Pennsylvania: From Colony to State

by Carl G. Karsch

Thomas McKean , President of the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference. "Thomas McKean" painted by Charles Wilson Peale, ca. 1797. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

Thomas McKean, President of the Pennsylvania Provincial Conference. "Thomas McKean" painted by Charles Wilson Peale, ca. 1797. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

By the spring of 1776, independence fever had spread everywhere — everywhere, that is, except to the State House (now Independence Hall) where the colonial Assembly was in session. For the previous decade, conservative Quakers and wealthy Philadelphians closely allied to Pennsylvania's governor, John Penn, who was William's grandson, managed to thwart every attempt to respond to events already transforming the future nation.

Here's what happened in just the previous twelve months:

  • In April, 1775, some 700 British troops quartered in Boston marched to Lexington, then to Concord in a failed attempt to seize American military stores. Warned by Paul Revere and two colleagues, 1,400 Minutemen turned the British retreat to Boston into a costly rout.
  • One month later colonial militia took Fort Ticonderoga, New York, capturing supplies and cannon later used to drive the British from Boston.
  • In June the Second Continental Congress, also meeting in Philadelphia's State House, voted to raise an army with George Washington as commander-in-chief.
  • That same month, British forces endeavored unsuccessfully to break out of their besieged position in Boston. Result: Americans retreated from Bunker Hill but only after inflicting casualties of 1,100 killed and wounded. General Nathaniel Greene declared: "I wish I could sell them another hill at the same price."
  • In March, 1776, in an incredible physical achievement, cannon captured at Fort Ticonderoga were dragged on sledges across the frozen Hudson river, then a mountain range to Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston. The British acknowledged the inevitable and were evacuated by their fleet.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, the famous physician, was named to chair a three-man drafting committee. "Benjamin Rush" painted by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1818. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the famous physician, was named to chair a three-man drafting committee. "Benjamin Rush" painted by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1818. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

Despite these momentous events, politics in Pennsylvania appeared stalemated. At the moment, so-called moderates in the Assembly had the upper hand, having instructed delegates to the Continental Congress not to vote for independence. Wealth traditionally supports the established order — in this case King George III — and Philadelphia was America's wealthiest city. Congress realized that lacking Pennsylvania's vote, a formal break with England was out of the question.

But all was not lost. The opposition — called "radicals" by their opposition — had been accustomed for a decade to acting without the Assembly's blessing. Ever since the Stamp Act of 1765, extraconstitutional (that is, illegal) committees formed to enforce various non-importation embargoes. Mass participation in politics transformed Pennsylvania government in the crucial years of 1775-1776. The rising, younger leaders were businessmen, skilled craftsmen, shopowners — what we term "middle class" — willing to accept the risks of armed resistance and independence.

In May, 1776, the struggle intensified. Round one went to the moderates who in an election retained control of the Assembly. Radicals won the second and decisive round when they persuaded the Continental Congress to resolve by a margin of six colonies to four that all governments deriving their authority from the Crown should be "totally suppressed." This resolution sealed the fate of Pennsylvania's Assembly and British authority in its former colonies.

Now events moved quickly. On May 15 the Continental Congress adopted a resolution giving unflinching support to the radicals:

...That it be recommended to the respective Assemblies and Conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs has been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general. By order of the Congress — John Hancock, President.

Pennsylvania's supporters of independence then took steps to form a new government and draft new instructions for their delegation in Congress. The Assembly, overwhelmed with petitions, had little time to respond. Added pressure came from a huge outdoor meeting on May 20 in what is now the park directly behind Independence Hall. Some 4,000 Philadelphians gathered in a soaking rain to shout their approval not only for independence but for a special constitutional convention to bring into being a new state government. The Assembly then in session would be denied a role in forming the new government. Delegates to the Assembly, realizing there was no longer any choice, disbanded on June 14.

In the 18th century news traveled at the speed of a man on horseback, often over roads bordering on impassable. Nevertheless, in just three weeks, all 12 counties in the state responded to a summons from Philadelphia to attend a Provincial Conference for two purposes: declaring independence and establishing machinery for a convention to draft a new constitution. Among the approximately 100 delegates was Benjamin Loxley, a member of the Carpenters'Company who later served as an artillery officer.

Here is the opening paragraph of the Proceedings, Tuesday, June 18, 1776.

This day a number of Gentlemen met at Carpenters'Hall, in Philadelphia, being deputed by the Committees of several of the counties of this Province, to join in Provincial Conference in consequence of a Circular Letter from the Committee of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia, enclosing the resolution of the Continental Congress of the 15th of May last.

Delegates presented their credentials, after which they elected officers: president, vice president and two secretaries. They adjourned at 3 P.M. Time now to renew friendships and plan strategy. Also, perhaps a leisurely dinner at the elite City Tavern, just two blocks-distant.

Delegates met again the next morning at 9 o'clock. After agreeing that each county, regardless of population, would have one vote, the Conference voted to have the May 15th resolution read aloud not once, but twice. Not a bad idea for us, either.

Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the Lords and Commons of Great Britain, has by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; "And whereas no answer whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been, or is likely to be given, but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies;

And whereas it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience, for the people of these Colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain; and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies for the preservation of internal peace, virtue and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies — Therefore...

The Conference then voted unanimous approval of the Congressional resolution which declared "the present Government of this province is not competent to the exigencies of our Affairs," and a third resolution calling a Provincial Convention "for the express purpose of forming a new Government in this Province, on the authority of the People only."

Finally, before adjourning late that afternoon, the Conference appointed a Committee to establish the selection and number of delegates for the Constitutional convention. A good day's work. But for delegates named to a committee, the day was just getting underway.

Most sessions began at 8 A.M. and, with a brief break, lasted till evening. Debate centered on the intent and content of resolutions drawn up by committees for approval of the Conference. While the secretaries only recorded actions taken, we can assume debate was spirited. Adding to the pressure was a timetable which, from our perspective, appears shockingly close.

June 25 — adjournment of the Provincial Conference, after having adopted both provision for a Provincial Convention to draft a new state constitution and a declaration of independence from Great Britain.

July 2 — likely date for the Continental Congress to vote American independence. A drafting committee headed by Thomas Jefferson was already at work on the document as the Pennsylvanians were in session. But lacking Pennsylvania's action, no vote would be possible.

July 8 — election of deputies — most of whom already had served in the conference — from each county to serve at the state's constitutional convention.

July 15 — the convention to begin deliberations in Philadelphia.

Today's legislators could learn a thing or two concerning decisive action from their predecessors.

Tories would have no role in the new state government. If judges or inspectors at local polling places had doubts concerning a voter's loyalty, they could insist on the following oath:

I __________ do declare that I do not hold myself bound to bear allegiance to George the third, King of Great Britain, and that I will not by any means, directly or indirectly, oppose the establishment of a free government in this province, by the Convention now to be chosen, nor the measures adopted by the Congress, against the tyranny attempted to be established in these colonies by the court of Great Britain.

Delegates to the Convention took a similar oath plus a religious test that today would be as unthinkable as unconstitutional:

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.

Having laid out the framework for the constitutional convention, delegates adopted a message to all Pennsylvanians. Read it carefully. Capture for yourself the vision of a new form of government — democracy springing from the will of the people, not imposed from above by a ruling aristocracy. Its message is as valid today as in 1776.

To The People of Pennsylvania
Friends and Countrymen,

In Obedience to the Power derived from you, we have fixed upon a Mode of electing a Convention to form a Government for the Province of Pennsylvania, under the authority of the People.

Divine Providence is about to grant you a Favor which few People have ever enjoyed before, the Privilege of choosing Deputies to form a Government under which you are to live. We need not inform you of the Importance of the Trust you are about to commit to them. Your Liberty, Safety, Happiness and everything that Posterity will hold dear to them to the End of Time will depend upon their Deliberations. It becomes you therefore to choose such Persons only to act for you in the ensuing Convention, as are distinguished for Wisdom, Integrity and a firm Affachment to the Liberties of this Province, as well as to the Liberties of the United Colonies in general...

We have experienced an Unexpected Unanimity in our councils, and we have the Pleasure of observing a growin Unanimity among the People of the Province. We beg that this brotherly Spirit may you would remember that the present unsettled State of the Province requires that you should show Forbearance — Charity — and Moderation in each other. We beg that you would endeavor to remove the Prejudices of the Weak and Ignorant, respecting the proposed change in our Government, and assure them that it is absolutely necessary to secure Property — Liberty — and the Sacred Rights of Conscience to every Individual in the Province.

The Season of the Year, and the exigencies of our Colony require Dispatch in the Formation of a regular Government. You will not therefore be surprised at our fixing the Day for the Election of Deputies so early as the 8th of next July.

We wish you Success in your Aftempts to establish and perpetuate your Liberties, and pray God to take you under his special protection.

Signed by unanimous Order of the Conference,
Thomas McKean, President

There were two more principal items on the agenda: first, a petition from the Committee of Safety of the Continental Congress to raise 6,000 militia; second, adoption of a provincial declaration of independence, still to be drafted. At a session on Sunday, June 23, famed physician Benjamin Rush was named to chair a three-man drafting committee. Deadline: the following day.

Sunday's deliberations centered on whether Pennsylvania could raise its quota of fighting men. By day's end, delegates felt they could. Congress also asked Delaware for 600 militia and Maryland for 3,400. The new troops were to be formed into a "flying camp," a colorful term used to describe units able to strike quickly at strategic targets, often behind enemy lines. Such groups have been known by many names: in World War II they were commandos; today we call them "special forces."

Unlike their modern counterparts, however, militia had little equipment. Here are excerpts from the Congressional resolution:

Colonies ... are to take particular care that the Militias come provided with arms, accouterments, and Camp Kettles... The Militia when in Service shall be regularly paid and victualled in the same Manner as the Continental Tro6os... Militia will be engaged to the first day of December next, unless sooner discharged by Congress... The pay of the Militia commence from the Day of their marching from home, and that they be allowed one Penny a Mile lawful Money, in lieu of Rations for traveling Expense, and one Day's pay for every Twenty Miles between Home and the general Rendezvous and returning.

Lacking the ability to tax, Congress had to beg funds from the states, foreign governments and wealthy individuals such as Robert Morris to equip and feed the Continental troops. It's hardly surprising that fifting out Pennsylvania militia became the state's problem, which it solved by passing responsibility to the next layer down — the militia recuit.

It is resolved that each private will be asked to provide his own rifle, with other provisions supplied by Congress if they can be; otherwise, it will be best if the colonels of the Battalions already established will lend to the new battalions the muskets made by the order of the House of Assembly and delivered for the Use of the Militia. They are now permitted to receive the muskets and lend them to privates unable to get their own. If any private shall then refuse to return the musket in good Order, the original price of the musket will be removed from his pay... It is resolved unanimously that each Private should be advanced 50 shillings, being the first month's pay, and a camp kettle furnished for every six men. The camp kettle to be returned ... at the end of the campaign. It should also be watched that the men bring good Arms and Accouterments, Blanket, Haversack and Knapsack at their own expense.

Perhaps to provide perspective and encouragement for the militia's dangerous new mission, delegates adopted this message, as stirring today as it was two centuries ago.

...We need not remind you that you are now furnished with new Motives to animate and support your courage. You are not about to contend against the Power'of Great Britain in order to displace one set of Villains, to make room for another. Your Arms will not be enervated in the Day of Battle, with the Reflection that you are to risk your Lives, or shed your Blood for a British Tyrant, or that your Posterity will have your Work to do over again. You are about to contend for permanent Freedom, to be supported by a Government which will be derived from Yourselves, and which will have for its Object not the Emolument of one Man, or class of Men only, but the Safety, Liberty and Happiness of every Individual in the community...

It is now in your Power to immortalize your Names, by mingling your Achievements with the Events of the Year 1776 — a Year which we hope will be famed in the Annals of History to the End of Time, for establishing upon a lasting Foundation the Liberties of one Quarter of the Globe...

Monday, June 24 was a long — but pivotal — day for the Conference. So many committees were working on their final reports, including Dr. Rush and his two colleagues, that delegates didn't convene until 3 P.M.

Some hours later the secretary recorded:

The Committee appointed for the Purpose brought in a Draft of a Declaration, on the subject of the Independence of this Colony, on the Crown of Great Britain, which was ordered to be read by Special Order, the same was read a second Time, and being fully considered, it was with the greatest Unanimity of all the Members agreed to and adopted.

...We the Deputies of the People of Pennsylvania, assembled in full Provincial Conference, for forming a Plan for executing the Resolve of Congress of the 15th of May last, for suppressing all Authority in this Province derived from the Crown of Great Britain, and for establishing a Government upon the Authority of the People only, do in this Public Manner in behalf of Ourselves, and with the Approbation, Consent, and Authority of our Constituents, Unanimously declare our willingness to concur in a Vote of the Congress, declaring the United Colonies free and independent States, provided the forming of Government, and the regulation of internal Police of this Colony be always reserved to the People of the said Colony; and we do further call upon the Nations of Europe; and appeal to the Great Arbiter and Governor of the Empires of the World, to wftness for us, that this Declaration did not originate in Ambition, or in Impatience of Lawful Authority; but that we were driven to it, in obedience to the first Principles of Nature, by the Oppressions and Cruelties of the aforesaid King and Parliament of Great Britain, as the only possible Measure that was left us to preserve and Establish our Liberties, and to transmit them inviolate to Posterity.

Ordered, That this Declaration be signed at the Table; and that the President deliver it in Congress.

It would take another half-dozen bitterly fought years before this declaration — and one then being polished by Thomas Jefferson in his room four blocks distant — could become reality.