Stories from PA History
The American Revolution, 1765-1783
The American Revolution, 1765-1783
Chapter One: Revolutionary Politics

"How could a motley collection of ambassadors from a dozen belligerent colonies effectively organize as a single, independent and defiant body?" asked John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the First Continental Congress and the leading advocate for American independence, when he arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1774.
This cartoon, circulated after the 1763 Conestoga massacre, criticizes the Quakers for their support of Native Americans at the expense of German and Scots-Irish backcountry settlers. Here, a "broad brim'd" Quaker and Native American each ride as a burden on the backs of "Hibernians."
"The German Bleeds and bears ye fur, 1764." Inset: A Narrative of...

Adams, like the British government itself, underestimated the ability of the colonists to band together to create a nationalist sentiment that transcended regional, religious, ethnic, and economic differences. While a growing effort to oust the proprietors dominated Pennsylvania's provincial politics, the colony's radical leaders eagerly wedded that cause to the larger continental protest against British taxation and trade regulations. Thus, the internal revolution against the Penn family became inextricably bound to the larger cause of American independence.

In the decade leading up to the Revolution, Pennsylvania's situation was unique among the thirteen colonies. On the western frontier, the Scots-Irish and other settlers were infuriated by the Proclamation Line of 1763, which prevented them from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains, where Indians held title to the land. In addition, the proprietors' refusal to raise a militia for their protection inflamed western settlers. In the east, merchants and farmers were forced to rely upon complex accounting and barter because the proprietors refused to issue paper money. Farmers, who previously sold their surplus for export, discovered that increased prices reduced their profits. Thus, Pennsylvanians were caught in a double bind - while Parliamentary taxes raised tempers, a shortage of paper currency left the colony with little money as they struggled through a postwar depression.

At the same time, however, the Pennsylvania legislature, dominated by the Quaker Party of markerBenjamin Franklin and wealthy landholders from the east, never endorsed resistance to Britain's revenue-raising measures. They were concerned that such resistance would jeopardize their immediate objective - courting favor with the Crown to replace the Penn family. Only when dissatisfied members of both the Quaker and Proprietary parties joined forces did the Assembly recognize the need for both internal and continental political change.

Organizing themselves into a "Whig" faction, this bipartisan group found its leader in Philadelphia lawyer markerJohn Dickinson, who warned that "once Parliament had its foot in the door the several colonial legislatures would, before long, fall into disuse and nothing would be left for them to do, higher than to frame by-laws for the impounding of cattle or the yoking of hogs." 
John Dickinson, half-length portrait, standing, facing slightly right, right elbow resting on "Magna Carta" and in his hand he holds "Farmer's letters"; oval within frame, text printed below.
"The Patriotic American Farmer. J-N D-K-NS---N Esqr. Barrister at Law,"...

The Whigs, in fact, turned out to be moderates. When the Grenville ministry, in 1765, issued a tax on all postage, wills, death certificates, and other legal documents, the legislatures in Massachusetts and Virginia mobilized to resist the measure. But Pennsylvania's Assembly limited its protest to the Stamp Act to a polite request "that the law be repealed." The conservatism of the colonial legislature and its Quaker and Proprietary parties created a political vacuum that was quickly filled by political outsiders like indebted shopkeeper markerTimothy Matlack.

These were self-taught intellectuals who impassioned the artisans, laborers, and petty merchants with their fiery rhetoric in the taverns and coffeehouses of the city and with their revolutionary writings. Excluded from the formal channels of political power by the moderates who controlled the Pennsylvania legislature, these radicals formed their own extra-legal committees of correspondence to lead the economic boycott of British products and to organize for American independence.

Outside of Pennsylvania, the Stamp tax created a firestorm of opposition throughout the colonies. Asserting that the new tax violated their rights under the English constitution, colonial elites joined with colonists from all social and economic ranks to rally around the cry, "No taxation without [Parliamentary] representation!" Opponents to the Stamp tax disrupted British trade so severely that they forced Parliament to repeal the law. But the damage had been done. Colonial legislatures became more vigilant over Parliament and its regulation of trade than ever before.

When Parliament, in 1767, levied a restrictive duty on glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea, John Dickinson, now considering himself a "moderate patriot," argued that Parliament had "no right to tax the colonies without their consent."
Captain Ayres broadside
Tea protest broadside, Philadelphia PA, November 27, 1773.
His plea against this unconstitutional measure helped unite colonists in a non-importation agreement that cut all British exports by 60 percent and forced Parliament to rescind all but the tea tax. After Boston's radicals held their famous tea party, in December 1773, to protest the remaining tax, an angry Parliament suspended the Massachusetts charter and closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. Massachusetts immediately called for an inter-colonial congress to arrive at an appropriate response.

Until this time, Pennsylvania's resistance had been confined to Philadelphia. But when markerGovernor John Penn refused to call together the Assembly to select delegates to this First Continental Congress, the radicals took charge. Joining with moderates, they organized themselves into Committees of Correspondence, which then selected the delegates and called for the establishment of similar committees throughout the colony. The Pennsylvania Assembly selected moderates Joseph Galloway, Charles Humphreys, and Samuel Rhoads to the Congress, along with radicals
Black and white image of Carpenters Hall
Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1920.
markerThomas Mifflin, markerJohn Morton, George Ross, and Edward Biddle.

Convening at Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall on September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress adopted a sweeping non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreement, and approved a petition of rights and grievances to be sent to King George III that asserted the rights of the colonists to regulate their own internal affairs. Before adjourning the delegates also agreed to convene a second continental congress, also to be held in Philadelphia the following spring.

The Quaker city became the epicenter of the Revolutionary movement because of its fortuitous geography. Located midway between Massachusetts, the northernmost colony, and Georgia, the southernmost colony, Philadelphia was the largest city in British North America and a convenient meeting place for the delegates to continental congresses who arrived from across the eastern seaboard. In fact, some delegates, both moderates and radicals, argued against gathering in Philadelphia because the unpredictable political temper of the city might sway the proceedings of congress in an unfavorable direction.

In 1774, Philadelphia's radicals began a two-year campaign to overthrow the Penn family proprietorship. Through newspapers, pamphlets, committees of correspondence, and group protest, the radicals were able to convince moderates, both in the city and in the backcountry, to join their cause. markerJames Smith of York, markerGeorge Taylor of Easton, and other backcountry representatives rallied for independence. At the markerFirst Presbyterian Church in Carlisle and in Hanover Township, Dauphin County, new radical leaders drew up "resolves" committing themselves to the patriot cause.
Photograph of the Graff House
The Graff House, 7th and Market Streets, Philadelohia, PA, circa 1855.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, the opening salvo of the War for American Independence had already been fired in the Massachusetts villages of Lexington and Concord. After the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1776 Washington shifted his forces southward to protect New York and prevent the British from splitting the colonies in two.

Spurred by Thomas Paine's eloquent call for independence in his widely read pamphlet, markerCommon Sense, Pennsylvania, in June 1776, declared itself an independent state. In the weeks that followed, the legislature, now controlled by the radicals, ratified a new marker constitution. Rejecting the once revered British model of a balanced government, the new state government provided for an all-powerful unicameral legislature and replaced the governor with a veto-less plural executive elected by the people.

To ensure that legislators would be accountable to the people, the new constitution provided for annual elections, the rotation of officeholders, legislative proceedings that were open to the public, and the election, every seven years, of a Council of Censors that would determine violations of the constitution. In yet another bold move, unprecedented in English history, the legislature dispensed with property qualifications for holding office, and awarded suffrage to all men over the age of twenty-one who paid taxes. This new constitution was the most radical of any in the colonies. Caught up to the revolutionary spirit sweeping the colonies, Pennsylvania surpassed them in its enactment of republican ideals into law.

On July 2, 1776, the Congress committed itself to American independence by adopting the resolution of Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, which was "these colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent states, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain be totally dissolved."
The first painting that Trumbull completed for the Rotunda shows the signing of the Declaration of Independence in what is now called Independence Hall, Philadelphia. The painting features the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Robert Sherman, Thomas Jefferson (presenting the document), and Benjamin Franklin – standing before John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress. The painting includes portraits of 42 of the 56 signers and 5 other patriots.
Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull, commissioned in 1817.
Two days later, on July 4th, the delegates voted to adopt the marker Declaration of Independence, a document addressed to a "candid world," that explained the reasons for the separation.

The Declaration also produced the first open debate over the issue of abolitionism, as it questioned the morality of the slave trade. In Philadelphia, this issue struck a resonant chord with the city's Quakers and African Americans. In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first state to begin the gradual abolition of slavery. By 1800, all but fifty-five of Philadelphia's more than 6,400 blacks were free. Philadelphia's expanding free black population quickly established its own businesses, schools, churches, and other community institutions. Protesting against seating restrictions in the city's white churches, African American leaders organized a markerFree African Society in 1787. Their efforts gave force and meaning to the Revolutionary principles of individual liberty and equality of condition.

During the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania State House - today known as Philadelphia's Independence Hall - became the center for the wartime business of the new United States government. Here, Congress created a new constitution called the marker Articles of Confederation, ratified treaties of commerce and military alliance with France, negotiated foreign and domestic loans, and established itself as both an executive and judicial body. When the British occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-78, Congress sought sanctuary in the countryside west of the city, holding their proceedings first at the markerLancaster Court House, and then for nine long months at the markerYork County Provincial Courthouse, before returning to Philadelphia shortly after the British evacuation in June 1778.

Pennsylvania was, indeed, the birthplace of American liberty and the keystone of the fledgling nation. But the new democratic ideology inspired by the Revolution also spurred the formation of new political forces that would battle for control of state government after the war's conclusion. Both during and after the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania "constitutionalists" who supported the radical 1776 state constitution and the conservatives who opposed it engaged in nasty political battles - over the state militia, price fixing, Tories, banking, and other issues - that continued until ratification of a new state constitution in 1790. Their differences both reflected and had serious implications for the fledgling national government, which struggled with its own ability to govern thirteen states who saw themselves as distinct and separate political bodies.

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