Cover image for Pennsylvania's Revolution Edited by William A. Pencak

Pennsylvania's Revolution

Edited by William A. Pencak


$100.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03579-6

$58.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03580-2

408 pages
6" × 9"
1 b&w illustration/5 maps

Pennsylvania's Revolution

Edited by William A. Pencak

Pennsylvania’s Revolution embodies a new era of scholarship about the state’s Revolutionary past. It breaks from a narrowly focused study of Philadelphia and the 1776 Constitution to evaluate Pennsylvania’s internal conflicts during the Revolutionary period. Pronounced struggles between Pennsylvania’s own citizen factions during the late eighteenth century are often cited by historians to demonstrate how this trend produced important social and political changes throughout the American colonies. By examining these experiences from multiple angles, this book reflects the overarching themes of the Revolution through a detailed study of Pennsylvania—the most radical of the thirteen colonies.


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Pennsylvania’s Revolution embodies a new era of scholarship about the state’s Revolutionary past. It breaks from a narrowly focused study of Philadelphia and the 1776 Constitution to evaluate Pennsylvania’s internal conflicts during the Revolutionary period. Pronounced struggles between Pennsylvania’s own citizen factions during the late eighteenth century are often cited by historians to demonstrate how this trend produced important social and political changes throughout the American colonies. By examining these experiences from multiple angles, this book reflects the overarching themes of the Revolution through a detailed study of Pennsylvania—the most radical of the thirteen colonies.

In this volume, William Pencak brings together fifteen essays that expand our knowledge of the complex changes that occurred in Pennsylvania during this tumultuous era. Acting as a companion to John Frantz and William Pencak’s regionally focused 1998 volume Beyond Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Revolution takes a topical approach to the discussion of the state’s internal turmoil. Through the lens of political and military history along with social history, women’s history, ethnohistory, Native American studies, urban history, cultural history, material culture, religious history, print culture, frontier/backcountry studies, and even film studies and theater history, this volume gives readers a glimpse of the diverse nature of contemporary and future historiography of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary period.

William Pencak is Professor of American History at Penn State University and editor of five previous volumes from the Penn State Press.




William Pencak

1 “Falling Under the Domination Totally of Presbyterians”: The Paxton Riots and the Coming of the Revolution in Pennsylvania

Nathan Kozuskanich

2 The Americanization of the Pennsylvania Almanac

Patrick Spero

3 German-Language Almanacs in Revolutionary Pennsylvania

Philipp Münch

4 Religion, the American Revolution, and the Pennsylvania Germans

John B. Frantz

5 Out of Many, One: Pennsylvania’s Anglican Loyalist Clergy in the American Revolution

William Pencak

6 The Sons of the Old Chiefs: Surveying Identity and European-American Relationships in the “New Purchase” Territory (Centre County, Pennsylvania, 1769–1778)

Russell Spinney

7 Double Dishonor: Loyalists on the Middle Frontier

Douglas MacGregor

8 Esther DeBerdt Reed and Female Political Subjectivity in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: Identity, Agency, and Alienation in 1775

Owen S. Ireland

9 Redcoat Theater: Negotiating Identity in Occupied Philadelphia, 1777–1778

Meredith H. Lair

10 William Thompson and the Pennsylvania Riflemen

Robert J. Guy Jr.

11 Agency and Opportunity: Isaac Craig, the Craftsman Who Became a Gentleman

Melissah J. Pawlikowski

12 Constructing Community and the Diversity Dilemma: Ratification in Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

13 The Decline of the Cheerful Taxpayer: Taxation in Pennsylvania, c. 1776–1815

Anthony M. Joseph

14 Two Winters of Discontent: A Comparative Look at the Continental Army’s Encampments at Valley Forge and Jockey Hollow

James S. Bailey

15 Music, Mayhem, and Melodrama: The Portrayal of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania on Film

Karen Guenther

Appendix: Publications of Henry Miller

Translated by Jan Logemann

Notes by William Pencak

List of Contributors



William Pencak

The famous painting by Benjamin West of “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” is perhaps the most famous iconic representation of colonial Pennsylvania aside from Benjamin Franklin. It signifies the peaceful relations begun in 1682, when Penn founded the colony, that broke down only in 1755 at the outset of the French and Indian War. But the painting originated as a weapon in a political controversy; it was executed in 1771 by Benjamin West, the history painter to King George III, at the behest of the Penn family proprietors, who wished to contrast the peace that had prevailed in their province to the recent internal strife they sought to blame on their Quaker Party adversaries, who were seeking to transform Pennsylvania into a royal government.

Periodization is an important lens through which history is viewed. If we separate peaceful pre-1755 Pennsylvania from the strife the colony and state endured between that year and 1800, we lose sight of the important fact, brought to significant scholarly attention by James Merrell, that it was the very manner in which Pennsylvania kept the peace that was responsible for the violent reaction against it that followed. By removing Indians through chicanery against their wishes, using the Iroquois as the iron fist behind the velvet glove of treaty presents and payments to compel their southern neighbors to move west, Pennsylvania ensured that smoldering resentments would burst into flames once people on the frontier began ignoring the established boundaries. Similarly, the largely harmonious political system fashioned by the Quakers in the mid-eighteenth century only flourished because Quaker-dominated counties were overrepresented, and in peacetime neither the western settlers nor the Philadelphia artisans had much to complain about.

By the early 1760s Pennsylvania was ruled by an unrepresentative government whose proprietary and Quaker factions were both kowtowing to a British administration that would decide which one would rule the province. They had failed to protect the frontiers, blaming each other (with historians still taking one side or the other) for stalling defense measures to avoid taxes (the proprietors) or make inroads on proprietary power (the Quakers). The province’s ruling elite was thus unwilling to lead Pennsylvania in the struggle against British taxes and regulations, as, for example, the Virginia planters and the Massachusetts legislature were. Historians seeking to show that the American Revolution was an internal struggle that produced important social and political change have turned more frequently to Pennsylvania than to any other state. From Charles H. Lincoln’s 1901 Revolutionary Movement in Pennsylvania and Theodore Thayer and Robert Brunhouse’s volumes in the series on Pennsylvania politics published by the State Historical and Museum Commission in 1953 and 1942, respectively, to studies by Gary Nash, Richard Ryerson, Charles Olton, Steven Rosswurm, Billy Smith, and Ronald Schultz written between 1970 and the early 1990s, Pennsylvania’s revolutionary turmoil has proved the most fertile American territory for scholars seeking class and sectional struggles. Elisha Douglass, in Rebels and Democrats, and Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic, focused especially on the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 as the most extreme example of this revolutionary transformation. Benjamin Franklin’s metamorphosis from the main supporter in the 1760s of changing the province from a proprietary to a royal government, to the state’s first president under the new state constitution, to a leading Federalist who sought to supplant it at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, exemplifies this turbulence.

Studies that concentrated on state-level upheaval have recently been joined by others that examine the equally important events that occurred throughout the commonwealth. Beyond Philadelphia looked systematically at the Revolution in various regions of the state, supplementing Jerome Wood’s older book on Lancaster. Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods, along with a monograph by Gregory Knouff, deal with the savage frontier warfare and accompanying racial division of society into white and red that accompanied the Revolution in the northeast and far west of Pennsylvania. Owen Ireland has cast the state’s political conflict in ethnic and religious terms. Francis Fox has marvelously reconstructed the lives of obscure people in Northampton County to show how the Revolution made and broke fortunes and careers with great rapidity. Gary Nash and Jean Soderlund have recounted the Revolution’s impact on its African American population. Three recent monographs greatly enhance our understanding of the violence and social turmoil that accompanied Pennsylvania’s revolution: David Preston and Paul Moyer on Native Americans, revolutionaries, and loyalists on the western and northeastern frontiers, respectively, and Terry Bouton on tax resistance and court closings. Paul Douglas Newman is currently preparing a book on westerners’ attempts to form a separate state.

The empowerment of new citizens was a major consequence of Pennsylvania’s internal revolution. The importance of Nathan Kozuskanich’s essay, which opens this collection, lies in his showing the direct connection between the principles of the Paxton Boys—who in 1763 vented their frustration against the province’s inability to defend them by massacring innocent Christian Indians who were under provincial protection—and those of the new revolutionary government that emerged in Pennsylvania in 1776. For admirers of the constitution of 1776 as an exercise in democracy that gave power to the western part of the state and Philadelphia’s artisans, it is not pleasant to remember that the same constitution was also an exercise in populist authoritarianism that made swearing a Christian oath (in a state still containing many Quakers and other pacifists) to defend the commonwealth the basis of citizenship, and rode roughshod over individual rights by confiscating dissidents’ guns and property, and prosecuting as traitors those who criticized it.

Recently, Hermann Wellenreuther has examined the grassroots proceedings of Pennsylvania committees that organized the Revolution in spite of a reluctant provincial government, tracing the process of communications between Philadelphia and the hinterland that made the Revolution possible in the countryside. But private communications were at work as well. Patrick Spero and Philipp Münch examine how almanacs, the most popular secular literature of early America, conveyed revolutionary ideology. What is interesting, though, is how reluctantly and how few of the almanacs in Pennsylvania actually espoused the Revolution openly in a state that was severely divided, and whose capital and “old counties”—Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester—were heavily loyalist and neutral. But the aged Henry Miller (Heinrich Müller), who was only two years younger than Benjamin Franklin, was crucial as a conduit of revolutionary ideology for the Pennsylvania German speakers—the majority in the counties of Northampton, Berks, Lancaster, and York and a significant minority in Philadelphia—who came into their own as soldiers and officeholders. In an appendix, Jan Logemann reinforces Miller’s importance in spreading word of the cause in his pamphlets and newspapers.

Although by no means as important as in early colonial America, when publications that were neither religious nor sanctioned by the government were rare, ministers still played an important role in disseminating ideas from their pulpits. John Frantz demonstrates the active involvement of Pennsylvania German-speaking ministers in the Revolution: although many favored the cause, the presence of pacifists and loyalists among them reflected Pennsylvania’s general internal division. Pennsylvania’s dozen Anglican preachers, on the other hand, with the exception of Philadelphia’s William White, all became loyalists, reflecting both their oath to the king and the fact that most of them were missionaries sent from Britain.

Besides politicizing the hinterland, the Revolution involved new actors in the city and environs of Philadelphia. Esther DeBerdt Reed, as Owen Ireland shows, was one of many women who found themselves drawn into the conflict. As the daughter of a former provincial agent, however, she had well-defined ideas of her own even before the Revolution began and is famous as the first woman to organize American women for a political purpose—to raise money for the impoverished Continental treasury in 1780. Most women who expressed their opinions on the struggle, however, did so only when the war touched their lives directly. Meredith Lair, in her study of British theater in occupied Philadelphia, shows how even loyalists were offended by the arrogant behavior of officers who flouted curfews and lived well during a time of trouble for most inhabitants.

Intending to liberate the loyal Americans from a revolutionary minority that it believed was terrorizing the general population, the British army, by exhibiting contempt for their allies, opponents, and civilian population alike, probably made more revolutionaries than all the writings and speeches of the patriots.

The Revolution reached to most remote regions of Pennsylvania. In Beyond Philadelphia, Tim Blessing and Frederick Stefon showed that the struggle in the Juniata and Wyoming valleys was more about who would possess the land than about loyalty to either side in the greater cause: Indians and those who became loyalists or revolutionaries took sides as best suited their chances of obtaining title to disputed land. Douglas MacGregor looks at the far western frontier, the area around Pittsburgh, disputed by Indians, Virginians, and Pennsylvanians; here a significant loyalist presence of Virginians who had relied upon that province’s loyalist British governor, Lord Dunmore, remained a thorn in the side of the Pennsylvania authorities throughout the war. Russell Spinney demonstrates, however, that on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River the handful of prerevolutionary Euro-Americans retained peaceful ties with Native Americans that had disappeared elsewhere until the war finally reached the valley in 1777, precipitating the “Great Runaway,” which required white resettlement (largely in the form of bounty land to veterans) following the war.

The war itself transformed the lives of many Pennsylvanians. Two authors in this collection present the two poles of the revolutionary experience. The Continental Congress looked primarily to the Pennsylvania Riflemen—the most accurate marksmen in the world, with experience in fighting Indians on the frontier—when it sought soldiers to aid New Englanders besieging Boston in the summer of 1775. Robert Guy Jr. tells their story through the eyes of their commander, William Thompson, whose lengthy imprisonment and premature death belie his regiment’s major contribution to the outcome of the war. Melissah Pawlikowski, in contrast, focuses on Isaac Craig, a Philadelphia carpenter who rose to become commander of the munitions depots in the Pennsylvania countryside following the Valley Forge winter, and later became one of the leading developers of the infant city of Pittsburgh. James Bailey reconsiders that winter itself and contrasts it in detail with the far colder, yet much less deadly, experience of the Continental army at Morristown in 1779–80. He also examines why we remember the former and have all but forgotten the latter.

The transformation of ideas was also an important part of Pennsylvania’s revolutionary experience. Elizabeth Pardoe looks at the convention where Pennsylvania ratified the federal Constitution, and brings to light the fact that James Wilson turned to Pennsylvania’s contentious recent history to refute the Anti-Federalists’ contention that the states could in any reasonable way represent the people’s interests. He anticipated James Madison’s insight that a multiple representation of popular interests at local, state, and federal levels was not only a possible but a far superior way of governing a large and diverse republic. Next, Anthony Joseph traces the transformation of Pennsylvanians from “cheerful taxpayers” to supporters of tax resistance in the Whiskey and Fries rebellions of the 1790s. Pennsylvanians did not object to paying taxes, but they reserved the right to judge whether they were fair or unfair and act accordingly. At the same time, as the state efficiently invested its surplus money in bank stocks, Pennsylvanians lost the habit of paying taxes in the early nineteenth century and grumbled when they were required to do so (as we continue to do today).

The volume concludes with Karen Guenther’s traversal of the way films have dealt with Pennsylvania’s revolutionary experience. Unfortunately, few of these works have gone beyond romanticism, one-dimensional portrayals of characters, or simplistic interpretations of the conflict. We can only hope that someday revolutionary Pennsylvania will be featured in a film similar to the one that depicts the Revolution as experienced by a Connecticut woman, Mary Silliman’s War, which graphically illustrates the turmoil of the war, its tragedy as well as its triumph. I am no film director, but I hope this volume will help bring to life much of the diversity and reason for the persistent fascination of Pennsylvania’s revolution.

Back in the 1920s, a Harvard professor told a young Perry Miller that there was little more to be written about the Puritans. A few years ago, as eighteenth-century Pennsylvania—especially the frontier and the Revolution—was becoming one of the hottest topics in the historical profession, I wondered whether I ought to have warned away the youthful enthusiasts, much as that old-timer warned Miller. I’m glad I didn’t. As its natural resources were once deemed, Pennsylvania’s revolutionary past seems truly inexhaustible, as do the (mostly young) historians who keep finding more to say about it.