: In Europe, land was scarce and expensive; labor was cheap and available. In America, land was cheap and available; labor was scare and expensive. This explains slavery in the South, as well as economic democracy in the North.

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