Philadelphia Stories by C. Dallett Hemphill

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Philadelphia Stories
People and Their Places in Early America
by C. Dallett Hemphill; edited by Rodney Hessinger and Daniel K. Richter
University of Pennsylvania Press, 349 pp., hardcover $35

This original and captivating book was a labor of love, both for its author, the late C. Dallett Hemphill, and the 13 scholars who came together to finish the almost complete manuscript Hemphill had left upon her death in 2015. The aptly titled book relates the life stories of 12 Philadelphians, organized around four themes: “For the Love of God: Three Colonial Men of Faith,” “Declaring Independence: Three Revolutionary Wives,” “Striving to Succeed: Three ‘Self-Made Men’ in the New Nation,” and “Pursuing an Inclusive America: Three Aspiring Antebellum Lives.” Some of the people are well-known, such as Episcopal bishop William White, artist Charles Willson Peale, and merchant and banker Stephen Girard, while others are less known, such as Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, Loyalist Grace Growden Galloway, and African American bandleader and composer Francis Johnson — but no Benjamin Franklin, except as one among many others whose lives intersected with the 12 subjects of Hemphill’s book. Taken together, the 12 people Hemphill presents with telling detail were instrumental in shaping Philadelphia’s economic, social, cultural and intellectual character and growth over two centuries and informing its politics and public life in ways that continued long after their deaths.

The beauty of Hemphill’s book is her adroit weaving of people and places, whether as large as the city and its environs or as small as a drawing room. By bringing the reader inside the homes, churches, counting houses, museums, music halls, union clubs and other settings that her subjects inhabited or used, Hemphill shows how people’s physical worlds revealed their true interests and identities. Hemphill also invites readers to visit the places she describes, many still standing, to see for themselves how place defined people and vice versa — and thus to consider how that dynamic has operated over time, even to our own day. By doing so, we might discover not only history but also ourselves.

Randall M. Miller
Saint Joseph’s University