In Chapter 19 of my WIP novel, A Little Rebellion, teen BFF’s Elizabeth and Eben have an argument about pacifism. A few days before the Battle of Brandywine. Elizabeth rides into Darby and tells Eben that British soldiers have camped out on his family’s land. Incredulous that Eben and his family choose to “do nothing” about it, she points out the soldiers might be ready to kill him. Or, as she reminds him, they might take everything his family owns, including Eben’s precious library.
“The regulars are camped on your land—where we lie together in the summer, in the other orchard, where the creeks run—this is your family’s land and they will trample it to mud and set up tents—how can you stand by?”
Eben responds by saying that his father doesn’t want to do anything. Like many Quakers of the time (including Elizabeth’s wealthy merchant parents), his family is “disaffected.”
I didn’t pull my story from thin air. Eben represents my ancestors here. The Battle of Brandywine was fought on and around Thomas Worth’s land where the East and West forks of the Brandywine came together.
In my story, Elizabeth (who’s suddenly become a demanding and annoying Patriot) accuses Darby-dwelling farmer Eben of privilege. His family has paid a fine not to join a mandatory militia. She argues with him, saying that his family’s wealth means they aren’t worried about their livelihoods, or the possibility of being killed. Those they’ve befriended earlier in the story (Free Black Friends, the enslaved, and the poor) have much more at stake in the Revolution: the promise of land, employment, and freedom.
Eben turns around and accuses Philadelphia mansion-dweller Elizabeth of privilege as well. Is the leading that comes to her at Meeting truly about others? Or will joining the Patriot cause be a way for her to separate herself out from the Quaker community she dislikes? Is she just trying to be rebellious? He explains he can hardly be expected to join a militia: he’s just a timid boy who loves books and reading.
Is it possible to be neutral in a revolution? Or is “not choosing a side” really choosing a side? I learned much about the Quakers’ disaffection in Aaron Sullivan’s scholarly (but very readable) book, “The Disaffected.” Sullivan explains, “they tried not to choose a side at all. For these people, the war was neither a glorious cause to be won nor an unnatural rebellion to be suppressed, but a dangerous and costly calamity to be navigated with care. Both the Patriots and the British referred to this group as “the disaffected,” perceiving correctly that their defining feature was less loyalty to than a lack of support for either side in the dispute, and denounced them as opportunistic, apathetic, or even treasonous.”
What if they gave a war and nobody…well, you know…
We imagine the Revolutionary War as a time when people lined up neatly along lines, like soldiers in a (British) battle: red vs. blue. But somewhere in the muddy middle were many who didn’t identify as either Loyalist or Patriot. In a presentation to the American Revolution Roundtable of Philadelphia last September, Sullivan went on to explain how this group could be expanded to include people other than Quakers: notably Mennonites and those of other religious sects. Others didn’t have time to bother with the Revolution because they were too busy herding sheep, tending to ill family members, keeping the spinning wheel going, or even profiting by selling cabbages to British soldiers. He estimates this group made up 20-40% of the American population at the time.
By the time of the Battle of Brandywine, an estimated 4,000 local militia were supposedly ready to protect Philadelphia from British troops. But as the day of Battle grew closer, Washington only was able to gather 20% of them. By the time British General Howe showed up, only 15% of the militia were ready to fight. (Spoiler: the Americans lost and the British took Philadelphia.)
Wealthy Philadelphia merchants and the price of “neutrality”
Elizabeth’s family’s privilege is similar to that of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and her husband Henry Drinker. The Drinkers tried to remain “neutral” during the American Revolution. Before the war began, they identified with the Crown (England) but felt that as long as they did not aid or support the British, they could hide. Much of their business was at stake. Trade with Britain (including importing tea) provided their family’s livelihood. Other wealthy Quaker families like the Powels, Shippens, and Griscoms (Betsy Ross’s family) traded with the British as well. These families had to make difficult choices as the Battle of Brandywine and the Siege of Philadelphia drew near. If the British took the city, should they go? What if they had sided with the Patriots? They’d have no choice but to leave town. The families had great incentive to stay and try to protect their property investments, and some of them, like the Drinkers, did.
They paid the price for their “neutrality.” Beginning before the Siege of Philadelphia, and continuing after the British left town in 1778, Quakers increasingly found themselves the victims of the Patriots who assumed they were Loyalists. Their houses and horses were seized by angry mobs smashing windows and painting their homes black. In September of 1777, just before British occupation, the Patriots exiled Henry Drinker and 19 other Quakers to Virginia without trial.
My pacifism: An evolving story
I’m not a Quaker or a historian but here’s the thing: I’m both Eben and Elizabeth. My novel doesn’t answer questions about involvement in the Revolution, but raises them.
Growing up with the Vietnamese War in the background, I felt drawn to pacifism. As a teenager, I registered as a Conscientious Objector. I protested the Selective Service in front of my local Post Office, with a handful of elderly activists. Being a peace activist was for me a brief and lonely experience.
But for most privileged people like myself, the threat of war is largely hypothetical. We can feel a military budget is bloated, or oppose wars happening at a distance. We have other ways of making a living or financing an education. But what happens when the war comes to our backyard? Since my teenage years, I’ve developed a more nuanced view around deterrents to war, and a deep respect for family and friends who are part of the military. And yet––the Peace Testimony: it’s part of me.
So is it?
A dirty word? “Disaffection” was used to criticize Quakers back in the day. And today, many still see choosing not to take a side as “taking a side.” But to me, the word suggests a kind of bold separation from the mainstream: whether people are standing for peace, looking out for their own interests, or questioning involvement in war.
Will Eben fight? Will Elizabeth?
Still working away on a final round of edits…looking forward to having you read along!