Elizabeth and Henry Drinker of Philadelphia were no friends of the American Revolution. Yet neither were they its enemies. The Drinkers were a merchant family who, being Quakers and pacifists, shunned commitments to both the Revolutionaries and the British. They strove to endure the war uninvolved and unscathed. They failed. In 1777, the war came to Philadelphia when the city was taken and occupied by the British army.
Aaron Sullivan explores the British occupation of Philadelphia, chronicling the experiences of a group of people who were pursued, pressured, and at times persecuted, not because they chose the wrong side of the Revolution but because they tried not to choose a side at all. For these people, the war was neither a glorious cause to be won nor an unnatural rebellion to be suppressed, but a dangerous and costly calamity to be navigated with care. Both the Patriots and the British referred to this group as "the disaffected," perceiving correctly that their defining feature was less loyalty to than a lack of support for either side in the dispute, and denounced them as opportunistic, apathetic, or even treasonous. Sullivan shows how Revolutionary authorities embraced desperate measures in their quest to secure their own legitimacy, suppressing speech, controlling commerce, and mandating military service. In 1778, without the Patriots firing a shot, the king's army abandoned Philadelphia and the perceived threat from neutrals began to decline—as did the coercive and intolerant practices of the Revolutionary regime.
By highlighting the perspectives of those wearied by and withdrawn from the conflict, The Disaffected reveals the consequences of a Revolutionary ideology that assumed the nation's people to be a united and homogenous front.
|Publisher:||University of Pennsylvania Press - University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.|
|Series:||Early American Studies|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Aaron Sullivan is a historian and writer living in Philadelphia.
Read an Excerpt
No one can simultaneously serve two masters who are opposed to each other. Anyone who adheres to one party will be hated and persecuted by the other. Anyone who tries to remain neutral and keep on terms with neither or both parties will be oppressed and harassed by both sides when the controversy is pushed so far that proposals of peace are rejected and the matter is to be decided by resort to arms.Elizabeth and Henry Drinker of Philadelphia were no friends of the American Revolution. Yet neither were they its enemies. They neither took up arms against the Revolutionaries nor raised regiments of Loyalists; they were not outspoken champions of King George III or Parliament, nor did they conspire to overthrow the independent governments of Pennsylvania and the United States. A merchant family, the Drinkers were Quakers and pacifists; they shunned commitments to either side in the struggle and strove to pass through the storm of war uninvolved and unscathed. They failed. In 1777 the war came to Philadelphia when the city was taken and occupied by the British army. Elizabeth faced that army, in the streets and in her own home, alone, because before the British came for Philadelphia, the American Revolution came for Henry Drinker.
—Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, November 24, 1777
They arrived on September 2, while it was still morning, and moved systematically through the city and suburbs of Philadelphia. Agents of Pennsylvania's new Supreme Executive Council, they carried with them a long list containing the names of prominent men who, very soon, would be surprised to learn that they had been declared enemies of the state. Those on the list were to be arrested or detained, their papers and effects searched and seized. In a reversal of standard practice, it was hoped that the searches would provide evidence to retroactively justify the arrests. Surprise was essential; the council's agents, some two dozen men led by David Rittenhouse and Colonel William Bradford, divided themselves into smaller groups to reach their targets more speedily and directed their first moves with care. An early priority was John Hunt, a Quaker merchant who lived in Germantown, some five miles from the city, and so might successfully escape if word of the arrests reached him before the council's deputies. Leaders and record keepers, those like John Pemberton and Samuel Emlen, were also among the first to be confronted, lest they attempt to hide or destroy the evidence which, it was hoped, would vindicate the day's actions.
Some of the targets went peacefully, submitting quietly to the alleged authority of the Supreme Executive Council and those sent to carry out its orders. Others took this moment to pledge their allegiance to the Revolutionary governments and swore to keep themselves under house arrest until summoned or released by order of the council. If they were also, in the eyes of the council, "men of reputation" and promised to never again speak or write anything "inimical" to the new regime, they were allowed to remain free, though their property was still subject to search and their papers liable to be seized. Few on the list, however, felt such complete loyalty (or humility) toward the newly created, highly contested, and as yet untried independent governments of the United States. The council's men soon met resistance, though not the kind one often associates with Revolutionary wars; after all, most of the men on the list were pacifists.
Three of the council's deputies came to arrest John Pemberton and search his papers. Pemberton, a Quaker merchant in his fifties, explained that he had never done anything harmful to his country and that, indeed, his well-known religious beliefs forbade any violent or treasonous acts. Appealing to their sense of justice, he pointed out that he had been accused of no crime, that no judge had issued a warrant for his arrest, and that the council had sent them to carry out an act of oppression. The deputies squirmed and confessed "that it was very disagreeable to them to execute such orders" but that the decision was not theirs to make, prompting Pemberton's wife to remind them that Pilate had similarly attempted to excuse his involvement in Christ's crucifixion. When the council's men attempted to take Pemberton by force, he wrapped his old hands around his sturdy wooden chair and refused to be moved. In the end, a band of soldiers were called in to bodily lift the elderly Quaker, carry him out the door, and escort him to confinement in the Masonic lodge. The deputies later returned to search the house and, since Pemberton would not voluntarily surrender the keys, smashed their way into his locked desk. They came away with minutes from Quaker meetings, several documents regarding the manumission of slaves, and no evidence whatsoever that Pemberton was a threat to the country.
Pemberton was not alone in protesting the legality of the council's actions. More than one target on the list demanded to see a formal warrant for their arrest and scoffed at the suggestion that orders from the Supreme Executive Council were a sufficient substitute. Some, like Thomas Fisher, nonetheless eventually yielded to their demands, preferring to go quietly rather than have their homes invaded by soldiers. Others, like John Hunt, flatly refused to obey what they considered illegal orders. Like Pemberton, Hunt would not be moved unless physically forced out. The council's agents had no choice but to return the following day with more manpower; contrary to their concerns, Hunt made no attempt to flee.
It was shortly before noon when Colonel Bradford and two of his deputies came to the home of Henry and Elizabeth Drinker at 110 North Front Street. It was an impressive residence, two stories with a forty-foot front along one of Philadelphia's major thoroughfares, financed by Henry's success as shipper and importer in the firm James & Drinker. From the upstairs windows the Drinkers could watch the ships docking along the Delaware, their livelihood in motion. Behind the house, reaching back along Drinker's Ally, was the garden. Though crowded by stables, outhouse, and well, the garden was spacious enough to offer what Elizabeth called "room enough in the City, and such elegant room"; in the spring flowering trees draped the space in red and white blossoms and in the summer they offered the family blessed shade without the stifling stillness that came from being indoors.
That day, however, the Drinker home was a place of sickness. The youngest son, named after his father, had been severely ill for two weeks past. "Our dear little Henry," as Elizabeth called him, was plagued constantly by fevers, worms infested his stool and vomit, and he was at times too weak to even sit up without assistance. The eight-year-old's health consumed his mother's attention; Elizabeth and Henry had already lost three children.
Little Henry's father was also unwell. Feeling unfit to leave and attend religious services, the elder Henry remained home and, late in the morning, settled in the front parlor to attempt some paperwork. He was there when the council's men came for him. Like so many others, the Drinkers protested the arrest. Yet Henry's poor condition, combined perhaps with the severe illness of his son, spared him from being taken that day. Seeing that he would be physically unable to flee even if he desired to, the men left the Drinkers to ponder their fate throughout the night. As Elizabeth recorded in her diary, they returned at nine the next morning "and took my Henry to the [Masonic] lodge—in an illegal, unprecedented manner."
In the days that followed, Henry Drinker and the other prisoners would repeatedly petition the new government of Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress, and the courts, demanding to know why the nation that had declared liberty an inalienable right had arrested and imprisoned them. From the council and Congress they received only silence. After two weeks of imprisonment, the chief justice of Pennsylvania issued a writ of habeas corpus, demanding that the men either be charged with a crime or else released; the Revolutionary soldiers guarding them ignored the order. Two days later, the members of the Supreme Executive Council formally granted themselves the authority to imprison anyone who they suspected, for any reason, of attempting to subvert their position; the authority was granted retroactively, thus legitimizing the earlier arrests. Furthermore, in an open break with centuries of legal tradition, the government declared that such imprisonment was immune from any interference or challenge by any judicial authority, including writs of habeas corpus. Finally, the council explicitly declared itself "fully and absolutely indemnified" against any legal or civil actions brought against them with respect to such arrests. Shortly thereafter the prisoners were ordered out of the state altogether, exiled to live in Virginia. There they would remain, unable to tend to their families, friends, or businesses even as Philadelphia, their home, became the epicenter of a revolutionary war. Of the twenty men banished to Virginia, two would never return, dying in exile. None of them would ever be charged with a crime or given a trial.
What danger did Henry Drinker and his fellows represent? They were not threats to the American cause, at least not in the traditional sense. They had not taken up arms against the new nation, nor were they ever likely to do so. Some, it's true, were Loyalists at heart and others had been criticized for not supporting independence with sufficient vigor, but it's surprising that such offenses of opinion would warrant banishment without trial. Though the US Constitution and its amendments were yet to be written, Pennsylvania's own constitution, adopted in 1776, declared that the people had the right "to hold themselves, their houses, papers, and possessions free from search and seizure," "to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments," and to "a speedy public trial, by an impartial jury of the country." What would make a new nation, dedicated to the ideals of liberty, abandon such principles in order to arrest and exile these men? And why did this act of tyranny take place in the summer of 1777, two years after the War for Independence began?
The pages that follow attempt to answer both those questions, and others, by exploring the great crisis that befell the Delaware Valley in the midst of the Revolution: the British occupation of Philadelphia. This is a story about what happened when the redcoats came to Pennsylvania, about the terrible and sometimes tyrannical steps the Patriots took to secure the loyalty of the people, about the military occupation of America's first capital, about the Continental siege led by George Washington's army, and about the many Americans who consequently found themselves caught between the lines, both literally and figuratively. It is a story that questions old assumptions about American loyalties, explores the darker facets of the Patriots' ideology, and challenges traditional narratives of when and how the Revolution was won. It rests on the premise that the most revealing moments for a people, a movement, or a revolution are those of transition and insecurity; that desperate times lead to measures which are not only desperate but that serve to expose the true hearts of leaders and governments.
The occupation of Philadelphia was neither unprecedented nor incomparable; all of America's largest ports, Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah were at some point occupied by the British military. Though the Revolution was different in each colony and changed as the war progressed, it was nonetheless bound together over space and time by common leaders, goals, and beliefs. Yet, though it speaks to the meaning of the Revolution across the colonies and across the years, my story is still primarily of a specific people, a peculiar time, and a particular place. Each merits individual introduction before we begin.
A Persecuted People
This book is less about the lives and thoughts of individual persons than about the existence and experiences of an entire group of people: a people who were pursued, pressured, and at times persecuted, not because they chose the wrong side in the Revolution, but because they tried not to choose a side at all. Through their varied, sometimes conflicting, perspectives we can see how the British occupation and the ever-shifting nature of the Revolution affected the people of the Delaware Valley.
Perhaps no single individual is better suited to represent the story of the occupation than Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker. On the eve of the occupation the Patriots took her husband from her; she would spend the months that followed trying to get him back. As the occupation unfolded she petitioned the generals of Great Britain and America, and even shared dinner with George Washington himself. She would see her friends divided, as some embraced and others fled the coming of King George's army. Her home would be subject to an occupation all its own when the British forced residents to make room for soldiers in their own houses. The officer who slept at the Drinker residence would disrupt her life, arouse the suspicions of her exiled husband, protect her from the depravations of his own army, and in time become her friend. The fate of American independence rarely seemed important to Elizabeth one way or the other, and she did her best to avoid taking sides in the dispute. Foremost in her mind was the security and well-being of her family, her home, and her neighbors.
Elizabeth Drinker was neither a Patriot nor a Loyalist. She was one of the many Americans who stood apart from and outside those two warring camps. It is these people who are truly the central character of this book; it is their story that needs to be told. There has never been a shortage of historical works on the lives of American Revolutionaries; the victorious Patriots began writing them almost at once. More recently, Revolutionary historians have looked across the lines to seriously consider the experiences of the American Loyalists. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that these categories encompassed all Americans or all American political sentiment, for both presume some strongly felt allegiance to one side or the other, some meaningful affection for the empire or independence. In the pages that follow, I would like us to consider the large and ever-shifting mass of people who were not strongly aligned with either side, a people that historians often still struggle to describe, that the British misunderstood, and that the Revolutionaries themselves preferred to overlook.
Some of these people, like the Drinkers, were pacifists, but many more became or remained disengaged from the Revolutionary conflict as a matter of pragmatism, not principle. They have been called "the great middle group of Americans . . . who were dubious, afraid, uncertain, indecisive, many of whom felt that there was nothing at stake that could justify involving themselves and their families in extreme hazard and suffering." Persistently disinterested in or opposed to involvement with imperial politics and committed to separate goals, they quietly pursued their own livelihoods to the best of their ability amid the turmoil, helping or hurting either side more incidentally than intentionally, and hoping to come through the Revolutionary storm with as little harm and as much profit as possible, whichever side eventually proved triumphant. They would yield, but not rally to, whoever held power over them. When no party clearly held the reins of authority, they looked to their own interests by whatever means were available. Both the Revolutionaries and the British referred to this diverse group as "the disaffected," perceiving correctly that their defining feature was less loyalty to than a lack of support or affection for either party in the dispute. If we assume that all Americans must be classified as either "Patriots" or "Loyalists," we risk mischaracterizing these people as fickle, opportunistic, apathetic, or even treasonous. But if we can recognize them as the disaffected, a people without any strong political attachments to betray, their actions might yet appear to be rational and consistent.
Disaffection existed in a variety of forms and arose from numerous causes. Among Americans who were aware of and engaged with colonial politics, a group that expanded rapidly in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, there was nearly universal disapproval of the new taxes and regulations imposed by Britain in the 1760s and early 1770s. Differences of opinion existed as to the severity of the threat and the proper colonial response to it, but in general Americans of various stripes began to look across the Atlantic with a more wary and less trusting gaze. The colonists' long-standing attachment to the British monarch, already strained, was stretched to the breaking point by the harsh imperial crackdown on Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party and by the bloodshed at Lexington. Horrified by this seemingly unabashed imposition of tyranny, many Americans were pushed into an ill-defined and loosely connected resistance. Throughout the colonies they assembled into committees; in Philadelphia they convened a Continental Congress; in New England they formed an army.
Yet as the resistance to parliamentary overreach expanded in unanticipated ways after 1774, an increasingly large number of Americans found it unpalatable, particularly once the goal of securing the British constitutional liberties of American subjects was subsumed by the pursuit of independence. Driven by negative personal experiences with radical Revolutionaries, economic conflicts with the Revolutionary program, political and ideological disagreements with the ever-evolving Revolutionary agenda, attempts to preserve or undermine social and economic hierarchies, or some combination of these, they distanced themselves from the movement. In the end, some would conclude that the opposition was no more desirable, or just as terrible, as their oppressive monarch. "I love the cause of liberty," wrote James Allen in 1776, "but cannot heartily join in the prosecution of measures totally foreign to the original plan of Resistance." Rather than pushing men and women back toward a greater affection for the empire, such pressures pushed them out , away from both loyalism and rebellion, and down , into a seclusion and silence that came naturally to those who could find no cause to rally around. Though much of his family embraced the Loyalist cause and sought protection from the British military, Allen retreated to his country home where he and his acquaintances endeavored to "banish Politics" from their lives and conversations.
Disaffected individuals may be among the most difficult Revolutionary figures to discover. Some, like many Quakers, explicitly and defiantly made their disaffection known, but others took a more pragmatic approach. It was in their interest to present themselves as agreeable, if not avid, supporters of whatever party was in power. Outside of personal correspondence and journals, they rarely risked political remarks that might garner the ire of whatever force then dominated their region. Even within such private writings, those who were most disengaged from the ongoing political struggle were, by definition, least likely to spend their time commenting on it. Quiet acquiescence was often the surest path through the storm. Thus, it is when that path was closed to them or when the tides of power turned, and they were forced to adapt their strategies to pacify a new ruling authority, that we can most clearly see through the protective web of compliance such individuals spun about themselves. Such was the case during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
A Peculiar Time
In 1815, John Adams famously wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the American War for Independence "was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it." The real Revolution, Adams claimed, "was in the minds of the people" and it took place "in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington." It should not surprise us that Adams, ever the statesman but never a soldier, should downplay the importance of the war in his account of the Revolution, or that, three decades after that conflict ended, he began to imagine that "the minds of the people" were all united behind his Revolutionary cause before the bodies of the people were made to bleed and die for it on the battlefield. Yet no careful investigation of the period can long sustain that hopeful narrative.
The fifteen years between the succession of George III in 1760 and the shot fired at Lexington in 1775 did, indeed, lead many Americans to change their minds about the nature of government and liberty in dramatic, revolutionary, ways. But their minds continued to change as fighting broke out in New England and spread south across the continent. As others have noted, war changes society; the act of fighting on the battlefield affects who and what a soldier is willing to fight for, the process of governing a nation in wartime changes the nature of government, and old allegiances tried by fire sometimes crack and give rise to new loyalties.
The story of the occupation of Philadelphia takes place in the midst of war and it is a story of people and societies changing the way they perceive and interact with the Revolutionary world. Over the course of the occupation men of great ideals would come to sacrifice those lofty virtues, sometimes for victory, sometimes for peace; common men and women, Loyalist and Patriot alike, would lose heart and forsake their allegiances, sometimes in the face of defeat but just as often upon their side achieving success; still others would radicalize and expand their visions, transforming a struggle to preserve old freedoms into an attempt to create a new, unprecedented political order.
It is in times like these, in the midst of war, that we are most likely to recognize the disaffected and the ways in which they changed the Revolution. It was during the war that Revolutionary authorities were most likely to embrace desperate measures in the quest to secure their legitimacy and control. Mounting demands for increasingly explicit expressions of consent for the Revolutionary cause and active involvement in the struggle could separate the committed Patriots from those who were merely hoping to be left alone. The movement and proximity of military forces could also reveal hitherto hidden dissent and disaffection by stripping the ruling authority of its monopoly on coercive force. Though in some instances the coming of the British army sparked a new level of Revolutionary fervor in the hearts of the colonists, in others the arrival of imperial forces suddenly sapped the Patriots of their strength and manpower as those who were less than fully committed, or served only because they feared retribution from the Revolutionary authorities, took the opportunity to abandon the cause and return home.
The war also created situations in which observers from starkly divergent political perspectives, Loyalist and Patriot civilians, British and Continental officers, were all attempting to determine and describe the loyalties of the same regions and populations. Though few individuals would have straightforwardly declared themselves disaffected from the conflict, the combined testimony of these multiple observers reveals the extent of disinterest and disengagement that often emerged between the lines. That both sides simultaneously denounced the same populations for their apathy, enmity, selfishness, and refusal to participate is a strong indicator that the people in question were neither the Loyalists the Revolutionaries accused them of being nor the rebels the British took them for, but rather a category unto themselves, wearied by and withdrawn from the imperial conflict.
Finding the disaffected in the war years also highlights some important and often overlooked consequences of Revolutionary ideology. Leading Patriots subscribed to a republican conception of politics which envisions the nation's people, set in opposition to its ruling elite, as an essentially homogeneous body whose interests were all united. The united people, and consequently the leaders to whom they delegated their authority, were seen as incapable of tyranny for, as John Adams put it, "a democratical despotism is a contradiction in terms." Sacrifice for the sake of the common good was deemed the essence of virtue; opposition to the acts of the people's representatives was fundamentally unacceptable and unprotected. These underlying principles combined to generate a severe and at times brutal response, not only to blatant opposition and loyalism, but to disaffection as well. They also lay the groundwork for making participation in the Revolution mandatory. The belief that the will of this supposedly united and homogeneous people was the only legitimate basis of government encouraged the Revolutionary leadership to do whatever was necessary to secure expressions of popular consent for their actions. It is in the dangerous years of the war, when the Revolutionaries faced their greatest insecurities, that we can see, through the eyes of dissenters and the disaffected alike, the lengths to which the Patriots would go to extract the popular support that legitimized their Revolution and the ways in which a belief in government by the will of the people could, in tragic irony, lead to terrible acts of oppression.
The redcoats came to Philadelphia two years after the war broke out in New England. They stayed only nine months before retreating back to their stronghold at New York City. Yet, though it was relatively brief in comparison to the prolonged occupation of New York, the British occupation of Philadelphia spanned the turning point in the American War for Independence and in the war for the hearts and minds of many Americans. When the redcoats came to Philadelphia the Revolutionaries stood alone against the British Empire. With only a few, albeit crucial, exceptions, their armies had been consistently outmaneuvered and outfought on the battlefield. It often seemed that only the apathy, or perhaps the sympathy, of Britain's commanding general saved the Revolutionary forces from total annihilation. A new invasion was already sweeping south from Canada toward Albany, threatening to isolate New England from the rest of the nation. Boston remained a tattered shadow of its former glory as a port, New York was firmly in British hands, and now America's de facto capital and largest city, the seat of the Congress and birthplace of independence, had fallen despite a committed effort to defend it. A year later, the change was dramatic. Great Britain was now locked in a war against its most feared and hated rival, France, severely weakening its ability to project force in America. The Patriots had won an unparalleled victory at Saratoga, forcing the surrender of an entire British army, severely shaking public sentiment in Britain and bolstering the flagging spirits of Revolutionary Americans. And finally, without the Patriots firing a shot, the king's army had abandoned Philadelphia, never to return, a move which immediately and deeply disillusioned Loyalists and British officers alike.
The occupation was a remarkable occurrence, not only for when but for what it was. The term "occupation" is one we should use cautiously, particularly in light of the many and varied instances of occupation that the United States has experienced since the beginning of the twenty-first century. "Occupation," in its modern sense, is military control by a foreign power without claims of sovereignty. It is, consequently, distinct from both conquest, wherein a foreign power declares itself to be sovereign over the newly controlled territory, and martial law, wherein the controlling military presence is domestic. This definition can be applied fairly comfortably to the United States' recent military occupations in the Middle East but immediately presents problems when applied to the American Revolution. Identifying the British as "occupiers" subtly implies that their role in the Revolution should be viewed as that of foreign invaders, that Great Britain possessed no sovereign right to the territory its armies controlled, and that the presence and control of those armies could not (or should not) have brought about a change in allegiance for the "occupied" territory and populace. While this perspective would certainly have suited the ardent Revolutionaries, it would not have reflected the sentiments of the British, many Americans, or, before 1778, the other European powers. Nevertheless, to the modern reader the language of occupation carries with it a sense of the many moral and practical difficulties that are unavoidable when an unfamiliar army attempts to exercise control over an ambivalent and at times hostile population. This connotation is appropriate to 1777; for that reason, and in the absence of a less cumbersome alternative, I use the language of occupation despite its technical demerits. We should strive to remember, however, that for many Philadelphians the British regulars in their midst were hardly more foreign than the American soldiers from New England.
A Particular Place
The Philadelphia of the 1770s would have been at once startlingly alien and curiously familiar to a resident of the modern city. Philadelphia was, by the standards of its time, no frontier village but a true metropolis of the empire; only Dublin, Edinburgh, and London were larger. A tourist out for an evening stroll could meander along broad, lamplit streets on paved sidewalks. A modern map would be remarkably useful in navigating the Revolutionary city, so long as one remained in the "historic district." Perhaps more than any other major eighteenth-century port, Philadelphia has retained its basic layout, with numbered streets running north to south crossing perpendicular streets named, often, for trees.
For example, to reach the old State House from the Drinker residence, you might head south down Front Street for half a block before cutting west through Elfreth's Alley to Second, then turning south again. At the first intersection you see Betsy Ross's house off to the right down Arch Street, but continue on south for two more blocks, past the high steeple of Christ Church, to Chestnut. Resist the urge to continue on to the City Tavern, now visible at the next intersection, and follow Chestnut west for three and a half blocks, past the entrance to Benjamin Franklin's place on your right, and you'll have arrived. These directions apply as well today as they did in 1776, and while Drinker's house and fine garden are, regrettably, no more, the other landmarks are still present.
Though the similarities are striking, the differences between the modern and Revolutionary cities are, of course, almost beyond counting. The sidewalks were paved; the streets, generally, were not. The buildings were shorter and quite different in style. The smell of mud, dung, human waste, and smoke, among other things, would have been immediately apparent and difficult to forget. And while some street directions carry over from century to century, in the Revolutionary city one could not walk in any one direction for an extended period of time without finding oneself in the country. Though among the largest cities in the empire, Philadelphia in 1770 extended only eight blocks west from the Delaware and, even generously including Northern Liberties and Southwark, ran just fourteen blocks north-to-south, from Callowhill to Christian streets. Beyond those limits the cityscape gave way to fields and farmland, small groups of trees, and the occasional country house. Logan Square, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, City Hall, Thirtieth Street Station, Rittenhouse Square, and the modern campuses of Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania all sit on land far outside the bounds of Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia.
Perhaps an even more intriguing difference between Franklin's city and our own lies in their responses to the Revolution itself. Modern Philadelphia is striking for its celebration of the event. Tourists flock to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, Carpenter's Hall, the Betsy Ross House, the Declaration House, and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Washington Square. Flags at these historic sites have thirteen stars as often as fifty, and in the summer an observant bystander can generally spy several Continental soldiers telling stories about the Revolution, demonstrating pieces of historical equipment, or leading guided tours through the bustling streets of the city's historic district. Today's Philadelphia is staunchly, publicly, and economically committed to celebrating American independence.
Yet such was not the case when the nation was born. Though it housed the seat of the Congress, and thus was the de facto capital of the new nation, Pennsylvania was one of the last colonies to condone a formal separation from Great Britain, and it approached that breach with the greatest reluctance and hesitation, prompting one impatient Philadelphia Patriot to complain that "there is more opposition to independence in this Province than in all the Continent beside." Though many Pennsylvanians raged against the authoritarian or tyrannical acts of the British king and Parliament and demanded that their rights as British subjects be respected, when the Revolution transitioned into an attempt to establish a new, sovereign nation in America and began to restructure existing political and economic hierarchies, it threatened to leave many residents of the Quaker colony behind.
Pennsylvania was a deeply fragmented society. A refuge for diverse settlers and long governed by relatively tolerant Quaker principles, the province sheltered men and women from a wide range of religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds. The colony was simultaneously marked by radicals who fervently, and at times violently, longed for political and economic reform, and strongly influenced by pacifists, like the Drinkers, who abhorred violence and prioritized the maintenance of order and stability. Philadelphia, as America's largest city, was fertile soil for enlightenment thinking, radical political theory, and mass mobilization, yet it was also closely tied to the British networks of commerce, culture, and religion that stretched across the Atlantic. This lack of unity made the process of assembling a powerful and dominant coalition difficult for anyone who hoped to either enflame or suppress a rebellion. In Pennsylvania, America's most radical and democratic elements of Revolutionary change confronted some of the nation's staunchest forces of peace, security, and stability. The confrontation proved to be deeply revealing on both sides.
Until the summer of 1776, Pennsylvania politics were officially controlled by the General Assembly, a staunchly conservative group dominated by the counties around Philadelphia. As the colonies generally moved toward independence, the assembly resolutely ordered Pennsylvania's congressional delegation "to dissent from and utterly reject any Proposition . . . that may cause, or lead to, a Separation from our Mother Country." When efforts to change the minds of the assemblymen failed, advocates of independence set out to change the assembly itself.
Both the city of Philadelphia and the rural counties of the backcountry had long been underrepresented in government. Believing that these were strongholds of pro-independence sentiment, the radical Committee of the City of Philadelphia demanded that they be allocated additional assembly seats. Under considerable pressure, the assembly acquiesced and created four new seats for Philadelphia and thirteen for the western counties. The May 1, 1776, election to fill these new posts offers a useful, if still imperfect, indication of the electorate's opinion on independence, for the question of changing the government's instructions to the congressional delegation was the foremost electoral issue. The city proved itself to be nearly evenly split on the question; by a small margin, the voters rejected independence and filled three of their four new seats with conservatives who supported the assembly's existing orders. Backcountry voters were somewhat more favorably disposed toward independence, but even there the returns suggest that a large percentage of the populace believed plans to sever the colonies from Great Britain were wrongheaded, or at least premature. James Allen was elected almost unanimously by Northampton County, despite, as he wrote in his diary, "having openly declared my aversion to [the independents'] principles & had one or two disputes at the coffee-house with them." He assumed his seat "determined to oppose them vehemently in Assembly." Northumberland County sent James Potter, Bedford County chose Thomas Smith, and York County overwhelmingly elected James Rankin; all three were moderates or conservatives and profoundly leery of American independence. To the immense frustration of the radicals, the newly enlarged assembly merely reiterated its stance against declaring independence.
Unable to secure enough popular support to sway the General Assembly, those Revolutionaries who supported independence next sought to simply abolish that institution altogether and replace it with a government more amenable to their own objectives. The Patriot committees, supported by the more radical elements of the Continental Congress, declared that Pennsylvanians lacked a "government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs" and began the process of creating a new, radically democratic, constitution founded on the premise of independence from Britain. Hoping to undercut this insurgency, and distressed by reports that George III intended to employ foreign mercenaries to fight in America, the assembly finally altered its instructions to the congressional delegation. Never positively supporting independence, the body merely withdrew its firm prohibition and freed the delegates to vote as they thought best. Even so, there was never a majority of Pennsylvania delegates in favor of separation from Britain. Only through the abstentions of John Dickinson and Robert Morris did the radical members of the delegation succeed, by a single vote, in throwing Pennsylvania's support behind independence. Such was the hesitation with which the "keystone" was finally added to the new American political edifice.
The months that followed saw the steady decline and eventual collapse of the colony's old government and the deeply controversial, chaotic, and uncertain creation of a new constitution founded, its backers declared, "on the authority of the People only." By November of 1776, when that new government held its first elections for the assembly, a growing number of Pennsylvanians were weary of involvement with Revolutionary politics or had become alienated and disengaged. By some estimates, of an expanded electorate of approximately fifty thousand, only two thousand appeared at the polls and a scant seven hundred voted in Philadelphia. The city of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, and Bedford County chose legislators whose avowed intent was to inhibit and replace the very Revolutionary government they were elected to participate in. Though too few to control the government, these opposition members were numerous enough to deprive it of a quorum and cripple its activities. When the redcoats came, then, they came to a province and a city that was still divided, still uncertain of its destiny. They faced a new state government that had yet to fully gain control over its people, that still struggled to demonstrate its legitimacy and authority. Though few Pennsylvanians felt great affection for the British Empire, many wondered if the new state government was truly any better.
These, then, are the people, the time, and the setting for the story of the British occupation. It is, I hope, now clear that the Revolution presented here is a messy affair, without the majesty of a straightforward struggle for liberty or even the clean lines of a civil war. It is a Revolution that was not just a "glorious cause" to be won, nor an "unnatural rebellion" to be defeated, but a dangerous and costly calamity that, for so many Americans, simply had to be endured. In that way, it is a Revolution not so different from those of our own time: full of people simply hoping to come through the storm with their lives, their families, and their property intact. It is a Revolution drained of much of its romance, and yet still, perhaps for that reason, all the more human.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Consent
Interlude. The Brothers Allen
Chapter 2. Invasion
Interlude. The Road to Virginia
Chapter 3. Siege
Interlude. Crossing the Lines
Chapter 4. Occupation
Interlude. Elizabeth Drinker Goes to Washington
Chapter 5. Evacuation
Interlude. Change and Continuity
Chapter 6. Aftermath