September 05: How America Began In A Tradesmen’s Hall

2016/09/05 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1774 the First Continental Congress convened.

Drawn from twelve of the thirteen British colonies (Georgia was a no-show), fifty-six men met for seven weeks to discuss how to convince George III to overturn the legislation passed by Britain in response to the Boston Tea Party.  (When their request for redress was ignored, the colonists organized the Second Continental Congress, which planned for a military defense in 1775.)

The events that transpired in Philadelphia in early September 1774 were a profound event in the long chain leading up to the Revolution.  Profound too is the place where it happened, the Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia.  Why Philly?  (Not for the whoopie pies, which were, sadly, still far away in phuture-Philly.)  Philadelphia has always been one of the most populous cities in North America, outpaced by the growth of New York only at the tail end of the eighteenth century.  Even when outnumbered in census reports, Philadelphia was a center of progress, leading the other colonies in the development of finance, culture and science; it was also close to the literal center and thus equally (in)convenient for all the representatives.

Why meet in this building, a trade hall?  In truth, the delegates had few options.  A big Anglican church like Christ Church neither was conducive to discussion nor deemed appropriate with its liturgical ties to England and a portrait of George built into its east end.  A Quaker meeting-house might have served the purpose but maybe the Quakers were not keen on getting wrapped up in an activity that was overtly political and threatened war.  The State House (now Independence Hall) was big enough (and would serve as the seat of the Second Continental Congress) but crawling with Loyalists.

Carpenters’ Hall was one of the few buildings free of these problems and open enough (literally) for such a crowd.  Designed in 1770 by Robert Smith, one of the city’s most prominent and tastiest builders, its purpose was to house meetings of tradesmen in the Carpenters’ Company, one of the strongest (and longest-lasting) latter-day guilds established in the Colonial period.  The cruciform, two-story building provided ample space, was designed for such a meeting, and because of the great skill lavished on its finishes, was certainly a suitable environment for the proto-Founders.

This meeting established a strong connection between the Revolutionary movement and Philadelphia; later its red brick architecture would become a model of Colonial design for those seeking a patriotic aesthetic.  It’s perhaps also worth noting another connection (especially given the current political season) between the roots of America’s democracy and the strength, and centrality, of its labor traditions.

Image: photo from the HABS file, sometime after 1933 (from this source)


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