Senator Powel was born in Philadelphia, October 28, 1738, the son of Samuel and Mary Morris Powel; his mother, the daughter of Captain Samuel Morris. Powel received a fine education, later embracing his father’s political and mercantile interests as a merchant and two-time mayor of Philadelphia. Samuel considered himself a medical scientist, while his reputation grew as a philosopher, agriculturalist, lay deputy at St. Peters Episcopal Church, fellow at the London Royal Society, a member of city council, and a justice of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. He served as president of the American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge in March 1760 (before its 1769 union with the Philosophical Society), co-founded the (1785) Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, and occupied a seat as trustee of the University of Pennsylvania from 1763 until his death. The senator was a devout Federalist, close friend of Judge Richard Peters, and an occasional guest at President Washington’s Mount Vernon. His next-door neighbors included Col. William Byrd of Virginia, Benjamin Rush, Charles Willing, and William Bingham. He served on the Christ Episcopal Church vestry and married Elizabeth Willing in 1769, the daughter of merchant-financier Thomas Willing and wife Anne (Shippen) Willing. He pursued classical studies, initially stimulated during a 1764 European tour as he visited Voltaire at Ferney. The philosopher described Powel and friend Benjamin West as “Amiable Young Men” and “Lovers of the Truth & Inquirers into Nature.” Samuel subscribed £5,000 to provision the Continental Army prior to the British occupation of Philadelphia. The invading army later confiscated the Powel mansion for use as officers’ barracks. After hostilities, the Powels frequently entertained the Washington and Adams families after the war, the couple hosting a 25th wedding anniversary celebration for George and Martha, impressing Abigail Adams with their graciousness and excellent cuisine. As senator, he served as Richard Peters’ floor leader, chair of the first rules committee, head of the committee that received Governor Mifflin, and presented the bill transferring presidential and executive council duties to the new executive. On December 14, 1790, Powel and Franklin County’s Abraham Smith introduced the rule requiring the recording of each vote, by name, in the Senate Journal. Powel, supported legislation favoring the charter of the Bank of North America (First U.S. Bank)” and supported federal legislation directed at raising revenues through an excise on “wine and spirits.”
Opposed by Anti-Federalists, Powel received recognition as the chair of a committee, intending to “fix a general ticket,” proposing Federalist candidates for presidential electors and Congress. The two groups met on July 27, 1792 during a statehouse-courtyard joint caucus. Powel declared his ticket accepted by the meeting despite the opposition’s vehement objections. Because of this and other “attempts to dupe the people,” a groundswell of resentment emerged against Powel’s colleagues, justifying the solidification of an opposition party. The resulting sides referred to themselves as Conferees (Federalists) and Correspondents (Whigs or Republicans) on July 31, 1792. Correspondents proposed Thomas McKean as their chair, to build a “Rights of Man Ticket,” while Conferees designated Powel their Federalist guardian. After the meeting deteriorated into a brawl and Powel’s adversaries overturned his table, the two rival factions resorted to holding their respective caucuses separately. The acrimonious exchange between the Powel and McKean partisans so incensed the public, that the at-large popular vote strategy endorsed by Powel’s Federalist Senate received little support and the more democratic – less aristocratic district vote became the majority’s choice: thus ended the Framers’ short-lived dream of legislative bipartisanship. Congress followed the same path in the fall of 1792. The Hon. Samuel Powel passed away on September 29, 1793 of yellow fever.