History of Philadelphia – Part 2

In Part 1, we explored the early history of Philadelphia. You can read it here. 

Over to Part 2. 

Temporary capital

As a consequence of the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, Congress fled Philadelphia, ultimately settling in New York City, designated as the temporary capital. Besides the Constitutional Convention in May 1787, United States politics was no lingering in Philadelphia. Due to political compromise, Congress chose a firm capital to be built along the Potomac River.

However, Philadelphia was chosen as the temporary United States capital for ten years starting in 1790. The United States Congress, founded in March 1789, occupied the Philadelphia County Courthouse, which became known as Congress Hall, and the Supreme Court worked at City Hall. Robert Morris granted his home at 6th and Market Street as a residence for President Washington, recognized as the President’s House.

Yellow fever 

After 1787, the city’s economy snowballed in the postwar years. Severe yellow fever outbreaks in the 1790s interrupted development. Benjamin Rush identified an outbreak in August 1793 as a yellow fever epidemic, the first in 30 years, which lasted four months. Two thousand refugees from Saint-Domingue had newly arrived in the city in flight from the Haitian Revolution. They outlined five percent of the city’s total population. They likely brought the disease from the island where it was endemic, and mosquito bites quickly spread it to other residents. Fear of contracting the disease caused 20,000 residents to flee the city by mid-September, and some neighboring towns forbade their entry. Trade virtually stopped; Baltimore and New York quarantined people and assets from Philadelphia.

People feared to enter the city or interacting with its residents. The fever finally decreased at the end of October with the onset of colder weather and was announced at an end by mid-November. The death toll was 4,000 to 5,000, in a population of 50,000. Yellow fever outbreaks recurred in Philadelphia and other major ports through the nineteenth century, but none had as many fatalities as 1793. The 1798 epidemic in Philadelphia also provoked an exodus; likely 1,292 residents died.


Pennsylvania, which had prohibited slavery in 1780, required any slaves brought to the city to be freed after six months’ residency. The state law was challenged by French colonial emigrants from Saint-Domingue, who brought slaves with them but defended by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Through 1796, 500 slaves from Saint-Domingue gained freedom in the city. Because of the violence following the revolution on the island, Philadelphians, many of whom had southern ties and citizens of the Upper South, worried that free people of color would encourage slave revolts in the U.S.

During the city’s ten years as the federal capital, Congress members were exempt from the abolition law, but the many slaveholders in the executive and judicial branches were not. President Washington, vice-President Jefferson, and others brought slaves as domestic servants and evaded the law by continually shifting their slaves out of the city before the 6-month deadline. Two of Washington’s slaves escaped from the President’s House, and he gradually replaced his slaves with German immigrants who were indentured servants. The remains of the President’s House were found during excavation for a new Liberty Bell Center, leading to archeological work in 2007. In 2010, a memorial on the site opened to commemorate Washington’s slaves and African Americans in Philadelphia and U.S. history and mark the house site.

Philadelphia in Civil War

During the American Civil War, Philadelphia was an essential source of troops, money, weapons, medical care, and supplies for the Union.

Before the Civil War, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s economic relationships with the South made much of the city sympathetic to South’s grievances with the North. Once the American Civil War began in 1861, Philadelphia’s southern leanings were reduced. Widespread hostility shifted against southern sympathizers. Mobs threatened a secessionist newspaper and the homes of suspected sympathizers and were only turned away by the police and Mayor Alexander Henry. Philadelphia supported the war with soldiers, ammunition, and warships, and its businesses produced many army uniforms. Philadelphia was also a primary receiving place of the wounded, with more than 157,000 soldiers and sailors treated within the city. Philadelphia began planning for an invasion in 1863, but Union forces at Gettysburg repelled the Confederate Army.

Late 19th century

In the years following the Civil War, Philadelphia’s population continued to grow. The population grew from 565,529 in 1860 to 674,022 in 1870. By 1876, the city’s population stood at 817,000. The dense population areas were growing north and south along the Delaware River and moving westward across the Schuylkill River. A large portion of the growth came from immigrants, still mostly Irish and German. In 1870, twenty-seven percent of Philadelphia’s population was born outside the United States.

Great Depression and World War II

In the three years after the stock market collapsed in 1929, 50 Philadelphia banks closed. Of those, only two were large, Albert M. Greenfield’s Bankers Trust Company and the Franklin Trust Company. Savings and loan associations also faced trouble, with mortgages of 19,000 properties being foreclosed in 1932 alone. By 1934, 1,600 of 3,400 savings and loan associations had shut down. From 1929 to 1933, regional manufacturing fell by 45 percent; factory payrolls fell by 60 percent; retail sales fell by 40 percent. The worst-hit of all was construction, where payments dropped 84 percent. Unemployment peaked in 1933 when 11.5 percent of whites, 16.2 percent of African Americans, and 19.1 percent of foreign-born whites were out of work. Mayor J. Hampton Moore blamed people’s economic woes, not on the worldwide Great Depression, but laziness and wastefulness, and claimed there was no starvation in the city. Soon after, he fired 3,500 city workers, instituted pay cuts, forced unpaid vacation, and reduced the number of contracts the city awarded. This saved Philadelphia millions of dollars, and the efforts kept the city from defaulting on its debts but were unpopular among the unemployed. The town relied on state money to fund relief efforts. Moore’s successor S. Davis Wilson instituted numerous programs financed by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, despite condemning the plan during his mayoral campaign. At the peak of WPA-financed jobs in 1936, 40,000 Philadelphians were employed under the program.

The start of World War II in Europe and the threat of the U.S. becoming involved created new jobs in defense-related industries. After the U.S. became involved in the war in 1941, the city mobilized. Philadelphia consistently met war bond quotas, and when the war ended in 1945, 183,850 residents were in the U.S. armed forces. With so many men serving in the military, there had been a labor shortage; businesses and industries hired women and workers from outside the city. In 1944, the Philadelphia Transportation Company promoted African Americans to positions as motormen and conductors on public vehicles. Resentful, other PTC workers protested and began a strike that nearly immobilized the city. President Roosevelt sent troops to replace the striking workers. After a federal ultimatum, the workers returned after six days.

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