On February 2, 1854, the City of Philadelphia grew in an instant from the “greene Countrie towne” of Penn’s original Charter to roughly its modern boundaries, expanding from just over 2 square miles to nearly 130, and quadrupling in population to over a half million people—briefly bringing it into contention with New York for largest city in the country. The consolidation enabled the large scale public works projects that modernized the city, and forged a single identity for Philadelphians from Eastwick to Somerton, and all the neighborhoods between. Philadelphia has a lot of birthdays, but perhaps none, since Penn signed the Charter, have been more important to shaping the course of our city, than that day, one hundred sixty years ago.
The push for consolidation was driven by an explosion of population in the districts, boroughs and townships ringing the original City. In 1830, over 80,000 people lived between Vine and South, while another 110,000 lived in the remainder of the County.
By 1850, the population of the County had more than doubled, to nearly 410,000. Newcomers were looking farther afield, gravitating to new centers of industry springing up in the Northern Liberties and Kensington, to the docks of Southwark and the mills of Manayunk, while 120,000 residents crammed into the City proper (compared to around 60,000 today). New workers were increasingly immigrants. While Irish and German workers accounted for only 10% of the workforce in 1836, by 1850, nearly 40% of wage earners hailed from those two countries.
In the two decades prior to consolidation, the center of population had shifted decisively, with more Philadelphians living in neighborhoods north of Vine, than in the City itself. There was a dawning realization at the august Philadelphia Club, that the City was becoming—gasp—“an appendage to her own colonies.”
These colonies were unruly places, growing faster than the fist of law and order could clench around them. As late as the 1840s, the City had a night watch but no proper police force. Outside the City, a mishmash of elected constables and part-time forces kept order. A Sheriff, with jurisdiction over the whole County, was forced to assemble a volunteer posse when he needed backup.
Criminals exploited municipal boundaries and the lack of coordination between districts, committing their crimes in one, and quickly fleeing to the next where a constable giving chase had no authority to follow. Street brawls and “outrages” on innocents were constant. Particularly after 1837, when an economic panic caused a nationwide depression, the working class districts to the north and south of the City faced a virtual epidemic of violence and disorder, frequently perpetrated by youth gangs organized according to neighborhood and religion.
While the police were ineffective at controlling outrages between individuals, they were even less successful in preventing collective violence. Labor riots, election riots, race riots, abolition riots and railroad riots all threatened the fabric of society in the first half of the 1800s. These increased in intensity, as the population and diversity of the County grew, culminating in a series of riots which made national news, and called into question the very rule of law in the City and her surrounding colonies.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1844, “Bible Riots” erupted in Kensington and Southwark, pitting “native” Protestants against newly arrived Irish Catholics who were competing for jobs. Tensions had been kindled when the Bishop of the Catholic diocese requested that Catholic students in the Protestant dominated public school system be allowed to read a Roman Catholic translation of the bible. Nativists seized on this seemingly reasonable request to spread rumors that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from the schools.
Ethnic tensions came to a head in May, when a nativist rally held near the Nanny Goat Market at American and Master—a predominantly Irish section of Kensington—turned violent. A running street battle set off five days of riots, the burning of numerous Catholic Churches and private homes and at least fourteen deaths before enough State militia could be called out to put down the riot.
Violence erupted again in July, as nativist provocateurs organized a parade for Independence Day. Over four days following the holiday, mobs of thousands repeatedly attacked the Church of St. Philip Neri at Second and Queen, at one point bringing in cannons from the nearby docks to fire on the church. State militiamen again had to be called in, doing fierce battle with the nativists which resulted in another fifteen deaths, and scores more injured.
The riots rattled the City, but while there were immediate calls for consolidation, Philadelphia’s political class had a lot to lose from any change to the status quo. Whig politicians in the historic City—sometimes referred to as the Whig Gibraltar—feared losing power to Democrats who dominated the districts; wealthy investors feared the value of their bonds and property would drop if the City merged with its poorer neighbors; and of course patronage officeholders everywhere feared losing cushy jobs if their particular apple cart was upset. When the smoke from the riots cleared, legislation was passed to increase the size of the City’s riot squad and to require larger police forces in the nearby districts.
Very quickly it became clear that the reforms did not go far enough. While there were no further large scale riots, gangs such as the Moyamensing Killers, and the Rats and Bouncers of Southwark continued to grow in power, increasingly by intermingling with local private fire companies and the Ward political machinery. As the inability of the criminal justice system to control public violence increasingly made Philadelphia a national embarrassment, it was becoming clear that stronger medicine would be needed.
Civic pride was at stake for other reasons as well. Despite the region’s dramatic growth, in the 1830s, the City of Philadelphia was overtaken by Baltimore for the second largest city in the country. By 1840 Philadelphia was in a tie for fourth with Boston, having been lapped by New Orleans as well, and had fallen from first to second in wealth as the City’s wealthy migrated north.
Philadelphians, still proud of the City’s legacy, were keenly aware of these developments and their cause. While other cities had plenty of space to expand, Philadelphia, with its sprawling halo of neighborhoods, was limited to the two square miles of the Founder’s grant. Moreover, investment in infrastructure—grading of roads, provision of water and sewer service—which would allow continued economic expansion, was slowed by limited tax bases in the districts, the corruption of local leaders, and lack of standardization and compatibility of abutting systems. City leaders gradually recognized that in order to remain competitive, Philadelphia had to grow.
A committee of prominent citizens, presided over by the Honorable John Swift (who’d just concluded his twelfth one-year term as Mayor), was formed and a Town Meeting held in November of 1849. The assembled called on the General Assembly in Harrisburg to promptly pass the necessary legislation for consolidation, so as to enable “a uniform code of laws which can be vigorously administered, an efficient police force with a competent head, a well organized and controlled fire department which together cannot fail to establish and maintain that peace and security so essential to the prosperity of all densely populated communities.”
Seeing the writing on the walls of their soon to be abolished offices, powerful anti-consolidation forces led by Whig Congressman and Hasty Pudding Club founder Horace Binney, attempted to stall, and in May of 1850 the legislature took a half step, unifying all police in the County into a single force under an elected Police Marshal, but retaining existing political boundaries. The police force grew significantly and arrests rose, but enforcement continued to be uneven, hampered significantly by lack of trust among the forty municipal bodies involved, and particularly their differing commitment to paying for the service.
Consolidation forces continued to press for further reform and the movement gained momentum. At a mass meeting held in July of 1853, Whig and Democratic leaders alike, including the erstwhile opponent Binney, agreed on a ticket of candidates for election to the General Assembly in the upcoming election who would be explicitly committed to consolidation. Led by prominent attorney Eli K. Price, and featuring the wealthy locomotive manufacturer Mathias Baldwin, the ticket did well in the 1853 elections in Philadelphia, virtually assuring victory for their platform.
Consolidation was the first order of business for the newly elected legislators, and a consolidation bill drafted by a committee of Philadelphia’s economic elite was reported in the Senate on January 10, 1854, and it passed unanimously on the 18th of that month. On January 30th the bill passed the House by a vote of 79-3. A scramble ensued to get Governor William Bigler to sign the bill and end the ability of local districts to contract debts for local improvements, which they knew would shortly be absorbed by the larger City.
The Philadelphia Consolidation Act, which was signed into law by a groggy Governor Bigler at his bedside on February 2, 1854, extended the boundaries of the City, “so as to embrace the whole of the territory of the County of Philadelphia.” The City, in a bound, leapt back over Baltimore and New Orleans in population, leaving Boston far behind in the dust.
To preserve a measure of local control, the City was divided into twenty-four wards, each electing a member to the Common Council of the City which, along with a smaller Select Council, oversaw the activities of operating departments, while a Mayor elected to two year terms was given greatly expanded powers to enforce the preservation of the public peace.
In the first year following consolidation, recorded arrests increased four-fold, as a professionalized, if particularly rough and tumble, police force began to exert its authority and impose order on the City. While violence continued, with a dedicated force at hand to respond, the City managed to avoid the deadly draft riots which occurred in other northern cities at the onset of the Civil War a few years later. A similarly professionalized fire department took longer to be created, but eventually curtailed and then replaced the private hose companies that had wreaked havoc in the districts.
Equally importantly, the consolidated City was able to take on large scale infrastructure improvements that modernized Philadelphia. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the City constructed Fairmount Park, undertook massive projects for the provision of water and drainage, constructed new bridges across the Schuylkill River, established public schools, alms houses and hospitals, and began work on City Hall. A unified Department of Surveys pushed the grid through previously undeveloped areas, allowing for orderly development according to a single City Plan.
While Philadelphia never caught up to New York in population, the consolidation was critical to keeping Philadelphia competitive with other East Coast cities and forging a single identity among Philadelphians. As a history of the consolidation written by Eli Price decades later noted, “the old City, and the remote Districts and Sections, with their natural selfish jealousies, could never have been brought to a concert of action for such an achievement.”
For the past 160 years, we have all been in it together.
About the author
Sam Robinson is an attorney living in Philadelphia, where his professional wanderings occasionally help him stumble across lost corners of the City's legal landscape.
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