Philadelphia in an Age of Consolidation
In 1880, the pioneering social scientist Robert Ellis Thompson set out to explain the patterns of political growth. The "modern city," he argued with his own Philadelphia in mind, was "meant for a people whose social life takes place under the roof of home." For Thompson, this distinguished the ancients, who had privileged civic space over private comforts, from the men and women of an industrial age. But what twentieth-century critics would come to call the "fall of public man" appeared to him as a salutary change that brought peace, prosperity, and cohesion to a fractious metropolis. His private city produced public benefits.
Even as Thompson charted the city's division into family homes, he showed how it had come together as an associated whole. Philadelphia, he insisted, illustrated the "growth of large social unities out of the union of smaller ones." Thompson was referring specifically here to Philadelphia's Consolidation Act of 1854: a measure that extended the territory of the two-square mile "city proper" across the entire county, more than doubled the metropolitan population, and made the municipality the largest by territory in the nation. Consolidation annexed two-dozen townships, boroughs, and districts to Philadelphia's metropolitan empire and marked one of the most ambitious urban reforms of the nineteenth century. But he read the 1854 charter as more than a merely municipal matter; instead, it expressed a "fact of social science." "This is the natural method of growth the whole world over," Thompson explained, for "all great communities have been formed by this consolidation of smaller but older communities." With the Civil War no doubt in mind, he reminded his audience that the "revolution" could not go backward, as the "larger unity cannot again be sundered into its component parts." The law of association applied to nations as well as cities.
Thompson wrote at the end of an age of consolidation that stretched across the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Between the 1840s and 1870s, economic development, territorial conquest, and civil war transformed a divided republic into a national state. Further afield, loose federations and geographic expressions yielded to the integrative force of nationalism. And from the American West to Qing China, colonial powers forcibly incorporated peripheries into imperial systems. Municipal consolidation seemed to illustrate the same process on a metropolitan scale. Cities from Brooklyn to Paris joined Philadelphia by extending their borders around midcentury in pursuit of order, economy, and the prestige that came with a larger population; they embarked too on what contemporaries called "practical consolidation" by forging the institutional and infrastructural bonds to hold their metropolis together. The language of nation and empire helped to naturalize urban expansion: Philadelphians even talked about the "manifest destiny" of their city. But to see consolidation at any level as the inevitable working out of a natural law was a leap too far. Thompson's "large social unities" came out of conflict as much as consensus.
This book explores battles over the metropolitan future in that age of consolidation by linking city, nation, and empire. The people who fill its pages confronted a fundamental question: How could power be brought to bear on a city in a manner that prevented growth from leading to disintegration? My story begins in the 1840s with the republic's "great cities" rolling back their own frontiers as the boundaries of the American republic leapt toward the Pacific. Philadelphia, despite falling behind New York in the race for urban supremacy, still doubled in size every twenty years, as meadows gave way to streets, factories, and homes. Boosters hoped to make it the London and Paris of the continent: a center of economic dynamism and cultural display that would profit from and proudly reflect the might of an American empire. But growth brought growing pains, as epidemics of riots, strikes, and disease ravaged its streets. Here, social strife in the antebellum city paralleled sectional struggles over slavery extension, and led citizens to wonder whether divisions would pull polities apart.
In 1880, with Philadelphia a place of relative repose amid the tumult of Gilded Age America, Thompson cast consolidation as an inevitable and beneficial process that had remade metropolis and nation. Under the consolidationist impulse, a city of mobs had become a city of homes; these United States had become the United States. But the unionism that underpinned consolidationist schemes should not be read as a straightforward adjustment to the challenges posed by a complex and interdependent society. The entangled projects of city- and nation-building were far more fraught than Thompson implied. On the urban terrain, they involved drawing boundaries that left some out as they drew others in. They forced consolidators into confronting questions about citizenship, urban design, and the organization of social and economic life. They led them to question stark divisions between public and private. And they inspired opposition from Philadelphians who feared the financial and political effects of centralizing designs. Consolidation here provides a window onto the remaking of city and nation over the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
Over the following pages, I use "consolidation" in two ways. Consolidation with a capital "C" refers to the ten-year campaign that concluded in the passage of Philadelphia's 1854 city charter. In drawing 127 square miles of streets and fields under a single government, the Consolidation Act created a territorial and financial leviathan, and provided a precedent when cities like New York looked to expand their boundaries later in the century. When used in the lowercase, in contrast, "consolidation" pertains to a broader project of boundary-drawing and community-making that often took place beyond the sphere of the state. In this respect I follow nineteenth-century usage. Citizens at the time saw consolidation as the tightening of affective or associational ties: as any process that brought individuals or communities into closer communion. The Consolidation of 1854 marked just one expression of this impulse. Building internal improvements, forging class consciousness, or soothing social and sectional tensions could all count as consolidation too.
The men who battled over municipal Consolidation in the decade leading up to 1854 were consolidators in that wider sense. Consider, for instance, two figures who appear frequently over the following chapters. Morton McMichael (1807-1879) came to the city as a young man, and as a poet impressed Edgar Allan Poe. Before long, though, McMichael sacrificed his literary ambitions for a career in politics and publishing. As county sheriff, he failed to stop two vast riots in 1844, and thereafter turned his attention to consolidating the city across its social and spatial boundaries, using his talents as a public speaker and his command of the city's leading bourgeois newspaper, the North American and United States Gazette. A Whig and Republican in national affairs, he proved more loyal to class than party at the metropolitan level, and made it his mission to ensure the city's best men worked together in preserving order, building up the city, and holding together the nation. McMichael was among the leaders of the municipal Consolidation movement and helped to found the nationalist Union League a few years later. Few figures better exemplify Thompson's consolidationist impulse.
Like McMichael, George Lippard (1822-1854) was a writer and newspaperman, who won plaudits from Poe, but his consolidationist ambitions took him in the direction of radical reform rather than civic boosterism. His 1845 novel, The Quaker City, was the best-selling work of American fiction prior to Uncle Tom's Cabin, and scandalized respectable Philadelphians with its thinly veiled caricatures of eminent citizens. Readers who dismissed the work as sensationalist drivel, though, ignored Lippard's social criticism. Influenced by Christian communitarianism, utopian socialism, and revolutions at home and abroad, the author imagined a consolidated city and federal union purged of injustice. Where McMichael looked to unite a bourgeoisie around the promise of an imperial metropolis, Lippard urged producers to combine in pursuit of social regeneration.
For all their ideological differences, McMichael and Lippard had much in common. Each came of age in an antebellum world shaped by democratic opportunity, urban and national expansion, and social and sectional divisions. In Philadelphia they witnessed these forces playing out in battles at the ballot box, struggles on workshop floors, and riots over immigration and abolitionism. Shaped by such experiences, their manifestos for consolidation searched for ways to reap the fruits of economic and technological progress without the republic falling apart. They both joined projects to reconstruct society and space, which sought to channel the energies industrialization, urbanization, and imperial growth had unleashed. For their generation, the wrenching changes of the Jacksonian era, and the uncertainties that came out of upheavals at home and abroad, made the future seem more open-ended than perhaps at any other point in the American past. Looking forward from the 1840s, rather than backward, as Thompson did, from 1880, the age of consolidation brims with possibility.
That midcentury generation has sometimes been missed by historians. Critic Lewis Mumford's indictment of the nineteenth-century industrial town, where freedom meant little more than the right to seek "unrestricted profits and private aggrandizement," might have been written with Philadelphia in mind. One of the most influential works of American urban history, Samuel Bass Warner Jr.'s Private City, depicts a midcentury metropolis Mumford might have recognized: a Philadelphia scarred by a ubiquitous "privatism," which privileged individual enrichment over public needs. In the early national era, according to Warner, the leadership of civic-minded gentlemen limited the damage this capitalist ethic could do, but by the 1850s, the old elite had begun to give way to professional politicians. These political specialists brokered competing class and cultural interests, as Philadelphia's myopic working-class and nationally oriented businessmen lacked either the capacity or inclination to intervene. Consolidation itself appears as a belated and barely adequate response to rapid growth, which only served to hasten the rise of the party boss.
Through tracing the careers of the men who fought over the terms of Philadelphia's consolidation, this book offers a different interpretation. Between that old elite and the machine politician stood a cohort who could hardly afford to retreat to the counting house. In their enduring engagement with civic life, cosmopolitan orientation that located Philadelphia in a world of "great cities," and belief in urban interdependence that stood at odds with laissez-faire, they sought an alternative to both an insular, individualistic privatism, and the late nineteenth-century bourgeois reform movement historians have termed "liberalism." That is not to say that I see virtue where previous historians saw vice. The people I write about usually expected to prosper individually and collectively from urban expansion. They were just unsure whether unbridled capitalism was the best way to do so.
The consolidation cohort's doubts about privatism sprang too from an enduring attachment to the city. In charting the making of the modern world, historians have traced the subordination of self-governing cities to expanding national states. If their narrative has been tailored to the particularities of European state formation, a similar story can be told in the United States, where the nationalizing impulses of war and railroads reoriented loyalties from metropolis to nation. After 1865, the argument goes, victorious northern elites had less attachment to their locality: amor patriae and economic centralization trumped civic loyalties. Rather than focusing on city- and nation-building as rival processes in this era, however, the following chapters argue that as political, economic, and cultural projects, they were closely connected. Although municipal consolidators never had to face a problem as vexing as slavery, they grappled with many of the same difficulties that confronted their counterparts at the national level: not least, how to incorporate territory and people; how to balance central power and local control; and how to preserve order in a divided polity. The challenge of spurring rapid growth in a manner that staved off the threat of dissolution became a burning question in both city and nation at around the same time; the Philadelphia riots of 1844, indeed, coincided with fierce debates over the extension of a slaveholders' empire into Texas. But more than mere coincidence linked consolidationist designs for civic and national union. Battles over the terms of municipal Consolidation were shaped by—and in turn shaped—citizens' relationships to the nation.
Across the midcentury decades, the city mattered as much as ever. For rich and poor Philadelphians the metropolis was a site of work and play: a place of collective consumption in which visions of social and spatial order coalesced and clashed. Those who wanted to sell the city—to maximize the exchange values of metropolitan property—often confronted defenders of an urban commons. Those who wanted to save the city—to redeem it from sin, riot, or "the crimes of Capital" —often tried to reshape the social organization of urban space in a way that would cultivate better citizens. In the designs of park advocates, boulevard builders, and land reformers, we encounter ideas of what the city might become. And over the course of the period covered in this book—a moment before the "labor question" came to dominate social thought in the North—space seemed, at least to some, to exert a determinative influence in shaping society and politics. Whether through cleansing "plague spots," laying out wide streets, or building the small homes Thompson extolled on the metropolitan frontier, Philadelphians seemed to be molding the character of a city and its people.
Even as citizens engaged in local battles, however, they looked far and wide for inspiration. As an industrial hub producing largely for domestic markets, nineteenth-century Philadelphia can appear less cosmopolitan than the eighteenth-century port that preceded it; its foremost political economists, indeed, preached a doctrine of economic nationalism over free trade. Rapid urbanization, though, had convinced many residents by the 1840s that their metropolis belonged among the "great cites" of the Atlantic World, and this sense of a shared destiny—and the new rivalries it opened up—created the "common referents" for a series of halting attempts to learn lessons from European capitals. When turning their eyes across the ocean, Philadelphians chose what they wanted to see. For a radical like Lippard, the National Workshops of the 1848 Revolution in Paris provided a model of the social republic; for a booster like McMichael, on the other hand, Baron Haussmann's debt-financed city-building seemed an intriguing experiment. But cosmopolitanism did not only find expression in debates over which elements of Old World cities might be translated to the New. Promoters hoped that the steam power, military force, and industrial might that hastened American expansion in the 1840s would open up the opportunity for their metropolis to occupy a central place in a new global order. Philadelphia, they earnestly believed, could become an imperial node between the Atlantic and Pacific. The reconstruction of the city's interior arrangements would proceed apace with the reordering of its external relations: the annihilation of municipal borders in 1854, for example, was closely tied to railroads' annihilation of space. Here the city provides a prime vantage point to understand the interplay between local battles and global designs.
As their cosmopolitan ambitions required fixating citizens' gaze on distant horizons and grand destinies, advocates of consolidation came into conflict with localism and tradition. Growth, consolidators feared, had fragmented the metropolis into dozens of tiny fiefdoms dominated by fire companies, street gangs, and ward bosses. Here, parochial needs were privileged ahead of the common good, and shortsightedness held back urban ascent. The exemplary figure was "King" William McMullen, an Irish American ward boss, who fought to defend his territory from meddling reformers. Elsewhere, especially among wealthy citizens with property and bonds to defend, consolidators encountered what was derisively referred to as "fogyism," a reluctance to take the financial and political risks required to make Philadelphia great. The attorney Horace Binney provides one of the best examples. Although he eventually embraced civic union, his conservative investments, wariness of growing state power, and reluctance to back railroad-building irritated self-styled modernizers. Politics sometimes became a matter of perspective: Could citizens see the city from a position that enabled them to comprehend its imperial future, or were their eyes trained only on immediate surroundings and personal portfolios? In boosters' telling, at least, battles over space, money, and government arrayed farsighted visionaries against myopic opponents.
It also pitted consolidators against the disintegrative tendencies of individualism. Figures like McMichael and Lippard took "association" as a guiding principle. Like its close cousin, consolidation, "association" became a keyword of midcentury American politics. The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville used it to describe the Jacksonian city's flourishing civil society: the space between the individual and the state in which civic life takes hold. But "association" had a history that Tocqueville missed. Philadelphians joined together well before 1776, and in the early national era, when wealthy Federalists were driven out of office, they turned to association to shield their power in cultural institutions and business corporations. By the 1830s, as urbanization frayed old communal bonds, associations proliferated. Although many Jacksonian-era associations crossed neighborhood boundaries, others accelerated the city's territorial balkanization, as fire companies, street gangs, and new municipal districts cut the metropolis up into dozens of jurisdictions and spheres of influence. Association here involved marking difference rather than promoting unity.
Yet by 1850, association had acquired a wider meaning—as a principle as much as a practice—that tied it closely to consolidationist projects. For utopian socialists, it captured their ideal of a cooperative social order; for political economists, it held out the promise of a "harmony of interests" between labor and capital; for supporters of civic and national union, it served as a riposte to the claims of suburban districts or states' rights. Association in this regard moved easily between the politics of class, city, and nation. Indeed, the rallying cry "In Union There Is Strength" rang out in meetings of craft unions, municipal Consolidators, and defenders of the federal compact.
Above all, association was a force multiplier: a "technology" that had the capacity to change the world through combined effort. Otherwise antagonistic advocates of association shared a suspicion of individualism. They took as their starting point the assumption that competition had to be tempered by cooperation and that citizens could achieve more by recognizing mutual interdependence than they could by denying the social character of human nature. Here the utopian community, labor union, business corporation, building society, consolidated city, and national state each became expressions of a type. Association could even be cast as a new epoch in historical development: a centripetal counterweight to the centrifugal forces of an earlier, individualistic era.
In such respects, association provides an alternative perspective on the midcentury city to that of privatism. Where the former focuses our attention on collective organization, the latter directs us to the competitive marketplace. Yet the two were not necessarily in tension. In the history of American capitalism, the self-made man is more myth than reality, and Philadelphia's economic elite, like investors before and after them, proved adept at seeking public favors to pursue private ends. Both railroad-building and municipal Consolidation—schemes sold in the lofty language of the common good—lined the pockets of the boosters who backed them. But consolidators often saw privatism as a threat to their class vision. The same economic forces that enriched them as individuals frequently undermined their collective ideas about how Philadelphia (and indeed the nation) should look and function. How to balance capitalist growth with collective needs vexed the subjects of this book. It led them to ponder the problem of power.
Morton McMichael, the so-called father of Consolidation Eli Kirk Price remembered after his death, "lifted up the city into power." Power fascinated consolidators. Although the word had rich meanings in American political thought, most would have recognized the German sociologist Max Weber's definition as the capacity to exert will over resistance. That resistance sprang from different sources. It could come from the "petty sovereignties" of fire companies, ward bosses, and suburban districts that had taken root in the age of Jacksonian Democracy. It could come from the rival cities that jostled with Philadelphia for command of seaborne commerce and western trade. And it could come too from the process of urban growth itself, which proved magnificent to behold but difficult to direct. How to control city government, capture remote markets, and manipulate the metropolitan form perplexed figures like McMichael.
Consolidators saw power as both concentrated and dispersed. "The city, as one finds it in history," Lewis Mumford wrote in 1938, "is the point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community." Philadelphians intuitively understood as much; their claims to imperial status, they realized, would stand or fall on the condition of their metropolis. Yet within its bounds, the question of who ruled whom was by no means easy to answer. Power lay in the people and their politicians, in various branches of government, in quasi-public institutions like banks and railroads, and was even encoded in urban places and processes. To ask who controlled the city in this era and focus exclusively on electoral politics, then, misunderstands the character of American governance. Consolidators did not always seek to center decision-making in one place, yet men like McMichael continually looked for ways to produce power: to concentrate the means, that is, to reconstruct their city.
Their first priority lay in seizing and shaping the local state. In this regard, the Consolidation of 1854 bore striking similarities to better-known state-building projects in the nineteenth century. Modernizing states aimed to expand their empires, build up bureaucracies, improve tax collection, provide public goods, and incorporate new ideas about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Simultaneously they sought to make an opaque social order legible through surveys, maps, and censuses. Consolidators turned to these tools in trying to transform Philadelphia's municipal regime into a powerful entity subject to their control: one capable of pursuing imperial ambitions.
Such designs required command of finance as well as government. Histories of late nineteenth-century American cities are frequently filled with battles between profligate bosses and miserly reformers, but in the midcentury metropolis, the roles were often reversed. Boosters accused parsimonious politicians of muzzling the metropolis in its fight for supremacy with urban rivals. Debt, they argued instead, had the alchemical power to transform sleepy streets into bustling avenues of commerce and culture. And if Philadelphians were to seize the opportunities opened by technologies like railroads and sewers, then capital had to be mobilized. Yet borrowing came with risks, and it proved hard to persuade some bourgeois Philadelphians of its merits when their property served as a lien on any loan. Debates over debt-financed expansion reveal concerns over the capacity to reconcile growth, democracy, and order across the period.
Citizens tried to produce power outside the channels of party politics. One of the most controversial measures I explore, the municipal financing of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1846, inspired public meetings and petition drives that eventually fed into electoral battles. Popular agitation of this type, which was common across the era, sometimes pitted businessmen against the laboring classes. McMichael and Lippard, for instance, both believed class could serve as an axis of association, and sometimes tried to organize around the common economic interests of people they labeled "capitalists" and "producers." Class formation here became a project as much as a process: a means of popular mobilization that cut across the socially heterogeneous composition of political parties. But more often than not, movements from railroad-building to municipal consolidation tried to unite Philadelphians around a common commitment to growth through grandiose (and usually debt-financed) schemes. Indeed, McMichael, perhaps more than any other figure, aimed to construct a "growth regime" that sought to justify urban expansion as beneficial to all. Lippard and his allies continually challenged the claim that growth was good.
Power sprang from cultural as well as economic mobilization. Where consolidators struggled to capture the state, they could turn to this sphere instead, shielding the cultural realm from democratic control, and using private institutions to reform behavior and reshape space. In league with evangelical reformers and secular organizations, they sought to sculpt streets, squares, and parks. If power lay in a citizen's capacity to leave an imprint on the city, though, it also lay in the city's capacity to leave its imprint on the citizen. By the 1850s, many consolidators took for granted the idea that the urban form could influence character and civilize the "barbarians" within their bounds. Here, parks, boulevards, and houses all acquired the power to determine Philadelphia's course, and had the potential, their advocates believed, to transform force into consent.
Finally, power lay in the ability to project a vision that linked past, present, and future. McMichael, Lippard, and their respective allies moved back and forth between what city and nation had once been, what they were now, and what they might yet be. Looking ahead a century, McMichael imagined Philadelphia in 1950 as the empire city of the New World, while Lippard foresaw the remains of a ruined Independence Hall being ransacked to build a royal palace. Used in such ways, history and prophecy both became political interventions. Analogies to a mythical past inspired action in the present; predictions of the future, meanwhile, called on citizens to either forestall of fulfill what was to come.
The following chapters show how, over the middle decades of the nineteenth century, citizens fought for the power to shape city and nation. My focus is more on McMichael's allies—the merchants, manufacturers, and professions who led the campaign for Consolidation—than on Lippard's producers, but because consolidation involved conflict and coalition-building, I pay close attention to radicalism too. Debates over property, design, and order entangle here as citizens battled over reconstruction.
The city Thompson lauded in 1880 was not just produced by a process of rapid urbanization or the logic of a liberal tradition of privatism. In the 1840s, as riots reminded onlookers of the French Revolution, citizens had questioned whether their republic really was exceptional. Four decades later, though, the "city of homes" appeared to offer an American alternative to the Paris Commune. In its imposing center, immense residential periphery, and skilled industrial workforce, Gilded Age Philadelphia became a symbol (rightly or wrongly) of how capitalism could work for ordinary people. In the tense climate of the Gilded Age, other cities latched onto its model. Thompson's Philadelphia, I argue, may have become an archetypal American city, but its consolidation had been inspired by surprising sources: European urban design, radical social thought, and an associational ethic at odds with individualism.
The following chapters are bookended by urban disorder: I begin in the riots and strikes of the Jacksonian era and conclude with labor conflict in the Gilded Age. Between these moments of crisis, though, a generation of consolidators linked the political organization of the city, the design of its built environment, and the shape of the nation as they struggled to reconstruct the metropolis.
The first five chapters, organized by theme, focus on the two decades before the Civil War. Chapters 1 and 2 explore how boosters and radicals tried to read the places and processes of the antebellum metropolis. Each fashioned distinct ideas about association and environment that shaped their urban vision. From there, I move in Chapter 3 to explore the making of growth politics, as citizens tried to put in place the building blocks to develop industry, railroads, and real estate: a project of urban empire-building that aimed to make the city the central place in an expanding United States. A new regime of urban capitalism left its mark on urban space, though not necessarily as boosters had envisaged. Chapter 4 therefore considers different plans for the built environment and the search for a method to set the metropolis's imperial pretensions in stone. Frustration at the failure of the city to look and behave as consolidators expected led some from the 1840s to question the merits of a broad suffrage, but as Chapter 5 contends, democratic doubts found expression more often in designs to incorporate the suburban frontier, gentrify politics through environmental reform, and strengthen "family government" in Philadelphia's homes.
The final two chapters look at the war years and after, as consolidation moved from a civic priority to a nation-building project. In alliance with the Republican Party, bourgeois citizens sought to harmonize sectional and social interests by reconstructing the center, expanding onto the rural frontier, and encouraging working-class property ownership. Philadelphia, they claimed, could be a city of boulevards and homes. Like the nation, boasted boosters, an imperial scale safeguarded republican government: the safety valve of suburbanization kept a permanent proletariat at bay. Philadelphia's consolidators here had helped to put in place the institutional foundations of a powerful defense of capitalism. Indeed, the political economy of urban growth they pioneered anticipates on a municipal scale the federally sponsored reconstruction of post-World War II American cities. In both cases, private enterprise, public power, and an ideology of class consensus spurred suburbanization and urban renewal. But like post-1945 city-building too, Chapter 7 shows, mid-nineteenth-century growth politics could divide as well as unite. Urban expansion raised rents, blighted avenues, and raised fears of spiraling taxes to meet a ballooning debt. After the Panic of 1873, these tensions threatened to pull growth politics apart. But by then, Philadelphia boasted the world's largest private corporation, the nation's most territorially extensive city, its biggest municipal park, and in its new city hall, what would become its grandest (and to some critics, its most grotesque) civic building. That urban inheritance was the product of a long-running struggle over the terms of a consolidation far less natural than Robert Ellis Thompson claimed.