Philadelphia: History & Facts

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  • 0:00 Founding & Early History
  • 1:03 In the American Revolution
  • 2:17 1800s to Present
  • 3:33 Culture, Architecture…
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Andrew Peterson

Andrew has a PhD and masters degree in world history.

One could argue that Philadelphia was the single most important city in early American history. Not only was Philadelphia a key center of the American Revolution but it also served as the capital of the United States of America for a brief time.

Founding of Philadelphia and Early History

William Penn, an English colonist and Quaker, founded Philadelphia in 1682. The city of Philadelphia was established as part of William Penn's larger American colony that eventually came to be called Pennsylvania. King Charles II of England granted William Penn the land to found his own colony in order to settle debts he owed the Penn family.

Penn used his new lands in America as a means to escape religious persecution in England. Moreover, Penn had plans to found a peaceful and prosperous society in the New World, a society built around the Quaker faith. Philadelphia (meaning 'The City of Brotherly Love') was intended to be an ideal city of harmony and peace. There were to be wide streets with an even mixture of urban buildings and farms. Additionally, there was to be a democratic government and peaceful treaties with the neighboring Native Americans.

But Philadelphia was not all about peace and religion, the city was also intended to be a prosperous trade center. Sitting at the junction of two major rivers, The Delaware River and the Schuylkill River, Philadelphia quickly grew in its role as a trading hub and center of commerce.

Philadelphia in the American Revolution

By the mid to late 1700s, the city of Philadelphia had become the leading commercial and cultural center of colonial American life. Philadelphia boasted the busiest ports and the largest population of the American colonies. More importantly, Philadelphia became a center of revolutionary thought and activity.

During the Revolutionary War, which ran from 1775-1783, Philadelphia became a meeting place for the nation's founding fathers, including one of the city's most famous residents, Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia hosted the Continental Congress, a meeting wherein representatives of the original thirteen colonies debated how to win independence from England and form a new nation, in 1787. Most famously, the second meeting of the continental congress passed Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Following the Declaration of Independence, the thirteen American colonies, including Pennsylvania, entered into open war with England. After the American victory over England, Philadelphia was seen as the natural site to be the capital of the United States of America, so from 1790-1800 Philadelphia served as the capitol of the newly created United States. Both presidents George Washington and John Adams served their terms in the city.

The Growth of Philadelphia: 1800s to Present

Over time, the importance of Philadelphia was displaced as other cities and urban centers throughout the eastern United States grew and developed. By the mid 1800s, cites like New York, Boston, and Baltimore had grown to rival and even surpass Philadelphia in terms of population.

Later, following decades of Western expansion in the 1800s and 1900s, cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco became major population centers and commercial powerhouses in their own right. Nevertheless, despite the rise of these other urban areas, Philadelphia has ranked in the top five largest cities in the U.S. for its entire history.

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