Philadelphia in 1779 was feeling the ravages of war. A year after the British occupation had ended, locals were still struggling to clean up the city. The economy was in a state of collapse. Militia were sick of being called out continually for one action after another. Goods were scarce and the poor were starving.
Republicans and Constitutionalists
I’ve covered some of the divisions in Philadelphia between the radical patriots, who pushed through a new constitution in 1776, and the more moderate patriots, who were reluctant to declare independence, in Episode 97. Over the next three years, the divisions continued to keep Philadelphia in separate camps.
|James Wilson Home 3rd & Walnut, Philadelphia
Traditionally Quakers had controlled Pennsylvania. Patriots, however, had pushed this group out of power due to their loyalist nature and refusal to support the war. Even so, many patriot leaders, men like James Wilson or Robert Morris, both reluctant signers of the Declaration of Independence, did not want the state to devolve into what they saw as chaos and anarchy as power in the state transitioned.
These wealthier patriots formed the Republican Society in January of 1779. Their goal was to support the cause of independence, but at the same time, maintain a familiar economic, class, and social structure that allowed elite families to run the state. The Society opposed the Constitution of 1776 that had allowed pretty much any adult male to vote, regardless of property, and which had given much more political power to the less populated counties on the Pennsylvania frontier, meaning less power for those in and around Philadelphia.
The result of the 1776 Constitution was a massive power shift turning over political power to radicals, who were quick to confiscate or tax the property of the wealthy and who seemed to suspect the loyalty of all men of property.
|Charles Willson Peale
The Constitutionalists viewed the Republicans as counter-revolutionaries. Even if these republicans were not loyalists (and they suspected that many of them secretly were) they were trying to subvert the democratic gains of the 1776 Constitution and put all real political power back into the hands of a few elite families.
Price Fixing and Shortages
The Constitutionalists controlled the state government at this time. They dominated the legislature and the executive council. But if they wished to remain in power, they would need to keep the voting public happy. And the voting public was not particularly happy. Since the British had evacuated Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, the city had been left a mess. Buildings and streets had to be repaired and cleaned. There were shortages of everything. Food and firewood were in short supply.
On top of all of that was the high inflation caused by the proliferation of Continental dollars, and the legal requirement that everyone accept the paper money. Prices soared everywhere in 1779, of course hurting poorer workers with the inability to feed their families when wages did not keep up with inflation.
Many of the poor in Philadelphia had been part of the patriot militia who had fought in the Philadelphia campaign and who had been forced to remain outside the city during the British occupation. Their military responsibilities had made their economic situations even worse. Upon returning to work in the city after the British evacuation, inflation was preventing them from being able to feed their families.
These men tended to place the blame for their situation on the merchants. Wealthy merchants, many of whom had worked with the British during the occupation, still had food and supplies, but were unwilling to sell them at a reasonable price.
Many of the radicals, trying to organize, held a town meeting in May of 1779, calling for more affordable food and supplies. The militia then took it upon themselves to form a mob and arrest merchants who refused to sell necessities at a fair price. A broadside posted around town captured the feeling of many:
For our Country’s Good!
The Depreciation of our money and the high prices which everything is got to, is one and the same thing. We ask not who introduced this evil, how it arose, or who encouraged it. In the midst of money we are in poverty, and exposed to want in a land of plenty. You that have money, and you that have none, down with your prices, or down with yourselves. For by the living and eternal God, we will bring every article down to what it was last Christmas, or we will down with those who opposed.
We have turned out against the enemy and we will not be eaten up by monopolizers and forestallers.
[signed] Come on Cooly
On their own, militia members began arresting merchants and throwing them in jail for price gouging.
At the town meeting on May 25, the people passed resolutions in condemnation of Toryism and monopolizing. They called for the formation of committees to look into cargo imports and ensure that the contents were sold at a reasonable price. They also formed a committee to set prices at a reasonable level.
|President Joseph Reed
The militia continued their enforcement of these price restrictions, throwing more merchants in jail the following week for refusal to sell goods at reasonable prices. Many of the men jailed were also suspected Tories. A few had been tried and acquitted for collaboration during the occupation. The militia nevertheless thought they were guilty and arrested them again.
This movement had been a popular uprising, not led by the radical government. However, the radical Supreme Executive Council quickly took up the cause. It asked for a list of those people who were jailed, so that “justice” could be done to them. They needed to retake control of the situation or risk being pushed aside. Many of those arrested were tried, and most acquitted, to the frustration of many radicals.
The Executive Council’s action did have its intended short term effect of curtailing more street arrests by the militia. The price-fixing committee got to work setting prices for goods and inspecting imports as well as warehouses and homes to prevent hoarding. The committee also expanded its jurisdiction into controlling housing rentals.
The committees were not really part of the government. It was an extra-legal committee formed at the town meeting. So its ability to enforce its decrees were questionable. The committees held public meetings to listen to complaints. They did not take direct action against the accused but simply publicized their actions and left it to them “to make their peace with the public.” Merchants realized that failure to keep the public happy could lead to further violence.
For merchants subject to these restrictions, the response was predictable. Many tried to smuggle their goods out of the city to sell them at market value in other jurisdictions. Others tried to hide what they had. They stopped importing more items that they would have to sell at a loss. Some attempted to get around price-fixing by selling the goods at the required price, but requiring an exorbitant price for the barrel that it came in to make up the difference.
The committee tried to bring these resistance efforts to light. It also began requiring permits for the export of goods out of the city, in order to prevent merchants from trying to get a better price elsewhere. In July, the efforts almost created an international incident after the committee seized flour that the French had purchased and ordered shipped to the French Army. Ambassador Gerard had to intervene, receiving an apology and permission to ship the flour to America’s allies in the field.
A second town meeting was held on July 26 to discuss how to continue the efforts. The Chair of the price fixing committee General Daniel Roberdeau gave a speech trying to tie the price fixing efforts to the patriotic cause, but also noting that violence would play into the enemy’s hands by creating the disorder that the loyalists claimed could only be solved by British rule.
The town meeting doubled down on the policy of restricting the sale of just about any goods to the amount they cost at the beginning of the year. In a year of hyper-inflation and requiring merchants to accept the increasingly worthless paper money, this made shortages even worse. The committee called for new elections to the price-fixing committee and also read the names of merchants who were suspected of continuing to sell goods at higher prices. The elections held a week later, would elect the more radical ticket by a more than 80% margin.
Three prominent opponents of the price-fixing policies attempted to address the meeting. General John Cadwalader, along with Robert Morris and James Wilson, who had both served in the Continental Congress, attempted to address the meeting on behalf of merchants, but were shouted down.
The Republican Society attempted to make more public the concerns of the merchants. They compared price fixing to a tax since it deprived merchants of their property without being justly compensated. In September, a group of eighty merchants and traders signed a protest against price fixing, pointing out that it was making the scarcity problems even worse. They called for a return to free markets and free trade in order to bring back the goods to the city, which were needed.
The merchants, however, simply did not have the political power to do anything. The public was clearly and overwhelmingly in support of the price fixing policies, and continued to blame the shortages on the greed of recalcitrant merchants.
The Militia Takes Action
Over the course of the summer, prices continued to soar and shortages got even worse. No one would import anything into the city that they knew they would have to sell at a loss. The suffering poor continued to direct their wrath at the wealthy merchants, who they associated with Tories. These were enemies of the people, enriching themselves on the suffering of others.
On August 29, a new broadside appeared in the streets of Philadelphia:
GENTLEMEN AND FELLOW CITIZENS
The time is now arrived to prove whether the suffering friends of our country, are to be enslaved, ruined and starved, by a few over-bearing Merchants, a swarm of Monopolizers and Speculaters, an infernal gang of Tories, &c. &c. Now is the time to prove, whether we will support our Committee or not, whether we shall tamely sit down and see the resolves of the Town-meeting and Committee, violated every day before our faces, and the Delinquents suffered to go unpunished; the case is just this, your opponents are rich and powerful, and they think by their consequence, over-awe you into slavery, and to starve you in the bargen. But I say it a shame and disgrace to the virtuous sons of Liberty, while the ALMIGHTY is fighting our battles without, to suffer those Devils of all colours within us, to overturn all that God and Man has done to save us. My dear friends, if our Committee is overturned, our Money is inevitably gone, the British Tyrant will then think his Golden bribe has not been misapplied. But I call upon you all, in name of our Bleeding Country, to rouse up as a Lyon out of his den, and make those Beasts of Pray, to humble, and prove by this days conduct, than any person whatever, though puffed like a Toad, with a sense of his own consequence, shall dare to violate the least Resolve of our Committee, it were better for him, that a Mill-stone was fastened to his neck, and he cast into the depth of the Sea, or that he had never been born, Rouse! Rouse! Rouse! And COME on WARMLY
The ending words “come on warmly” were meant as a direct contrast to the ending of the broadside released in May that ended with “come on cooly.” The earlier ending meant that the issue should be resolved through the legal process and without resorting to violence. The latter ending was suggesting a more violent response.
There were calls to rid the city of the “unamerican elements.” Some targets were the wives and children of loyalists who had fled the city to remain with the British in New York. Other targets were Quakers and suspected Tories who had collaborated with the British but had not been convicted of anything. Also targeted were merchants who refused to abide by price controls for goods that the population needed to survive.
Militia began arresting merchants that they believed were hoarding goods, or charging too much for them, and simply throwing them in jail. They marched the men through the streets of Philadelphia, playing the rogue’s march, a tune normally used to march a dishonorably discharged soldier out of the army.
Battle of Fort Wilson
Things came to a head when the Committee of Privates called for a mass action on Monday October 4. It asked Peale and some other radical leaders to attend a meeting at Burn’s Tavern. Peale went with the intent of calming the situation and talking the militia out of any rash actions. The militia, however, would not be dissuaded with words. Peale and the other radical leaders left the meeting in frustration. The militia remained at the tavern, drinking and planning next steps.
A few hours later, the militia marched into the streets of Philadelphia, looking to arrest those responsible for the suffering of the people. The grabbed John Drinker, a wealthy Quaker merchant who was known for refusing to accept Continental paper money and who refused to abide by the price controls. They arrested three other merchants as well.
The militia broke into the homes of several other merchants, looking to arrest them, but finding them conveniently gone. By this time, many merchants or others who might incur the wrath of the mob had gone into hiding.
That afternoon, the militia, about 200 strong, marched their prisoners through the streets in carts, trying to shame and ridicule the men.
Several militia officers tried to route the militia away from Wilson’s house, a solid brick building at the corner of Third and Walnut Streets, but the men refused to be turned away, threatening the officers with bayonets.
The militia began to march past Wilson’s house, with the eighteen defenders manning muskets at all the windows. Inside the home, Captain Robert Campbell, a Continental officer who was in Philadelphia as an invalid, called on the marchers to move on. One of the militia turned and fired at Campbell, killing him instantly. This set off an intense firefight on both sides.
The militia ran for cover, leaving five dead or wounded bodies laying in the street. General Mifflin, inside the house, had once been a popular militia leader, but his decision to join the Republican society made him an enemy of the radicals. He also called on the militia to disperse. His call was met with a gunshot which, fortunately for him, missed its mark.
A group of militia armed with sledge hammers knocked down the back door and entered home, only to be met with musket fire from the stairs. The defenders shot one of the attackers. While the attackers managed to grab and bayonet a defender, David Chambers, a militia colonel and member of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council. The defenders drove the attackers back out the back door and barricaded the doorway against another attack.
The militia kept up fire but did not attempt another assault on the house, apparently waiting for a field cannon to be brought to the location. Before the artillery could arrive, President Joseph Reed rode up to the house, pistol in hand, and accompanied by city troops under the command of Major Lenox. The troops arrested twenty-seven of the militia as the rest scattered.
Shortly after the arrival of Reed, General Benedict Arnold also arrived on site. Arnold and the radical President Reed, of course, were in the midst of a major political fight of their own. Arnold noted “Your President has raised a mob and now he cannot quell it.”
When it was over five dead and fourteen wounded militia lay in the streets. In the house Campbell lay dead, while three other defenders were wounded.
Wilson and the other prominent defenders of what was now called the “battle of Fort Wilson” had to leave town or go into hiding for fear of reprisals. Wilson went to Robert Morris’ country home. The day after the attack, another group of militia from Germantown threatened to march on the city unless the militia who had been arrested were released. Reed rode up to Germantown to confront the militia there, leaving Timothy Matlack, secretary of the Executive Council, in charge of the prisoners. Matlack, faced with a local mob, opted to release the prisoners. Instead, the radical leadership in Philadelphia required the Republican defenders of Fort Wilson to post bail and face trial.
These actions seemed to diffuse the immediate crisis. In March 1780, the Executive Council issued a general pardon to everyone on both sides who had participated in the action. The class divisions within the city remained on edge, but the leaders managed to diffuse a descent into mob rule.
Next week, the Continental Congress attempts to establish more foreign alliances and sends more ministers to Europe.
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Diestelow, Kevin “The Fort Wilson Riot and Pennsylvania’s Republican Formation” Journal of the American Revolution February 28, 2019, https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/02/the-fort-wilson-riot-and-pennsylvanias-republican-formation
Alexander, John K. “The Fort Wilson Incident of 1779: A Case Study of the Revolutionary Crowd.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1974, pp. 589–612, https://doi.org/10.2307/1921605
Ireland, Owen S. “The Ethnic-Religious Dimension of Pennsylvania Politics, 1778-1779.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1973, pp. 423–48, https://doi.org/10.2307/1918483
Pennsylvania Tax Laws in Force During the American Revolution https://members.sar.org/media/uploads/pages/228/LzpwfRzwzuGr.pdf
Smith, C. Page. “The Attack on Fort Wilson.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 78, no. 2, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1954, pp. 177–88, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20088567.
Rosswurm, Steve, et al. “EQUALITY AND JUSTICE: DOCUMENTS FROM PHILADELPHIA’S POPULAR REVOLUTION, 1775–1780.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 52, no. 4, Penn State University Press, 1985, pp. 254–68, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27773073.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Alexander, Lucien Hugh James Wilson, Nation-Builder (1742-1798), The Boston Book Co. 1907 (originally published as a series of articles in The Green Bag Feb-May 1907).
Reed, William B. The Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Vol. 2, Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.
Wilson, James The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, L.L.D., Late One of the Associate Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Professor of Law in the College of Philadelphia, Vol. 1, Philadelphia, Bronson and Chauncey, 1804.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Foster, A. Kristen. Moral Visions and Material Ambitions: Philadelphia Struggles to Define the Republic, 1776 – 1836. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004.
Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution; The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggles to Create America, New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Rosswurm, Steven. Arms, Country and Class; The Philadelphia Militia and the “Lower Sort” during the American Revolution. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987 (or on archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.