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Image Delaware Order Ways: The Quaker Idea of Order as Peace

Quaker ideas of comity called into being a special conception of social order, which was defined not in terms of unity (as among Puritans) or of hierarchy (as by Anglicans) but in another way. Order, in their thinking, was a condition of social peace.

This notion did not exist among Quakers in the earliest stages of the movement. The first English Friends were not a people of peaceable disposition. Nor were their principles pacifistic. But in 1651 the Puritans locked George Fox in a dungeon for refusing to fight at the battle of Worcester. Thereafter, the testimony of peace became an important part of Quaker teachings. In 1659, when England appeared to be hovering on the brink of yet another Civil War, George Fox sent this epistle to his friends:

Ye are called to peace, therefore follow it … seek the peace of all men, and no man’s hurt … keep out of plots and bustling and the arm of the flesh, for all these are amongst Adam’s sons in the Fall, where they are destroying men’s lives like dogs and beasts and swine, goring, rending and biting one another and destroying one another, and wrestling with flesh and blood. From whence arise these wars and killing but from the lusts?1

From these teachings the Quakers created a new idea of social order which they carried to the Delaware Valley. This idea was thought by others to be impossibly utopian, and doomed to failure in the New World. In some respects it did fail. But in other ways it succeeded beyond the intention of the founders, and became the framework for a system of social order throughout the American midlands.

As always, the leading exponent was William Penn himself. He defined order as a system which “enjoins men to be just, honest, virtuous; to do no wrong, to kill, rob, deceive, prejudice none; but to do as one would be done unto.”2 The same idea was written into the laws of West Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, which made their officers responsible for maintaining “good order,” by which was meant a condition of social peace in which each individual was forbidden to intrude upon the quiet of another person.3

This was a revolutionary idea in its own time—a conception of order in which everyone did not have to believe the same creed or to fit into a single hierarchy. Here was an open idea of order, grounded in the golden rule and the doctrine of the “light within.” To Anglicans this Quaker idea of order appeared to be dangerously permissive; to Puritans it seemed a contradiction in terms. But an idea of order as mutual forbearance defined its own obligations, which the Quakers enforced very strictly in their colonies. Their conduct of this experiment was more tough-minded than either their admirers or their critics have believed.

To keep the peace and to guarantee mutual forbearance, the Quaker founders of the Delaware colonies created a novel set of ordering institutions which were compatible with their ideals. The most important orderkeepers in Pennsylvania were county sheriff’s and coroners. These officers were not controlled by a small clique of county gentry as in Virginia, nor elected by the consensus of a local community as were the constables of New England. Pennsylvanians selected their sheriff’s by a more complex method. Each county held a popular election in which more than one candidate was required to appear. Of the two leading vote-getters, the governor appointed one as sheriff. Terms of office were short—normally one year. After 1730 rotation in office was required; a sheriff could serve no more than three years running, and then became ineligible for another three years. These elections were often sharply contested. In 1764, one member of the Proprietary party wrote to another about Lancaster County, “I wish the unhappy contests about Sheriff could be reduced to two Competitors on our side … it would unite our friends to act with more spirit.”4

Implicit in this method of selection was a sense of separation between the state and society, an idea of distance between central and local government, and also an assumption of diversity of interests and values. The Pennsylvania sheriff became a sort of social referee whose task was to maintain the peace among different groups.

Sheriff’S were not the only orderkeepers in the Delaware Valley. County justices were also appointed by the Proprietor. As a deliberate act of proprietary policy, these justices were mostly Quakers, long after that religious denomination had ceased to be a majority of the population. As late as 1764, Richard Peters wrote to the Proprietor Thomas Penn, “By your having always given the Preference to the Quakers in the Commissions of Peace, and every favour you could bestow on them, they have obtained great influence in the Country.”5

These justices were assisted by another set of public officers who were unique to the Quaker colonies. They were called peace makers. Disputes of a noncriminal nature were referred to them for arbitration under the direction of the court.6 Disputes between Quakers themselves were arbitrated in a different way, under the direction of their meetings. Members of the Society of Friends were generally forbidden to “go to law” against one another. If they insisted upon doing so, they were sometimes punished by expulsion from meeting. This combination of order-keepers—sheriff’s, justices, peace makers and arbitrators—was unique to the Delaware Valley.

Forms of disorder in the Delaware colonies also differed from other regions of British America. There were no crimes of conscience in the Quaker colonies before 1755, and comparatively few crimes against morality or order.7 In the court of Chester County, crimes against authority consisted mainly in acts of defiance to peace officers in the performance of their duty. These cases were punished severely; Quakers had no illusions about the need to maintain the authority of their ordering institutions. Abraham Effingwell, for the offense of “menacing the Majestracy [sic] of this County” was ordered to receive “twenty one lashes at the Public whipping post on his bare back well laid on and 14 days imprisonment at hard labour in the house of correction.”8

But if crimes against public morality were comparatively uncommon in Pennsylvania, a great many people were punished for violating the private rights of others. The court docket of Chester County was crowded with cases of trespass, trover and case, in which these old forms of common-law pleading were turned to new purposes by a pluralistic culture.9 In the Delaware Valley, crimes against property and crimes against persons tended to be roughly equal in their incidence, unlike New England where property crime predominated and the southern colonies where personal crimes were more common.10

Treatment of the disorderly also differed in the Quaker colonies from other parts of British America. The founders broke decisively with the harsh capital laws of England.11 In Pennsylvania and West Jersey the number of hanging offenses was reduced from more than two hundred in English law to merely two—treason and willful murder. When the Quakers lost control of their colonies the number of capital crimes increased, but their number remained small by comparison with other colonies. After the Revolution, Pennsylvania led the Western world in the cause of penal reform. As early as 1794 it abolished the death penalty for all offenses except murder in the first degree.12

At the same time that the laws of the Quaker colonies were comparatively mild as regards capital punishment, they punished very harshly acts of disorder in which one citizen intruded upon the peace of another. In Pennsylvania, penalties for crimes of sexual violence against women were exceptionally severe. The lash was used abundantly in that colony, and such was its shame and horror that in 1743 a man who was brought to the whipping post took out a knife and cut his throat before the assembled crowd, rather than submit to a public flogging.13 Samuel Breck remembered the terrible spectacle of public punishments in Philadelphia during the eighteenth century:

The large whipping-post, painted red, stood conspicuously and permanently in the most public street in town. It was placed in State street, directly under the windows of a great writing-school which I frequented, and from them the scholars were indulged in the spectacle of all kinds of punishments. …

Here women were taken from a huge cage, in which they were dragged on wheels from prison, and tied to a post with bare backs, on which thirty or forty lashes were bestowed amid the screams of the culprits and the uproar of the mob.

A little further in the street was to be seen the pillory, with three or four fellows fastened by the head, and standing for an hour in that helpless posture, exposed to gross and cruel insult from the multitude, who pelted them incessantly with rotten eggs and every repulsive kind of garbage that could be collected. These things I have often witnessed.14

In these customs of lash and whipping post, the order ways of the Delaware Valley superficially resembled those of Massachusetts and Virginia. But the same instruments served different ideas of social order.

Further, the Quakers adopted penal practices which were designed not to punish the offender but to rehabilitate him. The object was not to isolate the criminal from society, but to restore him as rapidly as possible. In the 1690s, prisoners in Philadelphia’s house of correction were allowed to leave their cells during hot weather.15 The courts of Pennsylvania and West Jersey also used peace bonds in a special way, issuing them in lieu of an indictment as an alternative to a criminal proceeding.16

Something of this Quaker testimony of peace and order entered permanently into the cultural fabric of the Delaware Valley. After the Revolution, the people of that region were persuaded to adopt many Quaker ideas on the subject of crime and punishment. Rates of violent crime remained comparatively low. Orderkeepers continued to function as referees between different cultural groups. The idea of order continued to be defined in terms of peace and mutual forbearance, rather than unity or hierarchy.

Through many vicissitudes, there was a sense in Pennsylvania that peace was the inexorable will of Providence. Thus, one Quaker wrote to a friend, “The blessings of plenty and peace which we hitherto enjoy should thankfully engage us in the returns of gratitude to that good providence which protects us, without the assistance of the sword.”17 The reality of life in the Delaware Valley appeared to confirm this mood of optimism. A Portuguese visitor to eighteenth-century Philadelphia wrote, “ … the quiet that reigns in the midst of this infinity of people is worthy of note.”18 In all of these ways, the customs of the Delaware Valley owed much to the interplay of Quaker values and English traditions in a new American environment.

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