Fathers of Progress: Quakers, Masculinity, the American Revolution, and the Birth of Reform

Delivered at the annual Graduate Student History Conference at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada in September 2012

Little research has been done on the role of Quaker men as conscientious objectors during the American Revolution.[i] The few works that do exist on the subject do little more than lump them with British loyalists, despite the fact that most remained neutral. This association is perhaps understandable. Patriot authorities after all, treated both groups similarly, punishing them with fines, imprisonment, and even exile for their refusal to fight for the American cause.

While Loyalists fled the American colonies after the Revolution, however, most Quaker men returned to their families, their homes, and their everyday lives in the newly founded United States of America. They went on to found reform societies that left an indelible imprint on the historical landscape of their country. To survive the hardships of an oppressed minority in a time of war and then return to live among one’s persecutors afterward, however, is no easy task and is one that doubtless changed their outlook.

Studies of conscientious objectors in the First and Second World Wars, Apartheid South Africa, the Gulf War, and modern-day Turkey have shown that many men who take on such roles are driven to reassess their own conceptions of what it means to be masculine and challenge the dominant masculinity of their broader society.[ii] It would stand to reason, then, that the experiences of Quaker men as conscientious objectors during the American Revolution would have a similar effect. In this paper, I argue that this is the case. In particular, I argue that Quakers’ notions of gender underwent a transformation as the result of their sufferings and that the gendered ways in which they participated in the reform movements of the early republic were the result.

Attempting to examine the experiences of all Quaker men in such a limited space would be an exercise in futility. I will examine one Quaker family of Philadelphia as a telling example, using their largely unpublished diaries and correspondence. The Fisher family was prominent both before and after the Revolution: before, because of their transatlantic business interests and after for their work in reform movements. The Fisher family men faced a powerful backlash when they decided (with the majority of their fellow Quakers) to remain neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and the colonies. At several points their shops and offices were searched and ransacked and the men themselves were fined for refusing to pay taxes or report for militia duty. When Samuel refused to accept Continental currency, he and several others were declared “ENEMIES to their country” by the local Committee of Inspection and Observation in 1776 and prohibited from all trade and intercourse with the inhabitants of the colony.[iii] Samuel Fisher later went on to fall victim to a verse in a popular ditty by Francis Hopkinson (signer of the Declaration of Independence), where he was painted as a Tory sympathizer in consort with the Devil.[iv]

In these respects, the Fisher family men suffered no differently than did other Quaker pacifists. Quaker men who refused to bear arms were often whipped publicly in front of their families and friends. Those who refused to contribute to the war effort as taxpayers were fined and forced to watch as their property was distrained (confiscated and sold to buy war materiel). Over £100,000 was taken from Quakers throughout the colonies over the course of the war. In Pennsylvania alone, Quaker families on average lost more than £25 per year (over half of the maximum average annual income for a Quaker household). Quaker men who refused to take an oath of allegiance were arrested and imprisoned without counsel, trial, or consideration.

The sufferings of the Fisher family men went considerably further, however. In 1777, three of the four Fisher brothers were arrested along with several other Quaker men of their community and sent to live under house arrest in Winchester, Virginia for almost two years.[v] These men, along with over fifteen others, became the famous “Virginia exiles.” The experiences these men had as exiles, I argue, ultimately led to feel they had failed as the masculine providers of their households. This sense of failure would one day lead them into the reform movements of the early republic. When the men were taken to Virginia, they registered their vociferous protests of their treatment each stage of their journey. Such protests, unfortunately, fell upon deaf ears. They soon found themselves with about the same status before the courts as women or slaves.

It was in this uneasy state that the Quaker men imprisoned in Virginia spent their first few months. They continued to send petitions and remonstrances protesting their imprisonment to anyone they could find in a position of authority. Meanwhile, Quakers in Philadelphia, and throughout Pennsylvania and Virginia vigorously protested the imprisonment to every legal body available. A deputation of Quaker men was sent to the encampments of both Generals Howe and Washington to protest the treatment of those men in exile and of Quakers in general. Unfortunately, it was all to no avail.

Despite their numerous protests, the men found themselves in captivity for months with no end to their exile in sight. Each week they held religious meetings to keep up their spirits and encourage each other to maintain their Quaker professions and principles. With each week the recorded number in attendance dwindled until almost no one was present at such gatherings. Then, in the winter of 1778, John Hunt and Thomas Gilpin both lost their lives under the strain of the hardships they experienced in Virginia. Physically and emotionally drained, their compatriots were losing all hope of ever seeing their homes again. Before the Revolution, these men had been powerful influences in their community. In Virginia, they found themselves powerless, un-manned subordinates.

It was at that moment, when all the men’s traditional measures had failed, that the wives, sisters, and mothers of the exiles took action. Preparing a petition, the Quaker women sent four representatives (Mary Pleasants, Susanna Jones, Eliza Drinker, and Phebe Penderton) through British and American lines to General Washington’s camp at Valley Forge and then onward to Lancaster, where their protests at the treatment of the husbands, sons, and brothers were to be registered with the President and Executive Council. Washington himself sent a copy of their letter to the Governor of the state, concluding his message “they seem much distressed – humanity pleads strongly in their behalf.”[vi] Addressing themselves as “the afflicted and sorrowful wives, parents, and near connexions of the Friends in banishment” the Quaker women pleaded passionately in their petition for the release of the men in Virginia before concluding that “this application to you on this interesting subject, is entirely an act of our own . . . we have not consulted our absent friends on the occasion” and “request you take no offence at the freedom of women so deeply interested as we are in this matter.”[vii]   While examples of women pleading with the state during this time (and using certain, stock language), it was the persistence and organization of their efforts that began to represent a shift in Quaker gender relations.

Within days the Quaker men in Virginia began their journey back to Pennsylvania upon the orders of the Board of War and the Executive Council specifying they be treated “with that polite attention and care due . . . to gentlemen whose stations in life entitle them to respect, however they may differ in political sentiments from those in whose power they are.”[viii] Where the repeated and numerous efforts of dozens of Quaker men had failed, it seemed, those of a handful of Quaker women had triumphed.

The story of the Virginia exiles can perhaps best be examined in terms of gender. Indeed, it has been by historians like Linda Kerber and Mary Beth Norton. These authors, however, focus primarily upon the situation of women. These experiences initiated broad shifts for men as well. The men who were arrested were forced to live for nearly two years without the women and children they had been taught their entire lives to comfort and protect. They could not act as they believed they ought as men. Instead, they were forced into a position of helplessness by a political system that would not listen to them. Slowly, as they realized their own powerlessness, they began to lose hope. It is clear from their own writings that what upset them most was the idea that they were unable to provide the comfort and protection their families needed from them. In numerous petitions to various political institutions they protested a separation from their “tenderest connexions” in a time of “increasing distress and calamity” because it was a time when their “presence and assistance were essentially necessary.”[ix] Yet, their female relatives had managed to survive without them, comforting and protecting their families in the absence of their men and even securing their men’s freedom when they themselves could not. It seemed their “connexions” had managed to accomplish more in their absence than they ever had before the Revolution began. It was the realization of that truth that had the greatest potential for impact.

This potential can be more fully understood by examining such experiences on a more individual level. The case of Samuel Rowland Fisher is particularly useful, especially given the fact that his experiences lasted quite a bit longer than those of the other Virginia exiles. In July of 1779, Samuel found himself imprisoned by the American authorities once again as a person “inimical to the cause of America.”[x] The subsequent two years he spent in prison (as seen in his personal journals) mirror almost exactly the processes seen during the exile in Virginia – a comparison Samuel drew frequently in his journals – and clearly demonstrate the impact such persecutions had had on the Fisher family.

Like the Virginia exiles, Samuel began his ordeal sustained by “more freedom & ease of mind than many others,” a sentiment bolstered by his faith in Divine Providence.[xi] “I am entirely conscious of having given no just occasion to any man or body of men to be thus treated [during his imprisonment] & I am thankful in mind that I not only feel this consciousness during my present confinement, but that I felt it before my being sent a prisoner to Winchester & since during the Calamities, which have attended the Inhabitants of this Land,” he wrote to Joseph Reed, President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania.[xii] It is clear from these words that Samuel looked forward to upcoming ordeals with manly stoicism.

Once the news of his brother Jabez’s death reached Samuel, however, he could barely sustain himself under the shock. “Being quite unexpected & unprepared for such an event . . . I continued much indisposed for some days,” he wrote in despair.[xiii] It is only through the religious meetings Samuel held with his fellow inmates that the faith he maintained in his own inner strength managed to survive. “Most of us have without any notice given to each other, sat down in Silence for about 2 hours every first day morning,” he noted appreciatively, “my mind at these, as well as many other times, has been deeply & I hope thankfully impressed with a clear evidence of the divine Support we are upheld by during our confinement.”[xiv]

Despite his assertions, however, after two years the toll his imprisonment had taken on his manly fortitude was evident (just as it was in the case of the Virginia exiles). “I [am] in the midst of the greatest Wickedness & amongst the most depraved of human Species,” he told every friend or visitor that happened upon him.[xv] His greatest fear, he wrote, is that he “might be carried away with the Torrent.”[xvi] That fear sent him spiraling into depression. “My mind has been & is more depressed with fear least I & the family may not stand thro this tryal,” he recorded after two years in prison, “that Dismay has been the very frequent Companion of my Mind & I have been frequently unable to take a very little food & perhaps should have taken none for some days, but lest the family might be too much alarmed & I could not be free to impart to them the depth of my Concern on my own & their account.”[xvii] Like the Virginia exiles, however, what saddened him most was the thought that his family would not be able to continue without his guidance and direction as the head of the family. “My mind is frequently so depressed & generally so very low, that the Situation of my aged father & my Sisters Esther & Sally is at times ready to overwhelm me,” he wrote in despair “for I used to have the principle Care & direction of the family & I am fearful my Sisters in particular are almost ready to faint on account of our complicated tryals.”[xviii]

His sisters, however, had other ideas (most likely inherited from their experiences during their brothers’ exile in Virginia). On the 30th of June, 1781, Samuel recorded with some astonishment that “my Sisters Esther & Lydia went this Morning without my knowledge or Suspicion to Joseph Reed & asserted my innocence & informed of my poor State of health” and “told him in the Strongest terms that I could not accept of my release on any other terms than that of an entire innocent Sufferer.”[xix] Three days later, they repeated their performance for Timothy Matlack, secretary of the Executive Council, “assert[ing] my innocence in clear & strong Terms.”[xx] Matlack, they told their brother, left the meeting “uneasy on my account & was desirous of my release.”[xxi] Four days later they visited William Moore, the Vice President, and “asserted my innocence to him in clear & express terms,” assertions to which he “appear’d to listen . . . with attention & civility.” “He said he would use his endeavors for my release,” Samuel repeated with some skepticism.

Others had attempted to gain his liberation, petitioning, writing letters, and visiting politicians. None had succeeded thus far. But, just as during his exile in Virginia, it is his female relatives, rather than his male family members, friends, or champions, who succeed in gaining for him his eventual release. Within a day Timothy Matlack had organized a petition on Samuel’s behalf to the Executive Council. By the end of the month, a full pardon was issued for Samuel by the Executive Council ordering that he be freed and no longer “molested, disturbed, or aggreived.”[xxii] Once more (and yet somehow to Samuel’s surprise) it was women that manage to wend their way through the political system of a revolutionary America and secure the termination of his sufferings.[xxiii] The women had rescued their men, but not without further trammeling the men’s sense of masculine self-assertion.

It is doubtful, however, that Samuel fully realized the implications of those events in the immediacy of his release. Instead, the next day he returned home to his family physically drained and emotionally numb. “My release from prison gave me no great emotion of my mind,” Samuel records, “which I expect was in part owing to the many severe Shocks I have felt during my Imprisonment . . . which have in part blunted the Edge of my sensations either for Sorrow or Joy.”[xxiv]

The shock Samuel felt after a further two years of imprisonment is, to say the least, understandable. However, the manner in which his experiences mirror his (and the rest of the Virginia exiles’) experiences from 1777 to 1778 has larger implications. It indicates that the slow descent into helplessness that characterized their crisis of masculinity while their women managed without them was not an isolated occurrence. Instead, it was something that Quaker men most likely typically underwent when they were unable to provide for their families. Indeed, it was a trend not experienced simply by a small group but by the Quaker community at large and throughout the Revolution. Furthermore, it indicates that the women of the Fisher family had learned from their experiences during the Virginia exile. When the time came to act on their brother’s behalf, they knew exactly what to do and had the confidence to do it. This fact is borne out in the personal correspondence of the Fisher family throughout that period and indicates that while the Fisher men lost all sense of masculine power, their women gained social and political confidence in leaps and bounds.[xxv]

The Fisher family men were not alone in such experiences. Their situation repeats itself in the papers of many other Quaker men and their families. Take, for instance, the masculine anxieties found in the letters and diaries of Richard Vaux (also of Philadelphia). In 1775, Vaux was arrested and accused by an unnamed committee of submitting writings to the Pennsylvania Ledger that were sympathetic to the Loyalist cause. His response to these charges makes his frustration at being unable to take firm masculine action clear. My incarceration is “derogatory to my Honour and Character as a Man,” he wrote forcefully, “I was not the Author of said Extract.”[xxvi] When the committee did not find this response satisfactory and ordered his confinement under house arrest, he fled to London. He remained there for the duration of the war, attempting to support his female relatives from across the Atlantic Ocean.

Such transformative experiences can even be seen in the famous diaries of Elizabeth Drinker, whose husband Henry was arrested and exiled to Virginia along with the Fisher family men. By February of 1778, the letters she received from her husband had begun to drip with despair. In one, she notes that the letter from her husband indicated that his “Hopes [were] all Crush’d for the present.”[xxvii] In another, she recorded in her diary that “from the appearance of [Henry’s] writeing he [was] very poorly.”[xxviii] The relief she felt when she found upon his return that he was “much hartier than [she] expected” is obvious in the tone of her writing.[xxix] Unfortunately, her relief was short-lived. Within two weeks she found that her husband “ha[d] been unwell for several days past” but had been loathe to worry her with that information.[xxx] Evidently Henry Drinker wished to resume his position as unfailing provider of his family without difficulty. His desire to do so was, unfortunately for him, frustrated by his wife’s insistence that he seek out the expertise of a doctor the next day.[xxxi]

Despite – and I argue, perhaps because – of their wartime hardships, all of these men became actively involved in charitable organizations in the early republic. Thomas Fisher (along with Henry Drinker) helped found the Westtown Boarding School and was one of the managers of the Pennsylvania Hospital.[xxxii] His brother Miers was a founding member and the first Counsellor of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery of Philadelphia.[xxxiii] Through his position as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he helped draft and pass bills that began the gradual abolition of slavery in Philadelphia, abolished the death penalty for a number of crimes, and appropriated £15,000 for his brother’s work at the Pennsylvania Hospital.[xxxiv] Before the Revolution the Fisher family business had on numerous occasions participated in the sale of slaves. In the years afterwards, they refused to do so again, even going so far as to draft a petition protesting the presence of a slave ship in Philadelphia’s harbor.[xxxv] Richard Vaux also became involved in reform movements after the Revolution. His son, Roberts, became one of the most widely known philanthropists of the nineteenth century.[xxxvi]

Before the American Revolution, charity was the passion of only a few men like John Woolman and Israel Pemberton.[xxxvii] After the Revolution, Quaker men began joining reform movements in droves and insisted on a gendered separation within social reform movements. They had spent the years of the Revolution unable to act as they believed men should. According to Bruce Dorsey in his book Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City, while Quaker women were able to practice the public participatory skills that they had nurtured during the Revolution, Quaker men used membership in such reform movements to “construct . . . notions of manhood that were in opposition to other men” outside of their Society and challenge their militaristic, class driven, slave-holding conceptions of masculinity.[xxxviii] It was important, then, that the differences between masculinity and femininity within Quaker society be firmly established if a conception of masculinity in opposition to the dominant one was to be formed and maintained. Quaker men did so, Dorsey argues, by rejecting a sympathetic approach to reform in favor of punitive “workfare” programs that encouraged direct employment and job training among indigent men. By emphasizing such policies, Quaker men were able to strengthen the connection between dependency and femininity and stress their conception that social problems like poverty were a “threat to manliness” that required a reemphasis of masculine independence and dominance over women.[xxxix]

It is evident from their writings during and after the American Revolution that the chemistry of Quaker masculinity was forever changed by the sufferings of Quaker men during that conflict. Where before they had been the unchallenged heads of their own households, they were afterwards forced to deal with a feminine strength and purpose forged in their absences. Such men began participating in charitable movements that would help bring about the end of slavery and the betterment of American society as a whole. While such actions would seem to indicate that they were actually progressing toward a new era of liberalism, Quaker men were, in fact, attempting to reclaim an earlier (and much more traditional) one. By joining such organizations, Quaker men hoped to regain control of gender relations within their own Society. Within a few years, however, they would discover that such an attempt was doomed to failure. Quaker women followed quickly behind their men, creating largely successful reform societies completely independent of those of Quaker men. The political and social confidence they had gained in the Revolution had continued into the early republic and with it came the birth of reform.

[i] See Adair P. Archer. “The Quaker’s Attitude Towards the Revolution.” The William and Mary Quarterly 1.3 (1921): 167-87. Print.; Margaret Hope Bacon. The Quiet Rebels; the Story of the Quakers in America. New York: Basic, 1969.; Francis S. Fox. Sweet Land of Liberty: the Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2000. Print.; Sydney V. James. “The Impact of the American Revolution on Quakers’ Ideas about Their Sect.” The William and Mary Quarterly 19.3 (1962). Print.; William C. Kashatus. Conflict of Conviction: a Reappraisal of Quaker Involvement in the American Revolution. Lanham: University of America, 1990. Print.; Jack D. Marietta. “Wealth, War and Religion: The Perfecting of Quaker Asceticism 1740–1783.” Church History 43.02 (1974): 230-41. Print.; Arthur J. Mekeel. The Quakers and the American Revolution. York, England: Sessions Book Trust, 1996. Print.; Anne M. Ousterhout. A State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution. New York: Greenwood, 1987. Print.; Karin A. Wulf. “”Despise the Mean Distinctions [these] Times Have Made”: The Complexity of Patriotism and Quaker Loyalism in One Pennsylvania Family.” The American Revolution. American University. Web. 16 June 2011. <http://revolution.h-net.msu.edu/essays/wulf.html&gt;.

[ii] See Marlene Epp. “Heroes or Yellow-bellies?: Masculinity and the Conscientious Objector.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 17 (1999): 107-18. Print.; Lois Bibbings. “Images of Manliness: The Portrayal of Soldiers and Conscientious Objectors in the Great War.” Social and Legal Studies 12.335 (2003): 335-59. Print.; Timothy Stewart-Winter. “Not a Soldier, Not a Slacker: Conscientious Objectors and Male Citizenship in the United States during the Second World War.” Gender & History 19.3 (2007): 519-42. Print.; Daniel Conway. “Masculinity, Citizenship, and Political Objection to Military Service in Apartheid South Africa.” (Un)thinking Citizenship: Feminist Debates in Contemporary South Africa. Ed. Amanda Gouws. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub., 2005. Print.; Carl Mirra. “Conscientious Objection in Operation Desert Storm.” Peace Review 18.2 (2006): 199-205. Print.; Fatma O. Aktas. “Being a Conscientious Objector in Turkey: Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity in a Militaristic Nation-state.” Diss. Central European University, 2009. Print.

[iii] In Committee of Investigation and Observation. Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1776. Print.

[iv] Francis Hopkinson. A Tory Medley. Philadelphia, 1780. Print.

[v] The only Fisher brother not arrested and exiled to Virginia, Jabez, was forced to flee to London for the duration of the war for his perceived Tory sentiments.

[vi] Gilpin, 223.

[vii] Gilpin, 280-1.

[viii] Gilpin, 221.

[ix] Gilpin, 179.

[x] Samuel Rowland Fisher. “Journal of Samuel Rowland Fisher of Philadelphia, 1779-1781.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 41 (1917): 192.

[xi] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 191.

[xii] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 191; 197.

[xiii] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 276.

[xiv] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 292.

[xv] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 432.

[xvi] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 432.

[xvii] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 433-434.

[xviii] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 425.

[xix] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 433; The terms of Samuel’s release had on numerous previous occasions been a sticking point with those attempting to secure his freedom. While Samuel refused to be released on any other terms, many of the men who had taken up his cause had (to his frustration) proven themselves willing to do so on any terms whatsoever.

[xx] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 434.

[xxi] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 434.

[xxii] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 445.

[xxiii] This is not the experience only of Quaker women. As Linda K. Kerber and Mary Beth Norton point out in their respective works (see Mary Beth Norton. Liberty’s Daughters: the Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Print. and Linda K. Kerber. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina, 1980. Print.), many women were forced into the typically masculine arena of politics in an effort to provide for their families. Many of these women used these experiences to slowly gain more rights under the new political system of the early republic. Quaker women, however, used their experiences to begin widespread reform efforts within their society. Quaker men (forced to realize their own failure and their women’s success during the American Revolution) were likewise changed by their experiences. This male experience is little discussed by such authors. It is here examined in as much depth as possible given certain page constraints.

[xxiv] Samuel Rowland Fisher, 448.

[xxv] “Fisher Family Papers, 1761-1889.” Www.hsp.org. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. <http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/f/fisher2094.htm>.

[xxvi] Richard Vaux letter, 7 February, 1775, Vaux Family Papers (Collection 684), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[xxvii] Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and Elaine Forman. Crane. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1991: 285.

[xxviii] Drinker, 296.

[xxix] Drinker, 302.

[xxx] Drinker, 305.

[xxxi] Drinker, 305.

[xxxii] John W. Jordan. Colonial Families of Philadelphia. New York: Lewis Pub., 1911, 666.; Drinker, 1191n.

[xxxiii] Jordan 668.

[xxxiv] Jordan, 668.

[xxxv] “Fisher Family Papers, 1761-1889.” Www.hsp.org. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. <http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/f/fisher2094.htm>.

[xxxvi] “Vaux Family Papers.”

[xxxvii] John Woolman and Israel Pemberton were just two of a small cadre of reformers within the Society of Friends before the American Revolution that fought to convince their fellow Quakers to support abolitionism and other reform efforts. For a lengthier discussion of their contributions, see Edwin Harrison Cady. John Woolman: The Mind of the Quaker Saint,. New York: Washington Square, 1966. Print. and Theodore Thayer. Israel Pemberton King of the Quakers,. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1943. Print. For primary source material, see John Woolman and Phillips P. Moulton. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. Richmond, IN: Friends United, 2000. Print.

[xxxviii] Bruce Dorsey. Reforming Men and Women: Gender in the Antebellum City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2002: 109.

[xxxix] Dorsey, 75.


2 thoughts on “Fathers of Progress: Quakers, Masculinity, the American Revolution, and the Birth of Reform

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s