The Historical Society of Moorestown

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.

 

Local History/ Ancestry – Still History

Vainly, I’ve thought I had the best family history of anyone I’ve ever met. In the course of my studies I’ve discovered I’m related to both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. (We Stephanys have a long tradition of hedging our bets.) Thanks to the outstanding program hosted by the Historical Society of Moorestown this past October 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting someone with an even more profound lineage. Local resident Samuel Still III regaled the group with tales of his extraordinary ancestors.

Did I mention these individuals were extraordinary? His 4X Great Grandmother Charity (Sidney) Still had 18 children. That’s a pretty impressive feat during any era. It’s even more phenomenal that she did this during the 19th century and survived. She also spent the early part of her life as a slave in Maryland. On two separate occasions she managed to escape. The lady lived a full life.

Samuel then detailed the life of Dr. James Still. At the age of either three or four he witnessed a doctor giving inoculations. The young James resolved to become a physician. During the course of his life he received only three months of formal education. This short coming would’ve deterred a less driven person from pursuing a career in medicine. James didn’t let it prevent him from achieving his dream.

James apprenticed with another doctor and studied herbal medicine from the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Following years of hard work, he realized his goal of becoming Dr. Still. While this feat served as a monumental achievement in itself, he went on to discover a remedy that cured skin cancer. In addition, the doctor became very successful at treating dyspepsia and scrofula. (The latter is an inflammation of the lymph nodes on the neck.)

Before readers assume that his three months of formal education the greatest schooling anyone ever received, much of Dr. Still’s success emanated from his work ethic. He labored seven days a week and even delivered his prescriptions directly to patients. In his autobiography he preached the virtues of forbearance and debt avoidance. At the age of 70, Dr. Still was the third largest landowner in Medford, New Jersey. He lived most of his life debt free. These would be tremendous accomplishments for any resident of the Garden State today. It’s even more extraordinary for the son of former slaves to do so in the 19th century.

Samuel could’ve stopped his presentation there and still delivered an outstanding tale. Instead he impressed his audience even further. Another of charity’s sons, William Still, became known as “The Father of the Undergound Railroad.” Among his myriad accomplishments he laid out the organization’s overall network. Samuel said, “Harriet Tubman didn’t make a move without telling him.” William debriefed, if you will, escaped and slaves who passed through Philadelphia. He compiled their stories into the seminal chronicle on the subject. He published it in 1872 as The Undergound Railroad. For those interested, the book is still available today.

Samuel went still further in his lecture. He related the story of a slave who stopped by William’s office after purchasing his own freedom. William wrote down the man’s story of how his mother escaped from slavery in Maryland. Before she left she told him to meet her in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when he became free. At this point William recognized the gentleman as his long-lost brother Peter.

Peter made the other two Still brothers seem like under achievers by comparison. For forty years of his life he endured slavery. After purchasing his own freedom for $500, his former owner made him a proposition. He would sell Peter the wife and children he left behind in Alabama for the princely sum of $5,000. In 2014 dollars this would equate to roughly $143,000. It took Peter several years, but he managed to raise the necessary funds and liberated his family.

Samuel certainly has a rich family heritage of which to be proud. While I enjoyed hearing his story the number of younger people who attended this meeting impressed me even more. In fact, Samuel brought along his son to help carry on the tradition of sharing the Still story. At the conclusion of his lecture, Samuel told the students in the audience that he wasn’t simply speaking about his genealogy; his talk described our history. The more all of us get to know about one another the more we can understand our similarities and common bonds.

I studied history in high school, college and grad school. Following that I did a wealth of genealogical research for my family. In all that time, I could never come up with a solid answer when people asked me what purpose history really served. After listening to Samuel Still’s comments to the next generation of historians, I finally have one.