Philadelphia at Last

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"Philadelphia at Last"
the seventh chapter of
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University press, 1955).

Latrobe all through his pleasant but not particularly profitable residence in Virginia had been gradually gaining the realization that his professional future must be sought in Philadelphia. Of New England he had little direct knowledge; Boston in the 1790s was only on the threshold of its later economic and cultural growth. New York, too, which he was soon to know better, was but slowly climbing out of its wartime lethargy and was still repairing the damages from its occupation by the British and the great fire of 1776. But Philadelphia, the capital of the United States in more ways than governmental, was the largest and wealthiest city in the country and the undoubted cultural center of the young nation. It was here that Volney and Scandella resided; it was here that a considerable group of refugees from the French Revolution were gathered; and Philadelphia moreover was the seat of the American Philosophical Society.

After the warm but hardly intellectual hospitality of Virginia its citizens almost entirely devoted to farming, to politics and the law, and to gaming and drinking Latrobe must have craved a society more understanding of both his scientific and his aesthetic interests. He had given Richmond of his best, yet this had been received only fragmentarily and with an almost total lack of appreciation. To Philadelphia he was also drawn by family ties; for his uncle Frederick Antes, of Revolutionary fame, was still alive and several members of his mother's family were important people in Pennsylvania. We find him writing in February, 1798, the long, affectionate, and revealing letter to Dr. Scandella noted earlier. He sends with it designs he has made for a "hermitage" for Volney; he only wishes that he could be close to such inspiring company:

There is nothing I so much desire as to make one of the garçons philosophes, who live harmoniously together under one roof et qui s'amusent à batir des châteaux d'Espagne. . . .

We have at present here, a Mr. Palmer, with whom you dined at Caleb Lownes. He took it into his head that your name was Latrobe.--I am willing to agree with the change, provided you let me have your head & your heart into the bargain.--He is a plain sensible man, who has taken great pains to prepare his mind for cultivation by the eradication of prejudices. We are grown well acquainted without any introduction but the accidental discovery of his having seen you. Should he return to Philadelphia, I intend to accompany him.--He informs me that it is the intention of the Quakers to erect a very large school, in which not only the rudiments of literature, but also a great variety of mechanical trades are to be taught.--Such an institution would require a building large enough to encourage me to remove to Philadelphia were I employed and liberally paid,--that is,--were I paid so much, that I could employ all my personal income independent of my professional emoluments in my own way:--Books,--instruments, etc., etc. You would oblige me much by making an inquiry which you might feel yourself at liberty to do of Mr. Lownes. You see self interest will intrude itself into the intercourse of friendship,--but believe me my wish to be nearer to you is so intimately connected with a wish to go to Philadelphia, that I scarce know how to separate them.

Finally, in April, he left Richmond on his first visit to Philadelphia with the hope of becoming the architect of a new Quaker school there and also to study the prison. It proved a momentous step, for, although the plans for the school came to naught, the visit determined his future in many ways. He came to Philadelphia a man still almost unknown professionally, a widower lonely despite his Virginia friends, a man who notwithstanding his two years in the country still felt himself somehow an outsider, an observer--for he had laid down few roots. Two years later, through his work in Philadelphia, he had acquired a wide reputation as engineer and as architect, and he was on the verge of a happy marriage; no longer an outsider, he had become definitely a citizen of the United States, with a commitment entire and devoted. And he had begun to enter the business world, to put his capital to work, in ways that were to open out into strange fields.

The Philadelphia he found in the spring of 1798 was in some respects a shock to him. It was there that the Federalist-democratic schism was most passionate; there "society" was controllingly anti-French and anti-liberal, and John Adams was feeding the fires by his violent attacks not only on the entire French nation but even on liberals like the scientist Dr. Priestley picking out Latrobe's friend Volney for a particularly virulent assault. Latrobe was acutely conscious of the tension. In his journal (April 19, 1798) after his return to Richmond he wrote:

Political fanaticism was, during my residence at Philadelphia, at its acme. The communications from our envoys in Paris, the stories about XYZ and the lady, etc., were fresh upon the carpet. . . . To be civilly received by the fashionable people, and to be invited to the President's, it is necessary to visit the British ambassador. To be on terms [of friendship(?)] with Chevalier d'Yrujo, or General Kosciusko even, is to be a marked democrat, unfit for the company of the lovers of order and good government. This I saw. Many of my Virginia friends say I must be mistaken.

But he saw truly. War with France seemed imminent; the Alien and Sedition Laws, passed that very year, only put the final governmental approval on a popular hysteria that lumped together all Frenchmen as atheists and murderers. The group of French refugees and American intellectuals who gathered at Moreau de St. Méry's famous bookshop were increasingly fearful and uncertain; they were all suspect. The bitterness of the Philadelphia Federalist press knew no bounds; the frivolity and maliciousness of its attacks must be read to be believed. The prevailing atmosphere of fear, hate, and hostility to anything new or liberal has not been matched again in the United States until recent years. Gallatin and Jefferson were pictured as devils, as almost treasonable, as men inimical to what today would be called the "American way." William Cobbett's Porcupine's Gazette was but the most violent in its abuse--and Cobbett could write.

Latrobe, with his French name, was not spared, and even later when he had established himself in Philadelphia he was referred to--with the manifest aim of denigration--as a "French" engineer. Cobbett, of course, knew better than to assail him as French; but the fact that Latrobe had come from Richmond, where the democrats were strong, was enough to make him the target for a contemptuous note. On April 3, 1798, Porcupine's Gazette carried the following taunt:

At Sans-culotte Richmond, the metropolis of Negro-land, alias the Ancient Dominion, alias Virginia, there was, some time ago, a farce acted for the benefit of a girl by the name of Willems, whose awkward gait and gawky voice formerly contributed to the ridicule of the people of Philadelphia.

The farce was called the Apology; it was intended to satirize me and Mr. Alexander Hamilton (I am always put in good company), and some other friends of the federal Government. The thing is said to be the most detestably dull that ever was mouthed by strollers. The author is one La Trobe, the son of an old seditious dissenter; and I am informed that he is now employed in the erecting of a Penitentiary House, of which he is very likely to be the first tenant.

In short, the farce was acted, and the very next night the playhouse was burnt down! I have not heard whether it was by lightning or not.

This was only the first of the Federalist attacks upon him which were to endanger his prospects for many years to come.



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