In his most recent book, World of Trouble, Richard Godbeer tells the story of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, a respectable, upwardly-mobile Quaker couple in Philadelphia’s merchant class whose lives were inextricably bound with the economic strife, social upheaval, political chaos, and violence of the American Revolution. Godbeer, a leading scholar of early American history and a Professor of History at the University of Kansas, “resists the familiar story of the American Revolution” by presenting it through the eyes of religious pacifists who remained neutral during the imperial crisis.1 This rich and striking narrative, intimately following the lives of Elizabeth (1735-1807) and Henry Drinker (1734-1809) for over fifty years, is reconstructed from dozens of Elizabeth’s diaries and thousands of letters that Elizabeth and Henry penned in their personal and professional lives. From such a unique vantage point, Godbeer lays bare a difficult reality of the American Revolution: its turbulence and violence were virtually inescapable, whether one wore a uniform or not. In this addition to recent scholarship on the violence of the American Revolution, Godbeer shows how Quakers experienced violence as Patriots suppressed dissent before, during, and after the war through threats, imprisonment, and even killings.2
Although the Drinkers were deeply affected by the decades of revolution, their lives were not entirely defined by it. Elizabeth and Henry lived before and after the Revolution—and even during the years of revolutionary upheaval, their day-to-day lives were not entirely halted. Reflecting this, Godbeer opens their story with the courtship and early married life of Henry Drinker and Elizabeth Sandwith. Married in 1761, the Drinkers’ first years together were marked by remarkable affection for each other and considerable anxiety about social, economic, and spiritual strictures. They wed at a time when the Society of Friends was becoming increasingly insular and sought to “reinvigorate their distinctive spiritual identity through a renewed stress on marriage within the faith.”3 Elizabeth knew the social and spiritual importance of marriage as well as Henry, but for her, as was the case for most women in her time, marriage also brought a significant loss of personal independence. Once married, Elizabeth spent the next twenty years becoming and being a mother—she was pregnant eleven times, but only five of her children reached adulthood. Henry, along with his business partner Abel James, spent the decades before the revolution building their transatlantic trading business and, like many Quaker merchants at midcentury, sought to “balance Quaker values with the practicalities and opportunities of international commerce,” which they achieved with mixed success.4 Henry and Elizabeth accumulated and displayed a great deal of material wealth, letting the religious scruples of outward simplicity fall away to demonstrate their upward mobility and gentility.
The conflicts between their Quaker conscience and the socio-political milieu became even more pronounced for the Drinkers beginning in the 1760s. Godbeer describes how their Quakerism influenced James and Drinker’s politics and business, which, as taxation and importation emerged as touchstones of revolution, were becoming increasingly entangled. The two Quaker merchants saw the royal government as the source of political salvation, rather than that of the crisis. Although they joined the boycott movement in opposition to new Parliamentary taxes, they hoped that such protests would lead to a peaceful resolution within the empire. However, their refusal to endorse heavy-handed threats and violence against royal officials, compounded with the widespread suspicion and resentment that many Pennsylvania Quakers faced, made James and Drinker visibly unpopular among Patriots. Patriotic hostility toward those who showed anything but unconditional support for revolution and independence reached a new height for Quakers in 1777 when Congress connected Quaker pacifism to loyalism and arrested Drinker and ten other leading Quakers, exiling them to Virginia. This move against these Friends was founded on decades of political conflict, accusations of hypocrisy, and suspicion toward Quakers as Pennsylvania became more religiously and ethnically diverse. It was these same pressures that factored into James and Drinkers’ decision to become tea consignees in the first place. Their year of exile was likely “monotonous and anxiety-ridden” for the Quakers. Although they were imprisoned far from home, Godbeer describes their time in captivity as “an extremely relaxed version of imprisonment, based on a gentlemen’s agreement that the exiles would not try to escape.”5 Meanwhile, Quakers and other perceived opponents to independence faced trials, prison, fines, forfeiture and destruction of property, and even execution during Philadelphia’s Continental occupation.
Elizabeth, too, was deeply affected by the throes of Revolution, but in different ways than her husband. From her copious diaries, Godbeer finds that Elizabeth’s wartime concerns lay primarily with “her husband’s situation, the safety of her own household, the fate of other Friends in and around the city, and the outrage at the cruelties inflicted by both sides in the conflict.”6 While Henry was in exile, Elizabeth was forced to quarter Continental and British soldiers in their home, deal with the supply shortages during the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777-June 1778), and cope with and protect her family from the persecution and violence that Continents exacted on Loyalist, neutral, and pacifistic Philadelphians once they regained control of the city. Godbeer argues that Elizabeth’s attention was not limited by any distinction of gendered spheres. Rather, he casts Elizabeth as a deeply politically-informed person who applied such knowledge to those affairs she was most familiar with and affected by. In fact, Elizabeth powerfully challenged Quaker sensibilities and American socio-political gender roles when she and three other Quaker women traveled to General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge to parlay with Washington for her husband’s release from exile. In telling the Drinkers’ remarkable story, Godbeer keeps a constant eye on the Drinkers’ community of faith, declaring that the “distinct and deeply felt nationhood” of the Society of Friends that triggered so much outside resentment and hostility also brought a sense of “true freedom within themselves through trust in God” and “liberated from dependence on worldly comfort and security.”7
In his final chapters, Godbeer describes the Drinkers’ lives after the Revolution, which were unfortunately no less tumultuous than those before and during the war. Henry left his career as a merchant behind him in hopes of reinventing himself in order to, prove “his worth to the new republic and [show] that Quaker values could enrich the nation morally while also turning a handsome financial profit.”8 One such project was to invest in American maple sugar, which Drinker hoped would out-compete slave-produced sugar from the West Indies and undermine the entire slave trade. This and other ventures failed because, as Godbeer argues, Henry was a poor judge of character and far too trusting and forbearing with his investors and debtors, all qualities which left him ethically and financially spent.
Godbeer also traces Elizabeth’s difficulties in the new republic as a mistress and a matron. As in many households after the war, the domestic servants of the Drinker household were swept up in the liberating rhetoric of the revolution and began to expect different treatment—treatment which Elizabeth was reluctant to give. Her attitude toward her servants—Black or white, man or woman—“reflected a blend of maternal benevolence and distrustful condescension.”9 Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, while supporting abolition and free labor, Elizabeth held firm to her vision of society in which people knew their place and did not challenge their lot in life. Despite such tumult, Godbeer’s narrative emphasizes the centrality of spirituality, a strong faith community, and the persistence of the patterns of daily living in the Drinkers’ lives, even as they entered the final years of their life at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
World of Trouble forcefully and painfully confronts the fact that “however noble its official founding ideals, the United States was born in blood, its midwife a campaign of terror” (4). Moreover, as Godbeer elucidates, the writings of the Drinkers “remind us that the fraught political issues of their era had personal, spiritual, and emotional ramifications that played out in private as well as public spaces.”10 These powerfully important themes are woven into Godbeer’s wonderfully enjoyable narrative that sheds light on far more than the experiences of one Quaker family. A World of Trouble is not only a meaningful contribution to the scholarship of the American Revolution, but also offers a great deal to anyone interested in the contours of religious pacifism in early American life.
1 Richard Godbeer, World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey Through the American Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 8.
2 See, for example, T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2017).
3 Godbeer, World of Trouble, 43.
4 Ibid., 82.
5 Ibid., 150.
6 Ibid., 153.
7 Ibid., 169.
8 Ibid., 248.
9 Ibid., 261-62.
10 Ibid., 371.