Philadelphia history: Early American literature

In the year 1800, the gateway to a century of almost magical national development, the population of the free States was 2,684,616, of the slave States 2,621,316, making a total of 5,305,932. Philadelphia was the chief city of the country. It had been the national capital during the Revolution, though it fell for a time into possession of the British army. Here the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederaton, and the Federal Constitution had been framed and signed. Here the Federal Congress met and Washington held his Republican court. Here were the American Philosophical Society, which had grown out of Franklin's Junto; the Philadelphia Library, mother of all institutions of that kind; and the University of Pennsylvania, likewise the outgrowth of Franklin's matchless genius for public enterprise.

The first American monthly magazine had been issued here by Franklin in 1741. After the establishment of peace in 1783, other magazines were issued, the principal being the American Museum. The city, therefore, was the literary centre of the new nation, though the political capital was in 1800 removed to Washington. Foreigners of distinction still resorted to Philadelphia, whither they came to visit or to settle in the New World. It boasted itself to be the American Athens. Noah Webster was a pioneer of note. As a student of Yale he played the fife as one of Washington's escort. He produced his Compendious Dictionary in 1805. The state of the literary profession may be judged by this epigram by Joseph Dennie, "the American Addison:" "To study with a view to becoming an author by profession in America is a prospect of no less flattering promise than to publish among the Esquimaux an essay on delicacy of taste or to found an academy of sciences in Lapland." Among the earlier writers whose names survive are those of Trumbull, the satirist; Joel Barlow, William Dunlap, Philip Freneau; Joseph Hopkinson, writer of "Hail, Columbia!" and Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner." Charles Brockden Brown came later, and may be regarded as America's first professional man of letters and writer of romance.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)