On the subject of property, Quakers tended to be highly conventional and even conservative. But on questions of social rank, they were radical and revolutionary. In the early stages of this movement, Quaker pronouncements about rank sent a thrill of horror through the possessing classes. “Woe unto you that are called Lords, Ladies, Knights, Gentlemen, and Gentlewomen …,” English Quaker James Parnell warned in 1655, “Woe unto you … who are called Mister and Sir and Mistress. … Because of your much earth, which by fraud, deceit and oppression you have gotten together, you are exalted above your fellow-creatures, and grind the faces of the poore. And they are as slaves under you, and must labour and toyle under you, and you must live at ease.”1
In the second generation of Quakerism, the rhetoric became more muted, but underlying attitudes remained the same. Even a Quaker as high-born as William Penn published gentle polemics against the idea of social orders in general and aristocracy in particular. “What a podder [pother] has this noble blood made in the world …,” he declared, “methinks nothing of man’s folly has less show of reason to palliate it.”2
William Penn detested distinctions of “blood” and “birth.” He insisted that England’s structure of hereditary social orders was an organized absurdity, and a contradiction in terms. He argued:
Since virtue comes not by generation, I neither am the better nor the worse for my forefather, to be sure. … To be descended of wealth and titles fills no man’s head with brains nor heart with truth. …
Oh, says the person of blood, it was never a good world since we have had so many upstart gentlemen. But what should those have said of that man’s ancestor when he first started up into the knowledge of the world? For he, and all men and families, aye, and all states and kingdoms too have had their upstarts, that is, their beginnings. …3
Deep as was his disdain for aristocracy, William Penn reserved his strongest contempt for plutocracy, “Never esteem any man or thyself the more for money,” he wrote, “nor think the meaner of thyself or another for want of it.”4
But Penn was no egalitarian. He believed that a society should be run by an aristocracy of Christian virtue. “Pray let nobility and virtue keep company, for they are the nearest of kin,” he wrote.5 Most of all, he believed that every individual should be judged for what he was and did. “A man, like a watch, is to be valued for his goings,” he declared.6
Many Quakers shared Penn’s thinking on social rank. They expressed their hostility to England’s system of social orders most eloquently not in words but acts. The ritual displays of social deference required in Anglican Virginia were actively discouraged in the Delaware Valley. Old customs such as “capping” and “kneeing” were condemned by Quakers. Many steadfastly refused to give “hat honor” to those of high social rank. In place of bowing, curtseying, scraping, and uncovering, Quakers substituted the ritual of the universal handshake—a decency which Friends extended to everyone—even their social superiors.7
In England, the stubborn refusal of the Quakers to give “hat honor” was punished with a brutal force which tells us that these rituals had deep meaning in the seventeenth century. In 1655, for example, the high sheriff of Lancashire, John Parker, routinely bullied and beat Quakers who did not bare their heads to him. While out riding one day, Sheriff Parker met a Quaker tenant named James Smithson who refused to remove his hat.
“Knowest then me not?” the sheriff demanded.
“I know thee,” the Quaker replied.
“Who am I?”
“Thou art my Landlord.”
“Am I so!” the sheriff said. “But I will teach thee.”
The Sheriff swung his heavy rod and struck James Smithson full in the head. Then he pulled off the Quaker’s hat, and “did continue striking him on the head till his rod broke off so short that he cast away what was left of it and stroke him with his hands while he pleased.”
A little later Friend Smithson met the sheriff again, and once more refused to give hat honor. “Is there no honor belongs to a landlord?” the sheriff asked plaintively.
“I honor thee with my rent,” Smithson replied, “other honor I have not for thee.”
Once again the sheriff “struck him in the head with a rod, and pushed off his hat and did strike him in the head and face til the blood came.”8
“Hat honor” was merely one of many rituals of subordination which Quakers denied to their social superiors. Another was the use of the second person plural, the pronoun “you,” which in many European languages implied deference. When Quakers used “thee” and “thou” in place of “you” they sometimes set off exceptionally violent reactions. A Quaker servant named Richard Davies remembered that his master did not much mind, but his mistress was infuriated:
When I gave it [thee and thou] to my mistress, she took a stick and gave me such a blow upon my bare head, that it made it swell and sore for a considerable time; she was so disturbed at it, that she swore she would kill me, though she would be hanged for me; the enemy so possessed her, that she was quite out of order; though beforetime she seldom, if ever, gave me an angry word.9
Quakers also refused to use social titles. They did not call any mortal “master,” “mister,” “sir,” or “ma’am.” They would not address titled aristocrats as “my Lord,” for they recognized only one Lord. They disdained to call dukes “Your Grace,” for they believed that England’s ducal families were deficient in the only grace that mattered. They also resisted calling gentlemen and high officeholders “your honor,” or “your excellency.” In America, as in England, they insisted that “all these titles and styles of honor are to be rejected by Christians because they are to seek the honor that comes from above, not the honor that comes from below.”10 Everyone was addressed simply as “Friend” without distinctions of age, estate, gender, office or rank.
Quakers also objected to other ranking customs—in particular to the fulsome language of courtesy which flourished in the seventeenth century. A famous example was set in 1656 by George Fox while a prisoner at Launceston Castle. One morning, while taking his exercise on the castle green, the great Quaker was greeted by his jailor, an English gentleman named Major Ceely, who swept off his hat and said civilly: “How do you do, Mr. Fox? Your servant, Sir.” This courtesy brought a rude reply. “Major Ceely,” said the Quaker, “take heed of hypocrisy and a rotten heart, for when came I to be thy master and thee my servant? Do servants use to cast their masters in prison?”11
The Quakers found many reasons for condemning these courtesies—because they were literally false, lying, deceitful, hypocritical; because they rewarded evil and made a ceremony of sin; because they gave attention to empty honors; and because they distracted people from important distinctions that were not of this world.12
Quakers made this challenge in a generation which raised these rituals of social inequality to their highest level. Historians of manners believe that in no other period did elites demand so rigorous an etiquette of inequality as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.13
In the Delaware Valley, Quaker rank ways rapidly became part of an American regional culture, and set it apart from both New England and the Chesapeake colonies. In the words of historian Gary Nash, traditional “patterns of elitism, hierarchy and deference had tended to decay” in the early decades of Pennsylvania’s history.14 In terms of the England’s hereditary ranking system, the Quaker ideal was a society with a single order. In their own terms, they did not seek to create a world of social equality, but rather to maintain a new system of moral distinctions in which men and women were ranked according to virtue and merit.