A thriving metropolis that remains a small town

Philadelphia Stories: People and Their Places in Early America, by C. Dallett Hemphill

6 minute read
The book cover. Title appears above as if stamped in red ink, on a pen & ink rendering of a historical Philly street.

Plenty of people worth knowing fall through history’s cracks, and Ursinus professor C. Dallett Hemphill delighted in reintroducing them. The historian was about to publish a book on a dozen overlooked figures when she died in 2015, at just 56. Her colleagues and former students stepped in, completing Philadelphia Stories: People and Their Places in Early America.

Published in 2021 and edited by historians Rodney Hessinger of John Carroll University and Daniel K. Richter of the University of Pennsylvania, the book rekindles their memories of Hemphill at Penn’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, where she was a senior research associate. “She asked the wittiest and most insightful, but always supportive, questions,” Richter writes in the forward. “She went out of her way to encourage younger scholars, reading their work, cheering them up, and providing sage advice.”

After Hessinger, a former Hemphill student, discovered the almost-finished manuscript, he and Richter enlisted a group to ready the book for publication, Richter explained earlier this year for Penn’s Global Discovery series. Completing authors took care to maintain Hemphill’s voice and intention: to show how the figures were linked not only in time and place, but by family, professions, and organizations.

Big city, small town

“It is difficult to trace the life of any member of a random group of Philadelphians, without encountering one of the others, at church, in court, in a store, at a theater, or at a meeting…all Philadelphians lived not alone but enmeshed in groups,” Hemphill wrote.

“Even as you get into the 1850s,” Richter said of Philadelphia, “it’s a thriving metropolis but it remains a small town.” Hemphill wanted to show how larger narratives impacted individual lives, and planned for an accompanying interactive tool to let readers follow in subjects’ footsteps. Though that ambition was unrealized, excellent maps by Erin Greb and Stephanie McKellop indicate key locations.

Though well-known in their time, these people weren’t Franklins or Adamses, and tracing them required collective documents, such as newspapers, property listings, church records, and membership rolls, as well as personal materials.

The faces of religious freedom

Pennsylvania by design had no official religion, and the absence of a state church required churches to cooperatively address community needs. Philadelphia Stories profiles three men whose civic impact transcended their denominations.

Quaker Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), the most collegial of the group, worked against racial prejudice, founded schools for Black people and women, and spoke up for Native Americans. Lutheran Henry Muhlenberg (1711-1787), sent to unify Pennsylvania’s numerous German Lutherans, straddled the German-speaking and English worlds as he built the church and ministered to the sick and imprisoned. Anglican priest William White (1748-1836) managed to remain loyal to the English church and the emerging nation. He would transform Anglicanism in America into Episcopalianism, incorporating a separation between church and state.

Escaping husbands’ shadows

All Revolutionary men were equal, but their wives continued to disappear into the common law of coverture, surrendering identities and most property rights to husbands. Hemphill shows how three women adapted.

Grace Gowden Galloway (1727-1782) remained in Pennsylvania though her British husband and daughter returned to England, so determined was she that the estate she’d inherited be preserved for her daughter. Anne Shippen Livingston (1763-1841) married unhappily and left her husband, seeking a divorce and custody of her daughter, Peggy. Though neither was permitted by law, Livingston and her mother-in-law conspired to keep Peggy safe. Deborah Norris Logan loved her husband but didn’t agree with his views. Well-educated and politically astute, she expressed herself only in her diary, until as a widow, she published anonymous articles and biographical sketches. Logan became the first woman named an honorary member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Creating American identity

A trio of self-made men are profiled. Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) taught himself to paint, and his portraits constitute an album of America’s founding generation. Energetic and curious, Peale taught what seems like his entire family to paint, and opened a gallery that evolved into a natural history museum and zoo.

Banker Stephen Girard (1750-1831), prominent for 20th-century fights surrounding admission policies at the school he founded for poor white male orphans, is portrayed more sympathetically, as a provident investor and generous philanthropist investing in banks, railroads, water transport, and supporting fire companies, Black education, orphan girls, widows, and sex workers. When most Philadelphia elites fled repeated yellow fever epidemics, Girard stayed to nurse victims.

Joseph Hemphill (1770-1842), the author’s ancestor, was a lawyer, judge, and member of Congress, where he enunciated the principal of judicial review: that courts may overturn laws that violate the Constitution. That concept was echoed by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision Marbury v Madison (1803).

Fighting social barriers

Independence was more aspirational than actual for those who weren’t wealthy, white, or men, and Hemphill introduces three such people. Composer and bandleader Francis Johnson (1792-1859), the first Black American to publish sheet music, filled dance floors and concert halls. His was the first American band to tour Europe, and at home, it was in demand for society gatherings, parties to which Johnson would never be invited. Rather than confronting racism directly, Johnson coolly catered to biased expectations when it served his interests, and took initiative subversively, for example, performing public concerts that paid more and allowed him to play what he wanted.

Sarah Thorn Tyndale (1792-1859), another Hemphill relation, was left a failing business and several children when her husband died. Within four years she turned Tyndale’s into a celebrated purveyor of tableware and household items. Handing operations over to family, she pursued interests which would have qualified her for the 1960s counterculture. A Quaker, Tyndale was a pacifist and abolitionist. She founded the woman-run Rosine Society, which rehabilitated sex workers without judgment, and assisted runaways and abandoned women. She supported artists such as Walt Whitman, advocated for women’s rights with Lucretia Mott, and in 1851, explored communal living at a socialist utopian settlement in Red Bank, NJ.

William Darrah Kennedy (1814-1890) rose from a hardscrabble youth to political influence. Kennedy’s father died when he was two, and his mother ran a boardinghouse. At 11, he left school to work, but remained a sponge for knowledge. Union work helped him develop political skill. He studied law, served on the bench, and spent almost 30 years in Congress. When Kennedy’s antislavery stance drove him from the Democratic party, he helped organize Philadelphia’s Republican party.

It's fitting that Hemphill’s valedictory work, showcasing significant but somewhat obscure lives, was itself rescued from obscurity by a village of scholarly friends.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Stories: People and Their Places in Early America. By C. Dallett Hemphill, Edited by Rodney Hessinger and Daniel K. Richter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. 392 pages, hardback; $34.95. Get it here.

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