Cover image for Sweet Land of Liberty: The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania By Francis S. Fox

Sweet Land of Liberty

The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Francis S. Fox


$55.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02062-4

$38.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02063-1

232 pages
6" × 9"
1 map

Sweet Land of Liberty

The Ordeal of the American Revolution in Northampton County, Pennsylvania

Francis S. Fox

“A one-of-a-kind book, a miracle to be grateful for and to treasure. Fox gives us a new and altogether more disturbing Revolution than we have been accustomed to reckon with. Sweet Land of Liberty may forever change the way we think of our national origins.”


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It is often said that the American Revolution was a conservative revolution, but in many parts of the British colonies the Revolution was anything but conservative. This book follows the Revolution in Pennsylvania’s backcountry through the experiences of eighteen men and women who lived in Northampton County during these years of turmoil. Fox’s account will startle many readers for whom the Revolution symbolizes the high-minded pursuit of liberty. In 1774, Northampton County was the second largest of Pennsylvania’s eleven counties, comprising more than 2,500 square miles, three towns (Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton), and some 15,000 people. When the Revolution broke out, militias took control. Frontier justice replaced the rule of law as zealous patriots preoccupied themselves not with fighting the British but with seizing local political power and persecuting their pacifist neighbors.

Sweet Land of Liberty reawakens the Revolution in Northampton County with sketches of men and women caught up in it. Seldom is this story told from the vantage point of common folks, let alone those in the backcountry. In Fox’s hands, we see in these individuals an altogether more disturbing Revolution than we have ever reckoned with before.

“A one-of-a-kind book, a miracle to be grateful for and to treasure. Fox gives us a new and altogether more disturbing Revolution than we have been accustomed to reckon with. Sweet Land of Liberty may forever change the way we think of our national origins.”
“To come once again at the question of the morality of the American Revolution but from [the] unfamiliar perspective . . . of the Northampton residents, whose story Francis Fox opens up for the first time in his path-breaking book—is to be reminded of the moral complexities that extraordinary times brought to the lives of ordinary people.”
“For their beliefs, Moravians and Mennonites forfeited the right to vote, suffered harassment and beatings from neighbors and militiamen, faced draconian fines for their religious objections, and finally, watched as the judicial system confiscated their property and sold it at auction. In relating these moments, Fox artfully captures the pain and hypocrisy that existed on the darker side of liberty’s war.”
“The American Revolution in back country Pennsylvania comes alive and is personified in this history of the American Revolution as real men and women lived it. Using biographies of 18 ‘obscure’ men and women, Fox has given voice to the previously unheard. . . . It is good history and a good read with vivid word pictures drawn by Fox’s use of language.”
Sweet Land of Liberty brings together biographical sketches of thirteen men and five women whose diverse experiences have been reconstructed on the basis of impressive archival research.”
“The book helps us, nevertheless, to understand the extraordinarily factionalized nature of Pennsylvania’s Revolution outside of Philadelphia and allows us to see that those conflicts were as often about petty grudges and self-interest as about the Revolution’s formally stated aims; Sweet Land of Liberty recalls that all too human dimension with compassion.”
“Francis Fox writes an engaging and highly personalized account of the American Revolution in the Pennsylvania interior. And as his work makes clear, the Revolution was first and foremost a war—not about ideas—but about people, their personalities and ambitions, as well as their fears, resentments, and even hatreds.”

Francis S. Fox is an independent researcher and writer who for many years worked in textbook publishing. He lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania.


Immigrants drifted into the northern part of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, around 1725. Twenty-five years later some 5,000 persons inhabited this region. Craving convenient access to county courts and officials, these settlers appealed to the governor to detach nine townships from Upper Bucks and treat them as the nucleus of a new county. This initiative resulted in the formation of Northampton County in 1752. 1

Northampton encompassed the entire northeastern corner of the province, an area of more than 5,000 square miles.The county was bounded on the north by New York, on the east by the Delaware River, on the south by Bucks County, and on the west by Berks County. Kittatinny Mountain, commonly known as Blue Mountain, stretched across Northampton. South of the mountain lay the Lehigh Valley, which attracted the majority of set-tlers. Above the mountain,the land rolled northward in a seemingly endless succession of ridges and narrow valleys. Beyond the gap in Blue Mountain carved by the Delaware River, narrow strips of alluvial soil lined both sides of the waterway.

By 1774 the number of inhabitants in Northampton County had risen to 15,000,or about 5 percent of Pennsylvania's population. 2 Persons of Ger-man ancestry comprised close to 80 percent of the county's inhabitants. Scots-Irish, English, Huguenots, Dutch, and Welsh made up the balance. Half of the total population was twenty-one years of age or younger. 3

Northampton boasted three towns, each situated about fifty miles north of Philadelphia: Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, the county seat. The second-largest of eleven Pennsylvania counties, Northampton contained twenty-five townships: eighteen in the Lehigh Valley and seven north of Blue Mountain. 4 Each township functioned as an outpost of law and order. Inhabitants elected a number of officials, of which the most im-portant was a constable who served warrants issued by justices of the peace, presided over township elections, and enforced the law that forbade drinking in public houses on Sundays. 5

A cash economy had begun to replace subsistence farming in Northampton. The grain har vest in 1774 would have filled 4,500 Conestoga wag-ons. Sixty gristmills and and thirty sawmills dotted the landscape. The inhabitants tended 3,000 horses and mares, 3,400 horned cattle, and more than 1,000 sheep. 6 Nearly 200 men engaged in a trade. Taverners, forty-six in number, headed the list. Inhabitants with financial means acquired in-dentured servants and Negro slaves. Scattered about the county were places of worship for Reformed, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Moravians, and Men-nonites. Reformed, with twenty-three congregations, and Lutherans, with twenty, greatly outnumbered all other religious groups in Northampton. 7 Moravians and other sects comprised fewer than 10 percent of the inhabi-tants. 8

Four times a year the population of Easton swelled as inhabitants and officials visited the town for quarter sessions courts. In 1772 a visitor de-scribed the Northampton seat as "a dog-hole of a place, remote from all the world." 9 Nonetheless, Easton, with its courthouse, seventy-five shops and houses, and a population of about 400,was the burgeoning center for busi-ness and politics in Northampton. Moreover, Easton straddled the primary inland highway of the colonial period. From this county town travelers fer-ried across the Delaware River and headed northeast to Morristown,Hackensack, Perth Amboy, New York City, and New England, or followed improved roads west and southwest to Bethlehem, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, York, the Shenandoah Valley, and beyond.

Many Northampton inhabitants not only had risen above a marginal existence but also had tired of jousting with officials in Philadelphia. For more than two decades,the legislative and executive branches of the provin-cial government had ignored their grievances. To begin with, the Pennsyl-vania Assembly and the proprietaries logrolled the bill that established Northampton. Eager to preserve their controlling majority, the old-guard faction in the Assembly agreed in 1752 to place the county seat at Easton- a new town to be erected on land owned by the Penn family -in return for a provision that limited to one the number of representatives in the new county. 10 Subsequently, the Assembly not only tabled petitions to move the seat to a location more central for the majority of the people, but it also side-tracked repeated attempts to increase the size of the county's delegation in the Assembly. 11

Machinations of this sort bred contempt for government, which sur-faced in 1765 when Northampton's inhabitants defied the Stamp Act. 12 Long-term proprietary land policies that favored speculators at the expense of Northampton settlers also helped erode respect for authorities in Philadelphia. On the eve of the Revolution, Northampton's inhabitants had become restive. By chance, however, Parliament, not the provincial govern-ment in Philadelphia, touched off the rebellion in this frontier county.

On June 21, 1774, the doors of the courthouse opened for a mass meet-ing, the first ever held in the county. Fired up by a prominent local leader, the crowd voted to support a radical faction in Philadelphia.These reform-ers had been angered by Parliament's harsh response to the Boston Tea Party and called for a Continental Congress to negotiate American grievances with Great Britain. Consequently, at the request of Congress, the people of Northampton elected a committee of observation and inspection to help en-force an American boycott of British goods.

In April 1775, when news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord reached Northampton, the Committee seized the initiative and ordered the inhabitants to mobilize for self-defense. More than 2,300 men, most of the county's male population between the ages of sixteen and sixty, joined town-ship military associations and elected officers. When Congress offered a bonus to volunteers who would serve in the Continental Army under Gen-eral George Washington, a company of Northampton men marched to Boston, their pockets "ringing with the musical jingle of solid clink." 13

War f ever gripped Northampton. Inhabitants who refused to join the militia were ostracized and denounced as enemies of the county. Congress paid the Committee more than $3,000 to offset the cost of raising the troops.The provincial government contracted to pay the master of Durham Ironworks £;700 for cannonballs. Blacksmiths received £;600 as a down pay-ment for rifles. Smaller amounts of cash trickled down to farmers and arti-sans for saltpeter, bayonets, and scabbards.

In early spring 1776, the Committee of Privates, a radical group in Philadelphia who professed to fight for the rights of the common soldier, contacted Northampton militiamen. This committee had pressed the Assembly to stiffen the penalty against men who refused to bear arms. Northampton's militia joined the argument and complained to the Assem-bly that sectarians in their county shunned military service. Then, in May, heeding a signal from radical leaders in Philadelphia , 900 militiamenassembled near Allentown and pledged to support the overthrow of Pennsylvania's provincial government. In Northampton, the Revolution had begun. 14

The framers of Pennsylvania's Constitution of 1776 promised to estab-lish a government that would promote the "happiness of the people." This goal is reflected in a charter generally regarded as the most democratic of those put forward during the Revolutionary period. But even before the convention completed its work, Constitutionalists, who defended the new frame of government,and Republicans, who opposed it, locked horns. These adversaries voiced their ideological differences in the court of public opinion and in the Assembly. Meanwhile, a confrontation with a different bent jolted Northampton. Hate and revenge fueled this contest. In a rerun of an age-old scenario, the avengers destroyed lives and property, mocked the new constitution, and challenged the authority of the elected state government.

Northampton's radicals silenced inhabitants who hoped Congress would negotiate with Great Britain. Are you for or against freedom? barked the intimidators. What is more, when the rebels closed Pennsylvania's courts, the Northampton Committee vowed to maintain law and order in the county. Hearsay and anecdotal evidence marked these proceedings. The Committee arrested and jailed persons whom zealous patriots had fingered as suspected Tories. It issued summonses and dispatched squads of armed militiamen to apprehend persons who disre g a rded its authority. It extracted confessions, levied fines, and published the names and offences of the guilty in Philadelphia newspapers. In short, frontier justice thrived in Northhampton .

In December 1776, some 600 Northampton militiamen marched to help defend Philadelphia from the British Army. But when these sometime soldiers experienced the hardship and danger of military life, they threat -ened to revolt unless the government took action against those who "re-mained at home with their families enjoying in peace . . . all the benefits arising from the virtuous efforts of those who have ventured their lives in the defense of liberty and their country." 15

1. In May 1751, a group of inhabitants led by William Craig presented a petition to the Assembly and requested that the upper part of Bucks County be erected into a new county. A bill was drawn and signed by Governor James Hamilton on March 11, 1752. Thomas Penn named the county Northampton to honor his wife, whose home was situ-ated in Easton-Neston, Northamptonshire, England.

2. Stella H. Sutherland, Population Distribution in Colonial America (New York,1936), 131.

3. The seventeenth 18-penny provincial tax records for Northampton County are unique in two respects. First,Robert Traill,secretary of the County Commissioners,sum-marized all of the data used to support the sum of money collected and delivered to the provincial treasurer. Thus, although some township records are missing for the year 1774, a complete profile of the county is on record.This profile is recorded on a foldout page and does not appear on the microfilm of the 1774 tax records,the originals of which are found at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Second,the Northampton commissioners appar-ently acted on their own volition and requested constables to collect data about acreage sown in grain,number of children per household under twenty-one years of age, and trades or occupations of the taxpayers. This data, however, is not included in Traill's summary. Mathew S. Henry summarized the additional data from now-missing constable 's returns in around 1860. A copy of this summary may be found in the Northampton CountyMiscellaneous Manuscripts, box 4,Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (here-after HSP).

4. The eleven counties embraced about two-thirds of the present state, or some 30,000 square miles. Northumberland was the largest county.

5. The electors nominated , and the justices appointed, the constable . Other elected township officials included an assessor, an inspector of election s , a supervisor of highways , and a poundkeeper. See Wayne L. Bockelman , "Local Colonial Government in Pennsylvania, " in Town and Country, ed. Bruce C. Daniels (Middletown , Conn . ,1978 ) , 216 - 37.

6. In 1758, an inventory taken by township constables recorded just 671 draft horses, 183 pack horses, and 201 wagons in Northampton. Pennsylvania Archives, 119 vols. (Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852-1933) (hereafter Pa. Arch.),5th ser., 1:203-23.

7. Charles S. Gladfelder, Pastors and People, 2 vols. (Breinigsville, Pa., 1980), 1:341-67.

8. On the eve of the Revolution, Pennsylvania's population had reached about 300,000. Of that number, Moravians accounted for a fraction of one percent, or 2,295 men, women, and children, of which half lived in Northampton County, 555 of them in Bethlehem. Kenneth Gardner Hamilton, John Ettwein and the Moravian Church During the Revolutionary Period (Bethlehem, Pa., 1940),7 n. 14.

9. James Burd to Edward Shippen III, Tinian, January 16, 1772, Burd-Shippen-Hubley Papers, HSP, quoted in Randolph Klein, Portrait of an Early American Family (Philadelphia, 1975), 147; A. D. Chidsey Jr., A Frontier Village: Pre-Revolutionary Easton (Easton, Pa., 1940),234-65.

10. Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks Counties each had eight representatives.

11. Between 1764 and 1774, the Assembly tabled seven petitions for additional representation in Northampton.

12. Pennsylvania Gazette (hereafter Pa. Gazette), December 12, 1765; February 6, 1766; March 27, 1766.

13. Robert Levers to John Arndt, November 6, 1781, Records of Pennsylvania's Revolutionary Governments, 1775-1790, Record Group 27 (hereafter RG 27), microfilm, 54 rolls (Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (hereafter PHMC),1978), roll 19,frame 155 (hereafter roll and frame are cited separated by a colon, as here: 19:155).

14. The rise of the resistance movement in Pennsylvania is examined in great detail by Richard Alan Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia,1765-1776 (Philadelphia,1978).

15. General John Cadwalader and other officers to the Council of Safety, Morristown, N.J., January 14, 1777, Pa. Arch., 1st ser., 5:186-88. Northampton men were bivouacked at Morristown.

© 2000 The Penn State University

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