Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Law Against Peace

"Be at War with your Vices,
at Peace with your Neighbours..."
Poor Richard's Almanack, 1755
September 1777

The Redcoats were headed for Philadelphia. On August 23rd, the British ships were sighted in the Chesapeake.  They were coming from the southwest, from Maryland.  While Washington arrayed his troops in an arc across Delaware, a panicky Continental Congress debated how they might make Philadelphia (and more to the point, themselves) safe.

Therefore, on August 28th, they resolved to arrest prominent Quakers.

Say what?

What did the Quakers do to make Congress so afraid of them?  Yes, many members of the Society of Friends had loyalist leanings, but then, so did quite a few other colonists at the time.  The majority of Americans were against the war on some level, most simply wanting to be left alone.  And loyalists in some colonies formed their own militias to fight against Washington.

The Quakers, however, did literally nothing.  Unlike other colonists, they couldn't be persuaded to donate or even sell food or blankets to the American army.  They took their pacifism seriously, believing that if they gave supplies to soldiers who then went and killed human beings, the blood would be on their own hands.  Friends caught disobeying this central belief could be shunned from their meetings.  After some members left  to form the Free Quakers, who did support and fight in the Revolution, traditional Friends' Meetings communicated with each other about the necessity to stand firm and not give in.

Congress, unfortunately, viewed this with a "if you're not for us, you must be against us" attitude.  Pennsylvania had already passed a law in February 1777 that stated in part,

"...if any person or persons, within this state,
publicly and deliberately speaking or writing against our public
defense,...or shall ...discourage the people from enlisting into
the service of the commonwealth;...or oppose and endeavor to
prevent the measures carrying on in support of the freedom and
independence of the said United States; every such person...shall
be adjudged guilty of misprision of treason..."

The Supreme Council of Pennsylvania and, by extension, Congress, came to believe that the Quakers with any wealth would ride out to meet General Howe and give him support.  Not understanding the Friends' religion, they couldn't fathom that the Quakers would never give aid to either side.

So, on September 1, prominent Quaker men were arrested, placed under house arrest and all their papers plus a good percentage of their wealth seized.  On September 4, the men were imprisoned at Masonic Hall (mainly because the Third Street Jail was already full).

On September 11th (ironic, isn't it?) Washington's troops met General Howe's forces at Brandywine Creek, in what would be the largest clash of troops in the Revolution.  That same day the Quaker prisoners were being transferred by wagon over 200 miles across what was still wilderness to Winchester, Virginia, where they would be kept until the following spring, when the British finally abandoned the Philadelphia area.  Some of the prisoners were elderly.  Most were wearing summer clothes when arrested, and were not given blankets and warmer clothing for weeks, even though the weather turned suddenly cold.  One man died from the ordeal.

This earlier 9-11 marked the day that Americans created their first internment camp.  And the first time Americans persecuted a group of people for their religious beliefs.  Might do well for us to remember this at our 9-11 observances this year.

Music-wise, because of the Misprision of Treason act and others like it, you won't find Revolution era equivalents of "Blowin' in the Wind."  Protest songs did exist, however, though they were mainly sung by folks in England, protesting a war that was draining their economy, or by women, lamenting that their husbands and sons were once more being called to arms.

One such song, "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier," can be heard on the Colonial Revelers' Revelry, Reflection & Revolution CD.  To hear a sample of it, click here.

As always, your humble servants,

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