4th & High Street

The Book of Philadelphia is Robert Shackleton’s 1918 history of the city. It’s mostly timeless, but certainly dated in places. Thanks to the Internet Archive was able to read it on my iPad.

There are too many worthwhile anecdotes to relate from the book, whose style and narrative character is much closer to the 19th century than the 20th century. But one anecdote relating to George Washington and John Adams in Old City Philadelphia is one of my favorites:

Just a trifle away from the east wing of the State House, at the corner of Chestnut and Fifth streets, is a smallish building which was put up in 1791 for the use of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the little building at the corner of Chestnut and Sixth is still more interesting; it would, in fact, be of far more interest than it is were it not that its fame is overshadowed by that of the more notable State House beside it; for this smallish building is Congress Hall, and in it Congress met while Philadelphia was the national capital, and here Washington was inaugurated for his second term. Here, too, in this little building, Washington pronounced that Farewell Address which, delivered toward the close of his second administration, stands so superbly as a model of dignity and far-sightedness. One seems still to see him, to hear him, so solemnly offering to the new nation that he loved his profoundly earnest advice.

It was also in this demure little building, standing so almost unnoticed beside the imposing State House, that Washington, a few months after the delivery of this Farewell Address, turned over the Presidency to his successor, John Adams. And in regard to this there is a remarkable account.

It seems that the people who packed the building and thronged round about it thought but little of the new President, and of Jefferson, the new Vice-President, compared with the man they so loved, who was leaving them. When Adams and Jefferson went away they went practically alone. Washington stood, to watch them go. And the throng stayed, in silence, to look to the last moment upon Washington. And it was noted and written down, that he wore on that day a suit of black velvet, that his hair was powdered and in a bag, that he wore diamond knee-buckles and a gray-scabbarded light sword.

Adams went to his room at the Indian Queen, at High Street and South Fourth, and the punctilious Washington started gravely to walk there, “to pay my respects to the new President.” In total silence, the great crowd followed him. The door opened; but before entering, he turned and looked silently at the people. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and from the crowd there arose a kind of groan. He said nothing; he bowed, slowly and profoundly, in recognition of the tribute, and then slowly entered the inn.

Reading stories like this gives Philadelphia a fresh character. I’ll never walk past 5th & Chestnut or 4th & Market in the same way. Each time I do, I’ll see in my mind this living portrait of Washington heading to the Indian Queen hotel, the people in procession to witness the end of the beginning of the nation.


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