Digital Paxton


William Fenton is the founder of Digital Paxton, a critical edition of the pamphlets and documents related to the December 1763 massacre of  20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Over at the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Fenton writes about some new additions to the site.  Here is a taste:

Over the past 18 months, Digital Paxton has grown to accommodate artworks and engravings from the Library of Congress and Philadelphia Museum of Art and letters, diaries, and other manuscript materials from the American Philosophical Society, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, and Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. With each new partnership, the project has grown more diverse in its materials and expansive in its scope, furnishing students and scholars with the resources they need to locate the 1764 Paxton pamphlet war in a longer crisis of colonial governance that emerges during the Seven Years’ War and extends through the American Revolution.

Read the entire post here.

Author’s Corner with W. Thomas Mainwaring

P03434.pngW. Thomas Mainwaring is chair of the Department of History at Washington and Jefferson College. This interview is based on his new book, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (University of Notre Dame, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I wrote Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania, because I was dissatisfied with the popular portrayal of the local Underground Railroad – a portrayal dominated by myths, legends, and hoary stereotypes. I wanted to write a scholarly study of the Underground Railroad based upon historical evidence and to establish the context in which the Underground Railroad emerged. I also wanted to bring to light discoveries that I had made about unknown individuals and networks, largely African Americans.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of  Abandoned Tracks?

WM: The argument of Abandoned Tracks is that the popular understanding of the Underground Railroad has long been dominated by myths and legends that fixate on subterranean hiding places and secrecy. It attempts to bridge the gap between popular perceptions and recent scholarship on the Underground Railroad.

JF: Why do we need to read Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I hope that Abandoned Tracks offers a good model of how to study abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in one locality. Abandoned Tracks is particularly relevant for studying the “border” North – areas that were contiguous to or near slaveholding states.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?

WM: I decided to become an American historian when I took two junior seminars on the history of the American South. I was hooked!

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I would like to examine the causes of the American Revolution from a British perspective.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

Call for Papers: Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting


It is in Lancaster this year.  Here is the call for papers as posted at New York History blog:

The Pennsylvania Historical Association have announced they are now accepting proposals for its 2018 annual meeting to be held in Lancaster, PA from October 11-13.

The program committee welcomes and encourages proposals on all aspects of Pennsylvania and Mid-Atlantic history.

The conference theme is “City, County, Commonwealth, and Country: Local and Regional History as America’s History,” with proposals especially encouraged in the areas of material culture, public history, and oral history. Full session proposals are strongly preferred, but the committee will also consider individual paper proposals. Sessions may be arranged as either paper panels or roundtable discussions. The program committee also invites proposals for our student research poster session.

If you have suggestions for panel or plenary sessions related to the conference theme, contact the program chair, Dr. Michael Birkner (Gettysburg College) at The annual meeting is hosted by

Proposals must be submitted electronically by March 10, 2018.

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA


I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

Jane Calvert on John Dickinson

The University of Kentucky is running a great piece on Jane Calvert, the planet’s foremost expert on John Dickinson.  As many of you know, Dickinson was the author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767-68), a response to the Townsend Acts.  Though he was the primary author of the Articles of Confederation, he refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.  It’s a great story from revolutionary America and Calvert tells it well.

Read the piece here.

Or watch:


C-SPAN Lecture Now Available On-Line

My C-SPAN lecture on the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution just aired and will air tonight at midnight in case you missed it and want an alternative to Saturday Night Live. 🙂

I am not a big fan of watching myself lecture, so I hope it went OK.

You can now watch the video of the lecture here.

Get some additional context for the lecture here, including an extensive discussion of the religion clauses.

Here is a small taste:


The York County, Pennsylvania Pow-Wow Murders

long-lost-friend-pow-wows-bookApparently this is Pennsylvania history day at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Check out Holly Genovese‘s post on the 1929 York County Pow-Wow murders.

A taste:

Oral History Projects Due Today

York Race

York Race riots, July 1969

The students in my Pennsylvania History course are handing-in their oral history papers today.  As part of their work for the semester, each student was required to interview a person who could tell them something about recent Pennsylvania history.

Hopefully the assignment taught them something about Pennsylvania history and something about the practice of oral history.  I asked students to conduct a one-hour interview, transcribe the interview, and write an eight-page paper on a topic in Pennsylvania history using the interview as a primary source.

The students worked hard at locating interviewees and connecting their stories to larger stories in the history of the state.  Topics included Three Mile Island, the 1969 York Race Riots, agricultural life in mid-century Pennsylvania, life on the Pennsylvania home front during World War II, Italian South Philadelphia in the 1970s, the Lancaster Amish, the Philadelphia MOVE bombing, the history of Messiah College, post-1965 immigration and ethnicity, the 1972 Agnes flood, and industrial decline in specific towns.

I am looking forward to reading them.

What is More Important: Quality Consumer Goods or Social Equality?

CarnegieThe obvious answer is quality consumer goods. How could we live without them?

At least this is how Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie would have answered the question posed in the title of my post.

Yesterday  in my Pennsylvania History class I taught Carnegie’s famous 1889 North American Review essay titled “Wealth.”

Here is part of what he said:

Formerly articles were manufactured at the domestic hearth in small shops which formed part of the household. The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master and therefore subject to the same conditions.  When these apprentices rose to be master, there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn, educated in the same routine succeeding apprentices.  There was, substantially, social equality….

But the inevitable result of such a mode of manufacture was crude articles at high prices.  To-day the world obtains commodities of excellent quality at prices which even the general preceding this would have deemed incredible. In the commercial world similar causes have produced similar results, and the race is benefited thereby. The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford. What were the luxuries have become the necessaries of life. The laborer has now more comforts than the landlord had a few generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more artistic, than the King could then obtain.

The price we pay for this salutary change is, no doubt, great. We assemble thousands of operatives in the factory, in the mine, and in the counting-house, of whom the employer can know little or nothing, and to whom the employer is little better than a myth. All intercourse between them is at an end. Rigid Castes are formed, and, as usual, mutual ignorance breeds mutual distrust. Each Caste is without sympathy for the other, and ready to credit anything disparaging in regard to it. Under the law of competition, the employer of thousands is forced into the strictest economies, among which the rates paid to labor figure prominently, and often there is friction between the employer and the employed, between capital and labor, between rich and poor. Human society loses homogeneity.

The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great;but the advantage of this law are also greater still, for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train.

After walking my students through this text, I ended class and let them ponder it over the weekend.  We will see what they think on Monday.

The Gadsden Purchase vs. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo


Today in my Pennsylvania History course we were talking about David Wilmot, the freshman congressman from the Wilkes-Barre, PA area who is known best as the author of the Wilmot Proviso (1847).  As some of you may recall from your high school or college history survey course, Wilmot proposed that slavery should be banned from the territory that the United States acquired during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While I was discussing the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the treaty that ceded all the territory in pink on the map above, an underrated Jimmy Fallon sketch crossed my mind.  When I found out that none of the students in the class had seen the sketch, I turned to YouTube.  (Long-time readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember that we posted this video back in 2014).



Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 8


David Rittenhouse

OK.  This is my last post in what turned out to be a rather long series on the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution.  Read the entire series here.

In this post I am sharing some of my ongoing research on the religious affiliations of the signers of the Constitution.  As you can see, I still have work to do. If you know anything about the religious affiliation of these guys please shoot me an e-mail or comment below.

So far my research has revealed a very large number of Presbyterians and German Reformed signers. (By the way, why aren’t more people writing about the German Reformed population in Pennsylvania?  We haven’t had a book on them in years!)

What do the religious affiliations of the signers have to do with the religious dimensions of the Constitution discussed in the previous seven posts? I don’t know.  Maybe nothing. But I do think that it is a question worth asking.

Here are the signers:

Philadelphia City

Timothy Matlack: Free Quaker

Frederick Kuhl: Anglican

James Cannon: Probably Presbyterian

George Schlosser: Probably Lutheran

David Rittenhouse: Presbyterian


Philadelphia County

Robert Loller: Presbyterian (Abington)

Joseph Blewer: Probably Anglican (Southwark)

John Bull: ? (Providence Township)

William Coates ? (Northern Liberties)


Bucks County

John Wilkinson: Free Quaker (Wrightstown)

Samuel Smith: ? (Buckingham)

John Keller: Probably Lutheran (Haycock Township)

William Van Horne: Baptist (Southampton)

John Grier: Presbyterian (Plumstead)

Abraham Van Middleswarts: ?

Joseph Kirkbride: Free Quaker (New Britain)


Chester County

Benjamin Bartholomew: Baptist (Devon)

Thomas Strawbridge: ? (Londonderry)

Robert Smith: Presbyterian (Uwchlan)

Samuel Cunningham: Probably Presbyterian (Nantmeal)

John Mackey: Presbyterian (New London)

John Flemming: Presbyterian (Valley Township)


Lancaster County

Philip Marsteller ?  (Lebanon)

Thomas Porter: ? (Drumore)

Bartram Galbreath: Presbyterian (Donegal)

John Hubley: ? (Lancaster)

Alexander Lowrey: Presbyterian (Donegal)


York County

James Edgar: Presbyterian (York)

James Smith: Probably Presbyterian (Susquehanna)


Cumberland County

John Harris Jr.: Presbyterian (Paxton)

Jonathan Hoge: Presbyterian (East Pennsboro)

William Clarke: ? (Middletown)

Robert Whitehill: Presbyterian (Paxton)

William Duffield: Probably Presbyterian (Mercersburg)

James Brown: Probably Presbyterian (Carlisle)

Hugh Alexander: Probably Presbyterian (?)

James McLain: Probably Presbtyerian (Antrim)


Berks County

Jacob Morgan: Anglican (Carnarvon)

Gabriel Hiester: Probably German Reformed (Bern)

Benjamin Spyker: German Reformed (Tulpehocken)

Valentine Ecker: German Reformed (Wolmesdorf)

Charles Shoemaker: Lutheran (Windsor)

Thomas Jones Jr.: ? (Heidelberg)


Northampton County

Simon Driesbach: German Reformed (Lehigh)

Jacob Arndt: German Reformed (Forks)

Peter Burkholder: ? (Whitehall)

Jacob Stroud: ? (Stroudsburg)

Neigal Gray: Presbyterian (Allen Township)

Abraham Miller (?)

John Ralston: Presbyterian (Allen Township)


Bedford County

Benjamin Elliott: Presbyterian (Huntingdon)

Thomas Coulter: ? (Cumberland Valley)

Rev. Joseph Powell: Baptist (Southampton)

John Burd: ? (Bedford)

John Cessna: ? (Friend’s Cove)

John Wilkin: ? (Bedford)

Thomas Smith: Anglican (Bedford)


Northumberland County

William Cooke: ? (Northumberland)

James Potter: Probably Presbyterian (Northumberland)

Robert Martin: ? (Wyoming)

Matthew Brown: Presbyterian (White Deer Hole Valley)

Walter Clark: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

John Kelley: Presbyterian (Buffalo Valley)

James Crawford: Probably Presbyterian (Pine Creek)

John Weitzel: ? (Sunbury)


Westmoreland County

James Barr: Presbyterian (Ft. Barr)

Edward Cook: Presbyterian (Fayette City)

James Smith: Presbyterian (Bedford)

John Moore: Presbyterian (New Alexandria)

John Carmichael: Presbyterian (Franklin)

John McClelland: Presbyterian (Franklin)

Christopher Lobingier: German Reformed (Mount Pleasant)


Ben Franklin: President

John Morris: Secretary

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 7


Sketch of Mikveh Israel’s new synagogue, built in 1782.

I am afraid that this series is no longer “short” (at least by blog standards).  If you want to get up to speed click here for earlier installments.

As we have noted before, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was very democratic in nature.  This is what I wrote in Part 1 of this series:

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

Historians of the American Revolution, especially those from the Neo-Progressive historiographical school, like to point to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 as an early experiment in democracy.

For example, here is historian Gary Nash:

…the ideas embedded in the radical constitution of 1776 lived on.  Reflecting the full flowering of democratic thought in the Revolutionary Era and standing as a prime example of the revolution within the Revolution, it inspired lawmakers around the world.  Unicameralism, with its insistence that a true democracy should make no distinction between the haves and have-nots as represented in upper and lower legislative houses, spread around the world.  It was acclaimed and implemented in revolutionary France and is how law is made today in Nebraska, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Hong Kong; in all of Australia and Canada’s provinces: in the legislative bodies of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; in Italy and Spain; and in almost all socialist states.  Most important, the broadening franchise, in which land ownership is not required for first-class citizenship, in time nashbecame the gold standard nationwide and gradually spread aborad as the most important legacy of the sparks from Pennsylvania’s altar of ’76.  Philadelphia’s radical caucus had changed Pennsylvania’s position on independence at a crucial moment in the summer of 1776, and in the process had turned Pennsylvania into a people’s republic. —Gary Nash, “Philadelphia’s Radical Cause That Propelled Pennsylvania to Independence and Democracy,” in Ray Raphael, Alfred Young, and Gary Nash, ed., Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation.

Nash is correct.  The  Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was radical.  But what he fails to mention is that for many of these members of the convention this kind of progressive democracy had its limits.

Here is Section 10:

A quorum of the house of representatives shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of members elected; and having met and chosen their speaker, shall each of them before they proceed to business take and subscribe, as well the oath or affirmation of fidelity and allegiance hereinafter directed, as the following oath or affirmation, viz:

I do swear (or affirm) that as a member of this assembly, I will not propose or assent to any bill, vote, or resolution, which stall appear to free injurious to the people; nor do or consent to any act or thing whatever, that shall have a tendency to lessen or abridge their rights and privileges, as declared in the constitution of this state; but will in all things conduct myself as a faithful honest representative and guardian of the people, according to the best of only judgment and abilities.

And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz:

I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.

And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this State.

Yes, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 established a “people’s republic,” but the only people permitted to govern in this “people’s republic” were those who could uphold a belief in the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments.  In other words, the framers only wanted Christians running their commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Jews were not very happy about this.  In 1783, the Council of Censors, a body that met every seven years to suggest amendments to the constitution so that the government would function more efficiently, received a letter from the leaders of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel congregation.

Here is a taste of that letter:

That by the tenth section of the Frame of Government of this Commonwealth, it is ordered that each member of the general assembly of representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe a declaration, which ends in these words, “I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the old and new Testament to be given by divine inspiration,” to which is added an assurance, that “no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state.”

Your memorialists beg leave to observe, that this clause seems to limit the civil rights of your citizens to one very special article of the creed; whereas by the second paragraph of the declaration of the rights of the inhabitants, it is asserted without any other limitation than the professing the existence of God, in plain words, “that no man who acknowledges the being of a God can be justly deprived or abridged of any civil rights as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments.” But certainly this religious test deprives the Jews of the most eminent rights of freemen, solemnly ascertained to all men who are not professed Atheists.

They asked the Council of Censors to amend the Constitution:

Your memorialists beg further leave to represent, that in the religious books of the Jews, which are or may be in every man’s hands, there are no such doctrines or principles established as are inconsistent with the safety and happiness of the people of Pennsylvania, and that the conduct and behaviour of the Jews in this and the neighbouring States, has always tallied with the great design of the Revolution; that the Jews of Charlestown, New York, New-Port and other posts, occupied by the British troops, have distinguishedly suffered for their attachment to the Revolution principles; and their brethren at St. Eustatius, for the same cause, experienced the most severe resentments of the British commanders. The Jews of Pennsylvania in proportion to the number of their members, can count with any religious society whatsoever, the Whigs among either of them; they have served some of them in the Continental army; some went out in the militia to fight the common enemy; all of them have cheerfully contributed to the support of the militia, and of the government of this State; they have no inconsiderable property in lands and tenements, but particularly in the way of trade, some more, some less, for which they pay taxes; they have, upon every plan formed for public utility, been forward to contribute as much as their circumstances would admit of; and as a nation or a religious society, they stand unimpeached of any matter whatsoever, against the safety and happiness of the people.

And your memorialists humbly pray, that if your honours, from any consideration than the subject of this address, should think proper to call a convention for revising the constitution, you would be pleased to recommend this to the notice of that convention.

In the 18th-century world democracy had its limits.

Stay tuned.  One or two more posts left in this series.

Bonus feature:  We covered the Mikveh Israel letter in a recent episode of the Virtual Office Hours:


Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 6


Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River, late 18th c.

For earlier installments in this series click here.

It is now time to turn to the text of the Constitution.  What does it say about religion?

The preamble of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 states:

We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) in permitting the people of this State, by common consent, and without violence, deliberately to form for themselves such just rules as they shall think best, for governing their future society, and being fully convinced, that it is our indispensable duty to establish such original principles of government, as will best promote the general happiness of the people of this State, and their posterity, and provide for future improvements, without partiality for, or prejudice against any particular class, sect, or denomination of men whatever, do, by virtue of the authority vested in use by our constituents, ordain, declare, and establish, the following Declaration of Rights and Frame of Government, to be the CONSTITUTION of this commonwealth, and to remain in force therein for ever, unaltered, except in such articles as shall hereafter on experience be found to require improvement, and which shall by the same authority of the people, fairly delegated as this frame of government directs, be amended or improved for the more effectual obtaining and securing the great end and design of all government, herein before mentioned.

If you have been following along with this series, you should not be surprised by this reference to “the great Governor of the universe.”  This is similar to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable Rights or the similar reference to “Nature’s God.”  These are traditional eighteenth-century references to a providential God who rules over the earth and the universe and presides over human governments.  I don’t think we should read anything more into this statement.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 begins with a “Declaration of Rights.”  Article 1 states “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”  Unlike the Declaration of Independence, which was written a couple of months earlier and affirmed in the same building–the Pennsylvania State House–the Pennsylvania Constitution does not state that the rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness come from a “Creator.”  (But perhaps the framers believed that this was already covered in the preamble).

Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights focuses specifically on religion:

That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

This is pretty boilerplate stuff for Pennsylvania.  Religious freedom is afforded to everyone who “acknowledges the being of a God.”  Of course it is worth noting that religious freedom is NOT afforded to people who do not believe in God.  Most likely the framers could not imagine a scenario in which someone who did not believe in God would have a need for religious freedom.

Compare this statement with the two previous (pre-American Revolution) Pennsylvania governments.

William Penn’s 1682 Frame of Government was loaded with religious language, but on the issue of religious freedom the proprietor wrote:

That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or ministry whatever.

This statement says a bit more about God than the 1776 Constitution. Religious freedom is afforded to those who believe in a providential creator-God.

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, which served as the source of government from 1701 and 1776, states:

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship: And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

In this statement Penn says a little bit more about God, but the religious freedom protection is basically the same as the 1682 Frame of Government and the 1776 Constitution.  Religious freedom is afforded to those “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World….”

In our next installment we will discuss the Pennsylvania Constitution’s religious “test oath.”  Stay tuned.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 5

Muhl 2

Henry Melchior Muehlenberg

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In the last installment we discussed a request made to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers George Duffield and William Marshall asking the members to exempt clergy from the “burthen of civil offices.”

On the same day, September 25, 1776, the convention received another letter from two clergymen.  The minutes read:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Muhlenberg and Weynberg, praying for an addition to the 47th article of the proposed frame of government, confirming the incorporations for promoting religious and charitable purposes, was read, and ordered to lie on the table.

The authors of this letter were Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the most prominent Lutheran minister in colonial America, and Caspar Diederus Weyberg, the pastor of the German Reformed Church on 4th and Race St. in Philadelphia.

The “47th article of the proposed frame of government” is a reference to what became, in the final draft of the Constitution, the 45th article.  (A draft of the Constitution was published in the press for the consideration of the people. Muhlenberg read it some time before September 16, 1776).

The 45th article in the draft version of the Constitution that was published for the consideration of the people of Pennsylvania read “Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution.”

Historian J. Paul Selsam, author of The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (1936) picks up the story from here and adds additional context. (I have added a few parenthetical notes):

The Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, senior minister of the united German Lutheran Congregations in Pennsylvania, from whose [October 2, 1776] letter the following account is taken, stated that on Monday, September 16, “The Provost of the College [William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia] came to him unexpectedly “and said that the condition of the Christian religion seemed in danger after independence had been declared and a new form of government was in process of formation; that no care at all had been taken to acquire even the outer ramparts…”  The Provost showed Rev. Muhlenberg a paragraph which he thought should be added to the forty-seventh section.  The latter was pleased with the paragraph but believed they could do little about it.  “What can despised preachers effect with a Rump Parliament?” he wrote.  An informal gathering of a few of the leading ministers was held to discuss the question, and Muhlenberg remarked at the meeting that “it now seems as if a Christian people were ruled by Jews, Turks, Spinozists, Deists, perverted naturalists.”  The ministers “were learned pillars,” he said, “and would have much to answer for if they were now silent.”  The Reverend Dr. Alison [Presbyterian Francis Alison, Vice-Provost of the College of Philadelphia] did not feel alarmed, saying that “it was of no consequence and it would be sufficient if the officials would only give testimony to the Supreme Being as creator and preserver of all things.”  This statement evoked some discussion, but the meeting accomplished nothing.

This group decided to meet again and to invite more protestant preachers.  At a meeting the following day the Provost and Vice-Provost of the College [Smith and Alison] and five ministers decided to request the Convention to annex to the forty-seventh section the paragraph which they had drawn up.  One of their number was appointed to go to Dr. Franklin, and President of the Convention, “to ask permission to wait upon him.”  Franklin “condescendingly sent word,” says Muhlenberg, “that he would come to us.”  he met with them and after being shown the said paragraph, promised to present it to the Convention.  Rev. Muhlenberg discussed the matter with the Lutheran Church Council that afternoon.  He was supported unanimously, so a petition to the Convention was drawn up and signed by the Rev.  Weyberg on behalf of the Reformed.  It was presented to the Convention on September 25, and after being read was ordered to lie on the table. The petition  asked the Honorable Convention to annex or add unto the 47th Section of the proposed Plan the following Words viz: ‘and all religious Societies and Bodies of Men heretofore united and incorporated for the Advancement of Virtue and Learning and for other pious and charitable Purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the Enjoyment of the Privileges, Immunities and Estates, which they were accustomed to enjoy and might or could of Right have enjoyed under the Laws and former Constitution of this State.”  It closed by stating, “A Serious Attention to, and condescending compliance with our our humbler Petition will rendre great Satisfaction, Security and Ease to all regular Christian societies and Denominations in this State and especially to your humble Petitioners…”

The paragraph the ministers suggested was adopted, for section 45 of the final draft (corresponding to the forty-seventh section of the one which appeared in the press) contained their suggestion with only a few minor changes.  The substitution of “religion” for “virtue” was the most important.

Here is the exact text of Section 45:

Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.

So what is going on here?

First, it is clear that Muhlenberg, Weyberg, and the Philadelphia clergy who they represented, wanted to make sure that the 1776 Constitution said something about the importance of religion to a healthy republican government.  It also appears, from Muhlenberg’s notes, that some of these clergymen (Alison excepted) wanted a more overtly Christian statement about the relationship between religion and the new Pennsylvania government in order to prevent it from being run by Jews, Muslims (“Turks”), and other unbelievers.

We don’t know if they were happy with the finished product.  Section 45 of the final draft mentions the promotion of “virtue, and the prevention of vice and immorality” as well as the place of “religious societies” in the “advancement of religion or learning, or other pious and charitable purposes.”  Perhaps these clergy understood “virtue” to mean Christian virtue.  And perhaps they concluded that “religious societies” meant Christian religious societies.  I don’t know.  Whatever the case, as we will see in future posts in this series, they did get an overtly Christian test oath for officeholders.

Second, Section 45 seems to affirm the same religious liberties guaranteed to the people of Pennsylvania in the second section of the Constitution’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania.”  More on that later.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 4


Rev. George Duffield

For earlier installments in this series click here.

On September 25, 1776, after the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention crafted a bill of rights and were nearly completed with a frame of government, it received this letter from two Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Duffield and Marshall, praying that the clergy of this state may be exempted from the burthen of civil offices, and setting forth their reasons for such an exemption, was read, and ordered to lie on the table for consideration.

I am assuming the first person listed as George Duffield, the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church (Pine Street) in Philadelphia.  He would later serve alongside Anglican/Episcopalian William White as a chaplain to the Continental Congress. (William Duffield represented Cumberland County at the convention, but he was not a clergyman).  The reference to “Marshall” is probably William Marshall, Duffield’s associate pastor at Pine Street.

I wish I knew the “reasons” why Duffield and Marshall asked for an exemption.  The best I can do is speculate in light of other state constitutions that forbade clergy from holding public office.  I wrote about some of these constitutions here and here.

It is interesting to note that Duffield and Marshall saw participation in “civil offices” as a “burthen” (burden) to their calling as ministers of the Gospel.  In other words, political activity got in the way of their religious duties to the church and they did not want this to happen.  Apparently the members of the convention disagreed or at least didn’t think such an amendment was important.

In the end, the proposal was never considered again and the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 did not forbid clergy from civil officers.

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 3

bishop white house 4 _0

Bishop William White House, Philadelphia

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In our last installment we discussed the religious oath that needed to be affirmed by the members of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention.

In this post I want to call your attention to the religious practices of the convention itself.

On Wednesday, July 17, 1776, the records of the convention note:

Resolved, That the Rev. Mr. William White, be requested to perform divine service tomorrow before this convention, that we may jointly offer up our prayers to Almighty God, to afford us his divine grace and assistance in the important and arduous task committed to us, and to offer up our praises and thanksgivings for the manifold mercies and the peculiar interposition of his special providence, in behalf of these injured, oppressed, and insulted United States.  Col. Matlack and Mr. Clymer are appointed to wait on the Rev. Mr. White, and furnish him with a copy of the foregoing resolve.

On Thursday, July 17, 1776, the records of the convention note: “The Rev. Mr. White attending, agreeably to the request of yesterday, and having performed divine service, and being withdrawn, it was Ordered, on motion, that Mr. Matlack and Mr. Clymer wait upon that gentleman, with the thanks of the convention for his services.”

The reference here is to Rev. William White.  He was the twenty-eight-year old assistant minister of Philadelphia’s Christ Church.  White was an Anglican who supported the American Revolution.  He would later serve as Chaplain of the Continental Congress and the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

These were the only two times that White’s name is mentioned in the records of the convention.  It was obviously important to the members of the convention that the proceedings be opened with prayer and a “divine service.”

Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series: Part 2

pa-consRead the Part 1 here.

The Pennsylvania Constitution Convention of 1776 met from July 15, 1776 to September 28, 1776. Benjamin Franklin was chosen as President of the convention on the second day (July 16, 1776).

Members of the convention were required to take an “oath or affirmation” as a qualification for participating.  This was the same profession of faith required of those sitting in the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference in Philadelphia, the conference serving as the revolutionary government of Pennsylvania.

The oath/affirmation read:

I do declare, that I do not hold myself bound to bear allegiance to George the third, king of Great Britain, & c. and that I will steadily and firmly, at all times, promote the most effectual means, according to the best of my skill and knowledge, to oppose the tyrannical proceedings of the king and parliament of Great Britain, against the American Colonies; and to establish and support a government in this province, on the authority of the people only & c.  That I will oppose any measure that shall or may, in the least, interfere with or obstruct the religious principles or practices of any of the good people of this province, as heretofore enjoyed.

Also, Resolved, That no person elected to serve as a member of convention, shall take his seat or give his vote, until he shall have made and subscribed the following declaration.

I do profess faith in God, the father, and in Jesus Christ, his eternal son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God blessed for evermore; and do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the old and new testament, to be given by divine inspiration.

In order to participate in the writing of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 one had to  uphold a belief in the Trinity and the divine inspiration of the Bible.  70 members of the convention took this oath/made this affirmation, including Ben Franklin.

As I wrote in the first post in this series, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 set up the most democratic government in America.  Yet participation in the construction of this constitution was limited to Christians.


Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series

pa-consEarlier this week C-SPAN was at Messiah College to film a lecture in my “Pennsylvania History” course for its “Lectures in History Program.”  I was scheduled to teach the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 on Monday. I probably could have picked another, perhaps more exciting, topic for C-SPAN, but I have been spending time thinking about this state constitution lately and thought I could use it to make some larger points about Carl Becker’s famous statement about the Revolution as a debate over “home rule” and “who would rule at home.”

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was the most democratic state constitution in the newly established United States.  It had a unicameral legislature and a plural executive.  Power rested in the legislature. While there were other states (Vermont and Georgia) that had unicameral legislatures, the Pennsylvania government was unique because it gave the right to vote and the right to hold office to all males, regardless of wealth or land ownership.  This meant that the one-house legislature was virtually unchecked by a governor or an upper-house.  Members of the legislature had to swear an oath of loyalty to this new government.  Proceedings were open to the public and published in newspapers in both English and German.  This was democracy at work.  Several historians and political scientists have pointed to the influence of Thomas Paine on its framers.

My intention in this post and others that follow is not to provide a full history of the Pennsylvania Constitution. (Paul Selsam’s 1935 The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 is still the best book on the subject).  Rather, I am particularly interested in some of the religious dimensions of the constitution and the religious context that may or may not have shaped some of it. Stay tuned for more posts over the next several days.