Drinker, Elizabeth

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(b. February 27, 1735; d. November 24, 1807) Quaker diarist who described hardships of the Revolutionary War for neutrals.

Elizabeth Drinker's diary chronicles the impact of the Revolutionary war on neutral Quakers in Philadelphia. A native Philadelphian, Drinker was born to prosperous Quakers, William Sandwith and Sarah Jervis, who gave their daughters a better-than-usual education. After her parents' death in 1756, the twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth and her older sister Mary lived with friends until Elizabeth married the widower Henry Drinker on January 13, 1761.

Henry Drinker was a partner in one of the city's leading import-export firms. The couple had nine children between 1761 and 1781, of whom five survived to adulthood. The household also included Elizabeth's sister Mary and several servants. In 1771, the family demonstrated their elite status by moving to a large, three-story brick house on Front Street, overlooking the Delaware River. A large yard in the back housed a garden, stables, well, and wash house.

In 1773, the British government appointed the firm of James and Drinker to receive and sell East India tea imported under the Tea Act. Drinker and his partner resigned their appointments amidst heavy public pressure. Even though Elizabeth Drinker, her sister, and her daughter Sally provided medical help to Americans held as prisoners of war in occupied Philadelphia, they could not erase the public suspicion that they were British supporters.

In order to maintain their neutrality, Quakers refused to sign non-importation agreements, illuminate their houses to celebrate American victories and independence, supply belligerents, or take paper money issued by the new governments. They also refused to swear (or affirm) loyalty oaths. In September 1777, Pennsylvania arrested twenty leading Quakers men, including Henry Drinker, and sent them into captivity in Virginia, supposedly to prevent them from aiding the approaching British. Thus Elizabeth Drinker faced the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777 and 1778 as a single head of a household that included five children aged three to sixteen, her sister, and a series of constantly changing servants.

Elizabeth Drinker was unable to prevent one of her female servants from running off with a soldier, or to protect her household from break-ins by soldiers. One soldier simply walked in and took blankets from the house. She reluctantly agreed to provide quarters for a British officer who took over the front of the house, the stables, and the kitchen. Although his presence crowded the Drinkers, the officer and the family had a generally good relationship, and after the British withdrew they maintained a correspondence until his death late in the war. The officer's presence afforded the family some protection from other incursions.

Despite Drinker's belief that women should not take public roles, she joined with the wives of the other detainees to draw up a petition to Congress. She had already defied regulations by sewing money inside the clothes she sent to her husband. Drinker was one of four women sent by the detainees' families in April 1778 to present their case to General George Washington and Congress, then sitting in Lancaster. At Valley Forge, Washington and his wife entertained the women but could not do more than give them passes through American lines. On April 24, 1778, after a month of negotiation, the surviving men, including Henry Drinker, were released and allowed to return to Philadelphia. Two had died in captivity.

The return of the American forces to Philadelphia brought the Drinkers no relief from harassment. Americans searched their home several times for British trade goods, confiscated blankets and horses to supply the army, and seized numerous pieces of fine furniture to satisfy fines levied against Quaker noncombatants. The Drinkers, however, did not suffer the fate of some of their friends who openly worked with the British. Two were hung, and others had their land and all their property confiscated. Elizabeth Drinker maintained her friendships with these families. In October 1781, a mob targeted Quakers who had not put candles in their windows to celebrate the victory at Yorktown. They broke over seventy panes of glass and smashed the front door in the Drinker home.

Once peace was restored, the Drinkers resumed their normal life and work. As their children came of age and married, the family shrank and Drinker had more time to write and read, including such contemporary authors as Mary Wollstonecraft. She continued to provide medical advice for her family and enjoyed long visits with her grandchildren. A near invalid and in great pain, Drinker lost heart after the death of her daughter, Sally, from cancer and died two months later on November 24, 1807. Her beloved companion, Henry, died in 1809. Her life illustrates the dangers suffered—at the hands of both loyalists and patriots—by those whose religious convictions required them to remain neutral during war.


Crane, Elaine Forman, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 volumes. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.

Crane, Elaine Forman, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.

Evans, Elizabeth. "Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker." In Weathering the Storm: Women of the American Revolution. New York: Scribner, 1975.

Joan R. Gundersen

See also:Adams, Abigail; Generals' Wives: Martha Washington, Catherine Greene, Lucy Knox; Madison, Dolley; Republican Womanhood; Sampson, Deborah.