Sunday, May 16, 2021

ARP201 Treason in Philadelphia

When the British left Philadelphia in June 1778, they took with them many of the loyalists who had worked with them during the occupation.  Those refugees had to leave behind virtually all of their property and begin a new life in New York or elsewhere in the British empire.  Many loyalists opted to remain in Philadelphia, and take their chances by appealing to the mercy of the returning patriots.

Military Governor Benedict Arnold

Philadelphia was under martial law. Major General Benedict Arnold took command of the city almost immediately after the British evacuation.  This was Arnold’s first command since Saratoga.  While Washington’s army endured Valley Forge, Arnold had been recuperating from his leg wound, suffering terrible pain and fighting off the attempts of doctors to amputate.  He spent several months in New York, then returned home to Connecticut.  In May, 1778, about a month before the British evacuation in Philadelphia, Arnold came to Valley Forge.

Benedict Arnold

Washington had been encouraging Arnold to remain home.  Due to his injury, Arnold’s leg was now several inches shorter, resulting in a permanent limp.  He was still in terrible pain and could not walk without crutches.  Even so, Arnold wanted to play a role in the spring campaign.  Washington, having just gotten through the Conway Cabal, was happy to have a top general whose loyalty he could trust, but he knew that Arnold’s body was not yet ready for the rigors of a military campaign.

Washington urged Arnold to take command at Philadelphia.  The Continentals needed to return the city to its former functionality.  Philadelphia had been a town of thousands of artisans, making all sorts of necessary military goods.

Arnold needed to restore order in the city quickly.  Washington also needed Arnold to prevent warfare from breaking out between the patriot radicals in the city, and the loyalists whom the British had left behind. 

Based on its Quaker tradition, many in the Philadelphia area avoided taking a vocal side in the conflict and just wanted to keep their heads down and continue to make a living.  They were not always happy with British policies, but believed they had a duty to obey the law.  When the Americans controlled Philadelphia in the early years of the war, they complied with the laws passed by the radical patriots.  But when the British took control, they were happy to comply with the new British authorities.  When the British left, radical patriots wanted these people punished as collaborators.  Much of the Continental leadership, however, wanted to put these civilian workers back to productive work.

One of Arnold’s first actions was to implement Washington’s orders to halt all trade out of the city, in order to prevent loyalists from removing valuable supplies, which would likely find their way to British-occupied New York.  Congress had placed a complete ban on the sale, transfer, or removal of all goods. General Arnold posted guards at key locations to enforce the restrictions.

For a region suffering from the deprivations of war, Arnold did not make a good first impression.  He arrived in Philadelphia in a coach and four, then proceeded to occupy the Penn Mansion, the former home of the colonial governor, and most recently occupied by General William Howe. 

Penn Mansion

The British had stripped the mansion on their way out, so Arnold spent a small fortune refurbishing the house, buying new furniture, and hiring servants.  For the people of Philadelphia, who were starving, and under a ban on engaging in any business, this extravagance seemed outrageous.

Arnold had been a wealthy merchant before the war.  But the intervening years had destroyed his business.  His fleet of ships was long gone.  Much of his personal funds, that he had spent on behalf of the army was never repaid.  Congress had not even bothered to pay his salary in the two and a half years that he had served. Arnold seems to have decided that he was entitled to make a little money from his position, and to resume a comfortable life.

There was a great deal of goods held in Philadelphia that the British had not removed or destroyed.  Because of Congress’ ban, much of it was still being held in warehouses.  Some enterprising merchants had purchased luxury items at pennies on the dollar from desperate residents or from British soldiers who had looted them and were leaving town.  Arnold made some questionable deals by granting a pass to one ship, whose owner had agreed to sell him thousands of pounds worth of goods at bargain prices.  

Arnold also cut deals with a number of Tories to buy certain goods not needed by the army but which were in danger of seizure by Pennsylvania officials.  Again, Arnold bought these goods at pennies on the dollar since the Tory merchants had to do that or lose everything to public seizure.  Once Arnold owned them, the goods were no longer Tory-owned and could not be seized by the state.

Later, some of these goods ended up at Little Egg Harbor in New Jersey.  Arnold received advance word of the planned British raid there.  He sent a train of teamsters using government wagons, to bring back to Philadelphia many of the personal items he had purchased, before the British could seize them.

In short, Arnold was using the power of his office for private gain.  While this would violate a whole host of ethics laws today, Arnold’s defenders argue that his actions were not illegal at the time.  The legality of much of it was debatable at the time.  Congress was continually on the look-out for war profiteers, especially people who benefited from holding a public office.  Delegates were in the middle of the Silas Deane Hearings at this time, investigating the former delegate to France for allegedly profiting while serving abroad. Other important leaders, including Congressional delegates like Robert Morris and Robert Livingston were already under scrutiny.  Arnold was playing a very dangerous game.

Reed and the Radicals

Congress was not, perhaps, Arnold’s greatest threat.  The radicals in the Pennsylvania state government were thirsting for some revenge.  Most of Pennsylvania’s patriots leaders lived in and around Philadelphia.  When the British took over, they took over all of the property left behind by known patriots.  The British looted and destroyed many of their houses as they evacuated.  This was not much different from the rest of Philadelphia, which saw most of the city in terrible condition from the British occupation.  The big exception to the destruction was the good neighborhoods where wealthy Tories lived.  These were wealthy men of substance, who made nice with the British leadership in an attempt to keep their families and properties intact.  Some of them hosted British officers, and largely were able to maintain their homes in good condition.

Patriots were not happy that some folks were so much better off because they had refused to stand up for the patriot cause.  One member of the Continental Congress proposed that everyone who had remained in Philadelphia during the occupation be put under house arrest and forced to pay a collective tribute of 100,000 to the cause.  Another suggested that about 500 Tories in the city be hanged and their property seized and sold.

The latter suggestion came from Joseph Reed, who was not only a delegate to the Continental Congress, but who also sat on the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania.  At the time, the Council did not have a President because Thomas Wharton died about a month before the British evacuation.  Vice President George Bryan served as acting President.  The entire Council though, seemed to be looking to bring some sort of punishment on what they regarded as collaborators, and also to raise some much needed cash in the process.

Joseph Reed 

Joseph Reed would be elected President of Pennsylvania in December 1778.  Even before his election, he became one of Benedict Arnold’s greatest adversaries.  You may recall that Reed was a former aide-de-camp to George Washington.  The two men parted ways a short time after Washington read a letter back in 1776 indicating that Reed had thought that General Charles Lee should replace Washington as commander in chief. 

Reed remained active as a colonel and played a pivotal role in the attack on Trenton.  Congress offered him a commission as a brigadier general, which General Washington urged him to take, but Reed turned it down.  Although Reed remained an officer in the Continental Army, he left active duty to serve both in Congress and in the Pennsylvania state government.

Reed quickly became a major player in Pennsylvania politics.  The former lawyer from Philadelphia turned down an offer to become the state’s Chief Justice.  As I said, he did take a position in the Continental Congress and on the Executive Council.  Reed also seemed to be a hard core idealist.  Like many leaders, he had lost a personal fortune as a result of the war.  General Howe had once offered Reed a £10,000 bribe to become an advocate for reconciliation, in other words, for the loyalist side.  Reed turned it down cold and reported the incident. Reed strongly supported the radical effort to punish any Tories who remained in Philadelphia.

Treason Trials

It wasn’t just the leadership that wanted punishment, the people of Philadelphia were demanding it.  Many of the wealthier families who got through the British occupation unscathed now found rocks being thrown through their windows, or being assaulted as they walked down the street. 

Many moderates were concerned that things could quickly spin out of control and into a reign of terror.  It seemed, though, that there would have to be some examples.  In the end, twenty-three men were indicted by a Philadelphia grand jury and put on trial for treason against the state by collaborating with the enemy. Ten others were indicted for other capital crimes.  

The courts, however, tended to be dominated by moderates.  Most of the accused were wealthy men who could hire good defense lawyers.  These lawyers knew who to put on the jury who did not want to see their neighbors die for doing what they had to do during the occupation.  In the end, only four were convicted of treason, and two of those were pardoned.  The unlucky two who were not were both Quakers: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts.

Abraham Carlisle was one of the first defendants brought to trial. The prosecution accused the prosperous, elderly carpenter, of serving as a guard at the city gates during the British occupation.  This meant that he had accepted a commission, worked in the service of the British Army, and was therefore a collaborator and a traitor.

The defense argued that the prosecution could not produce a written commission.  But several witnesses testified that that had seen him guarding the gate.  A jury found Carlisle guilty and sentenced him to be hanged.  He appealed his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction. Later, several people, including Chief Justice Thomas McKean petitioned the Supreme Executive Council to commute the sentence.  But the Council refused to do so.

The grand jury also indicted a miller named John Roberts, charged with recruiting men to join the British army. The defense argued that the prosecution could not produce one person who actually enlisted as a result of Roberts’ efforts.  But Roberts had confessed that he tried to recruit people and other witnesses testified to his efforts.  A jury found Roberts guilty and sentenced him to death.  Like Carlisle, he appealed to the Supreme Court unsuccessfully, and petitions to the Supreme Executive Council were denied.

On November 4, 1778. Both men were brought before a large crowd in the center of town.  They were led to a public gallows and hanged.

Both Carlisle and Roberts were older men and who were well known and liked in their communities, politics aside.  Their guilt seems pretty clear, but was not terribly different from perhaps hundreds of other men.  It seems they were chosen as examples, in part to mollify the radicals in the city.  Following their executions, cries for more treason trials fell off.  

The Shippens of Philadelphia

In this climate, many families who had successfully steered through the British occupation were concerned about what would happen to them.  One such family was the Shippen family.  

Edward Shippen was a well established jurist, and member of the Philadelphia establishment.  He was a direct descendant of a different Edward Shippen who helped establish the city with William Penn and served as its first mayor.

Edward Shippen
Before the war, Shippen tried to stay out of politics.  Although he was opposed to mob actions, he also made every effort to bend when the public demanded it.  During the Stamp Act, Shippen suspended his legal practice in order to avoid being attacked for using the stamped paper necessary for such practice.  At the same time, he was part of the colonial government establishment.  He sat on the Admiralty Court for a time, and also served on Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council under colonial Governor John Penn. Shippen also worked with Benjamin Franklin in founding the Junto discussion group, the city’s first subscription library, and the American Philosophical Society.

When the war began, Shippen’s positions in the colonial government targeted him as a potential Tory.  He tried to lay low, even moving out of Philadelphia to a country home in New Jersey for a time.  Shippen was not an outspoken Tory, but he did refuse to sign a loyalty oath to the radical new State Constitution in 1776.  As a result, he once again had to suspend his legal practice.

Shippen had one son and four daughters.  One of his daughters, Elizabeth was engaged to a Continental officer who was a British prisoner in New York.  All of his children, in their late teens or early twenties, were still living at home when the war began.  In December 1776 Shippen’s son, also named Edward, traveled to Trenton, New Jersey in an attempt to join the British army.  He was there at Christmas when the Americans attacked the city and took him prisoner.

George Washington personally freed the boy and allowed him to return home, but the incident did nothing to weaken suspicions about the family’s loyalist tendencies.  When the British army arrived in Philadelphia in 1777, Shippen used his prior position in the colonial government to stay on good terms with the British.  Judge Shippen did not stick his neck out or play any role in the occupation that would get him targeted as a collaborator. 

However, his youngest daughter Peggy, who was age 17 at the time, became active in the Philadelphia social scene, going to dances and other events with young British officers.  She ended up spending a concerning amount of time with a dashing British captain by the name of John AndrĂ©.

The Shippen girls were, by all accounts, attractive and active in Philadelphia society.  Shippen complained that Peggy spent the inflation-adjusted equivalent of well over one million dollars on clothes in just one year.  Like her sisters, Peggy was well-educated and well-read in matters of poetry, philosophy, and even politics.  She was comfortable among the social elites and enjoyed an exciting social life.  

That all ended for Peggy when the British evacuated.  Once again, patriots looked at the Shippens as loyalists.  While none of them had done anything that would bring criminal indictments, the fear of property confiscation or other random attacks by the public still loomed.  In the three years following the British evacuation, the state named 487 families accused of loyalism.  A few were imprisoned, but most had their property seized and were expelled from the state.

Recognizing how precarious his position had become, Shippen agreed to take the Pennsylvania loyalty oath. Beyond that, he needed to cultivate some connections with powerful patriots to provide cover against potential attacks. 

Arnold and Peggy

General Arnold had dined at the Shippen home before the occupation.  He knew Judge Shippen and had met Peggy when she was just sixteen.  His wife had died in 1775 and his three children were being raised by his sister in Connecticut.  

Peggy Shippen
Once Arnold became military governor, his sister and children joined him in Philadelphia.  Arnold held teas and other social gatherings for all of Philadelphia’s elite society, including those who were suspected loyalists.  Shippen welcomed the relationship, even after Arnold proclaimed his love for the 18 year old Peggy in September, 1778.  Shippen was reluctant to allow such a relationship, but did not stand in the way of it.

Arnold’s relationship with the Shippens and other suspected loyalists may have given some cover to the loyalists, but it greatly damaged Arnold’s reputation among radical patriots.  They saw Arnold as a corrupt leader, enriching himself from his government position, and providing protection to Tories who had collaborated with the British just a few months earlier.

Arnold, in turn, grew to despise the radicals, who he saw as persecuting good people, mostly because they were wealthy and had made efforts to protect their property in these difficult times.  On November 3, 1778, the night before the hanging of Carlisle and Roberts, Arnold held a public reception at City Tavern, personally inviting leading Quakers and accused loyalists to attend.  

In some ways, Arnold may have been oblivious to the local politics and the trouble brewing against him.  As a military officer in the Continental Army, he did not have to answer to state officials.  Arnold was focused more on his next career opportunity.  He was exploring the idea of being appointed an Admiral in the Continental Navy, and sailing off to the Caribbean to capture some island colonies for America.

This was not actually as far fetched as it might sound.  Even though he was an army general, Arnold had captained several ships in battle already, during the Valcour Campaign, and might very well have made a good naval commander.  Further, navy captains kept a share of the capture of prize vessels, which might have provided Arnold with a legitimate way to earn some money. The Continental Congress did not dismiss the idea because of any lack of faith in Arnold’s ability. Rather, the delegates figured that the French would handle all naval issues and there was no need to spend more money on building up a Continental navy with the related costs.  Further, France was planning to capture British colonies in the West Indies for itself.  Any plans for the US to begin capturing islands might have led to a rift in the alliance.

I only mention that to show where Arnold’s head was at the time.  He was looking to his own personal career future, which had nothing to do with the radicals in Philadelphia who complained about his ethical behavior.

Besides, there were many Pennsylvania leaders who supported Arnold.  Conservative patriots, including militia General John Cadwalader, Congressional Delegate Robert Morris, and Chief Justice Thomas McKean spoke approvingly of Arnold’s efforts to restore order in the city and protect the wealthy from what they saw as mob rule.  But to radicals like Joseph Reed, Timothy Matlack, or Thomas Paine, Arnold was a corrupt counter-revolutionary who was standing in the way of real reform and true republican government.

Arnold, of course, used to controversy and criticism continued to act as he saw fit.  Meanwhile the radicals only grew in power.  In December 1778, Joseph Reed took office as President of Pennsylvania.  One of his primary missions seemed to be to bring down Benedict Arnold.  The fighting would only grow between the two factions through 1779, but that will have to be the topic of a future episode.

Next week: We return to upstate New York where Tories and Iroquois warriors stir up more fighting at the Cherry Valley Massacre.

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Next Episode 202 Cherry Valley Massacre

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Further Reading


Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts Trials, 1778:

Maxey, David W. “TREASON ON TRIAL IN REVOLUTIONARY PENNSYLVANIA.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 101, no. 2, 2011, pp. i-212. JSTOR,

Larson, Carlton F. W. “The Revolutionary American Jury: A Case Study of the 1778-1779 Philadelphia Treason Trials” SMU Law Review, Vol. 61, Issue 4, 2008.

Kimsey, Kenneth The Edward Shippen Family: A Search for Stability in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Univ. of Arizona (dissertation) 1973:

Shippen Family of Philadelphia:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bancroft, George Joseph Reed; a Historical Essay, New York, W. J. Widdleton, 1867. 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, New York : Worthington, 1884. 

Kimsey, Kenneth Roeland The Edward Shippen Family: A Search for Stability in Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Univ. of Arizona (dissertation) 1973 (borrow only, see link under websites for downloadable version).  

Oberholtzer, Ellis Paxson Robert Morris, Patriot and Financier, New York: Macmillan Co. 1903. 

Reed, William Bradford Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 1 & Vol 2. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Foner, Eric Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Oxford Univ. Press, 1976 (book recommendation of the week).

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor William Morrow & Co. 1990. 

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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