Pennsylvania, as the largest and most influential of the Middle States, was an object of solicitude to the leaders of the Revolution. Her acts would be copied by the rest of the group, and it was necessary that her conservative Quakex’ population should be won over skillfully and carefully to the side of armed resistance and eventually to independence.

The Assembly of the Province showed itself not unwilling to join the American cause. In 1775 the Governor was quietly pushed aside and disregarded. The Assembly, guided by Dickenson and other moderate Whigs, approved the proceedings of the Continental Congress and chose delegates to represent them there. They recognized the "Associators," as the volunteer militia called themselves, and voted to supply them with arms and ammunition. In fact Pennsylvania, if moving more slowly than Massachusetts or Virginia was in the same stream, and it seemed at this time as if the whole population of the State might be swung into the full tide of the movement, without rendering necessary any vital change of government.

The Governor being put aside because he disapproved of the attitude of the Assembly, that body appointed a Committee of Safety to take his place. The suggestion came from the Committee of Inspection and Observation of the city of Philadelphia, which represented the more radical elements in the colony. In a petition to the Assembly it recommended the appointment of a Committee of Safety, with discretionary powers, to act for the defense of the State "in the present time of danger and uncertainty." The Assembly accepted the recommendation, which committed it still further to the revolutionary movement, and appointed the Committee June 30, 1775. It consisted of twenty-five members, of whom seven were a quorum. It was empowered to call out the militia if necessary, to pay them and to furnish them with arms and other equipments. It was to provide for the defense of the Province against insurrection and invasion and encourage and promote the manufacture of saltpetre. To accomplish these ends it was authorized to draw orders on the Treasurer for such sums of money as it should need.

The Committee of Safety was created merely to take charge of the military establishments of the Colony. None of the regular executive duties which the Governor exercised in times of peace were given it. Yet the control of the military force of the Colony and the authority to draw upon the treasury to support it brought the Committee necessarily a commanding position. The Committee was reappointed in October, 1775, with the addition of some new members, and continued until the middle of the next July, when it was superseded by a Council of Safety appointed by a Provincial Convention.

The Committee of Safety, after its creation, proceeded at once to provide the militia with arms and other war stores. The arms and ammunition that were already in the Province were inspected and taken under the charge of the Committee of Safety, through whose order alone they could be obtained. By thus controlling the war supplies the local committees and the Associators were brought necessarily into dependence upon the central Committee. Manufactories for powder and saltpetre were established, cannon were cast and the counties employed in making firelocks. Ships were sent to trade with the French and Spanish West Indies for arms and the captains were insured by the Committee against the loss of their vessels. Agents were appointed to supply the troops with clothing and food and the Committee settled the pay and the rations of the men.

To provide money for the Committee, the Assembly had issued bills of credit to the amount of 35,000, but this proved insufficient and the Committee was obliged to borrow from the Continental Congress, until more was voted.

Representing as the Assembly and its Committee of Safety did the moderate section of the population the Tories did not suffer so much under its administration as in other colonies. The legislature had given the Committee no power to examine and try suspects, but it claimed the right from a recommendation of the Continental Congress. The local committees had previously exercised this authority, and in a test case it was not given up by the Committee of Philadelphia without a warm debate, but it finally complied with the wish of the Committee of Safety and recognized its jurisdiction. In other counties, however, the local committees were allowed to deal with the suspects with a freer hand.

The Continental Congress often referred persons it held dangerous to the cause to the Committee of Safety for examination and punishment, and the latter further served the Congress by appointing agents at its request, to arrange exchanges of prisoners. The connection of the Committee of Safety with the Congress was naturally close and the latter made the Committee its agent in many matters.

The Assembly left the Committee with a free hand. It asked for an account of its proceedings when it chose, but this was of rare occurrence.

The Committee was largely occupied in organizing the militia and bringing it into shape for effective use. Rules were prepared for its government and discipline and for establishing the rank of the officers. The resolutions of the Continental Congress regulating the choice of officers, the accouterment of the soldiers and the formation of minutemen were dispersed through the counties and the local committees were requested to make return of the number of Associators and Non-Associators in their district.

The Committee commissioned the militia officers and appointed all above the rank of captain. When battalions for the Continental service were organized in the State, it recommended field officers for them to the Continental Congress and commissioned the lower officers. The enlistment of soldiers lay with the Assembly, but the Committee occasionally would direct the force of the Province to be slightly increased.

With the militia rested the ultimate strength of the government, and in their ranks were the most radical of the population. It was impossible for them to view with equanimity the Quakers, who refused to arm themselves or in any way contribute to the cause. If the Americans were successful these non-combatants would win the fruits of the struggle without the labor. If the English subdued the rebellion they would be innocent of all participation. Petitions therefore poured in upon the Assembly and Committee of Safety to lay the Quakers under some direct contribution and commit them definitely to the cause. A petition of this kind from the privates of the Philadelphia companies illustrates the arrogant and insubordinate spirit in which the militia, conscious of their strength, advised the government. They refuse to sign the rules and regulations made for them by the Committee of Safety because they hold it contrary to the true intent of legislation to oblige one part of a community to do military duty while the other does nothing; because they fear that they may be used as a standing army by those now in charge of the government to destroy the liberties of the Colony; because they denied the right of the Committee of Safety to enact these rules, legislative power being derived only from the people and the Committee being in no way dependent on that sovereign body; lastly because they would not submit to any law which did not bear equally on every inhabitant of the Province.

The reasoning is confused enough and the allusions to natural rights, with which the eighteenth century American loved to prop a claim, are irrelevant, because in plain terms what the soldiers had to say was this, "Make the Quakers support this war, or we refuse you obedience." The fear that the government would entrap them into becoming unwilling agents of its tyranny, comes somewhat strangely from men who felt themselves strong enough to tyrannize over that government and dictate its policy. Yet in spite of the inexpediency of the demand, and the insult to authority it conveyed, it had to be respected. If the militia would not obey the government, the government must yield to the militia and the radicalism that it represented. The Committee of Safety therefore petitioned the Assembly to tax the Non-Associators to an amount equal to the expense and loss of time incurred by those that served in the army. The Assembly hesitated, unwilling to alienate the large conservative element from which it drew its support, yet afraid to antagonize the militia. It at length yielded to the latter and imposed the tax.

Besides organizing the militia and appointing the officers the Committee created a naval armament for the Colony. Ships were bought or built and armed and manned for the defense of the harbor. Officers for the ships were appointed and commissioned and a Commodore chosen to command the fleet. The ships were under the direction of the Commodore, Committee of Safety and Assembly, and were to leave no station assigned them without permission from one of these three.

The navy proved as difficult for the Committee to manage as the army. The radicals in Pennsylvania who desired independence and wished to bring the Colony to their view were impatient at the conservatism of the Assembly. If the result was to be accomplished they felt it could not he through the present legislature in which the Quakers and the moderate Whigs. like Dickenson, were intrenched. The leaders were looking forward in the spring of 1776 to wresting the power from the Assembly by the creation of a Provincial Convention to be made up of their representatives, which should bring Pennsylvania into line with the more advanced colonies. The outcome of this plan will be seen a little later. The militia of the navy, in sympathy with the advanced party took every opportunity to discredit and oppose the Assembly and its Committee of Safety. That the Committee did not trust them is shown by the fact that it held it necessary to send a delegation from its number to the fleet, to be upon the spot to enforce its orders and to summarily suspend any disobedient officer.

About the first of May 1776, the Pennsylvania ships had an engagement with the British ship "Roebuck," in which the latter was allowed to escape, it was commonly thought, too easily. The officers of the fleet, anxious to throw the blame on other shoulders, made the already unpopular Committee the scapegoat, declaring it guilty of negligence in not furnishing the fleet with sufficient ammunition, a charge certain to be taken up and used effectively against it by the Philadelphia radicals.

A further example of insubordination was furnished when the Committee decided to appoint Captain Davison as Commodore of the fleet. The choice was unpopular with the other captains, because they had been passed over in favor of a younger man, and a memorial was sent by them to the Committee expressing their objections, and their determination not to obey the new commander. The Committee at first stood firm and issued a commission to Davison, and instructions. But it was not strong enough to maintain its position. There was being held at this time a conference, called by the Philadelphia Committee of all the local committees of the Province, who represented the extremists and which was arranging for the election of a provincial convention to take the place of the Assembly. This conference at once espoused the cause of the officers, as those gentlemen without doubt expected, and recommended the Committee of Safety to issue no orders to Davison as Commodore of the fleet. The Committee without basis for resistance among the people or in the militia was forced to acquiesce. It represented a lost cause—armed resistance without independence. It had alienated the Quakers by going too far, and the radicals by not going far enough. The extremists possessing the militia had matters in their own hands. The Committee therefore carried out the recommendations of the Conference. A day or two later it summoned Captain Dougherty, one of the protesting officers, and placed him in command of the fleet.

The Committee issued an address to the public to justify its appointment of Davison and the document shows the difficulty of its position. The Committee, it says, "are not so blinded by Self Love, or so lost in their own importance, as not to perceive that both Confidence and Authority are considerably shaken and impaired; not resting on a foundation altogether unpopular, their existence has been beheld with jealousy and by an opposition, formed on mistaken and unworthy principles their conduct in almost every branch of the public service has been traduced and villified. After accumulated mortifications, why they still continue to keep their seats, ought to be accounted for." It then explains that Davison was appointed because of his competence and at the express desire of the officers for a man from their own number, "even though he should be the youngest among them." They deprecate the interference of the Conference as it meant the division and weakening of power at a critical time and the destruction of its own authority. The members only continue in their office, they go on to state, because at present no body of men could be appointed to take their places, and because they may, "fettered in their authority as they are, still render some small services to the country" while they "look forward with pleasure to the short period of a few weeks, which is to deprive them of the seats they have held, of late so much to the dissatisfaction of some men, and uneasiness to themselves."

Their service was nearly over when this was written. The Convention decided upon by the conference of committees was elected and met in Philadelphia in July. The conservative elements had refused to participate in the elections and the members returned were of the most advanced party. The Convention had been merely called to form a new constitution for the State, which the extremists had decided on as necessary to overthrow the old government. It proceeded, however, to take upon itself the administration of the State. The Assembly had been paralyzed by the withdrawal of the radical elements from attendance. A quorum could not be procured and the Assembly had adjourned until August. Its days of authority were over forever. It came together for a little time in the fall and passed a few resolutions in opposition to the Convention, but never met afterwards. With the Assembly died its Committee.

The power of the State lay now with the Convention. July 23, it elected twenty-six men to form a Council of Safety, fifteen from Philadelphia and vicinity and one from each of the other counties. Every member was obliged to renounce his allegiance to the King and promise support to the American arms before entering office. The old Committee of Safety was ordered to lay its accounts and proceedings before the Convention. It complied and stepped quietly aside to make room for the new government and its officers

There seems little doubt that if the extremists could have checked their impatience Pennsylvania would have joined the Revolution, in time, heartily and wholly, and that abrupt and radical change in the government would have been unnecessary. This change brought with it a train of evils from which Pennsylvania suffered throughout the war and which rendered her unable to successfully defend herself when the time of trial came. The new constitution was hastily formed and never submitted to the approval of the people. It had many grave defects and was exceedingly unpopular. It caused the withdrawal of the moderate Whigs from the support of the government and it was nearly impossible to organize the departments of the State under it. V~/hen the members of the Assembly elected under the constitution came together in the fall of 1776, the more moderate representatives, unable to secure the alterations in the constitution which they desired, withdrew and rendered the Assembly thereby as helpless as the old legislature had been in the summer. The provincial government was thus brought to a standstill at a most critical time. The Continental Congress was obliged to interfere and threaten that they would take the government of Pennsylvania into its own hands if the inhabitants were not able to provide for it themselves. This brought forth some show of unity and a few steps were taken to call out the Associators, but the legislature was scarcely heard of, or noticed until the election of new delegates the following February to take the place of those that had withdrawn, made it possible to organize with more success.

The Council of Safety therefore occupied a more difficult position even than its predecessor, the Committee of Safety. The Assembly could not be relied upon to give it aid or direction. It had to depend upon itself and upon the support of the Continental Congress. It had opposed to it a large part of the Colony composed of the Tories, the Quakers, and the more moderate Whigs. It owed its creation to the revolutionary party and to remain in power must keep on good terms with the army. This Council of Safety was in existence from July, 1776 until the middle of March, 1777. At that time the Supreme Executive Council in which the constitution placed the executive authority of the government, having been organized, took control of affairs.

The acts of the Council bore a close resemblance to those of the preceding Committee, the same kind of duties falling to its charge. It procured war stores for the troops and sent agents into the counties to collect clothing, blankets, etc. Persons suspected of practices against the American cause were examined and punished and prisoners of war were taken into custody. The execution of the orders of the Council was put into the hands of the field officers, and the rough and lawless militia exasperated and further alienated the Non-Associators. James Allen in his diary gives a picture of the condition of affairs. "To describe the present state of the Province of Pennsylvania," he says, "would require a volume. It may be divided into two classes of men, viz: those that plunder and those who are plundered. No justice has been administered, no crimes punished for nine months. All power is in the hands of the Associators, who are under no subordination to their officers.". He was himself arrested and brought before the Council, because the people, knowing him to be a man of influence in his country, who was opposed to the radicals, looked to the Council to put him on parole, and he was accordingly obliged to take oath before the Council to do or say nothing against the American cause.

The courts of justice being unorganized, the Council occasionally considered ordinary infractions of the laws of the State. Thus it tried a forger and sentenced him to States prison, and again, it assumed jurisdiction in a case of assault and battery.

The Council took over all money in the hands of the Committee of Safety and with this and loans from the Continental Congress paid the military expenses of the government. The Council took every means to urge the reluctant militia into the field. Bounties were offered and the Council proposed to provide generously for the families of those who would march to join Washington in New Jersey. Harsh measures were also tried. Any Associator of Philadelphia who bad not marched with the militia to New Jersey or who did not enroll himself as one of the city guards was to be subject to all the fines and penalties of a Non-Associator. The militia were quartered upon those who refused to serve and troops were sent into the counties to disarm all who would not enter the army, and to seize and treat as an enemy any one who opposed the execution of this measure.

When Philadelphia was threatened the Council was determined that nothing should be considered but the defense of the town. Shops and schools were closed, and every able-bodied citizen was compelled to labor on the fortifications or to provide a substitute, under penalty of confiscation of his goods.

But neither its endeavors nor those of the Assembly and Supreme Executive Council after it could keep Howe from the capital. The city fell September 26, 1777, and the government moved to Lancaster, and attempted to rule the State from that place. The time had arrived as provided in the constitution for the dissolution of the legislature and the election of a new one, but it was impossible, in the distressed and disorganized condition of the State to hope that elections could be held. With a hostile army in possession of the capital the situation demanded not a deliberative assembly but a dictator. The people, however, were not ready to receive such a manifest violation of the rights of freedom and equality as the elevation of a single man to absolute power. The Assembly therefore compromised by appointing, October 13, a group of dictators, under the name of a Council of Safety. It consisted of the Supreme Executive Council and nine others. It was given full power to promote and provide for the preservation of the Commonwealth by such regulations and ordinances as seemed best to it. Any person infringing these ordinances or the laws of the State relating to traitors or any one who, from his general conduct and conversation was deemed inimical to the cause of liberty might he summarily seized by the Council or its agents, imprisoned and punished either capitally or otherwise as the Council saw fit. It was enabled to regulate the prices of such articles as it needed and to compel a sale of them when wanted. The Council was to continue until the end of the next session of the legislature, but the Supreme Executive Council was given discretionary power to dissolve it before then, if it saw fit.

The Council thus possessed absolute power as far as the Assembly could bestow it. It was without check. It could imprison and put to death its enemies at will and confiscate their goods. The life and property of every citizen of the State rested in its hands. It was intended to subdue the Tory opposition and compel the obedience of the militia; to forcibly bring the disorganized and decentralized province into closer dependence upon and better co-operation with the central government.

The Council followed out the purpose for which it was created and the province during its short administration was under a reign of terror. Those who had not sworn allegiance to the State were specially levied upon to supply arms, accoutrements, blankets, shoes, etc., for the army, and the commissioners appointed to collect them might use force if necessary, a provision that laid the Non-Associators open to the violence and license of the soldiery. Prices at which goods should be sold to the Commissary of the army were arranged by the Council, a certain source of irritation to every farmer and manufacturer, since the depreciation of the paper currency had caused an enormous rise in prices. Furnishing the King's armies with provisions or giving them any aid was punished with death. All persons that joined the King’s army or resorted to any city in its possession suffered confiscation of their estates. A more summary method of punishing engrossers than that provided by the ordinary course of the common law was ordered. Those who owed fines for refusing military service and would not pay, were obliged to see the amount levied from a forced sale of their goods.

Thus the Council drew the reins of autocratic powers sharply over the State, to force it to obedience, that the new government might be carried past the crisis. Constitutional scruples waited on the primary necessities of safety and success, which were to justify (how completely it is hard to tell) the harsh means employed. The Council went further in its legislation than the Assembly altogether approved. At its meeting after the dissolution of the Council, while it was willing to sanction the greater number of the Council’s acts, it disapproved and repealed those relating to the collection of arms by force and the fixing of prices.

The Council existed from October 13th to December 6th, 1777. The progress of the enemy was then sufficiently checked for the elections to be held, and the Supreme Executive Council issued a proclamation declaring the Council of Safety dissolved.

u u u u u u u u u u u u u u

Return to Provincial Committees of Safety