The Federal Procession of 1788
Talk Delivered to the Quarterly Meeting of The Carpenters' Company, July 20, 1987
by John C. Van Horne, Librarian, Library Company of Philadelphia
I was delighted to have been asked to speak to you this evening about "The Meaning of the Grand Federal Edifice and Procession" because this is the year of the Constitution, as we're now almost too well aware, and because the Library Company and The Carpenters' Company share a common link to the historic events of the summer of 1787, which I'll get to in a moment. But our two institutions share much more than a link to the Grand Convention — we have histories that were closely intertwined for almost twenty years-and before I turn to the topic of the evening I want to briefly describe the nature of that long connection.
It began in the summer of 17-72, when The Carpenters' Company offered space on the second floor of its newly built Carpenters' Hall to the Library Company. The Library was at the time in the west wing of the State House, but had outgrown its quarters and needed additional space not only for its books, but also for its "philosophical apparatus" (or scientific instruments) and its cabinet of curiosities The Library Company directors accepted the offer, and when negotiations were completed, it was agreed that the Library Company would rent the entire second floor of Carpenters' Hall for £36 per year. The move took place in August 1773, and from that time until the fall of 1790, the Carpenters" Company and the Library Company occupied the same building.
I understand that you are contemplating restoring the Library's quarters on the second floor, and I commend you for that effort. Such a restoration would be, I think, equally as significant as the replication of the facade of our 1790 Library Hall by the American Philosophical Society when the Society's own library building went up thirty years ago on Fifth Street. I must warn you, though, that you won't be able to bring back to Carpenters' Hall all the books that once lined the shelves upstairs — they're the heart of the Library Company's collection! In any case, our directors' minutes shed much light on what the rooms were like and should be a prime source for the restoration. For instance, the minutes record that wire lattices were installed in frames in front of the books; that Gabriel Valois was engaged to carve and gild two roses for the ceiling above two chandeliers for £7.10; that the books were kept in the east room and the philosophical apparatus in the west room; that the windows were fitted with inside shutters; that the room was heated by an open fire; and that the furnishings included a dozen Windsor chairs made by Joseph Henzey for £9.
The years of our occupancy of Carpenters' Hall witnessed some momentous times. The First Continental Congress convened in Carpenters' Hall in September 1774 and its delegates relied upon the Library Company as their book resource. During the Revolution, the building served as a hospital for both British and American troops. Many meetings of the Library Company's directors had to be postponed for lack of a quorum, and the Library's hours were severely curtailed. The presence of combustible materials on the lower floor caused alarm among the Library Company's directors and members, who decided to investigate the possibility of moving to other, presumably safer, quarters.
As I read over the minutes, I was struck by another curious thing, which on reflection is really not all that remarkable: those chaotic years were marked by a high turnover of Librarians. From the appointment of Charles Cist in May 1773 to the appointment of Zachariah Poulson in February 1785, there were seven Librarians (Poulson then served until 1805). Of those seven, the man who served the longest was a Frenchman named Francis Daymon (Librarian, April 1774 to June 1777). Daymon was a witness (indeed he acted as a sort of mid-wife) to one of the most important events ever to have taken place in this building. He was translator at a December 1775 meeting between Franklin and John Jay, who comprised the Committee of Secret Correspondence of the Continental Congress, and Achard de Bonvouloir, the secret agent of the French court. That historic meeting, and Bonvouloir's subsequent report to French foreign minister Vergennes, contributed mightily to the French decision to join the war on the American side and turn the tide against Britain.
Your own Charles Peterson has long held that Daymon was hired by Franklin so that he would be in place for just such a contingency. It's an intriguing theory — I might even say an intriguing conspiracy theory — but I just can't corroborate it. The minutes say virtually nothing about Daymon or why he was hired. And when he was hired, Franklin was in England, and his surviving correspondence for that period fails to mention Daymon. Perhaps it was just fortuitous that this obscure Frenchman — librarian, French instructor, translator, merchant, and privateer — was on the scene to earn himself a place in history.
1787 was another important year for the Library Company and The Carpenters' Company. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in the state House, the Library Company directors offered them the use of the collection, following the precedent set in 1774. This privilege was acknowledged by the Convention in a vote of thanks to the Library Company, and the delegates repaired to Carpenters' Hall to consult the 5,000 volumes in our collection — the largest collection in the country of the works of political theory, history, law, and statecraft that we now know were influential in shaping the thinking of the Founders. Our current Bicentennial Exhibition, "The Delegates' Library," displays sixty of the very books that were available to the delegates here at Carpenters' Hall and are still on our shelves today, works by such important thinkers as John Locke, William Blackstone, Adam Smith, Daniel Defoe, Baron de Montesquieu, and Thomas Paine.
Lest you think that all the activities of the Library Company were of a serious or scholarly nature during its occupancy of Carpenters' Hall, consider that bound in with our directors' minutes is a letter from librarian Zachariah Poulson to director William Parke of 19 November 1788. Parke was a member of the committee to prepare a new catalogue of the Library Company's collection. Poulson wrote that the committee had met two days previously, but "only left as much of the Catalogues as will engage them till seven o'clock this evening. As they mean to devote the remainder of the evening to oysters and social converse, they earnestly wish the punctual attendance of all of the Members of the Committee" at six!
The Library Company's stay in Carpenters' Hall ended in 1790, when the collection was removed to our newly-constructed Library Hall on Fifth Street. The departure was made inevitable by the growth of the collection and the members' desire to avoid the danger of fire posed by the joint occupancy of a building. So a relationship that had lasted almost twenty years came to an end, but in the intervening two hundred years there have been many other occasions, such as tonight's, when that association can be recalled and strengthened.
And now on to a consideration of the Grand Federal Procession.
Following the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, the document was submitted to the states for their approval. The final article of the Constitution stipulated that "the ratification of the conventions of nine states shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same." The implication, of course, was that any state that did not ratify would become an independent state or nation, outside the bounds of the Government of the United States under the Constitution
One by one the states began to ratify, as the arguments of the Federalists and the enthusiasm of the Constitution's supporters steadily overcame the objections of the Antifederalists, those principled men whom a recent historian has labeled "Men of Little Faith."
But faith in the future of the nation, faith in the people, great and small, who comprised the nation, is what the Constitution was all about. Delaware was the first to ratify, on December 7, 1787, not three months after receiving the document. Pennsylvania followed on December 12, and New Jersey on December 19. The new year brought Georgia on January 2, Connecticut on January 9, Massachusetts on February 6, Maryland on April 28, and South Carolina on May 23. That made eight, with only one more state needed.
Three states — New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York — had scheduled Conventions to meet in June, and though Antifederalist sentiment was strong in each, it was assumed that soon at least one would ratify, giving life to the Constitution. Francis Hopkinson, poet, judge, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and my predecessor as Librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, hoped to make the most of this fortuitous timing by planning a huge celebration for July 4, 1788. New Hampshire cooperated with Hopkinson by ratifying on June 21, followed closely by Virginia on June 25. That made ten states, one more than the nine required to call the Constitution into effect. Hopkinson's party could go on, but it had to be prepared on very short notice.
Ceremonies and parades in each state had already marked each successive ratification since the previous December, but they were mostly modest and sedate affairs. Hopkinson was thinking big, and he planned to put on the largest civic event the nation had ever seen. What came to be called the Grand Federal Procession, of which the Grand Federal Edifice was literally as well as figuratively the centerpiece, started to take shape.
In the incredibly short space of four or five days, everything came together. Benjamin Franklin Bache, as head of the printers, published a broadside detailing the order of the procession. Musician Alexander Reinagle quickly composed a Federal Grand March. Charles Willson Peale, the artist who loved to entertain the public, had just returned from Maryland in the last days of June. He was soon as busy as Hopkinson, laying out the route of the parade, providing flags of all of America's allies, suggesting costumes, banners, and mottos for the participating groups, and, of course, working on the Grand Federal Edifice. And the representatives of Philadelphia's trades and professions prepared their own entries in the parade.
The procession began at Third and South Streets, 5,000 strong, at 9:30 a.m. The assembled multitude marched north to Callowhill, west to Fourth, south to Market, and finally west to Union Green at Bush Hill, the estate of William Hamilton beyond Twelfth and Market. The parade route was about three miles long, but the marchers stretched out over a mile and a half! The evening before the Procession, the city's street commissioners had seen that along the route the streets were swept, the trees trimmed, and all obstacles removed. The day went more flawlessly than Hopkinson and Peale might have dared hope. Clouds blocked out the hot July sun, and a cooling breeze blew all day. In the evening the sky was illuminated by a beautiful Aurora Borealis. And on top of that, the utmost order prevailed. There was not one accident, not one quarrel. Providence certainly shined on that day.
The procession included literally a cast of thousands — military units; artillery; officers of the court of admiralty; representatives of America's allies, including Mr. J.H.C. Heineken, consul from the Netherlands; wardens of the port; collectors of customs; officers of the land office and of Congress; justices of Philadelphia's courts; wardens and constables; men of the bar; clergymen; members of the college of Physicians and of the Agricultural Society and of the Manufacturing Society; merchants and traders; ship carpenters and boat builders and students of the University.
And then there were the men (and no doubt more than a few women) from the Trades and Professions. We tend to think of our own age as one of specialization, and to romanticize and envy those who lived two centuries ago as somehow more well-rounded, or better able to do more for themselves because so many goods, services, and foods were not available commercially. But the Grand Federal Procession reminds us that Philadelphia's economy was remarkably diverse, and that there was a great deal of specialization. The listing of the 44 Trades and Professions that marched in the procession should be read so that we can understand the cohesiveness and pride that must have attached to each of these skilled groups:
Cordwainers; coach-painters, cabinet and chair makers; brick makers; painters; porters; watch makers; fringe and ribbon weavers; bricklayers; tailors; instrument makers, turners, and windsor-chair makers; carvers and gilders; coopers; plane makers; whip manufacturers; blacksmiths, whitesmiths nailsmiths, and bell hangers; coach makers; potters; hatters; wheelwrights; tin-plate workers; skinners, breeches makers, and glovers; tallow chandlers; butchers; printers, stationers, and bookbinders; saddlers; stone cutters; bakers; gunsmiths; coppersmiths; goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers; distillers; tobacconists; brass founders; stocking manufacturers; curriers; druggists; upholsterers; sugar refiners; brewers; peruke makers and barbers; ship chandlers; engravers; and plasterers.
The grand Federal Edifice, at the heart of the Procession, was loaded with allegories and symbols, with which you're all no doubt more familiar than I am. But I think it would be appropriate if I read the detailed description of the Edifice written by Hopkinson himself and published in the magazine American Museum:
"The new roof, or grand federal edifice, on a carriage drawn by ten white horses; the dome supported by thirteen Corinthian columns, raised on pedestals proper to that order; the frieze decorated with thirteen stars; ten of the columns complete, and three left unfinished: on the pedestals of the columns were inscribed, in ornamented cyphers, the initials of the thirteen American states. On the top of the dome, a handsome cupola surmounted by a figure of Plenty, bearing her cornucopia, and other emblems of her character. The dimensions of this building were as follow: ten feet diameter, eleven feet to the top of the cornice, the dome four feet high, the cupola five feet high, the figure of Plenty, three feet six inches; the carriage on which it was mounted, three feet high; the whole thirty-six feet in height. Found the pedestal of the edifice were these words, 'in union the fabric stands firm.' This elegant building was begun and finished in the short space of four days, by Mr. William Williams and Co." Hopkinson continued,
"On the floor of the grand edifice, were placed ten chairs for the accommodation of ten gentlemen. These gentlemen sat as representatives of the citizens at large, to whom the federal constitution was committed previous to the ratification. When the grand edifice arrived safe at Union Green, these gentlemen gave up their seats to the representatives of the states, who entered the temple, and hung their flags on the Corinthian columns to which they respectively belonged." Behind the Edifice marched 450 architects and house carpenters (your own predecessors), and attached to them were the sawmakers and file cutters. What a stunning sight it must have been!
As I studied contemporary accounts of the Procession, it occurred to me that it translated the Constitution into visible symbols. It made palpable to all present, whether the 5,000 marching or the untold thousands watching, certain facets of the new republican form of government that distinguished it from all other governments on earth. The Procession truly made evident the revolutionary nature of the new national Constitution, and that is its importance for us today. Most obviously, the presence of so many artisans and tradesmen among the various dignitaries testifies vividly to the democratic spirit of the Revolution and the republican system instituted by the Constitution. The great physician Dr. Benjamin Rush described this well in a letter written immediately after the Procession. "It was very remarkable, that every countenance wore an air of dignity as well as pleasure. Every tradesman's boy in the procession seemed to consider himself as a principal in the business. Rank for a while forgot all its claims, and Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures, together with the learned and mechanical professions, seemed to acknowledge, by their harmony and respect for each other, that they were all necessary to each other, and all useful in cultivated society. These circumstances distinguished this Procession from the processions in Europe, which are commonly instituted in honor of single persons. The military alone partake of the splendor of such exhibitions. Farmers and Tradesmen are either deemed unworthy of such connections, or are introduced like horses or buildings, only to add to the strength or length of the procession. Such is the difference between the effects of a republican and monarchial government upon the minds of men!" And now from that general observation to the specific, I can give you several instances of correlations between the Procession and the Constitution:
Take the blacksmiths' float, which included a working forge on which swords were literally beaten into plowshares. This graphically illustrated the fact that the U.S. was a nation whose intentions toward other nations were benign and that was a society based on law and consent rather than the force of might and coercion. The Preamble to the Constitution addressed these feelings, for our charter of government was established to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense, and local militias composed of citizen-soldiers, rather than a large standing army of professional soldiers, were considered the only proper means of accomplishing those objects.
Or take the house, ship, and sign painters, who held aloft a banner proclaiming that "Virtue alone is true nobility." A noble sentiment, you might think, but it is more than that, for Article 1, section 9, paragraph 8, stipulates that "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States" and also prohibits any one holding federal office from accepting any "employment, office, or title, or any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state." Thus virtue was not just true nobility, as the painters declared — in the new United States it was the only nobility to be had!
The goldsmiths silversmiths, and jewelers displayed a flag depicting the genius of America holding in her hand a silver urn, with the motto, "The purity, brightness, and solidity of this metal are emblematical of that liberty which we expect from the new constitution." This same flag also had an allegory of the Constitution, for America's head was surrounded by 13 stars of varying brightness depending on whether the state represented by each star had yet ratified the Constitution. And there was a fourteenth star, "of equal luster with the first ten (which had already ratified), just emerging from the horizon, near one half seen, for the rising state of Kentucky."
The Constitution authorized (4:3:1) Congress to admit new states into the union, and it was understood by all that new states would join the union on an equal footing with the original states. Indeed the stars of the new states did shine as brightly as the stars of the original states. This was an important aspect of the new American system, an unprecedented arrangement whereby inhabitants of newly settled areas were not treated any differently than those who happened to live in the older states. Perhaps more than anything else, this fact encouraged Americans to move ever westward, eventually conquering a continent.
The bricklayers carried a flag with the motto "Both buildings and rulers are the works of our hands," acknowledging that the people are truly sovereign in the form of government established by the Constitution, with officeholders answerable to the electorate.
As for religion, the Constitution went beyond mere tolerance of all denominations to a system of true equality. There was to be no establishment, no state church (although this did not become explicit until the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791), and the sixth Article, third Section stated that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." The Procession brought this new reality to the popular consciousness. Hopkinson reported that "the clergy of the different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, walk(ed) arm in arm," "united in charity and brotherly love." Of course, the dietary laws of the Jews prevented a total mingling. In the Library Company's collections is a letter from Naphtali Phillips written 80 years after the event. Phillips, who had just celebrated his 95th birthday, recalled the first Procession vividly. He noted that at the end "there was a number of long tables loaded with all kinds of provisions with a separate table for the Jews who could not partake of the meats from the other tables, but they had a full supply of soused salmon bread and crackers, almonds, raisins, etc."
In any event, the Procession made visible the new equality among all of America's religions.
The Grand Federal Procession, with the Grand Federal Edifice at its center, thus made manifest some of the more unique aspects of the very innovative American Constitution. It celebrated not only a document, but what that document would mean for the daily lives of all Philadelphians. And it did that remarkably well, by all accounts. The Procession was an event unlike any other in the annals of the city, or indeed of the nation. I hope, with you, that this September 17th will be as remarkable in its way as the Fourth of July 1788 was. I know that your Grand Federal Edifice will be as central to this year's Procession as its 199-year-old prototype.
Now I'll say "thank you" and sit down, but my use of those two words signifies more than just thanks for your invitation and your polite attention. I mean thank you for giving so generously of your time and efforts to help Philadelphia make the most of 1987. Just as I am proud to be a successor at the Library Company of Francis Hopkinson, who conceived the idea of the Procession, so, too, you should be proud to be the successors of those Philadelphians who made Hopkinson's dream a reality.