Compromises/A Quaker Diary

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A QUAKER DIARY

De tous ces titres, celui que j'aime le mieux est celui de Philadelphien, ami des frères. II y a bien des sortes de vanité, mais la plus belle est celle qui, ne s'arrogeant aucun titre, rend presque tous les autres ridicules.—Voltaire.

It is well for us who are interested in colonial days and colonial ways that their leisure gave men and women ample opportunity to keep diaries, and that a modesty now quite unknown made them willing to spend long hours in writing pages not destined for publication. There is something very charming about this old-fashioned, long-discarded reticence, this deliberate withholding of trivial incidents and fleeting impressions from the wide-mouthed curiosity of the crowd. Even when the Revolution had awakened that restless spirit of change which scorned the sobriety of the past, there lingered still in people's hearts an inherited instinct of reserve. Men breakfasted with Washington, dined with John Adams, fought by the side of La Fayette, and never dreamed of communicating these details to the world. Women danced at the redcoat balls, or curtsied and yawned at Mrs. Washington's receptions, and then went home and confided their experiences either to their friends, in long, gossiping letters, or to the secret pages of their diaries. It was a lamentable waste of "copy," but a saving of dignity and self-respect.

As for the earlier, easier days, when the infant colonies waxed fat on beef and ale, literary aspirations had not then begun to afflict the hearts of men. It is delightful to think how well little Philadelphia, like New York, got along without so much as a printing press, when she had starved out her only printer, Bradford,—a most troublesome and seditious person,—and sent him over to little Boston, which even then had more patience than her neighbours with books. Yet all this time, honest citizens were transcribing in letters and in journals whatever was of daily interest or importance to them; and it is by help of these letters and these journals that we now look back upon that placid past, and realize the every-day existence of ordinary people, nearly two centuries ago. We know through them, and through them only, what manner of lives our forefathers led in Puritan New England, in comfortable Dutch New York, in demure Quaker Pennsylvania, before the sharp individuality of each colony was merged into the common tide, and with the birth of a nation—"a respectable nation," to use the words of Washington, who was averse to glittering superlatives—the old order passed away forever from the land.

"It is to the pages of Judge Sewall's diary," writes Alice Morse Earle, "that we must turn for any definite or extended contemporary picture of colonial life in New England;" just as we turn for the corresponding picture of old England to the diaries of John Evelyn and of Mr. Samuel Pepys. Mrs. Earle does not add, though she well might, that it is better discipline to read Judge Sewall's records than those of all the other diarists in Christendom; for, by contrast with the bleak cheerlessness of those godly days, our own age seems flooded with sunshine, and warm with the joy of life. And not our own age only. If we pass from ice-bound Massachusetts to colonies less chilly and austere, we step at once into a different world, a tranquil and very comfortable world; not intellectual nor anxiously religious, but full of eating and drinking, and the mildest of mild amusements, and general prosperity and content. Even the Pennsylvania Quakers, though not permitted to dally openly with flaunting and conspicuous pleasures, with blue ribbons, coloured waistcoats, or the shows of itinerant mummers, enjoyed a fair share of purely mundane delights. If Judge Sewall's journal tells us plainly and pitilessly the story of Puritanism, what it really meant in those early uncompromising days, what virtues it nourished, what sadness it endured, the diary of a Philadelphia Friend gives us a correspondingly clear insight into that old-time Quakerism, gentle, silent, tenacious, inflexible, which is now little more than a tradition in the land, yet which has left its impress forever upon the city it founded and sustained.

Elizabeth Sandwith, better known as Elizabeth Drinker,—though even that name has an unfamiliar sound, save to her descendants and to a few students of local history,—was born in Philadelphia in 1735. She was the daughter of wealthy Friends, and her education, liberal for those days, would not be deemed much amiss even in our own. It included a fair knowledge of French and a very admirable familiarity with English. She read books that were worth the reading, and she wrote with ease, conciseness, and subdued humour. Her diary, begun in 1758, was continued without interruption for forty-nine years. It is valuable, not only as a human document, and as a clear, graphic, unemotional narrative of the most troubled and triumphant period in our country's history, but because it contains a careful record of events which—of the utmost importance to the local historian—may be searched for in vain elsewhere. The entries are for the most part brief, and to this brevity, no doubt, we owe the persevering character of the work. It is the enthusiasm with which the young diarist usually sets about her task that threatens its premature collapse. She begins by being unduly confidential, and ends by having nothing to confide.

Not so this Quaker girl, reticent even with herself; avoiding, even in the secret pages of her journal, all gossip about her own soul, all spiritual outpourings, all the dear and inexhaustible delights of egotism. She notes down, indeed, every time she goes to meeting, and also the date on which she begins to work "a large worsted Bible cover,"—which Bible cover is in the possession of her great-great-grandchildren to-day; but neither the meetings nor the worsted work betray her into a complacent piety, and she is just as careful to say when she has been drinking tea, or spending the afternoon with any of her young friends. As a matter of fact, tea-drinking and kindred frivolities are evidently more to her liking, though she will not confess it, than serious and improving occupations. Philadelphia, dazzled by Franklin's discoveries, was pleased to think herself scientific in those days; and young men and women were in the habit of attending learned lectures,—or what were then thought learned lectures,—and pretending they understood and enjoyed them,—a mental attitude not wholly unfamiliar to us now. So keen was the thirst for knowledge that men paid four shillings for the privilege of looking at a skeleton and some anatomical models in the Pennsylvania Hospital. Our Quaker Elizabeth, however, will have none of these dreary pastimes. To electricity and to skeletons she is alike indifferent; but she pays two shillings cheerfully to see a lioness, exhibited by some enterprising showman, and she records without a scruple that she and her family gave the really exorbitant sum of six shillings and sixpence for a glimpse at a strange creature which was carried about in a barrel, and which its owner said was half man and half beast, but which turned out to be a young baboon, very sick and sad. "I felt sorry for the poor thing, and wished it back in its own country," says the gentle-hearted Quakeress, who has always a pitying word for beasts.

The fidelity with which this delightful journal is kept enables us to know what sober diversions fell to the lot of strict Friends, to whom the famous Philadelphia Dancing Assemblies and the equally famous old Southwark Theatre were alike forbidden joys; who never witnessed the glories of the Mischianza, nor the gay routs of the redcoat winter; who, though loyal to the crown, shared in none of the festivities of the king's birthday; who were too circumspect even to join the little group of Quaker ladies for whom M. de Luzerne prepared a separate apartment at the beautiful fête du Dauphin, and who, wistful and invisible, watched through a gauze curtain the brilliant scene in which they had no share.

None of these dallyings with the world, the flesh, and the devil, no glimpses into the fast-growing dissipation of the gayest and most extravagant city in the colonies, find a record in Elizabeth Drinker's diary. Her utmost limit of frivolity is reached in a sleighing party on a winter afternoon; in tea-drinking on winter evenings; in listening to a wonderful musical clock, which cost a thousand guineas in Europe and played twenty tunes; and in gazing at a panorama of London, which most Philadelphians considered almost as good as visiting the metropolis itself. When she is well advanced in years, she is beguiled by her insatiable curiosity into going to see an elephant, which is kept in a "small ordinary room," in a not very reputable alley. In fact, she is a little frightened, and more than a little ashamed, at finding herself in such a place, until she encounters a friend, Abigail Griffitts, who has come to gratify her curiosity under pretence of showing the elephant to her grandchildren; and the two women are so sustained by each other's company that they forget their confusion, and proceed to examine the mammoth together. "It is an innocent, good-natured, ugly Beast," comments Elizabeth Drinker, "which I need not undertake to describe; only to say it is indeed a marvel to most who see it,—one of the kind never having been in this part of the world before. I could not help pitying the poor creature, whom they keep in constant agitation, and often give it rum or brandy to drink. I think they will finish it before long." The presence of an elephant in a small room, like one of the family, seems an uncomfortable arrangement, even if the "innocent beast" were of temperate habits; but an elephant in a state of unseemly "agitation" must have been—at such close quarters—a disagreeable and dangerous companion.

One pastime there is which dates from the days of Eden, which no creed forbids and no civilization forswears. Elizabeth Sandwith has not recorded many little events in her diary before Henry Drinker looms upon the scene, though it is only by the inexpressible demureness of her allusions to her lover that we have any insight into the state of her affections. Quaker training does not encourage the easy unfurling of emotions, and Elizabeth's heart, like her soul, was a guarded fortress which no one was invited to inspect. There is a good deal of tea-drinking, however, and sometimes an indiscreet lingering after tea until "unseasonable hours," eleven o'clock or thereabouts. Finally, on the 28th of November, 1760, appears the following entry: "Went to monthly meeting this morning, A. Warner and Sister with me. Declared my intentions of marriage with my Friend H. D. Sarah Sansom and Sarah Morris accompanied us to ye Men's meeting." Four weeks later this formidable ordeal is repeated. She announces in the December monthly meeting that she continues her intentions of marriage with her friend H. D. In January the wedding is celebrated; and then, and then only, H. D. expands into "my dear Henry," and assumes a regular, though never a very prominent, place in the diary.

After this, the entries grow longer, less personal, and full of allusions to public matters. We learn how sharply justice was administered in the Quaker city; for Benjamin Ardey, being convicted of stealing goods out of a shop where he was employed, is whipped for two successive Saturdays,—"once at ye cart's tail, and once at ye post." We learn all about the delights of travelling in those primitive days; for the young wife accompanies her husband on several journeys he is compelled to make to the little townships of the province, and gives us a lively account of the roads and inns,—of the Manatawny Tavern, for example, and the indignation of the old Dutch landlady on being asked for clean sheets. Such a notion as changing sheets for every fresh traveller has never dawned upon her mind before, and, with the conservative instincts of her class, she takes very unkindly to the suggestion. She is willing to dampen and press the bed linen, since these fastidious guests dislike to see it rumpled; but that is the full extent of her complaisance. If people want clean sheets, they had better bring them along.

Most interesting of all, we find in this faithful, accurate, unemotional diary a very clear and graphic picture of Philadelphia on the eve of the Revolution and after the Declaration of Independence, when deepening discontent and the sharp strife of opposing factions had forever destroyed the old placid, prosperous colonial life. Every one knows how stubborn was the opposition offered by the Quakers to the war; how they were hurled from their high estate by the impetuosity of a patriotism which would brook no delay; and how, with the passing away of the Assembly, they lost all vestige of political power. Scant mercy was shown them after their downfall by the triumphant Whigs, and scant justice has been done them since by historians who find it easier to be eloquent than impartial. There appears to have been something peculiarly maddening in the passive resistance of the Friends, and in their absolute inability to share the emotions of the hour. The same quiet antagonism which they had manifested to the Stamp Act, to the threepenny duty on tea, and to all unconstitutional measures on the part of England, they offered in turn to the mandates of Congress, and to the exactions of the Executive Council. They would not renounce their allegiance to the crown; they would not fight for king or country; they would not pay the new state tax levied for the support of the troops; they would not lift their hands when the tax collector carried off their goods and chattels in default of payment; they would not hide their valuables from the collector's eyes; they would not run away when General Howe's army entered Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777, nor when the American troops took possession the following June. They would not do anything at all,—not even talk; and perhaps silence was their most absolutely irritating characteristic, at a time when other men found pulpit and platform insufficient for the loud-voiced eloquence of strife.

In reading Elizabeth Drinker's journal, we cannot but be struck with the absence of invective, and, for the most part, of comment. Anxiety and irritation are alike powerless to overcome the lifelong habit of restraint. Her husband appears to have been a stubborn and consistent Tory, though the restrictions of his creed compelled him to play an idle part, and to suffer for a lost cause without striking a blow in its behalf. He was one of forty gentlemen, nearly all Friends, who were banished from Philadelphia in the summer of 1777; and his wife, with two young children, was left unprotected, to face the discomforts and dangers of the times. She was more than equal to the task. There is as little evidence of timidity as of rancour in the quiet pages of her diary. She describes the excitement and confusion which the news of General Howe's approach awakened in Philadelphia, and on the 26th of September writes: "Well! here are ye English in earnest. About two or three thousand came in through Second Street, without opposition or interruption,—no plundering on ye one side or ye other. What a satisfaction would it be to our dear absent friends,"—of whom one was her absent husband,—"could they but be informed of it."

From this time, all public events are recorded with admirable brevity and accuracy (Cæsar would have respected Elizabeth Drinker): the battle of Germantown, the difficulty of finding shelter for the wounded soldiers, the bombardment and destruction of the three forts which guarded Franklin's chevaux de frise and separated General Howe from the fleet, the alarming scarcity of provisions before the three forts fell. Despite her Tory sympathies and her husband's banishment, Elizabeth sends coffee and wine whey daily to the wounded American prisoners; rightly thinking that the English ran a better chance of being looked after in the hospitals than did her own countrymen. She suffers no molestation save once, when, as she writes, "a soldier came to demand Blankets, which I did not in any wise agree to. Notwithstanding my refusal, he went upstairs and took one, and with good nature begged I would excuse his borrowing it, as it was by General Howe's orders."

Annoyances and alarms were common enough in a town overrun by redcoats, who were not infrequently drunk. Elizabeth, descending one night to her kitchen, found a tipsy sergeant making ardent and irresistible love to her neat maidservant, Ann. On being told to go away, the man grew bellicose, flourished his sword, and used the forcible language of the camp. He had reckoned without his host, however, when he thought to have matters all to his own liking under that quiet Quaker roof. A middle-aged neighbour,—a Friend,—hearing the tumult, came swiftly to the rescue, collared the rascal, and wrenched the sword out of his hand; whereupon Elizabeth, with delightful sense and caution, carried the carnal weapon into the parlour, and deliberately locked it up in a drawer. This sobered the warrior, and brought him to his senses. To go back to his barracks without his sword would be to court unpleasant consequences. So after trying what some emphasized profanity would do to help him, and finding it did nothing at all, he grew humble, said he had only yielded up his arms "out of pure good nature," and announced his willingness to drink a glass of wine with such peaceable and friendly folk. No liquor was produced in response to this cordial condescension, but he was conducted carefully to the step, the sword returned to him, and the door shut in his face; upon which poor foolish Ann, being refused permission to follow, climbed the back fence in pursuit of her lover, and returned to her duties no more.

Of the brilliant gayety which marked this memorable winter, of the dinners and balls, of the plays at the old Southwark Theatre, of the reckless extravagance and dissipation which filled the lives of the fair Tory dames who danced the merry nights away, there is not the faintest reflection in the pages of this diary. Even the Mischianza—that marvellous combination of ball, banquet, and tournament—is dismissed in a few brief sentences. "Ye scenes of Vanity and Folly," says the home-staying Quaker wife, though still without any rancorous disapprobation of the worldly pleasures in which she has no share. To withstand steadfastly the allurements of life, yet pass no censure upon those who yield to them, denotes a gentle breadth of character, far removed from the complacent self-esteem of the "unco guid." When a young English officer, whom Elizabeth Drinker is compelled to receive under her roof, gives an evening concert in his rooms, and the quiet house rings for the first time with music and loud voices, her only comment on the entertainment is that it was "carried on with as much soberness and good order as the nature of the thing admitted." And when he invites a dozen friends to dine with him, she merely records that "they made very little noise, and went away timeously." It is a good tonic to read any pages so free from complaints and repining.

The diary bears witness to the sad distress of careless merrymakers when the British army prepared to take the field, to the departure of many prominent Tories with Admiral Howe's fleet, and to the wonderful speed and silence with which Sir Henry Clinton withdrew his forces from Philadelphia. "Last night," writes Elizabeth on the 18th of June, 1778, "there were nine thousand of ye British Troops left in Town, and eleven thousand in ye Jerseys. This morning, when we arose, there was not one Red-Coat to be seen in Town, and ye Encampment in ye Jerseys had vanished."

With the return of Congress a new era of discomfort began for the persecuted Friends, whose houses were always liable to be searched, whose doors were battered down, and whose windows were broken by the vivacious mob; while the repeated seizures of household effects for unpaid war taxes soon left rigid members of the society—bound at any cost to obey the dictates of their uncompromising consciences—without a vestige of furniture in their pillaged homes. "George Schlosser and a young man with him came to inquire what stores we have," is a characteristic entry in the journal. "Looked into ye middle room and cellar. Behaved complaisant. Their authority, the Populace." And again: "We have taxes at a great rate almost daily coming upon us. Yesterday was seized a walnut Dining Table, five walnut Chairs, and a pair of large End-Irons, as our part of a tax for sending two men out in the Militia." This experience is repeated over and over again, varied occasionally by some livelier demonstrations on the part of the "populace," which had matters all its own way during those wild years of misrule. When word came to Philadelphia that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered, the mob promptly expressed its satisfaction by wrecking the houses of Friends and Tory sympathizers. "We had seventy panes of glass broken," writes Elizabeth calmly, "ye sash lights and two panels of the front Parlour broke in pieces; ye Door cracked and violently burst open, when they threw stones into ye House for some time, but did not enter. Some fared better, some worse. Some Houses, after breaking ye door, they entered, and destroyed the Furniture. Many women and children were frightened into fits, and 't is a mercy no lives were lost."

When peace was restored and the federal government firmly established, these disorders came to an end; a new security reigned in place of the old placid content; and a new prosperity, more buoyant but less solid than that of colonial days, gave to Philadelphia, as to other towns, an air of gayety, and habits of increased extravagance. We hear no more of the men who went with clubs from shop to shop, "obliging ye people to lower their prices,"—a proceeding so manifestly absurd that "Tommy Redman, the Doctor's apprentice, was put in prison for laughing as ye Regulators passed by." We hear no more of houses searched or furniture carted away. Elizabeth Drinker's diary begins to deal with other matters, and we learn to our delight that this sedate Quakeress was passionately fond of reading romances; those alluring, long-winded, sentimental, impossible romances, dear to our great-grandmothers' hearts. It is true she does not wholly approve of such self-indulgence, and has ever ready some word of excuse for her own weakness; but none the less "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and its sister stories thrill her with delicious emotions of pity and alarm. "I have read a foolish romance called 'The Haunted Priory; or the Fortunes of the House of Rayo,'" she writes on one occasion; "but I have also finished knitting a pair of large cotton stockings, bound a petticoat, and made a batch of gingerbread. This I mention to show that I have not spent the whole day reading." Again she confesses to completing two thick volumes entitled "The Victim of Magical Illusions; or the Mystery of the Revolution of P— L—," which claimed to be a "magico-political tale, founded on historic fact." "It may seem strange," she muses, "that I should begin the year, reading romances. 'T is a practice I by no means highly approve, yet I trust I have not sinned, as I read a little of most things."

She does indeed, for we find her after a time dipping into—of all books in the world—Rabelais, and retiring hastily from the experiment. "I expected something very sensible and clever," she says sadly, "but on looking over the volumes I was ashamed I had sent for them." Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women" pleases her infinitely better; though she is unwilling to go so far as the impetuous Englishwoman, in whom reasonableness was never a predominant trait. Unrestricted freedom, that curbless wandering through doubtful paths which end in social pitfalls, offered no allurement to the Quaker wife in whom self-restraint had become second nature; but her own intelligence and her practical capacity for affairs made her respect both the attainments and the prerogatives of her sex. In fact, she appears to have had exceedingly clear and definite opinions upon most matters which came within her ken, and she expresses them in her diary without diffidence or hesitation. The idol of the Revolutionary period was Tom Paine; and when we had established our own republic, the enthusiasm we felt for republican France predisposed us still to believe that Paine's turbulent eloquence embodied all wisdom, all justice, and all truth. In Philadelphia the French craze assumed more dangerous and absurd proportions than in any other city of the Union. Her once decorous Quaker streets were ornamented with liberty-poles and flower-strewn altars to freedom, around which men and women, girls and boys, danced the carmagnole, and shrieked wild nonsense about tyrants and the guillotine. The once quiet nights were made hideous with echoes of "Ça ira" and the Marseillaise. Citizens, once sober and sensible, wore the bonnet rouge, exchanged fraternal embraces, recited mad odes at dinners, and played tricks fantastic enough to plunge the whole hierarchy of heaven into tears,—or laughter. "If angels have any fun in them," says Horace Walpole, "how we must divert them!" Naturally, amid this popular excitation, "The Rights of Man" and "The Age of Reason" were the best-read books of the day, and people talked about them with that fierce fervour which forbade doubt or denial.

Now Elizabeth Drinker was never fervent. Hers was that critical attitude which unconsciously, but inevitably, weighs, measures, and preserves a finely adjusted mental balance. She read "The Age of Reason," and she read "The Rights of Man," and then she read Addison's "Evidences of the Christian Religion," by way of putting her mind in order, and then she sat down and wrote:—

"Those who are capable of much wickedness are, if their minds take a right turn, capable of much good; and we must allow that Tom Paine has the knack of writing, or putting his thoughts and words into method. Were he rightly inclined, he could, I doubt not, say ten times as much in favour of the Christian religion as he has advanced against it. And if Lewis ye 17th were set up as King of France, and a sufficient party in his favour, and Paine highly bribed or flattered, he would write more for a monarchical government than he has ever written on the other side."

Yet orthodoxy alone, unsupported by intellect, had scant charm for this devout Quakeress. She wanted, as she expresses it, thoughts and words put into method. Of a most orthodox and pious little book, which enjoyed the approbation of her contemporaries, she writes as follows: "Read a pamphlet entitled 'Rewards and Punishments; or Satan's Kingdom Aristocratical,' written by John Cox, a Philadelphian, in verse. Not much to the credit of J. C. as a poet, nor to the credit of Philadelphia; tho' the young man may mean well, and might perhaps have done better in prose."

"Pilgrim's Progress," however, she confesses she has read three times, and finds that, "tho' little thought of by some," she likes it better and better with each fresh reading. Lavater she admires as a deep and original thinker, while mistrusting that he has "too good a conceit" of his own theories and abilities; and the "Morals" of Confucius she pronounces "a sweet little piece," and finer than most things produced by a more enlightened age.

This is not a bad showing for those easy old days, when the higher education of women had not yet dawned as a remote possibility upon any mind; and when, in truth, the education of men had fallen to a lower level than in earlier colonial times. Philadelphia was sinking into a stagnant mediocrity, her college had been robbed of its charter, and the scholarly ambitions (they were never more than ambitions) of Franklin's time were fading fast away. Even Franklin, while writing admirable prose, had failed to discover any difference between good and bad verse. His own verse is as cheerfully and comprehensively bad as any to be found, and he always maintained that men should practise the art of poetry, only that they might improve their prose. This purely utilitarian view of the poet's office was not conducive to high thinking or fine criticism; and Elizabeth Drinker was doubtless in a very small minority when she objected to "Satan's Kingdom Aristocratical," on the score of its halting measures.

The most striking characteristic of our Quaker diarist is precisely this clear, cold, unbiased judgment, this sanity of a well-ordered mind. What she lacks, what the journal lacks from beginning to end, is some touch of human and ill-repressed emotion, some word of pleasant folly, some weakness left undisguised and unrepented. The attitude maintained throughout is too judicial, the repose of heart and soul too absolute to be endearing. Here is a significant entry, illustrating as well as any other this nicely balanced nature, which gave to all just what was due, and nothing more:—

"There has been a disorder lately among ye cats. Our poor old Puss, who has been for some time past unwell, died this morning, in ye 13th year of her age. Peter dug a grave two feet deep on ye bank in our garden, under ye stable window, where E. S., Peter and I saw her decently interred. I had as good a regard for her as was necessary."

Was ever affection meted out like this? Was there ever such Quaker-like precision of esteem? For thirteen years that cat had been Elizabeth Drinker's companion, and she had acquired for her just as good a regard as was necessary, and no more. It was not thus Sir Walter spoke, when Hinse of Hinsdale lay dead beneath the windows of Abbotsford, slain by the great staghound, Nimrod. It was not thus that M. Gautier lamented the consumptive Pierrot. It is not thus that the heart mourns, when a little figure, friendly and familiar, sits no longer by our desolate hearth.