Early American revival

Daniel Richter

The center he heads helped put Mid-Atlantic Colonial history on the map. Now it has broadened its vision of early America, and it will soon get a permanent home.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

In Philadelphia, we live with history. Citizens protest the mayor’s decision to block off Independence Hall. The directional sign for I-76 from the airport reads “Valley Forge.” Ben Franklin (as impersonated by Ralph Archbold) turns up at every civic event from the annual Fourth of July festivities to an Eagles pep rally. Add the McNeil Center for Early American Studies to these more casual collisions with our past.

For 25 years the center has been a movable feast of scholarship on the history and culture of North America to 1850. It has been in five different locations on campus; its twice-monthly seminars rotate among several of the center’s 16 affiliated institutions; and it sponsors a series of “salons” held in people’s homes. The announcement last month of a $6 million gift from Robert L. McNeil Jr. and the Barra Foundation means that it will finally have a permanent home. We asked Professor of History Daniel K. Richter, the Richard S. Dunn Director, to talk about the center, Philadelphia and America’s story.

Q. Is this most peripatetic of Penn centers ready to put down roots?
A.
Yes and no. The traveling seminar is so deeply ingrained in our culture we will not change that. We have a fabulous seminar, if I may say so myself. It takes place every other Friday. We move all over the Philadelphia area. The core members are all research institutions—the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society and Winterthur Museum and a number of universities in the area including Temple, Princeton and the University of Delaware. Usually at least once a semester we will take a longer foray. This semester we are going to the University of Maryland. Attendance is open to the public; the price of admission is that you have to have read the papers beforehand [papers are posted on the center’s Web site, www.mceas.org]. Attendance is 40 to 60 people who participate in a really lively two hours of intense discussion.

Our fellowship program is the centerpiece of our mission and that is where the new home will make a big difference. I think, pretty distinctively as a research center, our main emphasis has been on graduate students rather than post-docs. We offer five to eight dissertation fellowships. There is a national competition and it is very competitive.

We also have a long tradition of appointing people as research associates. At one time, we were in a large space on Market Street and we were able to say, basically, if people can find their way to Philadelphia, we’ll give them a library card and a place to work. We don’t have that in our current space—just a few library carrels, but in our new facility we will have plenty of space for that.

We also maintain a very active publications program. We do two books a year in a series that currently has 14 titles in print with the University of Pennsylvania Press. We also have an annual volume of essays that we are turning into “greatest hits” from the center. It is a non-traditional journal that is highlights from our seminar series.

Q. Your new home will be at 34th and Walnut?
A.
There is a little triangular piece of ground there [on the east side of 34th Street] that is essentially between the FedEx boxes and Sansom Street. It is not really cutting into Hill Field.

Q. What is the timetable for this new facility?
A.
A lot depends on a lot of imponderables at this point, but in the next 18 months.

Q. In the beginning, why did the center have a Mid-Atlantic focus?
A.
One of the original purposes of the Philadelphia Center was to encourage early American historians to do more on the Middle Colonies. Even in the 1970’s, early American scholarship was still almost exclusively either New England or the Chesapeake (Virginia). There was an extraordinary lack of depth of scholarship on Pennsylvania in particular. The center was also started to encourage the use of archives and libraries in Philadelphia, particularly that fabulous cluster of resources at 13th and Locust streets—the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company—not to mention the American Philosophical Society and Penn’s own resources.

My view is that in some ways we have succeeded in that mission. That continues to be one of our main interests. [Now] we consider ourselves a center for the general study of North America and the Atlantic world before 1850.

Q. What is your scholarly interest?
A.
Most of my work has been on Native Americans—Native Americans in what is broadly defined as the Mid-Atlantic region.

Q. In Philadelphia, presentations about early American history are an important part of the tourism industry. How do they do?
A.
Overall, I think the programming at Independence Hall is quite good. There are some interesting experiments like the Lights of Liberty. I think it has been very interesting to watch the controversy over the new Liberty Bell pavilion and to see how deeply engaged the community is in caring about how the past is presented.

Q. That controversy has been about how African-Americans are portrayed. What about your specialty, Native Americans?
A.
There is nothing except the legendary painting of [William] Penn’s treaty with the Indians. One of the things I hope will happen is that visitors to the Constitution Center will see some of the artifacts that were unearthed by archaeologists there. [They] really show the continuing presence of Native Americans in Philadelphia right through the 18th century. One of my favorite representations of that era is a contemporaneous drawing [from a series “Views of Philadelphia” by William Russell Birch and Thomas Birch] called “Back of the State House”—what we know as Independence Hall—and it shows a couple of Indians chatting away with a group of other people. To me that shows what colonial America is—all these people—men and women, Native Americans and Euro-Americans—gathered in the same place.

Q. Boston and Colonial Williamsburg seem to be the first places many Americans think of when they think about early American history, not Philadelphia. Why?
A.
This part of America has not preserved its past probably because it was too busy living in the present. It is very curious, as my colleague Michael Zuckerman has pointed out, because in a lot of ways this is the most American of places in North America.

Boston and Williamsburg are actually strange variants. [Boston] Puritanism on the one hand and the extremely hierarchical slave-based society [of Virginia] on the other. Which is not to say that racism isn’t crucial everywhere, but that class-based society in Virginia is really a historical by-road.

The middle colonies and the middle states included extreme ethnic diversity, religious diversity, their very early lack of a state church and therefore religious toleration, their extremely dynamic broad-based capitalist and cultural economy. These are trends that are much more characteristic of much of American history than those people with the funny buckled shoes in Boston and those Virginia aristocrats.

Several years ago the state tourism slogan was “America Starts Here.” Although I don’t think they meant it the way I mean it—I think they were pointing particularly to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and the Constitution—the formal United States started here. As far as I am concerned, America did start here.

Above: Richter points to the site of the McNeil Center’s new home.

Originally published on February 13, 2003