Lecture Review – “The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia” by Aaron Sullivan

Aaron Sullivan likes to “complicate things and tell stories.” As he would say, “It’s what historians do.” The Historical Society of Moorestown’s members learned that Mr. Sullivan isn’t a typical historian. In addition to sharing engaging tales with the group he managed to find lucidity in complexity. Not only did he discuss Britain’s nine-month occupation of the Colonial capital from 1777 to 1778, he used that as a back drop to explain a little known and less understood part of the “Glorious Cause.” The speaker explored the plight of people who didn’t side with either the Loyalists or the Patriots. He called these people the “disaffected.” It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the audience at the Moorestown Library wasn’t “unaffected” by his speech this November 6, 2019.

Mr. Sullivan possesses an extraordinary gift for public speaking. He infused both wit and erudition to his stories of how people in the Philadelphia area reacted to the Revolution. Tales of the “disaffected” gave him interesting material with which to do so.

Henry Drinker and his wife Elizabeth were both pacifist Quakers. They lived in Philadelphia when the American Revolution began. They remained neutral: neither siding with the Loyalists nor with the Patriots. For his non-alignment, Colonial troops arrested Henry as an “enemy of the State.”

When a judge ordered Drinker released, the pro-Patriot Pennsylvania legislature passed a law allowing authorities to detain him. Lawmakers took the added measure of making it retroactive to ensure Drinker could be detained. He was denied habeas corpus, transported away from his Philadelphia home and imprisoned in Virginia.

Drinker’s case wasn’t unique. So why did the state view pacifists and neutrals as such a threat?

Mr. Sullivan explained that Britain had myriad resources with which to conduct the war. The Patriots had to rely on “the will of the people.” Because of that, people who refused to participate undermined the justification for independence. These “disaffected” became propaganda tools for the British. Loyalists accused the Patriots of “forcing the revolution” on the American people.

Benjamin Towne made for the most interesting “disaffected” individual Mr. Sullivan discussed. Towne worked as the The Pennsylvania Evening Post’s publisher. As his was the only publication that operated in Philadelphia before, during and after the British occupation, the speaker used Towne’s newspaper as a means to provide insights into the man.

In 1776, Towne adopted a pro-independence position. Upon the British occupation, The Pennsylvania Evening Post became pro-Loyalist. Once the British evacuated the city, Towne and his newspaper reverted to their original stance by supporting the Patriots once again.

Mr. Sullivan noted that then, as now, newspapers made money by selling advertising space. Supporting the dominant political position of the time enhanced the publication’s financial position.

The speaker used some creative examples to explain his ideas. At one portion of the program he used the graphic of a red hat that contained the lettering I Don’t Want to Get Involved. He even explored what would happen if the organization hosting his lecture attempted to form an independent nation. He called it the Historical Society of the Democratic Republic of Moorestown. For the latter demonstration, he applied the concepts he discussed by dividing the room into people who supported the Historical Society’s bid for nationhood, members of the audience who didn’t and other spectators who didn’t care either way.

The most difficult question Mr. Sullivan sought to answer was, in essence, “If the disaffected didn’t care, why should we care about them?” Once again, the speaker utilized an imaginative example. He speculated that 20% to 40% of Americans didn’t take a side in the American Revolution. Then he showed how a comparable percentage of citizens didn’t participate in a more recent event in the nation’s history. In the 2016 Presidential election, 44.3% of eligible voters didn’t vote. They had diverse reasons for avoiding the polls. He explained that, in spite of the pressures upon them, the disaffected during the War of Independence had many motives for their non-participation, too.

Mr. Sullivan asked, “Is it possible to be neutral during a revolution? Is not choosing a side really choosing a side?” It’s difficult to suspect his audience being ambivalent regarding his lecture. The speaker took a narrow academic topic and presented it in an entertaining way while making it relevant to the present day. Mr. Sullivan is quite the revolutionary himself.

 

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