The Pennsylvania Revolution

This piece was specially commissioned in 1989 from Dr. Roland M. Baumann, an acknowledged authority on early Pennsylvania political history.

by Dr. Roland M. Baumann, Oberlin College
[Footnotes are given at the end]

Pennsylvania's many contributions to the American Revolution are well known.1 Less well known is that the Revolution was different and, perhaps, more complicated in Pennsylvania than in many other states. Pennsylvania's political traditions — Particularly its proprietary government and its Quaker-dominated assembly — insulated the colony from other colonial spokespersons. This explains why in the weeks right before the signing of the Declaration of Independence the colony was so seriously divided over the extent of resistance to Britain and the question of separation. Comments abounded that politics were in a state of flux. "Our affairs have been in such a fluctuating and disordered situation," Continental Congressman James Wilson reported to Brigadier-General William Thompson, "that it has been almost impossible to form any Accurate Judgement concerning the Transactions as the were passing, and still more nearly impossible to make any probable conjectures concerning the turn that things would take." 2 Amid this flux Pennsylvanians established a Provincial Conference, which ultimately made change to a declaration of independence possible.

The events leading up to Pennsylvania's call for a provincial conference and convention in the summer of 1776 are worth recounting here.3 In Pennsylvania, unlike Massachusetts, New York and Virginia, the forces of radical resistance did not have powerful allies. Proprietary Governor John Penn had no stake in the vindication of British authority, but he realized that a break with Britain spelled doom for the Pennsylvania Charter of 1701. He feared, moreover, that continued instability would jeopardize the Penn family's interest. Consequently, from 1765 to 1774 Quaker and Anglican leaders successfully supported middle-of-the-road policies and sharply curtailed opposition to British measures. This opened the way for extraconstitutional committees, created to enforce successive nonimportation boycotts since the 1765 Stamp Act Crisis, to become the instruments of radicalization and politicization. This was especially true in Philadelphia where the coming of the revolution against the mother country not only encouraged mass participation in politics but also ultimately transformed Pennsylvania government during the years between 1775 and 1776.

According to most recent authorities, it was during the so-called second revolution — the struggle over who shall rule at home — that Pennsylvania developed an alternative political system, led by younger, more pluralistic men of the middle classes.4 Unlike the old regime, the new leadership was prepared to face the challenge of armed resistance and independence. Some were even interested in altering the status quo and in advancing democratic reforms.

By the spring of 1776 Philadelphia moderates and radicals comprised coherent and well-organized parties. The moderates, led by John Dickinson, Robert Morris and Benjamin Rush, had the allegiance of a majority of the electorate. This group, which held out for accommodation with Britain, feared the havoc that revolution would cause to Pennsylvania's intricate economic and social system. The radicals, led by George Bryan, Timothy Matlack, James Cannon, Thomas Young and Thomas Paine, had the zeal of new converts to political action. They also had the support and consultation of the principle advocates of independence in the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's delegates in Congress had been instructed by the Assembly not to vote for independence. Every move by the radicals to repeal the instructions had failed.5 Concerned that the tendencies of the provincial governments were too conservative, Richard Henry Lee frustratingly declared: "The Proprietary Colonies do certainly obstruct and perplex the American machine."6

Despite every effort made by the political moderates to pacify the radicals in the province, the differences between the two groups widened. Things came to a head in the spring of 1776. The moderates won the first battle, when on May 1, 1776, they retained their majority in the Assembly elections; the Assembly was outmaneuvered by the radicals, however, when they successfully persuaded the Continental Congress to resolve, by a margin of six colonies to four, that all governments deriving their authority from the Crown should be "totally suppressed." This resolution, which sealed the fate of British authority in the United States, effectively undermined the Charter and Assembly of Pennsylvania.7

No longer restrained by moderate Whigs and spurred on by the Continental Congress' May 15 recommendation for all states to establish a government capable of safeguarding the general welfare, Pennsylvania's supporters of independence met to take steps to form a new government and to draft new instructions for the Pennsylvania delegation.8 The Assembly, showered by petitions in the days that followed, was not given much time to respond. Five days later, on May 20, over four thousand Philadelphians gathered for a meeting in a soaking rain in the State House yard to voice their approval for the resolution of Congress. Not only did the citizens — led by Thomas McKean — approve of the dissolution of the imperial connection, but also they called for a special constitutional convention to bring a new state government into being. To be expected the Provincial Assembly, then meeting in Philadelphia, was denied any role in the formation of a new government.9 With no role to play, and with the "Conference of Committees" getting ready to convene in Philadelphia, the Assembly voted itself out of existence. The events of May 20, as one contemporary observer noted, " had given the 'coup de Grace to the King's authority' in Pennsylvania."10

Although the Provincial Conference (June 18 to 25, 1776) and Provincial Convention (July 15 to September 28, 1776) can be easily perceived as one body, or at least as two bodies whose functions ran together, each one held different responsibilities.11 The Provincial Conference set up the machinery for the Provincial Convention that would ultimately frame the State Constitution of 1776. The work of the leaders at the Provincial Conference was both more short term and clear cut. This may explain why the work of these patriots is not as well known or why the Conference itself has even eclipsed by the greater importance of the Declaration of Independence and the State Constitution of 1776.12

As the record of its first meeting makes clear:

This day a number of gentlemen met at Carpenter's Hall, in Philadelphia, being debuted by the committees of several of the counties of the province, to join in a Provincial Conference in consequence of a circular letter from the committee of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia, inclosing the resolution of the continental congress of the 15th of May last.13

Still, the Provincial Conference, consisting of independents and radicals, was revolutionary.

Among the 108 delegates were persons of high character such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas McKean, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and William Atlee. Among the elected ranks and supporters of the Conference were to be found master craftsmen, one of whom was a member of the Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia. That was Benjamin Loxley. This group, then, included individuals who were politically and socially less well known than those of any earlier province-wide bodies. But they were not , as one student of the period has concluded, "politically inexperienced nobodies, ignorant of all sound principles of government."14

The first piece of business was to select officers. The delegates elected Colonel Thomas McKean, president; Colonel Joseph Hart, vice-president; Jonathan B. Smith and Samuel C. Morris, secretaries. With the exception of Hart, who was from Bucks County, all the other officers were from the city of Philadelphia. Second, the conference ordered that "on any question which may come before them, the city and counties respectively have one vote."15 Third, in anticipation of a "Provincial Convention," a poll date of July 8 was set for the election. Each county was to be allowed eight representives.16

The Conference delegates also involved themselves in issues relating to declaring Pennsylvania's support for independence and to guaranteeing the radical element's control of the state Constitutional Convention itself. To ensure future political success, the Conference took the following steps. Delegates resolved to define and change the qualification of electors: namely, in addition to those who already had the vote, adult militia members (associators) were given the franchise and the right to be candidates for the convention. After abolishing the previous 50 pounds property qualification and denying the vote to all who had been published as Tories, the delegates proceeded to impose tests, oaths and other requirements in an effort to weaken their opponents and to overthrow the "provincial government." For example, election judges or inspectors could require each voter to take an oath denying allegiance to the king and a sworn promise not to "oppose the establishment of a free government in this province."17

Despite considerable opposition, delegates elected to the Convention to frame a Constitution, were also expected to declare their belief in God, Jesus Christ and the divine inspiration of the scriptures.18 Finally, when the state Assembly was unable to establish a quorum, the Provincial Conference even proceeded to assume some legislative and executive functions of the Province, such as levying troops and forming a Council of Safety. On June 23, for example, the Conference resolved to "recommend to the committees and associators of the province to embody, 4,500 of the militia."19

The purpose, conferees explained, was "to put an end to our own power in the Province, by fixing upon a plan for calling a [constitutional] convention." In the final days a committee, which included Dr. Benjamin Rush, prepared an address to the people of Pennsylvania urging then them to select deputies who were prepared " to secure property, liberty and the scared right of conscience" and to bind their delegates by instructions.20

The Pennsylvania Provincial Conference was both important and unique. It was important because the work of the Conferees insured control by the "radical" Whig faction of the revolutionary movement in Pennsylvania. In the process of forming a party to a government equal to the " exigencies of the times," the Provincial Conference not only side-stepped the Assembly, but also legitimized a convention to write a new state constitution. In no small way the Conferees recognized the distinction between drafting a state constitution and writing legislation — a distinction some scholars consider the Revolution's greatest contribution to democratic theory. The Provincial Conference, in expanding upon the rights of suffrage and the concept of who was a citizen, also anticipated the radical character of the state Constitution of 1776. Thus, the opposition to separating in Pennsylvania led to "newer mass oriented elements" and to the establishment of majoritarian democracy, both of which stimulated the birth of modern American politics.21

The Provincial Conference also was unique in that the radical Whigs in Pennsylvania pulled a coup of sorts when they dissolved the Assembly and ended "the power of choice"22 among rival groups respecting whether Pennsylvania would go to war with Great Britain. There were some parallel developments in other Mid-Atlantic colonies, but it would have been very difficult for the Continental Congress to declare Independence without local support in what was then the largest city in the colonies. The timely action of the Pennsylvania Conference moved Pennsylvania into the independence camp. June 1776 was thus a pivotal month in the history of the state and nation. Pennsylvania was the "keystone state" in nation building because its decision had a great impact on American public opinion. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence followed shortly thereafter.23 On July 2, 1776, one week after the close of the Provincial Conference, the Continental Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, declared independence. That evening the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the statement: "This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States."24

The significance of the creation of the Pennsylvania Conference of Committees caught the attention of contemporaries. A great many of them understood that Pennsylvania delegates vote against declaring independence was " contrary to the earnest desires of the people."25 John Adams, who took special pains to monitor the "different opinions" held in the colonies, kept a close eye on Pennsylvania. Writing from Philadelphia on June 23, Adams reported gleefully to Cotton Tufts that the Provincial Conference delegates are "extremely unanimous, spirited, zealous and determined. You will soon see Pensilvania [sic], one of the most patriotic colonies."26 On the following day, June 24, Adams wrote approvingly that Pennsylvania's Conference of Committees "voted that the Delegates for this Colony ought on the first of July to vote for Independence."27 A day after the Conference completed its business one Philadelphia correspondent summed up the importance of what the delegates had accomplished: "The revolution is now began and must be supported."28 Students of Pennsylvania and United States history need to recognize the importance of the June 1776 Provincial Conference. The delegates achieved their twin objectives of declaring Pennsylvania's support for independence and of organizing an election for a state constitutional convention. Although these accomplishments and this piece of revolutionary history are often overlooked, the Provincial Conference is a success story and it bears on our own celebration of statehood in Pennsylvania.29 Reprinting this important eighteenth-century document — the Proceedings of the Provincial Conference, June 18-25, 1776 — will help us recapture the important role these revolutionaries played in the birth of the United States of America.


1 Philip S. Klein and Ari Hoogenboom, A History of Pennsylvania (New York, 1973), 91-92.

2 James Wilson to William Thompson, [June 23-24?], Paul H. Smith, editor, Letters of Delegates, 1774-1789 15 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1976- ), 4:302.

3 Theodore Thayer, Pennsylvania Politics and the Growth of Democracy, 1740-1776 (Harrisburg, 1953), chapts., 8-13; David Hawke, In Midst of a Revolution (Philadelphia, 1961), chapts. 5-9; Richard Alan Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776 (Philadelphia, 1978), chapt. 1.

4 See especially Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, chapt. 8

5 Elisha P. Douglass, Rebels & Democrats: The Struggle for Equal Political Rights & Majority Rule During the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1955), chapts. 12-13. Hawke, In Midst of Revolution, 119-21, 129 ff.; Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York, 1976), 121 ff.

6 R.H. Lee to Charles Lee, May 11, 1776, Delegates Letters, 3:655.

7 Peter Force, ed., The American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1837-1853), 4th Ser., VI, 517.

8 Thayer, Growth of Democracy, 179; Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, 208-11. see also J. Paul Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (Philadelphia, 1936), 117 ff.

9 Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, 211-15.

10 "Memorandum" (May 20), p. 23, Col. William Bradford Papers, HSP, cited in Ryerson, P, 215.

11 This view is based on a reading of the secondary literature and it is especially evident in J. Paul Selsam's 1936 monograph on this subject.

12 James E. Gibson, "The Pennsylvania Provincial Conference of 1776," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 58 (1934), 312-41. Charles E. Peterson, "Carpenters' Hall," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 43, part I(Philadelphia, 1953), 103-104.

13 Proceedings, page 3.

14 Quoted material from Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, 229. The role of the Philadelphia mechanics in the events of 1775 and 1776 is ably treated in Charles S. Olton, Artisans for Independence; Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution (Syracuse, 1975), chapt. 6.

15 Proceedings page 6.

16 lbid. Thayer, Growth of Democracy, 183-84.

17 Proceedings, page 9.

18 lbid. This qualification apparently raised serious opposition. See Christopher Marshall's diary entry for June 28,1776, which is quoted in Selsam, Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 140.

19 Proceedings page 21.

20 Proceedings page 27 ff. Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd, Ser., III, 656-57. see also Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun. 236. Selsam. Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, 141-42.

21 Ryerson, chapt. 10. See also Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (Chapel Hill, 1969), 83-90, 226-27.

22 This is very much the theme established by Elisha P. Douglass (page 261) who built on the progressive interpretation outlined by Charles Lincoln, The Revolutionary Movement in Pennsylvania, 1760-1776 (Philadelphia, 1901), Robert L. Brunhouse. The Counter Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1776-1790 (Harrisburg. 1942) confirms it.

23 Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, 236.

24 Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 2, 1776.

25 Francis Lightfoot Lee to Richard Henery Lee, June 30, 1776, Delegates Letters, 4:343.

26 To Cotton Tufts, Ibid., 4:298.

27 To Samuel Chase, Ibid., 4:304.

28 "To the People," Pennsylvania Gazette, June 26, 1776, Quoted by Ryerson, Revolution Is Now Begun, 237.

29 Two recent exceptions; Ryerson, The Revolution is Now Begun: and Willie Paul Adams, The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill, 1980), 78 and n.