The Charter of the City of Philadelphia of October 25, 1701 is the oldest document in the city’s custody that relates to its early municipal government. It is also the only charter of the city that bears the Proprietor’s signature. These factors alone make the 1701 Charter a unique and historical artifact. However, equally important is the content of the Charter. It is a snapshot of the City government during its infancy that shows the
city’s beginning and which, like any snapshot of youth, is a recurring commentary on what the City has become in its maturity.
William Penn issued the 1701 Philadelphia Charter a few days before he issued the Charter of Privileges for Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Charter governed the Corporation’s affairs for the same seventy-five year period that the Charter of
Privileges regulated the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, unlike the Charter of
Privileges, which has been described as establishing the most liberal of British colonies,
the 1701 Charter of Philadelphia was scarcely a beacon of democracy. It was a product of its times and reflected the oppression of the liberties of the English borough in the 17th century by Queen Elizabeth I and the Stuart monarchs. The Philadelphia Corporation, whose first corporate officers, the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen, and Common Councilmen, were named by the proprietor in the Charter, was a closed corporation
whose membership was self-perpetuating. Of these officers, all but the mayor served for life.
The Mayor was elected annually among the Aldermen by at least five Aldermen and nine
Common Councilmen, with the Mayor and Recorder being present. The assembly of these officials in a corporate meeting was termed a Common Council. Following the medieval corporate ideal from which it sprang, the Common Council exercised both legislative and executive authority; the Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen also
had judicial authority.
Finally, the Corporation had power to admit “so many Free men into their Corporation & Society as they shall think Fitt.”
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