"Despise the mean Distinctions [these] Times Have Made": The Complexity of Patriotism and Quaker Loyalism in One Pennsylvania Family

Karin A. Wulf,
American University

Like other civil wars, the American Revolution asked ordinary people to chose between two extraordinary positions. The Revolution forced competition among colonists' allegiances: to England and the King, to colonial homes and families, and even to religious convictions. To support the war was to refute the King, to oppose the war was to deny one's homeland. For Pennsylvania Quakers (members of the Society of Friends), decisions about whether to support or oppose the war were further complicated by the inherent conflict between two deeply held beliefs: their pacifist principles and their desire to protect and support the colony founded by William Penn.

As in the Civil War, or a century later the Vietnam War, rival allegiances divided many families. Even the family of such famed Patriots as John Dickinson and Charles Thomson was beset by internal dissension. Dickinson and Thomson, key members of Pennsylvania's moderate and radical Patriot factions respectively, had married cousins from a prominent, powerful, and wealthy Quaker family. Mary Norris Dickinson and Hannah Harrison Thomson were granddaughters of Isaac Norris I, one of Pennsylvania's leading Quaker merchant-politicians of the early eighteenth century, and Mary Norris was one of the richest heiresses in Pennsylvania when she married John Dickinson in 1770. Family relations were strained but not severed by divergent political positions held during the Revolution; within this one extended family were prominent Patriot politicians, Loyalists who were jailed by the Patriots and whose property and person were under threat from American mobs, and many disgusted with the excesses of both sides in the conflict. This diversity of views did not go unnoticed. Dickinson's and Thomson's political views placed Loyalist members of their family---aunts, uncles, and cousins by marriage---in the peculiar position of both eschewing the Patriot cause and hoping for its triumph if only to guarantee the security and prosperity of their kinfolk. In addition, Dickinson's efforts to chart a moderate course, and the Loyalism of his in-laws, only served to make him suspect in the eyes of other Patriots.

Unlike the many Loyalists who eventually fled the civil war, most Pennsylvania Quakers remained in the colonies only to find themselves subjected to the wartime passions of both sides. While Quakers at first supported patriotic resistance to the British, they soon grew uncomfortable with the radical nature of the movement. Quakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere joined most colonists in opposing the British taxation policies of the 1760s and 1770s. The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Duties of 1767 occasioned protests, including strict boycotts of British goods. As the poet Hannah Griffitts wrote, Quakers would "Stand firmly resolved & bid [English Minister George] Grenville to see/That rather than Freedom, we'll part with our Tea." Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic heralded the repeal of the Stamp Act and most of the Townshend duties. After these initial forays into protest politics, however, Quakers became uneasy with the Patriots' increasingly radical and sometimes violent responses to British actions. The Tea Act of 1773 was followed by the Boston Tea Party, and the passage of the Coercive or Intolerable Acts closing Boston's port was quickly succeeded by the formation of the First Continental Congress. This seemed too much. Quakers saw that Patriots' interest in reconciliation with the British was waning, and their fears of imminent warfare proved too quickly well founded by the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord.

First articulated during the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, the Quaker Peace Testimony committed members of the Society of Friends to nonviolence. Believing that violence was a product of the kind of "lusts of men . . . out of which lusts the Lord hath redeemed us," Quaker founder George Fox declared in 1684 that "the Spirit of Christ will never move us to fight and war against any man." The Peace Testimony previously had caused Friends political trouble in Pennsylvania, especially during the Seven Year War when other Pennsylvanians were calling for an armed response to Indian provocations on the colonyUs frontier. Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly had resigned rather than accede to those demands. The Revolution thus not only raised anew concerns about Quakers' potentially contradictory commitments to Pennsylvania and pacifism, but also intensified them.

For Quakers, finding a middle road would prove a frustrating task. At first they tried simply to advocate conciliatory measures. At home they published statements condemning all (English and American) breaches of law and the English constitution; in England they tried to broker reconciliation with the king. Their efforts were to no avail. With the Revolution underway, in September of 1776 the largest organization of Quakers in America---the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting---formally directed its members to observe strict neutrality. This meant that Quakers should not vote or take oaths of loyalty to support either side, should not engage in combat or pay for a substitute (a not uncommon practice in that era) and should not pay taxes to support the war effort. The responses of Quakers to these requirements varied. Probably the majority, torn by conflicting loyalties, sympathized with both sides. Many remained tacit Loyalists, supporting without materially aiding the King's army. Other Quakers renounced neutrality and actively sided with the Patriots. In Pennsylvania almost 1,000 Quakers were disowned during the course of the war, the large majority of them for taking up arms. One group even formed their own separate denomination, the Free Quakers or Fighting Quakers, whose leader Timothy Matlack served on political committees alongside such radicals as ex-Quaker Thomas Paine.

Largely because of this variety of positions, the perception among both Patriots and Loyalists was that Quakers could not be fully trusted. In the Delaware Valley, where for most of 1776 and 1777 first the British and then the Americans held sway, Quakers were punished by each side for their supposed allegiance to the other. The Norris-Dickinson family felt the wrath of both Americans and British. While the Americans occupied Philadelphia, for example, Patriot mobs ransacked many Quakers' homes. A cousin of Mary Norris Dickinson watched from a neighbor's home as "the mob attacked our house . . . . breaking the windows . . . . they came a second time to our houses & pounded with stones. . . . they were determined to have our house down." Then in September of 1777 the Patriots arrested twelve Quakers and exiled them to Winchester, Virginia, because of the potential threat they posed to the American position. Among the exiles, confined until late April of the following year, were three Norris relations. In turn, the British burned the Norris family home of Fairhill just north of Philadelphia, where John and Mary Norris Dickinson lived after their marriage, specifically because it belonged to "that Patriot Dickinson."

The harsh repercussions of perceived political loyalties made any position of moderation hard to maintain, and highly suspect. John Dickinson and, to a lesser degree, Charles Thomson felt this reality very keenly. Even though he was never anything but an ardent Patriot, in the eyes of some rebellious colonists Dickinson's brand of political moderation was tarred with the brush of Quakerism, and by extension the taint of Loyalism. Actually, he came late to any appreciation of Quaker political positions. Dickinson had long opposed Pennsylvania's Quaker Party in the provincial assembly, and was justly famous for his early opposition to the taxation policies which had flamed the fires of Revolution. His set of twelve essays, the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767), gave thoughtful voice to many colonists' views of the Townshend duties: no revenue-producing taxes were constitutional unless the peopleUs representatives had voted for it. Without colonial representation, Parliament could justify only regulatory legislation. Despite this early and very public opposition to British policies, Dickinson was at heart a moderate. He worried about measures that would lead to a head-on confrontation with the British. For the first time he began to labor in earnest with Quakers who shared his concerns. As a delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, he worked with the city's leading Quakers to produce a temperate result. More radical Patriots, however, interpreted Dickinson's actions as the result of meddling Quakers, whom they accused of pressuring him via his Quaker wife. It is true that one of those Quakers to whom Dickinson turned for consultation was James Pemberton, a close kinsman of Mary Norris Dickinson who had given the young heiress intensive and invaluable counsel after the death of her father and before her marriage. Pemberton ended up as one of the Quakers exiled to Winchester by the Americans. How must John Dickinson have felt as his wife's relation, and his sometime partner in moderation, was treated thus? When Dickinson suffered a political setback in 1776 (he was not returned to Congress after a nasty battle over the nature of Pennsylvania's new state constitution) he laid the blame squarely at the feet of those who saw his marriage to a Quaker and his new-found sympathy with some aspects of Quaker positions as evidence of his insufficiently patriotic views. He could hardly help but take these things personally.

Other members of the family were similarly torn. Quaker poet Hannah Griffitts was cousin to both Mary Norris Dickinson and Hannah Harrison Thomson. She corresponded regularly with both, although she felt a special kinship with Mary Dickinson as the two had lived together at Fairhill for more than a decade before the latter's marriage. During the war, Griffitts expressed unwavering support for her two cousins even as she constantly derided what she saw as the extremism of the American position. Griffitts lashed out at Thomas Paine, calling him a "Snake beneath the Grass" whose radical message drowned out the voices of "moderate M[e]n." At the same time she was not much easier on the British, often finding their behavior in Philadelphia boorish and overly militaristic. She viewed the Meschianza, an elaborate festival the British in Philadelphia arranged to honor the departing General Howe, as indicative of a "deep degeneracy of nature." When it came to her cousins, Griffitts tried to be diplomatic. She remarked to Mary Norris Dickinson only that she thought the Patriots had "Push'd things to an Extremity." She passed on the news to another cousin that, after decamping Philadelphia during the city's British occupation, Hannah Thomson was quite "Happy in a social society of sentiments alike, [because] 'Not one Tory suffer'd to breathe the air of Baltimore.'"

Mostly Hannah Griffitts deplored the situation which had led to the division of her family and her society. In her writings she anguished over the tragedies of war and the disunity which had claimed Pennsylvania. In a poem about the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Long Island, she wrote movingly of the impact of "wars devouring rage" and hoped (vainly) for a speedy resolution.

Oh! Speak contending brethren into Peace
Bid the sweet Cherub bless our weeping Shores
And friends again in her soft Bands unite

The theme of resolution and reconciliation marked other of Griffitts' wartime poems, including one in which she sympathized with the family of a fallen American soldier. The real disaster, as she saw it, was the "mean Distinctions times have made." The Revolution, as she knew all too personally, had the potential to "break each sacred Tye, each social Band/and in affliction plunge the parent Land."

During the Revolution Americans advocated a variety of different political views. While it is important to recognize the distinctions between the Patriot and Loyalist positions, it is also important to note that there were many people who sympathized with aspects of each position. While some families were torn apart, others found that their bonds of affection and mutual obligation were severely tried, but not broken, by conflicting political convictions. The extended family of John and Mary Norris Dickinson represents these difficulties in microcosm. In the realm of politics and warfare, ardent Loyalists and avid Patriots traded sharp insults and ultimately mortal blows. In the realm of the family, such extremity could be tempered by sympathies engendered by close contact with and knowledge of "the enemy."

[A fuller account of this family during the Revolution, as well as many of Hannah Griffitts' Revolutionary era political poems, can be found in Catherine La Courreye Blecki and A. Wulf, eds. Milcah Martha Moore's Book: A Commonplace Book from Revolutionary America (1997). On Quakers and the Revolution, see Arthur Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution (1979). For more about Loyalists, see Robert Calhoon, The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760-1781 (1965), and Anne M. Ousterhout, A State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution (1987).]

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