Prisoners of Congress: Philadelphia’s Quakers in Exile, 1777–1778


September 11, 2023
by Kim Burdick Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Prisoners of Congress: Philadelphia’s Quakers in Exile, 1777-1778 by Norman E. Donoghue II. )Penn State University Press 2023)

This carefully researched book supplements much of what has been previously known about Quaker history. The Quaker faith proclaims, “take no part in carrying on war on any occasion or under any power but lead quiet and peaceable lives in Godliness and Honesty among men.” Most Quakers did not participate in the Revolution nor donate supplies for American soldiers. They did not acknowledge the legitimacy of Pennsylvania’s emerging government but called it “the present powers.” The circulation of fake news known as the “Spanktown Papers,” and businessmen refusing to use America’s newly minted Continental currency, caused Quakers to be seen as traitors.

On September 11, 1777, seventeen Quakers were exiled by the Second Continental Congress and the State of Pennsylvania. None of them had been convicted of a crime. Sent to Winchester, Virginia, the men found “much enmity amongst the people.” “Some stones were thrown at us . . . the face of everything much changed.” “Our friends . . . were violently pulled away, struck and stoned.” At one stop, a man pointed a gun and hurled invectives at the exiles.

The Philadelphia grapevine announced that exile Thomas Gilpin had died in Virginia and that others, including Henry Drinker and John Hunt, were ill. Mary Pemberton, who had hosted George Washington at her home in 1774, sent a letter to “Esteemed Friend” Washington, asking him to provide protection for two wagons to deliver medical supplies to the exiles in Winchester.

Elizabeth Drinker, Suky Jones, and Molly Pemberton Pleasants decided to try to bring the exiles home. They wrote a plea to government officials, stating this was “Entirely an Act of our Own, we have not consulted our absent friends. [We] request that you take no offense at the freedom of women so deeply interested as we are in this matter.” A woman related to each exile signed this petition. This may have been the first recorded instance in the history of the State of Pennsylvania, and possibly in the new republic, when women took collective political action.

Elizabeth Drinker, Suky Jones, Phoebe Pemberton, and Molly Pemberton Pleasants travelled to Valley Forge with their petition. Arriving on April 6, 1778, they were told they could have a pass only as far as Lancaster. Washington then sent State President Thomas Wharton, Jr., a letter telling him that women associated with the exiles had requested permission to visit Congress, then convening in York, Pennsylvania, to “endeavour to obtain the release of their Friends.” He concluded that the women “seem much distressed. Humanity pleads strongly in their behalf.”

The women soon received surprising news. Plans for the men’s release were underway. The Congressional Board of War had voted on March 16 to give control of the prisoners to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The Board of War, led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, instructed Virginia authorities to release the exiles to Pennsylvania authorities. They were to take the exiles to Shippensburg, eighty miles west of Lancaster.

Now the Supreme Executive Council offered to take the men to Lancaster. Perhaps this change of location was in response to the women’s advocacy. With a “little practice,” Timothy Matlack, Secretary of Pennsylvania, told James Pemberton the women could become “able politicians.”

When the exiles arrived in Lancaster on April 25, they applied to Supreme Executive Council for a “proper discharge.” They were refused but the Council did grant them a pass to Pottsgrove, where they applied to Washington for permission to return to Philadelphia.

Passes with the names of the exiled men who “Having been discharged by the Executive Council of this State, have permission to return to Philadelphia unmolested” were received. On April 30, the exiles arrived in Philadelphia, discovering British officers quartered in their homes. These unexpected guests probably reminded them and their Patriot neighbors of the reason why they had been sent to Virginia in the first place—supposed collaboration with the enemy.

In 1784, a state agency announced the Pennsylvania government had been wrong to suspend Habeas Corbus in its earlier treatment of the exiles. That report declared two parts of the Banishing Law of 1777 were unconstitutional, but it was not until 1789 that reconciliation between the temporal government and the Religious Society of Friends occurred.

With the U.S. Constitution ratified by most of the states, a President elected and sworn in, and the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776 to be replaced by the moderate constitution of 1790, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, in response to this more orderly government, sent a delegation to meet with the new leader of the country. Although they emphasized, they would “take no part in carrying on war on any occasion or under any power,” their esteem for George Washington was evident. “We feel our hearts affectionately drawn to Thee.”

Author Norman Donohue is a fine historian who brings life to this little-known story. The chapters focused on the bravery and daring of Philadelphia’s Quaker women are particularly engaging, and broaden the scope of interest for this book. Members of organizations like the League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women will be impressed by this story of their predecessors’ achievements.

Nicely illustrated with traditional Quaker silhouettes, the book ends with a brief update on each of the players, showing how they settled back into society. An excellent reference section includes end notes, bibliography and index. Prisoners of Congress brings to life an important and compelling event of the American Revolution. Read it. You’ll like it!

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN HARDCOVER or KINDLE(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

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