Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

David Reader

Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens

The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia attempted to persuade Philadelphians to vote against the ratification of a new constitution for Pennsylvania in 1838 because the word “white” had been inserted prior to “freemen” as a qualification for voting. Written by African American leader Robert Purvis (1810-98), the pamphlet highlighted the achievements, sacrifices, and value of the black community to Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_15352" align="alignright" width="179"]A color photograph of the title page of a book, featuring plain black lettering, with some text italicized and bolded . On March 14, 1838, Robert Purvis read the text of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens to an audience at the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Within a month it had been published in pamphlet form, with this title page. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Under Pennsylvania’s first two constitutions, ratified in 1776 and 1790, Article III limited voting rights and elections to “freemen,” but definitions of “freeman” varied in individual counties depending on local politics and traditions. Some understood the term “freeman” to apply only to whites, while others did not. The commonwealth’s western counties, which had small populations of free blacks, tended to allow them to vote. Eastern counties with larger populations of free blacks–especially Philadelphia–discouraged them from voting though intimidation at the polls.

Philadelphia’s free black community, the largest and wealthiest in the state, grew in the early decades of the nineteenth century as a destination for free blacks from the South and runaway slaves. At the same time, tension over the issue of slavery increased, especially after Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and the rise of racial abolitionism in the 1830s.

The explosive issue of race relations was one of many financial, governmental, and immigration problems facing Pennsylvania when the legislature called a convention to reform the state constitution in 1837. The convention began in May 1837 in Harrisburg but moved to Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia for its concluding sessions in November 1837 and February 1838. Initially, delegates made no recommendations to alter the language of Article III to prohibit free blacks from voting. But Democrat John Sterigere (1793-1852) of Montgomery County seized on public opinion against black voting rights and proposed to the convention that the language of Article III be changed to include the word “white” prior to “freemen” in order to exclude all blacks, even if they paid taxes or owned property.

Thomas Earle (1796-1849), a Democrat from Philadelphia County, objected to changing the language and attempted to persuade the convention to seek a compromise to temporarily suspend black voting rights throughout the commonwealth. He lost to a larger Democratic majority, which approved the change to Article III and proposed a new Constitution of 1838 for ratification. Similar actions occurred in other states during this period as politicians attempted to prevent blacks from gaining the same voting rights as white men, whose access to the polls was increasing with changes in voting qualifications such as reduced taxes or land-owning requirements.

[caption id="attachment_15410" align="alignright" width="197"]A black and white photograph of man from the chest up, wearing a jacket and a tie. Robert Purvis became a prominent representative of Philadelphia's black community after co-founding organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People and drafting The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens in 1838. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s black community responded to Pennsylvania’s proposed constitution with the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia. In the tradition of African American leaders such as Absalom Jones (1746-1818), Richard Allen (1760-1831), and James Forten Sr. (1766-1842), Robert Purvis emphasized the worthiness of Philadelphia’s black community. Purvis systematically presented an argument based on history, statistical data, economics, and politics to combat public misconceptions about African Americans.

The Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens invoked the founding documents of Pennsylvania and the nation to argue that it would be consistent with previous generations to ensure suffrage to freemen without the mention of a specific race. The pamphlet pointed out that during the colonial period, white indentured servants as well as black slaves were not permitted to vote because they lacked the status of freemen. “White” was not included as a qualification for voting in either the 1776 or 1790 Pennsylvania constitutions. 

To support the claims of the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery compiled a census as evidence that Philadelphia’s black community provided the city with revenue, laborers, and taxpayers who contributed to its economic success. The census demonstrated that compared with whites, African Americans made up a substantially lower proportion of the poor and people receiving aid. In fact, the black community paid more to provide relief for the poor than it received in return. Purvis used the statistics to rebuke a public image of idleness. Recognizing the connection between actions in Pennsylvania and increasing racial tensions in the nation, Purvis charged the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention with having, “laid our [black] rights a sacrifice on the altar of slavery.”

[caption id="attachment_15291" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing of the destruction of Pennsylvania Hall The destruction of Pennsylvania Hall, 1838. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Voters ratified the Constitution of 1838 by a margin of a little more than one thousand votes—113,971 to 112,759—on October 9, 1838. African Americans continued to petition the legislature to reinstate suffrage for free blacks, but their petitions were left unanswered. Racial tensions turned to violent riots targeting African Americans and attacks on a newly erected abolitionist meeting place, Pennsylvania Hall. Although a new generation of leaders including Jacob C. White Jr. (1837-1902) continued the fight for suffrage, African Americans in Pennsylvania did not regain the vote until the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1870) extended voting rights to black men throughout the nation.

David Reader teaches history at Haddonfield Memorial High School and was the recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship in 2007. 

Fort Wilson

On October 4, 1779, the home of noted Pennsylvania lawyer and statesman James Wilson (1742-98) on the southwest corner of Third and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia became a flash point for Philadelphians divided by politics and class. The militia attack on “Fort Wilson” occurred in the wake of conflict over the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, rising inflation, and the recent departure of the British Army. Wilson had come to symbolize the complicated politics of Philadelphia during the American Revolution. 

[caption id="attachment_11947" align="alignright" width="300"]A color drawing of a building on the corner of a city block. The three story red brick home with black roof tiles is on the corner, and is connected to a two story addition to the left of the image and a one story building section to the right. There are some trees in the background and a about ten people walking along the sidewalk in front of the house. James Wilson's house served as the impromptu "Fort Wilson" on October 4, 1779. This watercolor of Wilson's house was painted by Ridgway Evans more than a century after the Fort Wilson event in 1888. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 created two factions, Constitutionalists and Republicans. The Constitutionalists favored the Constitution of 1776, which established a unicameral legislature, a weak executive branch, and a broadened suffrage to include any free male of 21 or older who paid even the smallest tax. The Republicans favored a two-house legislature, a suffrage restricted to adult male property owners, and a strong executive branch with legislative veto power. Wilson, a Republican, shared the view of his party’s disapproval of the radically democratic Constitution of 1776.

In January 1779, increasing prices of flour, wood, and grain renewed the demands by the Constitutionalists and working-class Philadelphians to impose price controls to stem inflation. But Wilson, Robert Morris (1734-1806), and the merchant class of Philadelphia benefitted financially from free trade and inflationary prices on such necessities. Throughout the spring and summer of 1779, the working-class and militia families who bore the financial and military burdens of the war looked on the merchant class with disdain for their lack of service and control of the economy. The rising tension between the classes led the working-class men in the Pennsylvania Assembly to favor price controls. The Philadelphia Committee of Privates, an organization of representatives from local militias and the working class created in 1775, re-emerged to secure price regulations and remedy other perceived acts of injustice by profiteers and Tories.

Militia Detains Merchants

On Monday, October 4, 1779, a large number of militiamen gather at Burns Tavern on Tenth Street between Race and Vine Streets to take action against any man associated with profiteering and sympathetic to the British. Headed by Captain Ephraim Faulkner, the militia called on Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) to lead their march through the city to arrest and detain their enemies. As some cried out, “Get Wilson,” Peale tried but failed to persuade the militia to abandon the plan. The militia captured four prominent merchants and forcefully marched them through the streets of Philadelphia in a display of public humiliation.

[caption id="attachment_11948" align="alignright" width="182"]A black and white drawing of a white male from the chest up. The man is looking to the right of the image, but his body is facing the viewer. He is wearing a dark jacket, a vest, and a necktie. This image also shows Joseph Reed's signature below the drawing.  Joseph Reed served as George Washington's Adjunct General during the Revolutionary War, before retiring in 1777. The Fort Wilson event occurred near the end of Reed's first term as President of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

To avoid being captured by the militia, Wilson and other members of the Republican Society barricaded themselves inside Wilson’s house. The militia stopped near Wilson’s house when Captain Robert Campbell (1753-79), who was inside, opened a window and either shouted to them to continue marching or shouted and fired his pistol at the militia. Storming the doors, the militiamen set fire to the first floor and killed Campbell before being turned away by the men inside. The arrival of Joseph Reed (1741-85), President of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council, and the City Troop of Light Horse ended the attack on Fort Wilson. Four militiamen, one free black youth (who joined the militia’s march), and Captain Campbell were killed, and fourteen militia and three men from inside the house were wounded.

The arrest of several militiamen increased the tension throughout the city and surrounding areas. Wilson fled the city to Morris’s country estate until October 19, 1779, when he returned to the city at night. The Pennsylvania Assembly acted quickly to quell the tension between the classes through legislation that provided flour to the families of the militia and re-emphasized the enforcement of the laws pertaining to military service.  In March 1780 the Executive Council passed an act pardoning all involved in the attack on Fort Wilson.

David Reader teaches history at Camden Catholic High School and was the recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship in 2007.

French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 created political, social, and financial instability throughout Europe, prompting many terrified French aristocrats, businessmen, and intellectuals to flee to the United States. Philadelphia, with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, accessible port, and thriving commerce, attracted many of the French émigrés. Most settled along the Delaware River in the Mulberry district of Philadelphia (an area between modern day Market Street, Arch Street, Second Street, and Columbus Boulevard). Others spread over the region, across the Delaware into New Jersey, and across the Brandywine into Delaware.

The French Revolution’s declared ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity immediately appealed to Philadelphians in view of their own revolution.  During the 1790s, as Philadelphia served as the nation's capital, parades and celebrations welcomed French naval vessels and dignitaries, and many Philadelphians showed their support by singing the Marseillaise, wearing liberty caps, and commemorating Bastille Day. The emerging salon culture of Philadelphia gained greater legitimacy with the arrival of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) in 1794. His reputation as a statesman and thinker contributed to the increasing intellectual influence of French émigrés on Philadelphia’s publishing houses, newspapers, schools and academic societies.

French émigrés established political societies and charitable organizations of their own. The Société Française de Bienfaisance de Philadelphie helped newly arriving French émigrés adjust to life in the city. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, emigré physicians with the help of Stephen Girard (1750-1831), a wealthy French émigré who arrived in 1776, remained in Philadelphia at Bush Hill Hospital to administer to the sick. Their dedication and contributions to medicine challenged the prevailing understanding of fighting disease in Philadelphia. Nevertheless, the highly selective American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia admitted few French émigrés for their contributions in science, philosophy, and other academic fields.

The Francophile atmosphere of Philadelphia delighted Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who shared the positive outlook on the new republicanism of France. But President George Washington (1732-99) and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) were hesitant to support the French Revolution. Jefferson and Hamilton were at constant loggerheads over domestic and foreign policy issues. Philadelphia’s thriving newspaper industry exploited the division within the Washington administration. Philip Freneau’s (1752-1832) National Gazette and Benjamin Franklin Bache’s (1769-98) Aurora supported French republicanism while John Fenno’s (1751-1798) Gazette of the United States reinforced the views of the Federalists.

Crowd Welcomes French Minister

In 1793, Philadelphia welcomed French Minister Edmond-Charles Genet (1763-1834) with residents and émigrés lining the streets from Grays Ferry to the City Tavern. Citizen Genet’s mission was to rally support for the war developing between Great Britain and France. The conflict had weakened trade and threatened to pull the United States into a European war. President Washington had issued a proclamation to maintain a policy of neutrality, placing a priority on avoiding entanglement in the European war despite U.S. treaty obligations to France that were negotiated during the American Revolution.  (Citizen Genet’s controversial decisions and the changing political landscape in France led to his removal in 1794, but divisions over U.S. relations with France continued.)

The Reign of Terror, a period of radical republicanism in France from 1793 to 1794, alienated Philadelphians who were repulsed by the executions of King Louis XVI (1754-93) and his wife Marie Antoinette (1755-93). They feared that the excesses of the French Revolution were infecting Americans in their chants for democracy and distrust of Federalists.  Nevertheless, many Philadelphians flocked to guillotine demonstrations, dressed in the French fashion of the sans-culottes, and attended celebrations dedicated to Reason.  

When the Reign of Terror ended, many of the French émigrés returned home. The political influence of the French émigré community in Philadelphia began to decline with the election of John Adams (1735-1826) to the presidency in 1796 and the break in Franco-American relations that came with the wars of the French Revolution during the late 1790s, but the cultural legacy of the French remained in the arts and sciences.  At the same time, a residual, but profound, effect of the French Revolution was its part in stirring rebellion in the French colony of St. Dominque (later Haiti), which led to a slave revolt that overturned French power there, caused the flight of Francophone slaveholders and others to Philadelphia and other American seaport cities, and invigorated local Afro-Caribbean culture in the region.

David Reader teaches history at Camden Catholic High School and as an adjunct at Saint Joseph’s University. He was the recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship in 2007.

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