Question of the Week
Who was known as the "Patriot Mayor" of Philadelphia?
Answer: Samuel Powel
Samuel Powel was nicknamed the “Patriot Mayor,” but was he? He has the distinction of being the last mayor of Philadelphia under British rule and the first after American Independence, but new research is calling into question his early commitment to the cause.
Samuel Powel was a lifelong Philadelphian, born in 1738. In 1759, he graduated from the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), inherited his grandfather’s Philadelphia properties (making him one of the wealthiest young men in the colonies), and left for a tour of Europe. Powel remained in England for about seven years, where he lived a life of leisure and met the Pope and Voltaire.
After Powel returned to Philadelphia, he married Elizabeth Willing in 1769. The couple purchased a home on Third Street. Samuel, like his father and grandfather, became active in the city council and was a justice of the common pleas and quarter sessions courts. In 1775 he was appointed mayor for the first time. After his second term as mayor, he became speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate in 1792. He was active in Philadelphia organizations such as the American Philosophical Society and the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, and a manager of the Pennsylvania Hospital. Samuel and his wife mingled among the upper echelons of Philadelphia society and enjoyed the company of George and Martha Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the Marquis de Lafayette, among many others.
Samuel Powel died of yellow fever during the 1793 epidemic. His residence at 224 South 3rd Street is maintained as a historic house by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks. The question of Powel’s patriotism will be debated there this Thursday, May 30, at 6 p.m. by author and retired lawyer David Maxey. For reservations and information, visit hsp.org/calendar.
Researchers at HSP have access to two collections related to the Powel family: Powel family papers (#1582) and Powel family papers (LCP). Samuel Powel's papers in both collections primarily relate to legal, business, and real estate matters, though there are a few of his political papers in Collection 1582.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.