Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania and, at the time of the American Revolution, was the largest and most important city in America. Founded by William Penn as a place of religious tolerance, its spirit infused the early steps towards independence.
The first European settlers on the site were Swedes, who established a community at the mouth of the Schuykill not later than 1643. England, however, established its control over the entire region, and in 1681, King Charles II made William Penn a grant of land that became Pennsylvania.
An advance group was sent that year, and Penn followed in 1682. They established Philadelphia in the southeast corner of the colony, following a plan for the town's development. Philadephia's guiding principle was tolerance towards all faiths. Philadelphia attracted people from all over Europe, with such Quakers as Penn especially well represented. The city developed a thriving trade with the West Indies and soon became the largest and most important city in the colonies. It received its city charter in 1701.
Philadelphia's most famous citizen in the 18th century was Benjamin Franklin, widely considered to be one of that century's foremost scientists, in addition to one of the guiding lights of the Revolution. The First and Second Continental congresses were held in Philadelphia, and the city served as the nation's unofficial capital throughout the War of Independence, except for the period between September 26, 1777, and June 18, 1778, when it was held by the British. Following the war, the convention that produced the Constitution (text) was held in Philadelphia.
By the time of the first census in 1790, New York had passed Philadelphia in size. During the first half of the 19th century, important suburbs grew up around Philadelphia, including Kensington, Moyamensing, Northern Liberties, Southwark, and Spring Garden, which ranked among the country's top 100 places in the national census.
By mid-century, Philadelphia had dropped to fourth place in population. In 1854, the Pennsylvania legislature redrew the boundaries of Philadelphia to include the entire county, which boosted the city's population back to second. It held that position until overtaken by Chicago in the census of 1890.
In 1876, Philadelphia hosted one of the country's first international expositions, to commemorate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Held at Fairmont Park from May 10 to November 10, the exposition displayed industries from 50 countries.
Philadelphia, cradle of America's dream of freedom, is home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (narrative), great documents that cried out, “Let Freedom Ring,” like the Liberty Bell. Amidst the ordinary citizens of Philadelphia, gathered in the humble Carpenter's Hall on Chestnut Street, the Colonial Fathers gave voice and life to those freedoms at the First Continental Congress.
Many historic sites in Philadelphia have been restored or rebuilt to help preserve the nation’s heritage as a free people. Providing fitting homage to these places, a place of hallowed ground was sanctified, the Independence National Historical Park. On these grounds is Independence Hall, where the Declaration and the Constitution reside. The home of Betsy Ross still stands on Arch Street.
Philadelphia also is one of America's leading cultural centers. The University of Philadelphia, established in 1740, occupies a 120-acre campus in West Philadelphia. The Academy of Natural Science, the oldest institution of its kind in America, was founded in 1805. The Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest zoological garden in the nation, houses 1,600 rare and exotic animals. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, founded in 1876, displays some of the world's finest Impressionist art. Philadelphia's own Washington Monument stands in front of the art museum as if to guard the collections within.
Philadelphia gave much to the War for Independence. It was the site of the Philadelphia Navy Yard, dating to 1762. In 1775, it outfitted the first ships of the Colonial Navy. It continued to support the Navy at its Southwark location through the Civil War, but continued growth forced it to move to League Island in 1876. The Philadelphia Navy Yard ceased operations on September 27, 1996.