Pennsylvania, Mobilization in

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Pennsylvania, Mobilization in

PENNSYLVANIA, MOBILIZATION IN. In 1680, founder William Penn established Pennsylvania to serve as a Quaker colony and as an experiment in diversity. He succeeded beyond his fondest dreams and most dreaded nightmares—by the late eighteenth century, Pennsylvania had become one of the most varied polities in the Atlantic world.


Although technically under the umbrella of a single colonial and, later, state government, Revolutionary-era Pennsylvania consisted of four distinct regions, each with its own political, economic, ethnic, and geographic characteristics. Each of these regions experienced the upheavals of imperial and internal conflict differently from the others. Furthermore, Pennsylvanians jealously guarded local control over their affairs, and often conceived politics on local, colonial-state, and national scales. Thus, although connected by shared governmental structures and engaged in the same imperial and national struggles, Pennsylvanians mobilized for and fought several connected but unique American Revolutions.

From east to west, Pennsylvania was home to a major Atlantic port city, a few counties of primarily English Quaker stock that held disproportionate political power in the colonial legislature, a large and very agriculturally productive central area settled mostly by Germans and Scots-Irish, and rugged western country hotly contested among two groups of settlers and several Indian groups. Boasting a population of over 20,000 people in 1770, Philadelphia had grown to become the largest city in the British colonies, and indeed one of the largest in the British empire, and it was the colony's economic, cultural, and political capital. The city's artisans and laborers produced a myriad of goods, while its merchants bought grains, beef, flour, and other local surplus commodities and distributed them throughout the Atlantic world in exchange for goods that they distributed throughout the colony.

Bucks and Chester Counties, adjacent to Philadelphia, generally provided goods as well as political sympathy for Philadelphia. Together with Philadelphia, these two counties held enough seats in the colonial legislature to dictate colonial policy, and both areas proved at best to be ambivalent about the Revolutionary cause. Central Pennsylvania boasted perhaps the finest farmland in the Atlantic world—it was called by many "the best poor man's country." Its residents provided most of Pennsylvania's men, materials, and passion in support of the rebel side. Finally, the Juniata and Wyoming Valleys became the site of some of the Revolution's most brutal fighting. In the Juniata Valley, the violence largely occurred between whites and Indians. In Wyoming Valley, rival groups of white settlers battled over land claims rather than over ideology or imperial authority.


In contrast to the colony's diversity and internal conflict, most Pennsylvanians hesitated to engage in resistance against British imperial policies. In this they reflected the attitudes of their middle-colony neighbors more than those of their New England or Virginia cousins. During the late 1760s and early 1770s, with the exception of the Stamp Act that was universally opposed in all the continental colonies, few Pennsylvanians strongly objected too, much less protested, changes in imperial policy. For decades two elite, Philadelphia-based political factions had dominated Pennsylvania politics: a proprietary party that supported the Penn family and was composed primarily of Anglicans and Presbyterians, and an assembly party that favored converting Pennsylvania to a crown colony and was composed primarily of Quakers and their allies. While quick to oppose each other's policies, both factions were cautious when it came to resisting royal authority.

The first rumblings of discontent came from Philadelphia. This is not surprising, given that the city was more closely connected through commerce and politics to the empire and to other colonists than were the other Pennsylvania communities. Thus it was only natural that the people of the city were the first to sense and react to changes in the political winds. Even here, however, resistance to the Stamp Act that sparked such vehement demonstrations in New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the spring of 1765 resulted in comparatively muted protests. Neither of the two elite political factions favored strong action. Not until March 1769 did Philadelphia merchants finally and reluctantly join the non-importation agreements that other colonial merchants had immediately initiated to protest the Townsend Duties that had been passed nearly two years before, and the Quaker City men only did so after much prodding from a popular coalition of laborers and artisans. That radical coalition managed to get several of its members elected to the city council from 1770 on, and would lead the colony-wide resistance to British rule.

Although resistance to British authority built slowly in Pennsylvania, events moved swiftly from 1774 forward. Despite the local protests of Philadelphia's popular coalition and a colonies-wide call for delegates to attend the first Continental Congress, Governor John Penn decided upon a course of inaction by not allowing the colonial legislature to meet. He thereby effectively prevented the colony's elected representatives from selecting delegates to the Convention, which nonetheless would be held in Philadelphia. Accordingly, the city radicals and their moderate allies began the process of creating a network of Committees of Correspondence that served as the backbone of resistance to British authority and the skeletal beginnings of Pennsylvania's Revolutionary government. These Committees nominated delegates to the Continental Congress, which soon returned the favor by authorizing Committees of Associators (whose members were often the same as those who staffed the Committees) to enforce Continental Congress edicts and, after 1775, to raise militias.

Throughout Pennsylvania, these Committees took it upon themselves to supplant legal authorities and to harass those that opposed them or even tried to remain above the fray. They were especially effective in central Pennsylvania, which soon surpassed Philadelphia in terms of support for the rebellion. Nonetheless, unlike in most other colonies, the colonial assembly still steadfastly clung to its vision of an America that remained underneath the protection and authority of Britain, neither recognizing the Committees nor voting for independence—despite meeting in the same building as the Continental Congress while it debated the issue of independence during the spring of 1776.

The Committees of Correspondence finally called for a Provincial Assembly to write a new constitution in June 1776. In some ways, Pennsylvania's resulting founding document was the most democratic of all the new state constitutions, in that it established a unicameral legislature, legislators served one-year terms, the executive branch had almost no power, and nearly all white men could potentially be eligible to vote. However, that last and most crucial measure—the extension of the franchise—was only offered to those willing to swear allegiance to the new government. In requiring this, the new constitution created both a political and religious litmus test for citizenship. Those who did not support the new government or its policies, or those whose religions did not allow swearing (a provision clearly directed at Quakers, who could not take oaths), were not only out of power but beyond civil protection. The Quaker colony was dead, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took its place.


Pennsylvanians fought the Revolution within Pennsylvania on two parallel tracks. In most of the new state, Revolutionaries had seized the upper hand by the summer of 1776. Thus, on a state scale, the goals at first were clear. The Revolutionaries fought to secure their own sovereignty—that is, to establish and maintain Pennsylvania as a republican member of the new United States. The Loyalists, on the other hand, fought to restore the authority of their sovereign, King George III. In more practical terms, for Revolutionaries at the beginning of the War this meant pursuing a defensive strategy of defending the new state's territory and waters from the depredations of British regulars, auxiliaries, and their Indian allies, while for Loyalists it entailed encouraging British troops and their allies to re-establish control. The main exceptions to that rule would be Philadelphia for a brief time, which the British occupied from September, 1777 to June, 1778; parts of the Wyoming Valley controlled by nominal Loyalists; and areas of western Pennsylvania—especially the Juniata Valley—that constituted a no-man's-land for much of the war.

Viewed from the local level, however, Pennsylvanians fought for a variety of ends. In Philadelphia, radical workers and tradesmen aimed to keep and institutionalize the power they had gained through the Committees of Correspondence. Not only did they want a more egalitarian government, but they also hoped to use it to enforce an economy in which local needs and fair prices for necessary goods superceded transatlantic commerce and profiteering. Many were also sympathetic to the state's largest concentration of enslaved African Americans, who saw the Revolution as their opportunity for freedom. Other tradesmen, including a large portion of the merchant community, sided with moderate Revolutionaries, who hoped that the Revolution would bring relief from imperial trade restrictions without replacing those measures with American ones or upending the colonial social, political, and economic order. Philadelphia remained home to a large Loyalist population, although as many as 3,000 fled when the British occupying forces evacuated in the summer of 1778.

While many states were home to "disaffected"—that is, people who tried to avoid choosing sides, generally out of fear—Pennsylvania was unusual in that a significant slice of Philadelphia's population and an even larger proportion of the people in nearby Bucks and Chester Counties refused to fight at all: the pacifist principles of the Quakers prohibited taking up arms under any circumstances, and indeed, during the course of the war, Quaker meetings in Pennsylvania shunned members who joined the fight on either side. Members of some pacifist German religious settlements, such as the Moravians and the Mennonites, did the same. In addition, Bucks and Chester Counties also hosted many disaffected and only a small but active community of Revolutionaries.

Most central Pennsylvanians strongly supported the Revolutionary effort. Much of the German population there fought in the Revolution to demonstrate their equality to their English-speaking neighbors. Having suffered under-representation in the colonial Pennsylvania legislature, central Pennsylvanian Revolutionaries also saw the war as a chance to level the political playing field with eastern Pennsylvanians. At the same time, many men in local Committees of Associators exploited their positions in order to establish local politics along new lines and to settle local scores, nearly always in the name of weeding out perceived traitors but often with the purpose of humiliating or fleecing unpopular neighbors.

Wyoming Valley residents welcomed the Revolution merely by taking on new labels. Both the colonial Pennsylvania and Connecticut governments claimed the land, so the white settlers who upheld Pennsylvania claims (called "Pennamites") and those supporting Connecticut authority (called "Yankees") had already been skirmishing since 1769. The two groups quickly took sides in the Revolutionary conflict. The now-Loyal Pennamites and the Revolutionary Yankees remained much less concerned about who governed in Pennsylvania (or, for that matter, in Connecticut) than they were about gaining clear title to their lands.

Finally, in the Juniata Valley, most whites did not hesitate to take arms on the Revolutionary side. For decades, they had complained that the eastern-tilted, Quaker-heavy legislature had neither the interest nor the stomach to drive Indians off lands that the Juniata settlers coveted, or even to retaliate for what settlers argued were Indian atrocities (notwithstanding that white settlers committed more than their share). Like those in the central part of the state, they were heartened by the combination of increased legislative representation and the effectual banishment of Quakers from government. At the same time, Indian groups such as the Iroquois, Delawares, and Ohios had little love for Pennsylvania settlers and could easily see that the British would be more likely to protect their interests than would the new Pennsylvania government. Accordingly, the Native Americans of the region either took the British side almost immediately or were to drawn into the fight against the Revolutionaries as the violence mounted.


Just as much of the fighting in Pennsylvania hinged on local relationships and ambitions, Pennsylvania's efforts at mobilization and supply were often prompted by national or state officials, but took place mostly at the local level, especially in terms of recruitment. Pennsylvanians not only fought in Continental units (which were collectively known as the "Pennsylvania Line"), but also as members of the state militias, as sailors in the Pennsylvania navy, and as irregulars on both sides of the conflict. In the first year or two of the campaign, many Pennsylvanians were eager to serve. That eagerness would not last.

Unique among the colonies, Pennsylvania had little militia tradition to call on: because of the long-standing pacifist influence of the Quakers in the colonial legislature, the colony had never established a permanent militia, although it had briefly raised troops at a couple of junctures during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Revolutionary Pennsylvanians first organized fighting forces in May 1775, after they learned of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Local Committees of Associators, already active in enforcing boycotts of British goods and essentially in control of local affairs in much of the state, formed militias to send to Massachusetts. In many areas, for the first two years of the war these local, voluntary, loosely-organized units often did more to establish what they considered a proper Revolutionary order at home than they contributed to combat, especially because some of their more militarily inclined members joined up with Continental forces. In the Wyoming Valley, little additional organization was necessary. After all, these men had already been engaged in skirmishes for six years before war broke out in Massachusetts.

In the Juniata Valley and other western areas, the colonial government had done all it could to restrain frontier violence, so settlers needed little prompting from outside to begin hostilities with Indians, regardless of whether those Indians were friendly or hostile. For their part, motivated by their desire to protect their land and to revenge their losses, and prompted by British promises of security and arms, the Iroquois retaliated against the settlers, as did Ohios. Eventually, the Delaware also joined the fight on the British side. Although they tended to act in small raiding parties, on occasion the Native American groups could raise large forces and work in concert with Loyalists to overwhelm their settler opponents.

Pennsylvanians mobilized to fight both on land and on water. In July 1775 the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety established the Pennsylvania navy. The navy was charged with defending the Delaware River, which offered access to the Atlantic for the state's eastern counties and for Philadelphia. As with the Associators, service was voluntary and the response was impressive. Within a year more than 700 men had enlisted and they had already built a 27-craft fleet, including galleys, fire rafts, and floating batteries. They would construct yet another 21 smaller boats by the end of 1776.

Pennsylvania's contribution to the Continental army was swift, significant, and sustained. In June 1775 the Continental Congress more formally requested that Pennsylvania raise six companies of riflemen. Enthusiasm was so strong that enough men volunteered to fill out nine companies of what became the Pennsylvania Battalion of Riflemen. Later that year Pennsylvania formed a number of new units to contribute to the Continental cause: one artillery company and one infantry battalion in October, four more infantry battalions in December, and yet another infantry battalion in early January 1776. By the spring of 1776, it became clear to Pennsylvania legislators that they could not depend upon the Continental army to protect the state, so in March the state government authorized the formation of a rifle regiment to consist of 1,000 men and a musketry regiment to consist of 500 men. Nonetheless, in response to George Washington's desperate request for reinforcements on Long Island, these units, too, were transferred from state to Continental command. They would eventually be incorporated into the Continental army. Within the next year, the state raised another eight regiments to join the Continentals, including a cavalry regiment, a regiment dedicated to supply and ordnance repair, and one of German-speaking soldiers primarily recruited from the central part of the state.

Of course, the war effort on all sides involved much more than combat. In Bucks and Chester Counties, although most farmers were at best reluctant to join the either side, they did not hesitate to sell flour, meat, and butter to either side. Indeed, they preferred to supply the British, because the British paid more regularly and with more reliable money. More eager to support the Revolutionary side, farmers in the productive and relatively peaceful central part of the state may have supplied more grain to the Continental army than farmers in any other part of the country. And when men went off to fight, women served in their stead by keeping the farms operating until their husbands returned, if they did return. Women also contributed by weaving homespun to replace British textile imports after they were cut off. Established in 1780, the Ladies Association of Philadelphia raised money that it hoped to use to buy ammunition for the Continentals. Washington, disturbed by the propriety of having women supplying war materiel, gently replied that he would prefer shirts and blankets, which, given the ragged condition of soldiers' clothing, probably was a more significant contribution to the troops than bullets would have been.


By 1777 Pennsylvanians had realized that the war would be a drawn-out affair, and, as in most of the states, early enthusiasm had given way to a combination of grim determination and fatalistic resignation. Recognizing that the volunteer Associators possessed neither the will or the numbers to defend the state, in March 1777 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania officially established a militia system. Even though it did provide some manpower, like the state government whose banner it flew it seemed designed for widescale participation but minimal effectiveness. All white men between 18 and 53 and able to bear arms were to enroll in neighborhood training companies, each of which was divided into eight classes. Upon necessity, the state could call up classes from various counties—but only for two-month stints, after which they would be replaced by the next class in line until the state exhausted the eight-class rotation and began the cycle again. Furthermore, would-be soldiers found it easy to avoid duty, either by hiring substitutes or paying fines. Men's increased readiness to pay their way out of service served as a significant revenue enhancer for militia operations. Still, the few men unwilling or unable to avoid militia duty complained bitterly and with reason about the state's inability to pay them on a regular basis, if at all.

The Pennsylvania Line suffered the physical, emotional, and even financial ravages of war. Combat took some—for example, two entire companies wiped out during the disastrous Continental foray into Canada in late 1775—more died from disease. Soldiers grumbled that while they continued to serve, civilians seemed increasingly disengaged from the cause. After the initial rush to sign up, enthusiasm had dwindled to the point at which Congress, with no other good options, decided to extend their enlistments, first from two years to three, and then, in 1780, for as long as the war would last. To add insult to injury, although fewer and fewer men volunteered to reinforce their depleted ranks, new recruits got bonuses larger than the men who had served for years. Fed up, in Morristown on 1 January 1781, every unit in the Pennsylvania line stationed at Morristown mutinied. Most of the men were discharged, significantly depleting Pennsylvania's contribution to Continental forces.

Exhaustion set in among the civilian population, as well. Philadelphians weary of the British occupation became even more impatient with inflated grain prices, while Pennsylvanians in nearly all parts of the state became increasingly frustrated with the depreciation of Pennsylvania and Continental currency that threatened to cripple the economy. The presence of British troops in Philadelphia and Continental ones at Valley Forge had led to the depletion of firewood and livestock in the eastern part of the state. In Pennsylvania's western reaches, the scattered violence of the early parts of the war became increasingly widespread, vicious, and brutal by the late 1770s, with whites and Indians striking at each others' homes, fields, and children with little discrimination. Nonetheless, unrest continued there until 1783. In the Wyoming Valley, the combatants prolonged the fight even more. There, hostilities lasted until 1784, although many families grew increasingly fatigued by the strain and stress of more than a decade of raids and reprisals.


As the war came to a close, Pennsylvanians could begin to assess what they had lost and gained through the use of violence. By the early 1780s, the Philadelphia radicals began to lose their grip on city politics, as did their radical counterparts in the state legislature. In the late 1780s, Pennsylvania's more moderate men successfully passed new city and state government structures that tempered the city and state's radical leanings. The test oath was abolished but, even so, Quakers never regained the political prominence they had held before the Revolution. As a prime example of this shift, the new 1790s state government kept its predecessor's militia system, which it would not revise until 1842. Central and western Pennsylvanians continued to enjoy more proportional representation than they had under the colonial structure, and white settlers thus had some confidence that the state would help them keep the gains they had won against their Indian foes, who retreated further westward and entered into fierce competition with the Indian groups already in the Great Lakes area.

Nonetheless, not all the groups that appeared to be on the winning side ended up better off. Ironically, the Loyalist Pennamites won in the Continental Congress what they could not gain by force in the Wyoming Valley: the national government honored the Pennsylvania claims, thus spurning the Yankee settlers who had supported its cause. Men who had served in the militia and Continental army waited years for their pay, and many ended up selling off their government IOUs for far less than face value in in the tough economy of the 1780s. Soldiers who had been paid in land certificates either had to sell them off or move far away, and the national government did not offer the soldiers any land in Pennsylvania. During the 1780s and early 1790s, farmers in the central part of the state engaged in a series of court and road closings in response to the state government's conservative turn in economic policy. In 1794 many of those same farmers joined the Whiskey Rebellion to protest federal taxes that, to them, resembled the British taxes that had angered them two decades earlier. Washington, now president, led federal troops to put down the revolt. The Revolutionary War was now over in Pennsylvania.

SEE ALSO Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line.


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