“They Chase Specters”: The Irrational, the Political, and Fear of Elections in Colonial Pennsylvania

By J. L. Tomlin

Surveying the situation on the eve of Pennsylvania’s 1726 General Assembly elections, Quaker James Logan realized he’d come to despise the colony’s democratic process. To him, its participants were seemingly “vile people who may truly be called a Mob.” In fact, many had come to loathe and fear the colony’s elections. Each contest seemed more contentious and heated than the last, and the two competing factions had become progressively more hyperbolic and even violent in public depictions of their opponents. In such a tense and partisan environment, elections were almost always marked by public disorder, but they increasingly also devolved into violence and vandalism. What concerned Logan most, however, was his belief that the increasing vitriol was not due exclusively to the serious political and economic considerations of competing interest groups within the colony. He believed a good deal of what animated the supporters of both factions was irrational. He felt followers of both factions genuinely believed the colony was perpetually “absorbed in a contest between papists and levelers.” “Papists” was a kind of political dog whistle connoting various types of abusive power molded off of anti-Catholic tropes, and “levelers” connoted radical social and economic egalitarianism. Fear of either overlapped with prominent conspiracy theories of the time. Logan thought either accusation a hysterical exaggeration. He dismissed what he saw as irrational suspicion felt by ideologues on both sides, stating simply “they chase specters.”[1]

People gathered to vote in the polls.
“Polling Day” in Pennsylvania, date unknown.

The historiography of the conspiratorial style in American politics is well-known but tends to start at the American Revolution and move forward. A growing amount of evidence provided by the study of emotions and symbolic public language suggests its roots can and should be traced far earlier within American thought and speech.[2] The problems that defined Pennsylvanian politics throughout the mid-eighteenth century, for instance, requires considering the influence of paranoid and conspiratorial rhetoric as more than merely symbolic hyperbole. Quakers like Logan had rational reasons to fear elections. The ruling Quaker elite presided over economic and political power despite becoming a minority of the colony’s population in the 1730s, and each contest brought more non-Quakers into the Assembly. Their relative demographic decline accelerated as the population expanded and diversified in the 1740s and 1750s through several waves of immigration into the colony. German religious exiles and Scot-Irish economic immigrants settled in the countryside and frontier areas, demanding more influence and opportunity within the Quaker-dominated society. Yet, Friends tenaciously clung to their minority rule through increasingly aggressive measures to preserve their dominance in the colonial assembly and city councils. They saw themselves as battling not just for political control but also to maintain the proprietary ownership of the colony by the Quaker Penn family. A succession of British governments had eyed political tension and sectarian antagonisms as a potential justification for ending the proprietary status of Pennsylvania in favor of direct royal rule for the lucrative and large colony. All of Pennsylvania’s Protestant dissenters, including Quakers, feared that royal rule meant the reimposition of the English state church. The stakes of electoral defeat for the Society of Friends and their allies were very high.[3]

Feeling besieged and with so much at stake, supporters of the Quaker faction increasingly connected political contests and social tensions in a more sinister way. They accused their opponents of fraud and theft in elections that resulted in reversals. They warned each other that their opponents were radical egalitarians, or “levelers,” bent on upending the order of society and tearing down their Godly society. They suspected a conspiracy among English speakers to mislead German immigrants into voting against them. They wailed against the economic devastation that the victory of their opponents would begin. They even accused Anglicans of a “Papist” conspiracy to stir up anti-Quaker sentiment to justify royal intervention. To Anglicans such as Governor William Thomas, this behavior was perplexing. “They rail and squall…with little to establish their claim.”[4] An Anglican critic argued that under “pretense” of victimhood, the Quaker faction would claim to believe anything to “excite their numbers higher with rumor” in order to improve Quaker turnout for the election. The outgoing governor observed that “many amongst them” believed the “most bewildering” accusations to be true.[5]

The stakes were equally high for their opponents, an alliance of Protestants hostile to Quakerism, Anglicans with imperial connections, and the growing immigrant population within Pennsylvania. Quaker control had excluded them from economic opportunity by dominating the powerful town councils, and the Friends’ control of urban areas meant they presided over the most lucrative economic networks and resources. Many felt the legal and political system disproportionately benefited the Friends. Others saw any exclusion based on primarily sectarian lines as discriminatory and oppressive. Control over the legislature could reverse these inequities and prevent future injustices. In short, the substance of their political dissent represented serious social, political, and economic differences.[6]

Engraving of the 1749 election in Philadelphia.
Rending of election in Philadelphia, 1749.

Dissenters, too, however, increasingly saw a conspiratorial constellation of events. They accused the ruling elite of a “Romish Intrigue” to strip them of religious and political freedom. They argued that core tenants of Quaker belief, such as pacifism, were an elaborate ploy to leave the colony purposefully vulnerable to invasion by Britain’s Catholic enemies by opposing military preparation for conflict under the excuse of religious freedom. German settlers mused whether the Quakers conspired with Natives on the frontier to contest their land claims. Baptists and Presbyterian settlers, encouraged by Anglican leaders, accused the Quakers of a “sentiment” hostile to the British Empire and the king’s rule through their refusal to swear oaths of loyalty and overtly support the king’s imperial wars. In the 1740-41 elections, it was alleged, Quakers destroyed dissenting ballots, hid polling sites, paid immigrants for sympathetic votes, and even assaulted dissenting voters in towns they controlled. When called to task by Quaker leaders for providing no proof of their claims, the Anglican governor suggested the Friends had conspired to destroy all evidence to prevent the apparently widespread fraud from being proven. Believing these accusations wholeheartedly, many resented elections as unwelcome arbitrary rituals designed to confirm and reinforce Quaker dominance.[7]

At the heart of these disputes was practical, political calculation. Quakers feared that shared rule would end the special status that had allowed them to flourish in British America despite widespread oppression in Europe. Non-Quakers rightfully viewed their exclusion from power and influence as deleterious to their interests and discriminatory in a colony that advertised widespread equality and tolerance. Anglican leaders justifiably viewed the absence of Anglican rule in Pennsylvania as a threat to their claim to supremacy in the empire. But the language of these fights for power was profoundly emotional and, at times, fantastic. The language of anti-Catholic conspiracy theories heightened the attention of casual observers but was also taken quite literally by colonists highly motivated by such fears and resentments. Accusations of radical social and economic egalitarianism drew contrast between policies for some, but for others suggested a tangible plot to destroy the wealth and prosperity of some to the benefit of jealous and undeserving others. As we currently debate opposing perceptions of hotly contested elections, it is worth reconsidering the incredible power and recurring role of conspiratorial thought in the American political and social tradition. This means a greater appreciation for the emotional framework behind such arguments and their power to motivate competing interest groups in society. It also means looking beyond the face value of well-worn, early American source material to reestablish the link between meaning and expression from a vantage that includes both the rational and irrational perceptions of societies engaged in the struggle for power, influence, and meaning.

J. L. Tomlin is a lecturer of Early American History at the University of North Texas. His current book project Fear and Loathing and Freedom: The Paradoxical Roots of Early American Pluralism examines the use and influence of symbolic language in early American contests for religious and political power.

Title image: Rendering of “arguments of the Assembly.” 1779.

Further readings:

Farrelly, Maura Jane. Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1965.

Knox, J. Wendall. Conspiracy in American Politics: 1787-1815. New York: Ayer Co Publishing, 1964.

Schwartz, Sally. A Mixed Multitude: The Struggle for Tolerance in Colonial Pennsylvania. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

Smolenski, John. Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Walker, Jesse. The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. New York: Harper Press, 2013.


[1] James Logan to [H?} Taylor, Gertrude MacKinney and Charles F. Hoban, eds., Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 8: Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1682-1776, 2nd ser, Vol. 7, 91.

[2] The seminal work on the paranoid and conspiratorial tradition in American politics is Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and the subsequent book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Harvard University Press: Cambridge,1965). Other important works for further reading on this theme are Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (Harper Press: New York, 2013); J. Wendall Knox, Conspiracy in American Politics: 1787-1815 (Ayer Co Publishing: New York, 1964); For more on Anti-Catholicism in Early America: Maura Jane Farrelly, Anti-Catholicism in America, 1620-1860 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2018).

[3] John Smolenski, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Sally Schwartz. A Mixed Multitude: The Struggle for Toleration in Colonial Pennsylvania. (New York: New York University Press, 1988).

[4] Sir William Thomas, A Proclamation to the Inhabitants of the Province of Pennsylvania, on the Late Rumors of War and the Best Ends Required to Secure this Province’s Peace and Security ( 9 April 1740); also reprinted in the American Weekly Mercury (9 May, 1740).

[5] Anon, Gospel Times, or Oaths Forbidden under the Gospel. (Philadelphia, 1722), 12; Darus Preceptus, Some Thoughts on the Troubles We Recently Encountered, with Commentary on the Causes of these Predicaments (Philadelphia, 1724), 8. Gertrude MacKinney and Charles F. Hoban, eds., Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 8: Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1682-1776, Vol. 8, 1459-1460.

[6] Allen Tully, Forming American Politics: Ideals, Interests, and Institutions in Colonial New York and Pennsylvania (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 211, 235-39.

[7] Anon, To the Honorable Patrick Gordon esq; Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Andrew Bradford, 1728), 10; Thomas Wendel, “The Keith-Lloyd Alliance: Factional and Coalition Politics in Colonial Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XCII (July 1968), 303; Stephen Brobeck, “Changes in the Composition and Structure of the Philadelphia Elite Groups, 1756-1790” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1973), 28-33, 250-51.

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