Samuel Powel, by Angelica Kauffman, ca. 1765, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Samuel Powel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1738. The son of a prominent Welsh family, Powel is best known for his two terms as Mayor of Philadelphia, from 1775-1776 and from 1789-1790.1 The office of mayor lay vacant between his two terms; thus, Powel was the last colonial era mayor of Philadelphia, and the first mayor of the city after independence was secured. The second of three children, Powel graduated from the City College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1759.2 After spending several years on a Grand Tour, where he spent time with figures including Voltaire, the Pope, and the Duke of York, Powel returned to Philadelphia in late October 1767.3

On August 7, 1769, Powel married Elizabeth Willing, the daughter, granddaughter, and sister of three previous mayors.4 Samuel purchased a home from Charles Stedman shortly before their marriage. This property, at 244 South 3rd Street in Philadelphia, stands today as a museum dedicated to the role played by Powel in both the founding of the nation and the relaxing of tensions after the Revolutionary War. Serving as an outpost for dignitaries, politicians, and those of high society, two of the Powel Home’s regular guests were George and Martha Washington.5

After the Siege of Yorktown, George and Martha Washington occupied, for a time, the residence next door to the Powel House in Philadelphia. The Powels, noted entertainers of their time (insomuch that John Adams once called a dinner at their home a "most sinful feast") quickly became friends of the Washingtons, hosting the first President and the First Lady several times during their stay in Philadelphia.6 The President and First Lady would return the favor, hosting the Powels at Mount Vernon in October 1787.7

Powel’s biggest claim to fame, however, was the fervor in which he pledged himself to the Revolutionary cause. Although Powel would wait until the withdrawal of British troops from Philadelphia to sign the Oath of Allegiance,8 his passion for the revolutionary cause would earn him the title of “Patriot Mayor”.9 Upon the American victory in the Revolutionary War, Powel reclaimed his position as mayor, serving in the post until 1790. However, Powel’s political career did not end. After leaving the mayor’s office, Powel was elected to a term in the Pennsylvania, State Senate, a post in which he would serve until his death in 1793.10

Beyond the nuances of their personal relationship, Washington and Powel enjoyed a pleasant professional relationship. It was Powel that wrote Washington to notify him that Pennsylvania had accepted the new Constitution. However, ever the master politician, Powel’s letter included a proposal, greatly beneficial to the city of Philadelphia, from both Powel and his fellow Pennsylvania delegates:

“So federal are we that an Invitation has been handed to the Convention, signed by the Landholders of Philadelphia County, offering the said County as the Seat of the future Government. This Measure was taken at a very respectable Meeting.”11 

Although Philadelphia would indeed serve as the nation’s first capital, the nation’s seat of government would eventually relocate to Washington, District of Columbia.

So dedicated was Powel to the cause of Pennsylvania politics that he refused to abandon the city, or the state, in his role of Speaker of the Pennsylvania senate during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Despite constant entreaties from President Washington to retreat to Mount Vernon, Powel remained in the city. His dedication to the affairs of his city and state would be his downfall. Powel soon contracted the disease himself; after a protracted battle, Speaker Powel died on September 29th, 1793. Samuel Powel’s remains are interred at Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

His death impacted those around him. The Washingtons mourned the loss of their close friend. His wife, Elizabeth, herself a close adviser of President Washington, remained forever loyal to her husband; in thirty-six years of widowhood, she never considered remarrying. Powel also left behind a plot of land in West Philadelphia, one for which he had a great estate planned. The land would pass to his wife, and then to their adopted nephew, John Hare Powel, who would erect the estate that laid the foundation for what is now Powelton Village, Philadelphia. John Hare would continue on the legacy of his uncle’s political life, serving a term in the Pennsylvania Senate (1827-1830).

In the infancy of the nation, Samuel Powel served as both mayor of Philadelphia (the nation’s largest city) and as a popular supporter of the Revolutionary cause. Through their close, intimate correspondence with the Washingtons, we are given insight to the attitudes surrounding both the founding of the nation and the personal lives of President Washington and the First Lady. Given their intimate relationships with a host of revolutionary figures, Samuel Powel served his country as both a facilitator and as a politician, helping secure America’s Independence.

 

M. Earl Smith

University of Pennsylvania

Notes:

1. “Philadelphia, October 4” The Philadelphia Gazette, October 4, 1775, 3

2. “Samuel Powel (1738-1793)” 

3. “Personal Correspondence: Samuel Powel

4. “Samuel Powel (1738-1793)

5. Weigley, Wainwright, and Wolf, 87

6. McCullough, 96

7.  Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Powel at Mount Vernon, 1787: from the journal of Samuel Powel, (Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1942). 

8. “Powel House: Political Intrigue. Influence. Sinful Delights” 

9. Gallery, 28

10. “Senate Members ‘P’”

11. “Samuel Powel to George Washington, 12 December 1787", George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.

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