Troubled Experiment

Troubled Experiment exposes the difference between glowing reputation and grim reality of crime in early Pennsylvania. The plight of lawmakers and magistrates, and the sufferings of victims, women, children, and minorities take their places in this tragedy. The authors conclude that through this lens, we see the troubled future of America.

Troubled Experiment
Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800

Jack D. Marietta and G. S. Rowe

2006 | 368 pages | Cloth $65.00
American History
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Table of Contents

Tables and Figures
Abbreviations and Short Titles
Introduction

Chapter One. Criminal Laws and Courts
Chapter Two. "While we lived not broken in upon"
Chapter Three. Problems of Pluralism
Chapter Four. Persistent Violence
Chapter Five. Enlarged Land, Shortened Justice
Chapter Six. Revolution
Chapter Seven. Commonwealth

Epilogue
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

"All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavor: treason, felony,
Sword, pick, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have, but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kinds, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people."

This is a history of crime in a place where there should have been no significant crime and a history of laws and law-enforcement where there should have been little need for them. The place, after all, was Pennsylvania, the "Holy Experiment," "the golden age . . . which has apparently never existed except in Pennsylvania," the "best poor man's country on earth," a land with "peace and happiness reigning with justice and liberty among this people of brothers." It was "a worldly success," "an ideal colony," "a hopeful torch in a world of semidarkness." If any place enjoyed the prospect of liberating men and women from the conditions that presumably engender crime—poverty, oppression, and war, among them—Pennsylvania was it. And yet, in this same place, a husband killed and mutilated his wife, and then crushed the skulls of his two children and a neighbor's child. An eight-year-old girl was raped in her Chester-County home while her parents were out of the house. A cordwainer who sat at his front door in Philadelphia, smoking his pipe, died when an unknown person drove a knife through his heart. Can crimes as repulsive as these have occurred in a society that got the effusive praise that Pennsylvania did? Did Pennsylvania, and does Pennsylvania, deserve the praise? How many murders and rapes could Pennsylvania have sustained before it forfeits its nonpareil reputation? The three cases above, although each had its distinctive twist, were not oddities. Violence and crime abounded in Pennsylvania and the six innocent victims mentioned here were merely a small handful of the total.

The grimmer side of life in Pennsylvania suggested by these cases did not go unnoticed even while the good reputation of the province escaped intact. While eighteenth-century admirers sang the praises of the province, there were dissenters. From grousing to shrieking about it, in every decade some Pennsylvanians remarked about crime. Among the earliest, William Penn conceded the presence of "Lewdness and all manner of Wickedness" in the province. "Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, idleness, Unlawful gaming and all manner of prophanesse" raised complaints in 1693; a year later observers bewailed that "publick peace & administration of Justice was broken and violated" daily. In 1700 the Provincial Council admitted that "some laws [were] simply ignored by all." And thereafter, punctuating the passing decades, came laments about "the growth of vice," "frequent riots," "disorderly Practices," "barbarous Transactions," "numerous robberies and burglaries," "audacious Encroachments onto Indian lands," "murders," "horse thefts," "Licentiousness," the "Increase of Vagrants and Idle Persons," and "the jails . . . full." And at the close of the century, Moreau de St. Méry observed that Pennsylvanians outside Philadelphia "have neither justice nor public security."

Remarks of this sort comprise part of this history of crime in Pennsylvania. We, the authors, surveyed the narrative record of crime from newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, correspondence, courts papers, and other sources looking for people's thoughts about crime and justice. But we also undertook to count every crime recorded in the extant justice records and other public sources. This aggregation of data confirms the critics' complaints: Crime troubled the province and state of Pennsylvania, making it no luminous exception to the timeless cruel and selfish behavior of men and women that historians more freely acknowledge in places other than Pennsylvania.

The reputation for liberty, tolerance, and affluence that Pennsylvania gained despite its acknowledged problems can be explained in the case of both its past and present admirers. In the success of Pennsylvania, the savants of the Enlightenment invested their hopes for a vastly improved world. As for that part of the good reputation constructed by modern Americans and historians, we honor our liberal ancestor. Our statue in New York harbor bears the title "Liberty Enlightening the World," and we Americans believe we have been doing it at least since William Penn arrived on the Delaware. Among the philosophes of the Enlightenment—Voltaire, Montesquieu, Abbe Raynal, Chevalier de Jaucourt, the Encyclopedists—Pennsylvania became a byword; it proved the wisdom of their liberal critique of the ancien régime and of their prescriptions to change it or replace it. It became an article in the liberal credo, a secular gospel: "People could be happy without masters and without priests." In the Encyclopedie and Raynal's History of the Indies they broadcast the success of Pennsylvania until it became general knowledge among literate, hopeful men and women.

After independence in 1776, attention to America swelled along with hope for change in Europe. While an independent United States inspired European liberals as Pennsylvania earlier had, it was still the image and model of Pennsylvania that served Europeans' need. Even in the new republic, New England (outside Rhode Island) had to live down its intolerant past; Massachusetts preserved its religious establishment even into the 1830s. South of Pennsylvania, slavery and the racial caste system prevented these states from gaining the homage of progressive Europeans. The last, best hope of man lay north of Maryland. Only neighboring New York and New Jersey rivaled Pennsylvania's progress. As William Bradford told James Madison in 1774, Pennsylvania was to America what America was to the rest of the world-a peculiar "land of freedom." Nevertheless, in the 1780s, even as an independent United States convinced more and more hopeful men in the West of the practicality of turning a welcome corner in the history of human relationships, exemplary Pennsylvania sentenced to death more felons in ten years than illiberal, retrograde Massachusetts condemned in fifty.

Insofar as they went, Enlightenment philosophes did not misrepresent Pennsylvania to the world. Pennsylvania fulfilled the prescriptions of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism. Neither imperial or provincial government, organized religion, social hierarchy and ascribed status, nor economic privilege thwarted Pennsylvanians pursuing their happiness or cultivating their individual identities. More than any other society in America, or anywhere, Pennsylvania liberated men and women from tradition and encouraged them to pursue their personal happiness and separate wills.

The exceptional and liberal character of Pennsylvania and its good reputation began with its openness, the quintessence of the "Holy Experiment." Penn created a refuge for all peoples; Pennsylvania took anyone who came. But troublesome people as well as unobtrusive ones arrived. When the troublesome ones exasperated Penn, however, neither he nor his successors erected mechanisms for casting out these irregular people, the way New England conspicuously did. The tolerance and the incapacity to exclude, which were so progressive and admired, created unmistakable problems for the peace of the province.

Colonial Pennsylvanians enjoyed a very generous amount of autonomy within the British Empire—more than almost all other colonists in America. They came "as close as was practically possible to building a republican colony within a monarchical empire," historian Alan Tully summarizes. Superlative leaders like Thomas and David Lloyd, John Kinsey, Isaac Norris II, and Benjamin Franklin, piloted provincial government along the Whiggish mainstream of American political development so deftly that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives "claimed and exercised greater privileges than any other legislative body in the [British] empire." This responsive government secured for Pennsylvanians what they wanted from government: religious liberty, low taxation, no obligation to serve in the military, eased access to land, free markets, and naturalization for immigrants. In turn, Pennsylvanians commonly treated their government with indifference, but it was "the indifference of the satisfied." Another historian, Stephanie Wolf, writes that the goals of the Holy Experiment were negative: to leave the obligations to others, enjoy the benefits, and be left alone. In behaving so, Pennsylvanians anticipated modern Americans.

Penn's Frames of Government, 1682-1701, established religious liberty for every Pennsylvanian. Anyone could worship and proselytize as he or she pleased, or ignore religion entirely, neither subscribing to any faith nor having to support anyone else's faith and practice. The state was really indifferent to one's convictions, as long as practicing one's religion did not violate the public peace. Additionally, in everyday public life there were no election-day sermons, no fast or feast days, no public Christmas or Easter observance, and no public, religious invocations or prayers (except for silence). While taverns were closed on Sunday, they were open on Christmas and all other traditional observances in the Christian calendar. Publicly sanctioned religious observances which bedevil civil libertarians and jurists in modern America had little equivalent in early Pennsylvania and caused no problem.

Clerics exercised little influence in public life. Quakers, the founders of the province, had no ordained, paid clergy. Clergymen who were accustomed to influencing public life elsewhere—especially the Anglicans, but also various Presbyterians, Reformed, and Lutheran ministers—were astonished at being relegated. Even within the enclaves of their parishes or congregations, clergy complained of their impotence and the congregants' impertinence. Pennsylvania, it was said, was heaven for farmers but hell for government officials and ministers-a leading remark for investigators into crime and its causes.

The allure of Pennsylvania for the hundreds of thousands who migrated there was above all else the prospect of personal economic growth. It was reputedly the best poor man's country on earth. "The soil is good," in Pennsylvania, said evangelist George Whitefield, "the land exceedingly fruitful." Gottlieb Mittelberger, who tried to dissuade Germans from coming to Pennsylvania, nevertheless observed: "The people live well, especially on all sorts of grain, which thrives very well, because the soil is wild and fat. They have good cattle, fast horses, and many bees . . . . Even in the humblest and poorest houses in this country there is no meal without meat, and no one eats bread without the butter or cheese, although the bread is as good as with us." Historian James Lemon confirms these observations: "Early Pennsylvania farmers and their families, with few exceptions, ate heartily, were well-clothed, and sold a surplus of goods. They were able to live comfortably even though they only scratched the surface of the soil." "A direct relationship [exists]," James Henretta has written, "between the material environment, on the one hand, and the consciousness and activity of the population on the other." Because the land and the markets for their produce returned benefits beyond what they experienced in Europe and what they could obtain elsewhere in America, Pennsylvanians came to view their world with the eyes of entrepreneurs. When Adam Smith in 1776 argued on behalf of free markets, Pennsylvanians had worked within that milieu of freedom and hope for decades and were only too ready to affirm Smith's truths.

In sum, freed of lords, landlords, priests, and colonels, Pennsylvanians were as much as the their own men and women as the Enlightenment liberals could have hoped for in that day. That being so, one would expect to find contented and grateful people in Pennsylvania and not likely men and women committing crimes at rates that distinguished them from their American neighbors and Englishmen. With as few overbearing institutions as they had—the fewest in the known world—they should have escaped the frustrations and moral degradation of the Old World. But in fact, they did not conduct themselves as though they had escaped. Their crimes beg for an explanation that cannot not be found within the conceits of the Enlightenment and newborn liberalism.

This history begins, in Chapter One, with the criminal laws and courts of Pennsylvania between 1682 and 1718—a renowned, critical feature of the liberalism of the colony and high esteem it enjoyed. Chapter Two treats crime, magistrates, and the administration of justice during this same period. Chapter Three marks a change that was as significant as any that occurred before 1800—the emergence of crime as a permanent problem. It analyzes the men and women who were the perpetrators and victims of crime and treats the causes of crime, with an emphasis on immigration. Chapter Three also describes the province's retreat after 1718 from liberal jurisprudence in reaction to crime. Chapter Four advances the story of homicide and assault through the rest of the century. Chapter Five doubles back chronologically and covers Pennsylvania's attempts to secure justice in a society whose growth outstripped that of any colony in America—growth that ironically brought calamity to an indispensable feature of the Holy Experiment, justice for Native Americans. Chapter Six moves to the American Revolution, the crime associated with political overturning, the attempt at republican reform of civil society, and the resolution of Native Americans' enjoyment of justice in Penn's experiment. Chapter Seven treats the concluding two decades of the eighteenth century and their distinguishing features: liberal criminal-justice reforms, novel crimes and public disorder, and dissatisfaction with the criminal justice in the commonwealth. The Epilogue examines the conditions and causes of crime in Pennsylvania and makes a case that that crime and its causes in the United States recapitulate the experience of Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, all clocks did not strike at once. In a history with many clocks—clocks marking changes in crime itself, changes in the criminal laws and their enforcement, changes in attitudes toward crime, immigration, and more—a few clocks struck closely enough to suggest that the 118-year history of crime and justice divides roughly into three periods. The first period, almost forty years, is the best defined of the three because it clearly experienced the least crime and exhibited the greatest effort to advance liberal criminal justice. The next five decades showed increased crime, a retreat from idealism, and the use of sanguinary solutions to crime. The final period began with the Revolution and renewed aspiration to liberalism. But other clocks did not strike the change of an hour: Crime persisted as it had for decades and in the end denied the founders of Pennsylvania the achievement they aspired to.