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Image “Our Mob”: Origins of William Penn’s Delaware Elite

For all his sense of humanity, William Penn never believed in social equality. “Tho’ [God] has made of one blood all nations,” Penn wrote, “he has not ranged or dignified them upon the Level, but in a sort of subordination or dependency.”1

That spirit of “subordination” was introduced to West Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware in the seventeenth century. Within the first generation of settlement, a small elite appeared in all of these provinces. Its core was a group of Quaker families whom Deborah Norris of Philadelphia called “our mob.”2 So tight was this Quaker “connection” that of all the men who were admitted members of Philadelphia’s Corporation (the oligarchy that ran the town) from 1727 to 1750, no fewer than 85 percent were related to one another.3

This Delaware elite had its English roots mainly in the North Midlands of England. Many of its members had emigrated from small northern villages to London and Bristol and seaports throughout the empire. After accumulating a capital, they moved again to Pennsylvania. An example was the Shippen family, who came originally from Hillam in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Edward Shippen (1639-1712) emigrated in 1668 to Boston, where he became a prosperous merchant, but was cruelly persecuted for his faith. He removed to Philadelphia, becoming one of the leading merchants in the town, and also mayor, speaker of the assembly, chief justice and president of the provincial council. His children intermarried with the leading families of the Delaware elite.4

Many of those families came from the North Midlands of England. The Dilworth, Waln, Pemberton, Harris and Morris families all hailed from Lancashire. The Sharplesses, Janneys, Simcocks, Stanfields and Brasseys were from Cheshire. The Matlocks, Buntings and Bartrams came from Derbyshire; the Yardlys and Rudyards from Staffordshire; Hopkinsons from Nottinghamshire; Holmeses from Yorkshire; Whartons from Westmorland; Kirkbrides from Cumberland; and Fenwicks from Northumberland.

Another group of Quaker families came from Bristol and its surrounding countryside—the Budds, Emlens, Aliens and the Proprietor’s secretary James Logan who had Bristol connections. Many of these families were related to William Penn through his second wife Hannah Callowhill whom he had married when he lived in Bristol.

Also of high prominence was a Buckinghamshire connection consisting of the Coxe, Pennington (Penington) and Ford families—a rich and well-born Quaker gentry. They were related to Penn himself through his first wife Gulielma Springett, whose mother and stepfather were Isaac and Mary Penington. All of these families settled in West Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Yet another group consisted of Quakers from Wales—David Lloyd and his rival kinsman Thomas Lloyd, and also the Jones, Cadwalader, Owen, Meredith and Painter families. A few other elite families migrated individually from various English counties, and from every corner of the British empire—the Norrises from London by way of Jamaica, the Carpenters from Sussex by way of Barbados, the Dickinsons from Jamaica and the Rawles family from Cornwall. In the New World they were joined by German and Dutch Quakers.

Some of this elite had first settled in Burlington, West Jersey, before 1682—including the Biddle, Morris, Read and Robeson families. Others such as the Yeates family had established themselves in Newcastle County, Delaware. Both groups gravitated toward the city of Philadelphia, which became the seat of the Delaware

Valley’s “first families.” The Philadelphia elite was linked by blood and marriage to other families who remained in the country, and dominated rural culture throughout the region, long after other ethnic groups became more numerous. This was so even in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, which rapidly acquired a large German population after 1720. By the mid-eighteenth century, only 100 Quakers were said to live in Lancaster County, but they included the Wrights, Blunstons, Barbers, Lindleys, Worrals, Webbs and Allens, who kept the government of the county securely in their own hands. Rhoda Barber remembered:

the first proprietors being all connected or related to each other, there was an harmony and friendship among them beautiful to behold and pleasing to recollect. I well remember their being at my father’s house in first day afternoon. Their entertainment was apples and cider, bread and butter and smoked beef.5

That Quaker connection, which met over apples and cider in the Barbers’ best room, dominated Lancaster for many years.

Similar Quaker elites existed in other parts of the Delaware Valley. In Bucks County, there was a Quaker connection headed by Jeremiah Langhorne which was very powerful in local affairs. A third Quaker elite controlled public affairs in Chester County. A fourth lived in the Welsh Tract. Yet another group of Quakers, including the Cox, Pennington and Ford families, were very powerful in northeastern Maryland. All of these local elites came to be connected in a great cousinage with Philadelphia’s major families: Reads, Pembertons, Logans, Norrises, Lloyds, Carpenters, Prestons, Smiths, Emlens, Powels, Morrises, Cadwaladers and Shoemakers.

By the year 1750, most members of the Delaware elite were linked to this connection in one way or another. Many were the lineal or collateral kin of Sarah Read Logan, wife of James Logan, who was to the first families of her region as Mary Horsmanden Filmer Byrd had been to the “topping families” of Virginia and Sarah Storre Cotton Mather would be to the ministers and magistrates of Massachusetts.

The Delaware elite was similar in its solidarity to those of New England and Virginia, but very different in its origin and attitudes. A remarkably large proportion were of humble rank—

The Delaware Elite

I. The Core Connection: Burlington and Philadelphia


II. The Bristol Connection (Budd-Allen-Logan-Penn-Callowhill)


country artisans, petty traders, tenant farmers, servants and laborers. The first William Fisher was a cordwainer; the first John Fisher, a glazier; the first Allen, a cooper; the first Biddle, a shoemaker; the first Bringhurst, a cooper’s apprentice; the first Harrison, a shoemaker; the first Hollingsworth, a servant; the first Kirkbride, a carpenter; the first Matlack, a carpenter; the first Stansfield, a farm laborer; the first West, a “girdler”; the first Wynne, a barber-surgeon; the first Zane, a sergemaker; the first Jenkins, an “emasculator of animals.” Many were husbandmen (Langhornes, Nixons, Dilworths, Walns, Brasseys, Sim-cocks). Others were small traders and petty merchants. Scarcely any of this Quaker elite came from armigerous families. The English gentry who came to Virginia were conspicuous by their absence from the Delaware Valley. There were a few exceptions. Welsh Quaker Thomas Lloyd was of an old family which claimed fifteen quarterings on its escutcheon. But few leading Quakers had solid claims to such distinctions.

Even fewer had been to a university—William Penn himself, his secretary James Logan, and a few others. But Quakers were unable to attend Oxford and Cambridge without abjuring their faith. The formal learning that was so important in defining New England’s elite had no place in the Delaware Valley.

The lack of heraldic arms and university degrees did not mean that the founders of the Delaware elite were poor. Many brought a substantial capital to the New World, and rapidly advanced from affluence to wealth, which they achieved in the Delaware Valley primarily by investing in land. “It is almost a proverb in this neighborhood,” a traveler wrote in 1768, “that ‘every great fortune made here within these 50 years has been by land.’”6

Even as this elite grew very rich, its members continued to identify themselves with their manual occupations in a manner that was very different from Virginia or New England. The first Samuel Powel was always called the “rich carpenter,” even after he had acquired ninety houses in the city and large tracts of land in the country.7 In the most affluent families young men were urged not to live in idleness. Thus, Edward Shippen of Lancaster instructed his son: “Avoid what the world calls pleasure. Pleasure is only for crowned heads and other great men who have their incomes sleeping and waking. … Go to your cousin Allen, opulent as he is, and you will find him up early and busily employed.”8

Ties of industry and commerce united this elite. Edward Ship-pen formed a commercial partnership with James Logan, trading as the firm of Logan and Shippen. Later Shippen also formed another alliance with Thomas Lawrence, as Shippen and Lawrence. In the eighteenth century the pivotal firm was Morris and Willing, with whom many elite families did business. As time passed, merchants of other backgrounds found their way to Philadelphia, but the old families retained a moral and material hegemony even to the twentieth century.

In the early years, these families were also united by religion. Their founders were nearly all Quakers. Many had felt the lash of persecution before coming to the Delaware. The first Edward Shippen had twice been whipped severely by the Puritans, merely for attending Quaker Meeting. Others had been jailed in England—an experience that shaped their attitudes toward power and liberty for years to come.9

As time passed, some children of these founders fell away from the Society of Friends. In the eighteenth century, entire families, including the Shippens, Clymers, Mifflins, Bonds, Plumsteds, Redmans, Stretells and even the Penns themselves returned to the Church of England. Other religious divisions had earlier occurred among leading Quakers over the Keithian controversy, and later between strict Quakers and “wet Quakers.”10

The Delaware elite also quarreled over politics, dividing into factions called the Proprietary and Quaker parties. But the leaders of both parties were related to one another. The Proprietary party was led by Thomas Lloyd; the Quaker party by his kinsman David Lloyd. Party rivalry pitted cousin against cousin within the narrow circle of a family argument.

This elite was more open than those of Massachusetts and Virginia. During the eighteenth century, it demonstrated strong powers of regeneration. It allowed newly rich families of old Quaker stock (Biddles, Clymers, Hollingsworth, Penrose) to move

III. The Allen-Penn-Emlen-Logan-Powel Connection


IV. The Yorkshire Connection (Shippen-Plumley- Willing-Francis-MacCall-Yeates)


V. The Lancashire Connection (Wain, Dilworth)


steadily from the periphery to core.11 It also admitted new members who were Anglican or Presbyterian or Free Thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. But it expected them to marry suitably (as Franklin “married” a Read and Rush wed a Stockton). These newcomers were also expected to conform to established Delaware Valley customs of dress and demeanor.

For many years, this Delaware elite remained dominant in its region. From the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth, its core consisted of Quaker or lapsed-Quaker families who had arrived in the period from 1675 to 1695.12 A close student of Pennsylvania politics finds that “members of the Society of Friends dominated elective offices, held large numbers of appointive positions, and constituted a majority of the colony’s economic and social leaders,” from its founding to the mid-eighteenth century. Its social hegemony in Philadelphia has survived even to our own time.13

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