Philadelphia Family-Ties and the British Occupation: Part 2
We left off in Part 1 of this post learning about the British occupation of “…the little society of Third and Fourth Street[s]” as British Major Andre called the Powels’ neighborhood. Part 1 is available HERE.
As mentioned previously, Elizabeth Powel’s sister Anne Francis had taken refuge in New Jersey during the occupation, as her husband Tench was a vocal patriot and could not risk staying in town. The April 2, 1778 letter that Elizabeth sent Anne further highlights life during the occupation. Elizabeth reported on a trip she had taken to the Townside Estate that the Francises owned on the outskirts of the city which the British had sacked. She had hoped to salvage at least some of the furniture, but to no avail for “Devastation was begun & I really turned from it with Grief.” She sympathized with the heavy loss that “Poor Mr. Francis” had sustained, hoping that he would someday recover “what his honest industry seems to have entitled him to.” She also worried that her sister was suffering from being cut off from “living Society,” and the “sensible well-bred People that have been accustomed to move in the same walk of Life with ourselves.” Was Elizabeth herself feeling cut-off from Society despite remaining in the city?
By May 1778, British General Henry Clinton, who replaced Howe, moved to evacuate Philadelphia. Those Americans who had collaborated with the British had every reason to be concerned about their fate if they remained, and many of them scrambled to leave with the departing British forces. Yet even in the turmoil of impending departure, the dashing Major André—still two years away from the gallows as an intercepted go-between in the Arnold conspiracy—planned one last hurrah, arranging with his fellow officers an elaborately staged sendoff for General Howe. Held on May 18, 1778, and known as the Meschianza, it would be for many years a subject of controversy and recrimination because of its extravagance and the visible involvement of members of the Philadelphia social elite. The British officers had little trouble in persuading fourteen attractive young women from suspected loyalist families to don fancy dress and join in this once-in-a-lifetime event. Benjamin Chew’s daughter Peggy was one of André’s most enthusiastic accomplices.
Although the three dazzling daughters of Edward Shippen, Jr., including Peggy, were decked out ready to go, family tradition has it that Judge Shippen put his foot down and refused his daughters permission, allegedly because of the “indelicacy of their costume.” He had already severely reprimanded a brazen young lord for kissing his daughter Sally in the street in front of their house. It seems reasonable that Elizabeth Powel would have backed up her cousin’s decision and agreed the young Shippen ladies should indeed stay home and preserve the Shippen family name.
Three days after the Meschianza, Thomas Willing, Edward Shippen, Jr., and Samuel Powel met to take stock of their positions. They would have weighed the risks and uncertainties to which they would be exposed when the American army replaced the British in Philadelphia. Until mid-May of 1778, each of them had resisted taking the oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in the statutory form the Pennsylvania legislature had prescribed a year earlier for all male inhabitants above the age of eighteen. Those unquestioned patriots who actively supported the Revolution took the oath in 1777 before the British arrived on the scene. Severe disabilities followed under the statute for every one of age who refused or neglected to forswear allegiance to the Crown and to swear allegiance to the Commonwealth.
These three neighbors, bound by close-family ties and common financial concerns, had determined that they could no longer safely remain neutral. Each of them proceeded to take the statutory oath and sign a document confirming that he had, which the other two witnessed. The following day they sought out a magistrate empowered to act by the Commonwealth—not so easy to find in still occupied Philadelphia—who duly certified the completion of these formalities as required by law. We are fortunate to have at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania the very document signed by Samuel Powel on May 22, 1778, and witnessed by Edward Shippen, Jr., and Thomas Willing, as to which John Knowles, a justice of the peace, supplied the necessary supporting certificate on May 23.
The departure of the British was momentarily delayed when, in early June, a commission appointed by Lord North and headed by the young Earl of Carlisle, arrived in Philadelphia to negotiate, if possible, an end to the Revolution. Now that Samuel Powel had finally taken a side—by signing the Oath of Allegiance to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth—he found his house invaded by the Earl of Carlisle. The Powels were not required to leave their home, but were displaced from their bed chambers and into the servants’ wing for a period of about ten days.
We have a letter from Carlisle (written to his wife) about his occupancy:
“I am lodged in one of the best houses in town, and indeed it is a very excellent one, perfectly well furnished. I am not, I own, quite at my ease; for coming into a gentleman’s house, without asking his leave, taking possession of all the best apartments, and placing a couple of sentrys at the door, using his plate, etc., etc., are very repugnant to my disposition. I make him and his wife a visit every day, and we are the best of friends in the world. They are very agreeable, sensible people, and you would never be out of their company.”
It is interesting to imagine the Powels taking tea with their “house guest” while the document Samuel signed, just a few weeks prior, was hidden away nearby. What would have happened if one of the Earl’s sentries happened upon the document which proved that Samuel had formally signed away his oath of allegiance to the British King?
How then should we judge a man like Samuel Powel? Was he a closet patriot, or a low-profile loyalist, or neither? For men like Powel, harboring serious reservations about independence could be as dangerous as outright support of the British and might leave your family vulnerable to attack after the British left Philadelphia. While Samuel proceeded with caution and discretion, he appeared to be ready to accept whatever the struggle’s outcome might be. Yet, he did not take sides until he had a clearer view of the road ahead.
In the end, what is striking is that—Jacob Duché’s case excepted—Samuel and his neighbors not only survived the British occupation, but returned to secure and respected positions in society after the Revolution.
Samuel Powel, never really under any serious cloud, continued his prosperous career in the postwar period, accepting new offices and responsibilities. Of him, a contemporary wrote, “He is minutely attentive to whatever Business he undertakes.” He died a victim of the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1793. In the postwar period Elizabeth Powel came into her own as a salonnière, ready to freely express her own opinion on almost any subject. Some years later Elizabeth felt confident enough of her relationship with George Washington to lecture him at length on the duty he owed his country to accept a second four-year term as the President of the United States.
Thomas Willing joined his partner Robert Morris in providing financial support to the Revolutionary cause. In the postwar period he served as director and president of the Bank of North America and then as president of the First Bank of the United States. He died in 1820 at age eighty-nine, universally admired for his civic virtue and his many benefactions.
Benjamin Chew resumed his role in representing the Penn family interests and obtaining compensation for the losses the Penns had incurred. In 1791, he became president judge of the High Court of Errors and Appeals, Pennsylvania’s Super-Supreme Court, a position he held until that court’s abolition in 1808. He too lived a long and honored life, dying in 1810 at age eighty-seven.
Edward Shippen, Jr., and his family suffered no lasting stigma because of his son-in-law’s infamous betrayal. A judge in admiralty before the Revolution, in 1785 he returned to the bench as a Common Pleas judge. In 1791, he was appointed a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and when Thomas McKean became governor of Pennsylvania in 1799, he named Shippen his successor as chief justice of the Supreme Court. In 1806, two years after his daughter Peggy Arnold’s death, Shippen died in his house on Fourth Street of “apoplexy” − while reportedly eating “a hearty Meal of rich Food.”
Jacob Duché, attainted a traitor, lost his house on Third Street through confiscation. After the surrender at Yorktown, he repented his injudicious letter to Washington and sought rehabilitation back in Pennsylvania. He petitioned Washington, Franklin, and the Powels, among others, for their help, but not until 1792 did he return to Philadelphia, the recipient of an official pardon. When he died in January 1798, he found his last resting place just outside the chancel wall of St. Peter’s Church, even though at that point his devotional wanderings had led him to embrace the doctrines of Emanuel Swendenborg.
Special Thanks to David Maxey whose meticulous research made this 2-part post possible!
George B. Tatum, Philadelphia Georgian: The City House of Samuel Powel and Some of its Eighteenth-Century Neighbors (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1976)
David W. Maxey, A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel, 1743-1830, Transactions of American Philosophical Society, vol. 96, pt. 4 (Philadelphia, 2006)
David W. Maxey, Treason on Trial in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: The Case of John Roberts, Miller, Transactions of American Philosophical Society, vol. 101, pt. 2 (Philadelphia, 2011).
Edward Clark, comp., Inscriptions on the Tablets and Grave-Stones in the Burial-Grounds of Christ Church, Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Collins, 1864)
Burton Alva Konkle, Thomas Willing and the First American Financial System (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937)
Burton Alva Konkle, Benjamin Chew, 1722-1810 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932)
Nancy E. Richards, “The City Home of Benjamin Chew, Sr., and his Family: A Case Study of the Textures of Life” (typescript; Philadelphia: Cliveden of the National Trust, Inc., 1996)
Charles P. Keith, The Provincial Councilors of Pennsylvania Who Held Office Between 1733 and 1776, and Those Earlier Councilors Who Were Some Time Chief Magistrates of the Province, and Their Descendants (Philadelphia: W. S. Sharp Printing Co., 1883)
Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997-2010)
“Thomas Willing: A Study in Moderation, 1774-1778,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1976)
Elizabeth Powel to Anne Willing Francis, Apr. 2, 1778, Powel Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, box 4, folder 3.
Powel’s Leger Book, 1760-1793, Powel Family Papers (Collection 1582), Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Randolph Shipley Klein, Portrait of an Early American Family: The Shippens of Pennsylvania Across Five Generations (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975)
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