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Image Delaware Power Ways: The Politics of Commission Government

Quakers generally controlled the government of Pennsylvania for a period of sixty-seven years (1682-1755). During that era, they created a political system which differed very much from New England and Virginia. Many institutions in this polity were formed as early as the year 1725; some continued to exist for more than two centuries. Long after the Quakers relinquished the reins of power to other groups, their legacy survived in the political institutions and folkways of an American region.1

The English Quakers brought to America a habit of intense public activity, and a highly developed set of political principles. Despite the accusations of their enemies, they were not a sect of seventeenth-century anarchists. “Certainly,” wrote Isaac Norris in 1710, “every thinking man must believe that government [is] absolutely necessary; daily experience proves it whenever any number of people are got together.”2

In William Penn’s words, the Quakers believed that politics was “a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and its end.”3 The Philadelphia yearly meeting repeatedly reminded its members that they were bound by the principles of their religion in public affairs as well as private business.4

The political meaning of these religious principles was, however, a matter of dispute. Quakers quarreled furiously among themselves on public questions. On one occasion, William Penn beseeched them, “For the love of God, me, and the poor country, be not sogovernmentish!”5

So deep did these disagreements become in Pennsylvania, that to James Logan it seemed as if the “powers had brake loose from their center,” and the vessel of sovereignty had shattered into its separate shards of individual conscience.6 Quakers insisted that a believing Christian had a sacred duty to stand against evil in government, and that individual conscience was the arbiter of God’s truth. The ideology of Quakerism justified political opposition in a way that was not the case in other English cultures. The political culture of Pennsylvania was defined not only by Quaker principles themselves, but also by a prolonged quarrel over their purposeful application.

One consequence was the emergence of political parties in Pennsylvania at an early date. By 1701, two stable parties were functioning in that province. Both consisted mainly of Quakers. The Country party found its following mainly among farmers and artisans in the counties. The Proprietary party was closely linked to the Penn family and was led by their agent James Logan in alliance with leading Quaker merchants in the city of Philadelphia.

These parties nominated candidates, contested elections, issued manifestos, recruited stable followings and defended positions of high principle. The major issues that divided them would be the classical constitutional questions of American politics: the powers of the Proprietor and the Assembly, the relative importance of property rights and personal liberties, the control of the judiciary. Both parties claimed to be defending their liberties in a classical conflict between two Whig ideologies.

After the death of William Penn in 1718 this first American party system disintegrated. A brief period of partisan inactivity followed. By the mid-1720s Pennsylvania politics were dominated by two new parties, called the Quaker party and the Gentlemen’s party. The Quaker party drew its support from English Friends and German Pietists who shared many values and purposes in common. The Gentlemen’s party won the support of Anglican merchants, rough seamen and Scots-Irish immigrants as well as the non-Quaker bourgeoisie of Philadelphia. These parties also nominated candidates and contested elections for many years. Altogether, the first and second party systems of colonial Pennsylvania lasted longer than either the first or second party systems in American national politics.

Another part of this political culture was the politics of ethnicity. This arose among the Quakers as early as the 1680s in tensions between Welsh and English Quakers. So suspicious were these two groups of one another that the English majority deliberately drew the county boundaries of Pennsylvania so as to split the Welsh settlements. The townships of Haverford and Radnor were made part of Chester County, while Merion was placed in Philadelphia County. This was done to keep the Welsh Quakers from controlling an entire county—the earliest instance of gerrymandering in American history.7

In the eighteenth century, when William Penn’s agents recruited German Pietists to Pennsylvania, and the unwelcome Scots-Irish also began to arrive in large numbers, ethnic factors became increasingly important in Pennsylvania politics. Once again, an institutional framework already existed. The legitimacy of ethnic pluralism was recognized by the Quakers, many of whom thought of themselves as “dissenters in their own land.” This idea encouraged the rapid development of political pluralism in Pennsylvania.

Another part of the Quaker legacy was a special set of local institutions. The founders of Pennsylvania drew selectively upon traditional English institutions in ways which were consistent with their Quaker principles. For purposes of local government, they abolished the Anglican parish, but preserved the English county and adapted it to their own goals. At first, the founders placed most local administration into the hands of county justices who were appointed by higher authority.

That system did not last very long, for it was unacceptable to the Country party. In a series of statutes (1718, 1725, 1728) the Assembly created a new system of local government by county commissions. These officers were at first appointed by the legislature, and after 1725 chosen by the people. Every county had three commissioners, one of whom was elected each fall, together with nominees for sheriff and coroner. The power to tax was vested in the county commission, in conjunction with county assessors who were annually elected.8

Pennsylvania’s system of county commissions worked very differently from New England’s town meetings and Virginia’s government by court and vestry. The polity of Pennsylvania lacked the institutional machinery to enforce conformity as in New England.9It also did not develop the strong oligarchical tendencies of Virginia’s politics. Popular elections occurred very frequently in Pennsylvania. By 1775, voters were being asked to cast their ballots as often as five times each year. The result was a culture where “residents were actively and constantly involved in the political process” in a way that differed from other colonies.10

Turnouts of taxable adult white males in Pennsylvania tended to be lower than in Virginia, but higher than in New England on the average. Rates of participation fluctuated from year to year, rising perceptibly during heated party battles in the 1740s and 1760s. But on the whole, participation was comparatively stable, with nothing like the staccato rhythm of surge and decline that happened in small New England towns.11

Another component of this political culture was the Whig ideology of England’s Restoration era which rooted itself more firmly in Pennsylvania than in either Massachusetts or Virginia. William Penn was himself a staunch English Whig who supported the election of Algernon Sydney, and was said to have rescued Locke and Trenchard from imprisonment. The leaders of all political parties in Pennsylvania called themselves Whigs. Historians Caroline Robbins and Frederick Tolles found in their studies of Quaker libraries repeated proof of a “persistent fondness” for the classical works of what Robbins called the commonwealth tradition: Trenchard’s and Gordon’s Independent Whig, and Cato’s Letters.12

Elements of this ideology came to be shared widely throughout the American colonies. But in Pennsylvania it took a special form. Among its features were a unicameral legislature, and annual assemblies which met upon their own adjournment. Another component was the ideal of minimal government. Andrew Hamilton wrote in 1739, “ … we have no officers but what are necessary, none but what earn their salaries, and those generally are either elected by the people or appointed by their representatives.”13To this idea was added minimal taxes, which tended to be lighter in Pennsylvania than in most other colonies. In 1692 a proposed tax of a penny on the pound, which amounted to four-tenths of 1 percent of assessed wealth, was rejected as “a great tax,” ruinous of “liberties and properties.”14

The idea of minimal government was carried farther in Pennsylvania than in any other colony. There was no legally established militia until after the 1750s. In one period, when interest from a land bank provided an alternative source of revenue, there were nearly no taxes at all. The legislature of Pennsylvania passed fewer laws before 1750 than any other assembly in British America, and its courts were less active in the work of enforcement than most provinces. In each of these practices the Quaker colonies differed from most other parts of British America.15

This system of institutionalized dissent, organized parties, political pluralism, commission government, light taxes, and minimal government was firmly constructed before 1740. It was the work of Quakers, and the combined product of their Christian beliefs, English traditions and generational experiences in the late seventeenth century. In 1756 many leading Quakers withdrew from politics, and nominal control of the colony passed into other hands. But the political culture which they created still flourishes. It is one of the Quakers’ enduring legacies to the American Republic.

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