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.

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)

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.

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)

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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University


James Wilson (1742-1798)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

James Wilson, whose home became “Fort Wilson” during the conflicts of 1779, was born in the village of Caskardy, located in County Fife, Scotland, on September 14, 1742. Wilson’s education at the University of Saint Andrews served as his preparation for a career as a minister in the Associate Presbytery Church. Wilson went on to study bookkeeping and commerce in Edinburgh, but he realized that the American colonies offered him the best chance to achieve prosperity and fame.

Wilson arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of introduction to work as a tutor for the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) and received an honorary M.A. in 1766. He spent the following year studying the law under the tutelage of John Dickinson (1732-1808). Wilson married Rachel Bird in 1769 and established himself as a notable lawyer and citizen in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Wilson’s political career began with the publication of the pamphlet Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament in 1774. His pamphlet established the foundation for the colonial argument that without colonial representation in Parliament, Great Britain had no authority over the colonists. Wilson served as member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777 and signed the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from Pennsylvania.

Wilson’s reputation suffered from his opposition to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. He moved to Annapolis, Maryland, in protest but returned to Philadelphia after a year. Wilson remained influential in Philadelphia. He was appointed the advocate general to France on maritime and commerce matters and the director of the Bank of North America.

In 1787, Wilson served in the Pennsylvania delegation to the Constitutional Convention. He signed the Constitution in September 1787 and fought for its successful ratification in Pennsylvania. Wilson earned an appointment as an associate justice to the Supreme Court (1789-1798). Wilson died in Edenton, North Carolina, on August 28, 1798. In 1906, his remains were interred at Christ Church in Philadelphia. (Text by David Reader)

James Wilson's House (Fort Wilson)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On the morning of October 4, 1779, the house of James Wilson went from being the residence of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant to becoming a stronghold against a rowdy group of militiamen taking action against war profiteers. Constructed primarily of brick, Wilson's house was at the southwest corner of Third and Walnut Streets as depicted by Benjamin Ridgway Evans in this 1888 watercolor. As the militiamen paraded four detained merchants through the streets of Philadelphia, Wilson and other members of the Republican Society used Wilson's house as a refuge. When the militiamen stopped outside of “Fort Wilson,” one of those inside, Captain Robert Campbell, agitated the militia, drawing an attack that set fire to the first floor, killing Campbell. Wilson and his associates held the militiamen at bay until Joseph Reed and the City Troop of Light Horse were able to stop the attack. All told, six people died and seventeen were wounded.

Joseph Reed (1741-1785)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

When Joseph Reed halted the militia attack on Fort Wilson in 1779, he had already gained years of experience assisting in the Revolutionary War and participating in newly established political positions. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on August 27, 1741, Reed grew up in Philadelphia and attended classes at the Academy of Philadelphia (the modern University of Philadelphia). He obtained additional education from the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) and traveled to London, England, to study law. He opened a law practice in Philadelphia, but closed it to become President of Pennsylvania's Second Provisional Congress, which debated how Pennsylvania should react to the developments of the First Continental Congress. Serving the Revolutionary cause led Reed to a position as secretary (and later adjutant general) to George Washington. Reed resigned from the Continental Army in 1777 and began working with the Pennsylvania Assembly to prosecute treason cases. Members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council elected Reed as their president in 1778. The Fort Wilson event occurred during the final month of Reed's first annual term and with his support, the Council pardoned the militiamen. Reed remained president of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council for an additional two terms, before losing his seat in 1781. Reed continued to practice law through his own firm and for the Continental Congress from 1781 until his death in 1785.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The militiamen in Burns Tavern on October 4, 1779, asked Charles Willson Peale, a staunch supporter of American independence, a captain in the Continental Army, and a popular portrait painter, to lead a march against the war profiteers and British sympathizers in Philadelphia. Born in 1741 in Chester, Maryland, Peale began a career as a saddle maker in Annapolis before devoting himself to artistry. Peale worked with numerous American painters to develop his craft, and in 1767 traveled to Britain to study under painter Benjamin West. Peale traveled back to Maryland in 1769 and painted professionally for clients in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. While painting for prominent clients, Peale met George Washington and other individuals supporting American independence. These meetings spurred Peale to move to Philadelphia in 1775 and join the Continental Army, where he rose to the rank of captain. Peale attempted to work as a politician as a member of the Pennsylvania State Assembly starting in 1779, the same year as the Fort Wilson incident, but he resigned less than a year later. Peale continued to live in Philadelphia and paint, but in the 1780s he began to develop a natural history collection encompassing thousands of animal species from around the world. Peale's collection would eventually become the Philadelphia Museum (later renamed to Peale's American Museum), which featured taxidermy and assembled animal skeletons for the public. Although Peale died in 1827, his family continued the museum's operation until the animal collection was sold to P. T. Barnum in 1850.

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Related Reading

Alexander, John K. “The Fort Wilson Incident of 1779: A Case Study of the Revolutionary Crowd.” William and Mary Quarterly. Volume 31 Number 4 (October 1974) 589-612.

Foster, A. Kristen. Moral Visions and Material Ambitions: Philadelphia Struggles to Define the Republic, 1776 – 1836. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004.

Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution; The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggles to Create America. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Rosswurm, Steven. Arms, Country and Class; The Philadelphia Militia and the “Lower Sort” during the American Revolution. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Smith, Charles Page. “The Attack on Fort Wilson.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Volume 78 Number 2 (April 1954) 177 – 188.

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