The Remonstrance of the Subscribers, Citizens of Philadelphia, September 5, 1777
On August 25, 1777, General John Sullivan sent a disturbing letter to the Second Continental Congress. The letter contained incriminating documents indicating that a group of Quakers had given sensitive military information to the British. Sullivan had found the documents abandoned on Staten Island and noticed that they were endorsed by the "Spanktown Yearly Meeting," a gathering he believed was held by Quakers. Without investigating the evidence, Congress created a committee to deal with the alleged espionage. The committee, composed of John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and William Duer, asserted that all loyalists, especially Quakers in the mid-Atlantic region, posed a threat to the independence movement and should be immediately removed. Congress sent a warrant to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania listing the names of prominent Quakers to be arrested. The warrant also allowed the Council to detain anyone else whom it considered a threat.
When the local militia showed up with arrest warrants at the beginning of September, the Quakers were taken by surprise. In the course of a few days, 41 Philadelphians were seized and detained without being told why. Once incarcerated, the Quakers in the group, led by Israel Pemberton, began petitioning the Council for their right to habeas corpus. Congress offered the prisoners a way out: if they swore an oath of allegiance to America, they would be set free.
Some captives accepted this conditional discharge, but most Quakers refused, insisting that they would only accept an unconditional release because they were innocent and had been denied a fair trial. Israel Pemberton published every protest written by the imprisoned Quakers into a single volume and distributed it across Philadelphia. The document above, an excerpt from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's copy of this book, is the objection sent to Congress on September 5.
Out of options, Congress decided to quickly remove the Quakers from public view by exiling them to Winchester, Virginia, by September 11. The Quakers were not returned to their homes in Philadelphia until April 30, 1778, nearly eight months later. Two of the exiles, Thomas Gilpin and John Hunt, died before they could be released.
Had Congress investigated Sullivan’s claims, they would have realized that no Quakers had ever held a meeting in Spanktown, an isolated community in New Jersey. They would have also found that much of the military intelligence was incorrect, and the documents were likely a forgery. But many Americans were angry with the Quakers in 1777 for their position regarding the war and willfully overlooked these details. Quakers were so committed to their belief in pacifism that they refused to participate in the American Revolution once it turned violent, making them easy to blame for setbacks in the conflict.
The story of the Quaker exiles is a discouraging one. Even as Americans were fighting against British oppression, they persecuted minority groups in their own country. But the writings left by Pemberton and his fellow prisoners demonstrate an incredible commitment to ideals that would become characteristic of America in the following century. The Quakers unflinchingly demanded their right to habeas corpus, a trial by jury, and protection from ex post facto laws. Most of these freedoms would be confirmed with the ratification of the US Constitution just 10 years later.
James Donald Anderson, "Thomas Wharton, Exile in Virginia, 1777-1778," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89 (1981): 425-447.
Thomas Gilpin, Exiles in Virginia: With Observations on the Conduct of the Society of Friends during the Revolutionary War, Comprising the Official Papers of the Government Relating to that Period, 1777–1778 (Philadelphia, 1848).
Arthur J. Mekeel, The Relation of the Quakers to the American Revolution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1979).
Robert F. Oaks, "Philadelphians in Exile: The Problem of Loyalty during the American Revolution," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 96 (1972): 289-325.
Israel Pemberton, An Address to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania by Those Freemen of the City of Philadelphia, Who are Now Confined in the Mason's Lodge, by Virtue of a General Warrant, Signed in Council by the Vice President of the Council of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: R. Bell, 1777).
Jay Worrall Jr., The Friendly Virginians: America's First Quakers (Athens, GA: Iberian Publishing Company, 1994).