Sunday, May 19, 2019

Episode 097: A Coup in Philadelphia

So far in my story, I have not given much focus to Philadelphia, beyond discussions of the Continental Congress itself.  The city plays a key role in the revolution, beyond simply hosting Congress. I touched on this a little when I talked about the adoption of various state constitutions, but it is such an important topic, that I thought it worth devoting an episode to how a political coup in Philadelphia turned Pennsylvania from a conservative colony that leaned Tory, into a radical patriot state that looked much more like New England, all in a matter of weeks.

Pennsylvania Politics

To understand this change, it is important to understand Pennsylvania politics of the time. Before and during the Revolution, Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America.  Pennsylvania, was one of the last colonies to be created in America, and the only one not touching the Atlantic Ocean.  It was mostly an inland wilderness.  Despite its late start and geographic limitations, it quickly became a major trading center with a large and growing population.

William Penn, of course, founded Pennsylvania when King Charles II gave him the land in settlement of a debt that he owed to Penn’s father, Admiral William Penn.  As an aside, Pennsylvania was named after the father, Admiral Penn, not his son, the founder.  The colony populated rapidly due to the availability of cheap land and Pena’s promise of religious freedom.  Penn advertised heavily in the German states, and got a large German speaking population to settle there. Penn was a Quaker and wanted to create a colony that would provide a haven for the Society of Friends.

William Penn
(from National Park Service)
By the 1760’s, Quakers had become a minority in the colony. The Quakers, however, dominated the colony’s politics, mostly because they never altered voting districts to account for changes in population.  The areas in and around Philadelphia held a disproportionate number of seats.  During the French and Indian War, many Quakers had left government, not wanting to participate in a war, which violated the pacifist tenants of their religion.

During this same period, a political split divided the colonial leadership. William Penn’s son Thomas Penn, had become proprietor after his father’s death in 1718.  Thomas never really got along with the Quaker leadership.  In 1751, Thomas moved back to England.  He converted to the Anglican Church a few years later.  In 1756, in an attempt to oust Quakers who still dominated the colony’s politics, Penn petitioned Parliament to require an oath of loyalty for members of all colonial assemblies  Since Quakers could not take oaths, they would not be able to serve.  Although this attempt failed, it widened a political schism between the Penn family and the Quaker leadership.

The Quakers, supported by others such as Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway, started pushing for an end to rule by the Penn family and to get a royal charter.  This is what happened to the only other proprietary colony, North Carolina.  The King dissolved the charter and took direct control of the colony, appointing a royal governor.  Many leaders from underrepresented areas opposed this move and wanted to retain the proprietors. John Dickinson was a notable member of this faction.

That whole fight over the charter dominated politics in the late 1750’s and early 1760’s.  It was only when the hostility toward Parliament’s attempts to tax the colonies that the push for a royal colony faded and the issue of Parliamentary taxation took front seat.  Once it did, coalitions began to realign. Quaker leaders could not condone revolution against the King.  Others, in the “royal colony” coalition, jumped into the tax protest movement wholeheartedly.

Charles Thomson

One of those men was Charles Thomson. If you have heard of Thomson at all, it is probably as secretary of the Continental Congress.  Before he had that job, he was an active radical leader in Philadelphia politics.

Thomson is really an interesting character who largely gets overlooked.  It’s worth giving a little background on him.  Thomson was born in Ulster Ireland in 1729.  His mother died when he was around nine, his father took his six children to Pennsylvania to begin a new life.  His father, though, got sick and died during the voyage.  Charles and his siblings got distributed to various families, possibly as indentured servants.  Charles ran away after learning that he would be apprenticed as a blacksmith.  He wanted to get an education.

Charles Thomson (from Wikimedia)
With the assistance of his brother and others, he enrolled in a school at the New London Academy in Pennsylvania.  There, he received a classical education.  At age 21, with some assistance from Benjamin Franklin, Thomson began work as a tutor at the Philadelphia Academy in 1751.  He followed Franklin into the anti-proprietary political faction. During the French and Indian War, he served as secretary at the negotiations for the Treaty of Easton.  Afterwards, he wrote a book: An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawenese Indians from the British Interest. Thomson strenuously opposed the Proprietor’s Indian policies.  They would only lead to future wars between colonists and native tribes.

Thomson really began to radicalize after passage of the Stamp Act in 1765.  He became a leading organizer of the Sons of Liberty in Philadelphia. In October, he was part of a committee that visited John Hughes to convince (some would use the word threaten) him to resign his appointment as stamp agent for Pennsylvania.

He was active on committees of correspondence, which helped get him known to patriot radicals across the continent.  During the tea crisis, he worked closely with Joseph Reed, and Thomas Mifflin to prevent any merchants in Philadelphia from receiving any tea from the East India company shipments.  Unlike Boston, the Philadelphia radicals were able to get the ships to turn around and sail back to London.  Philadelphia, therefore, avoided the wrath leveled at Boston for destroying tea.

Even so, Thomson continued as a radical leader in 1774, fighting against the coercive acts by helping to organize petitions and boycotts.  His radical leadership later caused John Adams to refer to Thomson as the "Samuel Adams of Philadelphia."  Thomson was also part of the conspiracy I discussed back in Episode 43 to get the conservatives in Pennsylvania to agree to host the First Continental Congress.

As a well respected patriot with good writing skills, but not enough stature to become a delegate, Thomson became the recording secretary for the First Continental Congress.  He would continue in that role with the Second Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress, all the way through 1789.

So in early 1776, Thomson, as secretary, had full knowledge of everything happening in Congress, but was also still a local radical leader in the city, with mobs of radical patriots available as needed.

The Assembly

In many colonies, royal governors had suspended colonial legislatures that had tried to engage in activities against crown policy.  This had led to patriots setting up shadow provincial legislatures in defiance of royal authority.  Pennsylvania never had that problem.  The proprietary governor John Penn did not prevent the assembly from meeting.  He kept a low profile and mostly allowed politics to follow its own course.

Street Protest (Benjamin Franklin Historical Society)
The Pennsylvania Assembly itself remained pretty conservative.  The Quaker leadership stressed as part of their religious foundation that they should not resist government policies or question the leadership in London.  At most, colonists should submit petitions requesting changes.  Trade embargoes and other efforts to force policy changes were simply unacceptable.  The notion of taking up arms against British soldiers was completely out of the question.

Over the early 1770’s though, Quakers found themselves in an increasingly untenable situation.  If they did not support trade embargoes and other patriot efforts to protect colonial rights, they were seen as traitors to the colony.  As a result, many Quakers simply withdrew from politics.  They did not run for reelection and did not speak out in newspapers or public meetings.  Other conservatives took their place. Some were former Quakers.  Others were Anglicans who were also traditionally loyal to the King and who were still willing to speak out.  Many replacements though were also willing to back the patriots.

The split between proprietary and royal factions in the colony faded away.  Men who were on opposite sides of that fight, found themselves working together.  For example, Joseph Galloway, who had favored a royal charter along with men like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Thomson, now found himself increasingly at odds with his former allies as he found himself more closely allied with the Tories.  John Dickinson, who had been a supporter of proprietary government and a political opponent of Franklin and Thomson, now found himself increasingly allied with his former opponents as they all embraced the patriot movement.

All legislators, of course, were elected politicians.  Those who wanted to continue in their seats had to reflect the will of the voters.  To push the assembly in the right direction, Philadelphia radicals formed local unelected groups to lobby the legislature for the changes.  Many radical elements lived outside Philadelphia, in the more rural areas to the north and west.  Within the city, one of the most radical groups was the city’s mechanics.  These were skilled artisans and workmen that made up much of the workforce.  They were already organized in trade groups.  Under the leadership of Charles Thomson, they spoke loudly in support of trade embargoes and enforcing them on the merchants.  The mechanics also used their political power to demand the creation of increasingly larger committees.  There was Committee of 19, then 43, then 66, then 100.  These committees sought to create a more reasonable political balance since the Assembly was still unfairly weighted in favor of conservative districts in and around Philadelphia.

The committees focused on enforcement of trade restrictions, using mob pressure to intimidate or punish those who refused to comply.  After Lexington and Concord, the committees began to form militia, known as Associators.  Unlike New England or the southern colonies, Pennsylvania had almost no militia tradition.  What little they had existed in local communities on the western frontier, where Indian attacks posed much more risk.  Even these militia did not normally receive much support from the Quaker government back east.

In April 1775, news of fighting in Massachusetts resulted in groups, most prominently the mechanics, demanding that the colony form militia units for the defense of their rights.  The Committee of 66 took an active role in organizing and training an active militia.  Within weeks, the patriots had 30 new militia companies.  The Committee requested that the Assembly, allocate £50,000 in new currency to fund the new army.

The Assembly had funded militia in the past.  In the 1750’s it had allocated funds for defense of western territories before and during the French and Indian War.  Using militia, however, in obvious defiance of royal authority, however, would be far more controversial.  Around this same time, the Assembly rejected the Governor’s proposal to accept Lord North’s compromise offer, something the Continental Congress had already rejected.  Even while it rejected diplomatic compromise, the Assembly was not quite ready to hand over £50,000 to an extra-legal committee that was forming its own army.  However, it did agree, to allocate £2000 for expenses already incurred and another £5000 for future costs. The Assembly did seem willing to accommodate at least some patriot demands.

Funding aside, there was some fighting between radicals and moderates in late 1775 over the militia.  Radicals viewed paying a small subsection of the colony to remain in ranks for an extended period of time as a “standing army” which was a sign of tyranny.  They argued that all able bodied men in the colony should be required to participate in the militia.  This, of course, was a real problem for Quakers and other pacifist groups with religious objections.  It was the subject of heated debates for many months.  The Assembly refused to act on radical demands.  The militia remained a body of paid volunteers.


But the debate of militia paled in comparison to the debate that began at the end of 1775.  As you may recall back in Episode 81, this was about the time Thomas Paine published Common Sense.  The debate over independence became the topic of discussion in Pennsylvania as it was in all other colonies. The issue of independence seemed to upset many Quakers even more than the idea of universal military service.

On January 20, 1776, the Society’s Elders issued a public declaration which said in part “the setting up and putting down kings and governments, is God’s peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein: . . . but to pray for our king, and the safety of our nation, and good of all men: That we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty; under government which God is pleased to set over us.”

Pennsylvania State House (from Wikimedia)
There was no way to finesse or compromise on independence.  There was no way the Assembly would support it.  Independence horrified Quakers and other conservatives in the state.  It formed a split among the many solid patriots.  Leaders like John Dickinson and Robert Morris had been outspoken advocates of strictly enforced trade embargoes and creating militia.  But they balked at independence.  These were men who thrived under the colonial system. Many feared they could not defeat Britain militarily and would be hanged as traitors.  Even if Pennsylvania did win somehow independence, they had no idea how much chaos and disorder would arise from the lack of a central government to keep the crazies in line.

The hard core radicals, however, pushed even harder to get Pennsylvania to support independence.  The Patriot Committee of 100 still contained a mix of leaders across the political spectrum.  In February, patriots held elections for a new Committee of 100.  This Committee was made up of many more working class patriots who were much more enthusiastic about independence.  Many more moderate patriots like Morris and Dickinson got kicked off the Committee.

This new radical Committee of 100 began making more demands on the legislature for militia funds and support for independence.  The Assembly, however, would not roll over.  The Committee did get them to agree to some redistricting, giving some of the western and more radical districts more representation in the Assembly.  But it still was not enough to get majority support for independence in the Assembly.

The colony held Assembly elections in May to fill new seats.  Radicals seeking independence fought a bitter contest for more radical representatives, most of their candidates lost.  This was a combination of strong turnout by Quakers to oppose radical candidates, combined with the fact that many radicals had joined militia units to go help defend New York City.  There were no absentee ballots at this time.

Most historians seem to think that the population was pretty evenly split at this time.  Even though the elections favored the moderates, in the days following the elections, a couple of events turned momentum in favor of the radicals.  First, Pennsylvanians received word that King George had hired 20,000 mercenaries to crush the rebellion.  Use of foreign mercenaries greatly outraged colonists.  If the King would use outsiders, many colonists dropped reservations about declaring independence and bringing France in on their side.  Second, the British warship Roebuck and Liverpool sailed up the Delaware River and engaged in a firefight with colonial gunships.  Although it was turned away, it brought home the reality that war was coming to Pennsylvania.

Sensing momentum on their side and unable to get the Assembly to act, the radicals tried another tactic.  On May 20, a few days after the Continental Congress passed its resolution for the colonies to form new governments, 4000 radicals appeared in front of the State House, what we today call Independence Hall.  While the Continental Congress was meeting on the first floor, the Pennsylvania Assembly met on the second floor.

The radical mob, which listened to speeches by some radical delegates, including Thomas McKean wanted not only independence, but a new government for Pennsylvania.  They called for a constitutional convention to replace the Assembly.  The Committee of 100 then called for an election of delegates to a convention.  What legal basis did the committee have for this? Well none really.  They were simply counting on the people to support it and for the government to have no power to obstruct it.

Although momentum seemed to be in favor of the radicals, the leaders set up the convention to ensure the result.  First, they gave equal representation to each county.  This gave far more power to the less populated western counties where radical sentiment was far more popular.  Second, they required all delegates to forswear allegiance to the king and to support whatever government the people chose.  Third, opened up voting to any male over the age of 21 who had been assessed for taxes.  With no minimum property requirement, this increased the voter pool from 50% to 90% across the State.

The Assembly, seeing this attack on its power appointed a committee to evaluate whether they should change their instructions to the delegates on independence.  The head of the Committee was none other than John Dickinson, himself a delegate and one of the leading opponents of independence.  The new instructions were muddled, it did not require the delegates to oppose independence, but did not require them sot support it either.  Since a majority of the Pennsylvania delegation still opposed independence, it did not seem to change the outcome.  Clearly, though the actions of the patriots to create an extra-legal convention and force their issue, despite having lost the recent elections, made this change possible.

By July, the delegation was still four to three against independence. We will see how that plays out next week when I discuss the Continental Congress’ vote on independence.

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Next  Episode 98: Voting for Independence

Previous Episode 96: The Battle for Sullivan's Island

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Further Reading


Pennsylvania History:

Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey:

Thayer, Theodore, The Quaker Party of Pennsylvania, 1755-1765:

Wendel, Thomas "The Keith-Lloyd Alliance: Factional and Coalition Politics in Colonial Pennsylvania" The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1967:

Charles Thomson:

Society of Friends Testimony on resistance to government:

Fea, John The Pennsylvania Constitution VIDEO, C-Span, 2017.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Harley, Lewis R. The Life of Charles Thomson: Secretary of the Continental Congress and Translator of the Bible From the Greek, G.W. Jacobs & Co. 1900.

Sharpless, Isaac A History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania, Vol 2, Leach (1900).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Hogeland, William Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776 Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Ryerson, Richard Alan The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Selsam, J. Paul The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1936.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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