Quaker, Whaler, Coward, Spy!: William Rotch and the Age of Revolutions

By Sarah Crabtree

A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and therefore a pacifist, William Rotch vehemently opposed the wars for independence and empire during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  As a result, the governments of three different countries accused him of disloyalty between 1775 and 1795.

Portrait of William Rotch.
William Rotch

Rotch’s incredible story begins in 1775 when he sank a shipload of bayonets rather than allow American or British forces to commandeer them for “blood-letting.”  He narrowly escaped formal charges for this public act of defiance, but continued to bedevil both sides with his quest to declare Nantucket, his home, a neutral republic (efforts that eventually caused the Massachusetts legislature to impeach him for high treason in 1780). 

Drawing of men on a row boat trying to catch a whale.
“The Whale Fishery ‘Laying On,’ courtesy of the Nantucket Whaling Museum

By war’s end, Rotch’s reputation and his business were in ruins.  To salvage the latter, he relocated his whaling operations to Dunkirk, France in 1787. In perhaps one of history’s greater ironies, revolutionaries again summoned him to answer for his refusal to support their cause.  His 1791 speech to the French Assembly bore for Rotch a dispiriting resemblance to his protests against the American and British authorities during the previous war.  He avoided formal charges once more, but his pleas for religious tolerance were ignored.  Riotous mobs soon threatened to set his house aflame after learning he would not light candles in celebration of French victories.  Fearful, frustrated, and fatigued, Rotch fled to Great Britain shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately, his ordeal was not yet over.  Rotch was appalled when British authorities began inspecting his private correspondence for evidence of sedition.  His son Benjamin was further shocked when neighbors accused him of being a spy for Napoleon.  Wearied by his travails, William Rotch finally returned to the United States and Benjamin left the Society of Friends altogether.

In my first book, I used these events to illustrate the unique position that the Society of Friends occupied during the Age of Revolutions. Their contemporaries, employing a “with-us-or-against-us” mentality, accused Quakers of supporting the enemy.  But as Rotch’s story demonstrates, the French and Americans claimed he supported the British, while the British insisted he supported the Americans and French.  Clearly, then, another explanation is necessary.

Historians have emphasized the Friends’ quietism, portraying them as passive, neutral, and aloof.  I maintain, however, that Quakers engaged directly and forcefully with the changing political landscape.  Here, Rotch’s story again proves useful.  During one of his many trials, an opponent queried Rotch: “then your principles are passive obedience and non-resistance?” “No,” Rotch replied, “active obedience, or passive suffering.”  His cross-examiner accepted this claim without further comment, but we might dig a bit deeper: obedience to whom? And active how?

I argue that during this period the Society of Friends formed a “holy nation”: a transnational community of like-minded believers united in opposition to unholy governments and laws.  In so doing, they not only directly resisted the governments under which they lived but vigorously challenged the new values championed by those in power—nationalism, patriotism, and citizenship—in three important ways.  First, Quakers’ identity was invested not in a nation or empire but in a far-flung membership that spanned geopolitical borders.  Thus, when Rotch professed his unity with all “nations, kindred, tongues, and people, the whole world over” who “promot[ed] the cause of righteousness in the earth,” he defied attempts by those in power to form a coherent citizenry that fused nation and state.  Second, the Friends refuted the patriotic calls for unity, allegiance, and sacrifice that governments used to secure and exert their authority.  When Rotch sank the bayonets, and refused to wear the cockade or illuminate his home, he undercut the ability of officials to draw logistical support from the populace or rally them to their cause.  Finally, the Friends’ purposeful public suffering thwarted attempts by those in power to claim divine approbation for their virtuous cause.  Indeed, Rotch’s (multiple) testimonies illustrated the distance between the promise of liberty and the practices that violated it. 

The Friends’ holy nation, therefore, was a theological, political, and emotional response to the upheaval of these critical decades, as Friends explicitly conceived and cultivated their transnational community in contradistinction to the political and cultural projects of both nation-formation and state-strengthening.  As a result, campaigns of persecution against the Friends escalated over this time period as those in power moved to declare them aliens in, and traitors to, their respective countries. Rotch’s extraordinary experiences underscore how Quaker pacifism clashed with growing state power during the late eighteenth-century wars for independence and empire.  His story (and those of other Friends) thus challenges historians to amend exclusively geopolitical definitions of citizenship, as well as to revisit assumptions that religion and nationalism were mutually constitutive during this period.  They also encourage instead an exploration not only of religion’s role in questioning the form and character of the nation-state but to constructing concrete alternatives.

Sarah Crabtree is assistant professor of history at San Fransisco State University. Her book, Holy Nation, focuses on the ways that Quakers challenged definitions of citizenship and subjecthood during the Age of Revolutions.  She is at work on another book project exploring the interplay between Rotch’s faith and business during these turbulent years.  You can reach her at slc123@sfsu.edu.

Title image: “Earith Monthly Meeting.” Samuel Lucas. Copyright Religious Society of Friends in Britain. Courtesy of the Friends House Library.

Further readings:

Sarah Crabtree, Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Stuart Andrews, The Rediscovery of America: Transatlantic Crosscurrents in an Age of Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, eds., Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

Pink Dandelion, Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Jack Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748–1783 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).

Carla Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

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