First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory

First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory

First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory

First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory

Synopsis

With its rich foundation stories, Philadelphia may be the most important city in America's collective memory. By the middle of the eighteenth century William Penn's "greene countrie town" was, after London, the largest city in the British Empire. The two most important documents in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were drafted and signed in Philadelphia. The city served off and on as the official capital of the young country until 1800, and was also the site of the first American university, hospital, medical college, bank, paper mill, zoo, sugar refinery, public school, and government mint.

In First City, acclaimed historian Gary B. Nash examines the complex process of memory making in this most historic of American cities. Though history is necessarily written from the evidence we have of the past, as Nash shows, rarely is that evidence preserved without intent, nor is it equally representative. Full of surprising anecdotes, First City reveals how Philadelphians--from members of elite cultural institutions, such as historical societies and museums, to relatively anonymous groups, such as women, racial and religious minorities, and laboring people--have participated in the very partisan activity of transmitting historical memory from one generation to the next.

Excerpt

“Truth is shaped strictly by the needs of those who wish to receive it.”

— Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter (1996)

“Men of literary tastes … are always apt to overlook the working classes and to
confine the records they make of their own time, in great degree, to the habits and
fortunes of their own associates…. This has made it nearly impossible to discern
the very real influence their character and condition has had on the fortune and
fate of the nation.”

— Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1859)

As many Americans know, the two most important documents in the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787, were drafted and signed at the State House in Philadelphia, now Independence Hall. The city was also the site of the first American paper mill, hospital, medical college, subscription library, street lighting, scientific and intellectual society, bank, and government mint. The city served on and off as the official capital of the country until 1800. Today, we remember less about the significance of Philadelphia to the history of the nation than the record shows. But even the memories lodged in the public mind cannot be taken for granted, and they are far from complete. Indeed, the Philadelphia story could have been written another way; in fact, it has been rewritten many times. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the unearthing of Philadelphia’s past is a thriving business. Today, the long look backward by historians is renovating the public recollection of the city’s past.

Remembering Philadelphia’s bygone days existed from the beginning, as soon as a mother told her children a story about olden times or a father reminded his offspring of his arrival in Penn’s woods. But for a long time the city’s history was passed only informally from one generation to another. No biography of Philadelphia’s founder appeared for almost a century after his death. No city history appeared until Philadelphia was on the verge of celebrating its 150th birthday. Not until Jefferson and Madison had retired from their presidencies did Philadelphians witness the advent of calculated, organized memory-making.

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