The Quiet Revolutionary

by Carl G. Karsch

Scorched earth warfare destroys more than the present. Recollections of the past are left in cinders, shrouded in smoke. Such was the case with Joseph Fox, who was "Master" or president of the Company for more than 14 years and a key figure in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia. As hostilities threatened the city, he moved both personal records and those of the Company to his rural estate for safe-keeping. He guessed wrong. British patrols took revenge on houses of suspected enemies. Fox's house was largely destroyed, and with it irreplaceable records. Only public documents survive to sketch the outline of his contribution to the Revolution. On the membership board, black lines beside the names of early members testify to the Company's loss. The dates of many Company founders could not be reconstructed.

The Revolution was America's first civil war, dividing friends and families over the question of loyalty to Great Britain. For Joseph and his wife, Elizabeth, tension arose over a non-debatable issue with the Society of Friends — pacifism.

Born in 1710 — three decades after Penn's arrival — Joseph Fox was baptized a Presbyterian but joined the Friends when in 1749 he married Elizabeth Mickle. He was 39, considered an advanced age for a first marriage. The bride was 20. They had 13 children, only six of whom survived beyond childhood. Elizabeth, their last child who lived to see the start of the Civil War, was born when Joseph was 61 years old.

A family divided

The Foxes must have disagreed strenuously on pacifism. Elizabeth never wavered from the Friends' position. Joseph's participation in the Assembly led him in the opposite direction. When a number of Quaker members of the Assembly resigned rather than support the French and Indian war, Fox was not among them. The result: he was disowned by Meeting for "having violated our testimony against war." Later, as hostility to Britain swelled, there would be more cause for tension in the Fox household.

In America's largest and most prosperous city, wealth tended to ally itself with the crown. Fox was a notable exception. When Joseph's father died, Elizabeth, his mother, apprenticed him to James Portues, a founder of The Carpenters' Company who arrived in Philadelphia with William Penn. Portues died in 1737 leaving most of his estate to Fox and a fellow-apprentice, Edward Warner, who later would also join the Company. The bequest to Fox included the house and carpentry shop of the late master builder on the west side of Third St. below Arch. In addition, he received a large tract of land with a stone house near what is today the Fern Rock Transportation Center, bordering the city's northern suburbs. Fisher Park is but a remnant of the Fox estate.

Thanks to the diligence of the British army, we have little knowledge of Fox's construction activities, which appear to have ceased when in the 1740's he entered politics. In 1753, however, he and Samuel Rhoads (another Company member) prepared plans for Pennsylvania Hospital. But Fox had two reliable sources of income: measuring construction and surveying property for The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. Builders as well as property-owners relied on trusted "measurers" to determine a fair price for erecting buildings. Naturally, this service entailed a fee based on total cost. Before The Contributionship issued a policy on a dwelling, it insisted on a survey for soundness of construction. It still does.

Fox's third source of income requires explaining.

For Britain, disastrous best describes the early years of the French and Indian war. Philadelphia was awash with refugees. There were remnants of Braddock's defeated army, settlers from the western frontier now overrun by Indian allies of the French, and even several hundred French-speaking Acadians moved from Nova Scotia because the British mistrusted their loyalty. Making matters worse, Philadelphia was ordered to house the newly formed Royal American Regiment, colonial citizens recruited to serve as army regulars. But where to house them? The solution was construction of a sprawling barracks erected in 1757 beyond the city limits near the present Third and Green Sts. The "Barrack Master" would have "full power to do and perform every manner and thing which may be requisite for the comfortable accommodation of his Majestye's troops." Fox, no doubt through his political connections, received this lucrative post, one he held till 1776. Ironically, Pennsylvania's militia later occupied the barracks — until it changed hands again when the British captured Philadelphia in September, 1777.

A man with two hats

Another of Fox's figurative hats was that of "Master" (the early term for president) of The Carpenters' Company. Not long after the Hall's completion, the Barrack Master moved his office there, thus conveniently hanging two "hats" on the same hat rack. His service to the Company antedates the earliest surviving records. We know Fox was one of five members chosen to select a building site. Later, to speed the Hall's completion, he lent the tidy sum of 300 pounds sterling. How tragic that we know so little.

Fox's public service spans the 15 years — 1760 to 1775 — when colonial Americans began to question their loyalty to Britain, finally concluding that nothing but independence would suffice. But his career actually began much earlier. In 1745, a year before his marriage, Fox became in quick succession a city commissioner, then an assessor of property, followed by a regulator of streets. His duties were diverse: regulating the size of loaves of bread, supervising the night watch and considering the prohibition of firing guns to celebrate New Year's eve.

Four years later, in 1750, he was one of two Philadelphia representatives elected to the provincial Assembly, where he served for the next two decades, until 1772. Twice he was elected to the prestigious post of Speaker. Somehow he found time for other responsibilities: as a manager for relief of the poor, as a trustee of the State House, and a trustee of Province Island, a quarantine station and "pest house" for persons with contagious diseases at the mouth of the Schuylkill river.

Taxation without representation

Two events in 1765 link Fox to the coming Revolution. As Speaker of the Assembly, he presided over the selection of delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, a protest held in New York opposing Parliament's imposition of the notorious Stamp Act on everything from legal documents to newsprint to playing cards. Although chosen a delegate, legislative duties kept Fox at home. That same year, to lend teeth to the protest, colonists adopted a non-importation agreement. Fox's name is on it. Five years later, when some colonies (chiefly New York) wanted to renege, Fox chaired a meeting at the State House opposing any change. One resolution read: "That the claim of Parliament to tax the colonies, and particularly the act imposing duties on tea, etc., for the purpose of raising revenue in America, is subversive of the constitutional rights of the colonies." Put another way: no taxation without representation.

In May, 1774, four months before the First Continental Congress, Paul Revere reined up at the City Tavern with dramatic news. Parliament's answer to Boston's "tea party" was to blockade the city, choking off commerce until the East India Company was reimbursed for the tea dumped overboard. Leading Philadelphians, including Fox, drafted a document supporting Boston. More important, he became a member of the Committee of Correspondence, a means of keeping the colonies up-to-date on the swift pace of events. He would also become a member of the Committee of Safety, charged with preparations for the city's defense. Both groups held meetings at the Hall.

Secretive minutes

In September the Congress convened at Carpenters' Hall. Fox, no longer in the Assembly, was not a delegate. But as Master of the Company, his influence would have been crucial to offering the Hall and the members' Windsor chairs, some of which are still on display. Company Minutes are strangely mute concerning topics discussed at regular and special meetings in this period. Only dates and those attending are listed. Thus, no one would be incriminated should the records fall into unfriendly hands.

Three years have now elapsed. The British occupy New York, having captured it with an expeditionary force of 32,000 — larger by 7,000 than the population of America's largest city, Philadelphia. By late summer, transports loaded with redcoats are sailing south to Chesapeake Bay and their eventual victory over Washington at Brandywine. The city's mood turns panicky as invasion nears. One consequence is a loyalty oath renouncing "all allegiance to George III, King of Great Britain, his heirs, and successors" and declaring "true allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a free and independent State." Fox, who was 67, signed the oath July 25, 1777. Many Quakers refused, preferring banishment.

Despite taking the oath of loyalty to Pennsylvania, and despite a lifetime of service to it, Fox was among those accused of Tory sympathies and arrested — together with many leading citizens — not long before the British marched into the city. From this distance, the only evidence was his refusal a year earlier to accept Continental money in payment of a large debt. But he was not alone. Others did the same, since the newly printed currency was nearly worthless. Using it to pay debts was a handy means of not paying at all.

Fox, his loyalty questioned, spent the rest of his life at the house on North Third Street, where he died in December, 1779, two years before Yorktown. Elizabeth died six years later. She was 76.

Champlost.  Late 19th-century view of Fox mansion rebuilt by his son Joseph, enlarged by later generations. (courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia)   

Champlost. Late 19th-century view of Fox mansion rebuilt by his son Joseph, enlarged by later generations. (courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia)


Although contemporaries denied this member of the Company the gratitude he deserved, the British recognized an enemy when they saw one. The country house Fox built in 1770 — and where he must have hoped to retire — went up in flames of revenge in November, 1777, two months after Philadelphia was occupied.

Champlost, the new country estate

The country estate passed, successively, to the Foxes' three sons. Joseph, the eldest, rebuilt the mansion and lived there until 1784, when he was thrown from a horse and died. His brother Samuel was the next owner. Thanks to his father's friendship with Benjamin Franklin, George — brother number three — received in 1780 an invitation to visit the distinguished Philadelphian, now Minister to France. French aristocracy and in particular their lavish homes appealed to the youthful American. So much so that when he inherited the Fox property in 1808 he named it Champlost, honoring the estate near Paris of the Duke de Champlain. In what was still a heavily wooded area, Fox began to add elaborate gardens and glass-enclosed conservatories. Not exactly the French countryside but it had to do.

The last Fox descendant to live at Champlost died in 1895. Within a decade the abandoned buildings were demolished to make way for an extension of Fifth St. Today Champlost, owned by the Fox family for a century and a half, is remembered only in the name of a street bisecting the former estate.