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The Paxton pamphlet war was waged in physical materials. The pamphlets and prints that circulated in Philadelphia during 1764 were material objects that had value as consumer goods in the marketplace. Yet their worth lay less in the paper and ink that composed them than in what scholars would call their materiality, the power these printed words or images had to evoke ideas about self and society in their readers or viewers. Those ideas assumed forms that reflected the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania culture that produced and consumed them.
Thus, when Paxton critic Timothy Wigwagg called upon his fellow Pennsylvanians to gaze into a collective looking glass (a mirror) to see the Paxton men’s true motives and character, he highlighted the central role of material culture in this pamphlet war.
Thanks to an eighteenth-century consumer revolution, small and affordable hand-held mirrors had become increasingly common goods in colonial America, allowing colonists to gaze at themselves and assess their appearances (Breen). Yet as Wigwagg knew well, mirrors did more than just reflect; they were also optical devices that could magnify and distort images, which gave them magical properties that allowed their holders to see truths and predict the future. Wigwagg was thus confident that his looking into mirror would reveal “Painted in the most striking Colours” the lines of a “design well Plann’d and Judiciously executed” by the Scots-Irish Presbyterian Paxton Boys, a design that would then be “clear to the Understanding of every Person, and Recorded in History as undeniable Facts.” Material objects such as looking glasses, Wigwagg argued, were powerful lenses that could be manipulated to reveal the hidden identities and agendas of the Paxton men.
Wigwagg’s use of the looking glass was metaphorical. Yet it illustrates how the writers and illustrators of the pamphlet war employed a commonly understood language of material goods to mobilize public opinion and persuade their readers. Then, as now, material goods were read as indicators of an individual’s class status and identities. They could also be used in figurative ways to stereotype and stigmatize groups.
Such was the case with the pamphlet war; for when these writers and illustrators depicted the physical appearance of those groups involved in this crisis, including how they dressed, the props or weapons they carried, and the objects they pursued or were associated with, they employed material culture as a rhetorical device to embody group identities and distinguish villains from victims. Yet because the Paxton men had both their critics and supporters, no group involved in the Paxton crisis was spared scrutiny.
As the ethnic group most closely identified with the Paxton men, Pennsylvania’s Scots-Irish were the first group pamphleteers caricatured. Benjamin Franklin set the precedent in his pamphlet, A Narrative of the Late Massacres, which sparked the pamphlet war. Franklin was an esteemed printer, editor, satirist, and “an extraordinarily knowledgeable student” in the use of “visual symbols, devices, and heraldry” for maximum impact on his audiences (Lemay 465). In this case, textual representations that would evoke visceral visual images were his weapons of choice. The Paxton men, he charged, were “CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES” who had “inhumanly murdered” the Conestogas “in cold Blood” (8). To confirm, he signaled the Paxton men’s “barbarous” intent (9) with the “Firelocks, Hangers, and Hatchets” they carried with them as they road in to Lancaster on the day of the massacre (5). Readers, he knew, would notice that these Scots-Irish frontiersmen carried not just the muskets and swords typical of Euro-American warriors, but hatchets, items that were manufactured for the Indian trade, and weapons that colonists had come to associate with the most brutal forms of Indian warfare. In linking the Paxton men to a weapon used to stereotype Native warriors as bloodthirsty brutes, Franklin sought to prove their nefarious intent.
Because intense ethnic and religious political rivalries undergirded the pamphlet war, Franklin also sought to undermine Scots-Irish political standing in the colony. To do so, he rhetorically racialized the Paxton men by associating these “freckled Face[d] and red Hair[ed]” Scots-Irish Presbyterians--a stereotyped portrait of an Irishman, even in the eighteenth century--with these heinous acts of violence (Bankhurst; Kenny). His point was clear: Scots-Irish Presbyterians were inherently bloodthirsty and thus stood apart as a savage other. To confirm, he noted how even the Turks, Moors, Popish Spaniards, and “Negroes of Africa” (21)--groups his colonial readers would most certainly have perceived as savage--were more civil than “these People” (13). By reducing the Scots-Irish to an ethnic stereotype, one that played to anti-Irish and anti-Presbyterian prejudices of his time, Franklin discredited these men as members of the provincial society. As he reckoned it for his readers, brutes who had “imbrued” their “Hands in innocent Blood,” thereby breaking the laws of King, Country, and God, did not deserve to be part of the polity (27).
Scots-Irish bloodthirstiness became a popular trope used by Paxton critics. In the satiric, A Dialogue Between Andrew Trueman, and Thomas Zealot another anonymous pamphleteer wrote his narrative in a derogatory dialect meant to mimic an Ulster brogue, using the material sound of language to emphasize the cultural coarseness of the Scots-Irish. The fictional Thomas tells Andrew that while “fechting [fighting] the Lord’s Battles and killing the Indians at Lancaster and Cannestogoe,” he and other Paxton men had “shot six and a wee ane, that was in the Squaw’s Belly; we sculped three; we tomahawked three; we roasted three and a wee ane; and three and a wee ane we gave to the Hogs.” Shooting and roasting women and children were unimaginably heinous acts, but just as troubling, was the fact that these Christian Paxton men scalped and tomahawked them with hatchets in Indian-style.
Paxton critics thus echoed Franklin’s critique of the inherently bloodthirsty nature of the Scots-Irish, while taking it one step further to suggest that these Scots-Irish were nothing more than bloodthirsty Irish Catholics in disguise. “[T]hey are all the same Family,” remarked another critic, “and always attended Mass in Ireland, whatever they may do in Pennsylvania.”
While Paxton critics ridiculed the Scots-Irish as blood-thirsty brutes, Paxton apologists took up a looking glass of their own and tilted it away from the heinous deeds of the Paxton men and towards their political adversaries, the Quakers. Using their mirror as a kind of magnifying glass, they saw deception. Material goods were not so much symbolic representations as they were props that could be manipulated to disguise Friends’ true character and intent.
Proving Quaker duplicity was the primary intent of Paxton apologists. As the English immigrant pamphleteer David James Dove wrote, the Quakers acted “meek, merciful, [and] compassionate” to the point they “would seem to monopolize Christian Charity, and all the Tenderness of human Nature amongst themselves.” But they were not what they appeared to be to be. Indeed, upon hearing of the frontier depredations of Pontiac’s War, which had forced “near a thousand Families” to flee their homes and farms, Philadelphia Quakers had turned unsympathetically in the other direction, ignoring the plight of frontier colonists. These “compassionate and merciful Christians,” Dove noted with irony, “would not grant a single Farthing … for the Relief of their Fellow Subjects.” Yet they assisted and even sheltered Native American allies, a fact that Dove and other Paxton apologists regarded as particularly galling.
The Paxton men echoed this charge in their Declaration & Remonstrance. As they saw it, Philadelphia’s Quakers “cherished and caressed” the Conestogas “as dearest Friends,” even though frontier residents accused these Native peoples of being allied with the colony’s “openly avowed imbittered Enemies.” Consequently, the Paxton men, who turned the tables on their critics by identifying themselves as “his Majesty’s faithful and loyal Subjects” (10), felt abandoned by Quaker political leaders who ignored their plight while finding the “means to enslave the Province to Indians” (8).
Such favoritism, as the satirical etching Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers illustrates, was driven by avarice. Money served as the material object that Friends’ most desired and would do anything to acquire, even if it meant encouraging Native peoples to make war on frontier settlers. On the left-hand side of the illustration, Quaker merchant Israel Pemberton, signaled with his broad-brimmed hat and initials on the barrel, disperses hatchets to Indians, telling them to “Exercise those on the Scotch Irish & Dutch [Germans] & I’ll support you while I can.” Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin, to the right, calls the shots, urging others on while he holds a bag of Pennsylvania money while a group of Quaker men sit at the table and fret over the colony’s fate. A small Quaker man standing behind Franklin calls attention to the scene, observing: “This is the way our Money goes.”
Diagnosing deception did not fully explain how the Quakers had duped the colony, however. To do that, colonists had to tear off the Quakers’ “Mask of falsely pretended Friendship” and strip them naked in order to reveal the truth of their selfish motives. This call to unmask the Quakers was a metaphorical one, yet it held persuasive power because it posed a head-on challenge to their physical modes of spiritual expression and self-presentation.
Quakerism, as any Pennsylvanian knew, had an embodied quality that placed emphasis on corporeal forms of worship, including the controversial practice of quaking with the divine Light, which critics charged were staged to dazzle, enchant, and deceive onlookers (Tarter 145-151). Then there was the Quaker practice of plainness, which included the adoption of simple dress, speech, and manners. Among Quaker men, hats were especially important objects used to express this group aesthetic. Refusing to doff one’s hat to a superior was a hallmark of the Quaker commitment to denying false distinctions among men (Haulman 22; Kesselring 299-304; Smolenski).
Because Quaker critics disagreed and interpreted Quaker men’s refusal to engage in “hat honour” (Kesselring 302) as a sign of disrespect for others, Paxton apologists frequently used broad-brimmed hats as visual cues to distinguish Quakers from others in the colony. The verses accompanying the illustration, The German bleeds & bears ye Furs noted how the “Hibernian … kicks to fling his broad brim’d Master.” Yet in depicting this plain-dressed, broad brimmed man as the master who rides the back of the Scots-Irishman with a hatchet-carrying Indian and a blindfolded German yoked to his arm (with Benjamin Franklin again overseeing the action from the sidelines) the engraver also captured the suspicions many Pennsylvanians harbored of the Quakers; namely, that these “broad-brims” were really the oppressive “Lords” whose desire of profit from trade with the Indians left a trail of dead colonists and burning cabins in their wake. Plain speech and simple dress were nothing more than disguises that masked the Quakers’ true character and intent.
The Native Americans
While pamphlet war authors and illustrators targeted Scots-Irish Presbyterians and Quakers as the villains in the Paxton crisis, their take on Pennsylvania’s Native peoples varied depending on their position in this war.
Anti-Paxton writers focused their attention on the Conestogas, emphasizing their victimhood at the hands of the murderous Paxton men. The Conestogas, as Benjamin Franklin noted, were long known for “many Years” living “in Friendship with their White Neighbours” and “their peaceable inoffensive Behaviour.” More significant, he signaled their “poor, defenceless” status by “the Baskets, Brooms, and Bowls they manufactured” and sold to colonists. Their association with domestic tools, ones typically associated with women’s housekeeping and food preparation chores, feminized them, rendering these “trembling Lambs” even more sympathetic victims of the “savage Beasts of Prey,” the Paxton men (6). To make their case, Paxton apologists cast a wider net, drawing no distinction between the peaceful, Christian Indians and the colony’s Native American enemies, those who had “laid waste” to the frontier and practiced severe “Cruelties” on white captives.
Armed with the assumption that all Native peoples were inherently barbaric, they regarded the Conestogas with intense suspicion, and thus deployed the metaphorical looking glass to scrutinize these Natives’ actions and motives. What they found reflected back at them was deception. The Conestogas, charged Thomas Barton “have been Spies upon all our Actions” and “have treacherously held a Correspondence with our avowed Enemies—and have often lent a helping Hand to bring Ruin and Desolation upon the Province.”
This meant that the Conestogas were also artful wearers of disguises. “[T]o Day they are painted red, To-morrow blue, and the next Day they are any other Colour that they think will best prevent their being known,” wrote David James Dove. And once colonists removed their paint, wrote another, the true nature of these “Wolf-like” people was revealed; the Conestogas were not colony’s friends, but its enemies.
Paxton apologists, many of whom adamantly opposed his campaign to oust the Penn family proprietorship and replace it with royal government, seized upon the opportunity the Paxton crisis offered to critique of Franklin and his politics. Franklin, they argued, reveled in artifice. Rev. William Smith, the Anglican provost of the College of Philadelphia, charged that Franklin’s “real design … was not to elucidate, but the disguise and conceal the truth; which … according to his usual custom, he has very artfully, but not honestly, done.”
To reveal his trickery, engravers pulled back a curtain and depicted Franklin as the powerbroker on the sidelines who called the shots. In Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers, Franklin holds the colony’s money while inciting action by calling out “Fight Dog[,] Fight Bear[,] I am Content If I but get the Gover’t.” Likewise, in The German bleeds & bears ye Furs, Franklin steps from the left while holding a petition to remove the proprietors; four tethered figures approach him with the Quaker reaching out his hand to greet him. In the verses that accompany the print, Franklin is identified as “the help” who arrives to “hold down the Hibernian[’]s Head” so that all would not “tumble down.”
To his critics, Franklin was the ultimate double-dealer. By terminating the proprietary government so that he might advance his own interests as his goals, he used his “knowing head, and Silver tongue,” as the lyrics of a satirical song suggested, to dupe others, particularly the Quakers, into believing that he was a “gentle humane worthy man, a Pious good Samaritan.” Franklin was thus the real threat to the colony and its people.
While pamphlet war writers and illustrators lampooned many of Pennsylvania’s ethnic, religious, and racial groups, they mostly spared the colony’s Germans. Given the distinctiveness of the German language and material culture, this is a curious omission; the Germans would have been easy to satirize with various visual and material cues (Falk). Ten years earlier, after all, Franklin had characterized them “Palatine Boors,” likening these newcomers to swine who “swarm into our settlements” and “become a Colony of Aliens” (Franklin).
Furthermore, frontier German colonists were Paxton men. As such, they had joined the Scots-Irish who rode into Lancaster and murdered the Conestogas and had marched on Philadelphia, and that was because they, too, were angry about the protected status of these Native peoples. As the Lutheran Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg confirmed, “many of our Germans thought that it could be proved that the Indians living among the Moravian brethren had secretly murdered one or more of the inhabitants” (I:73-78). So why, then, did pamphleteers and engravers mostly ignore them?
Both Paxton critics and apologists mostly agreed that the German were dupes being led along by others during this crisis. Paxton critic Isaac Hunt, charged that the Scots-Irish had tried to “blind the Dutch [Germans] by all the Political Dust [they] can raise.” As the print and verses accompanying, The German bleeds & bears ye Furs, demonstrate, Paxton apologists agreed, the bleeding, blindfolded German who bore “the furs of Quaker Lords and Savage Curs,” was nothing more than a dupe who was led along, not by the Scots-Irish, but by Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers.
The blindfold, then, was the agreed upon material symbol for the colony’s Germans. This is significant because in a print debate that was ultimately a proxy for a larger discussion of power and identity in the colony, dismissing the Germans as easily-led fools also signaled their status as outsiders. Depictions of blindfolded Germans indirectly confirmed Franklin’s characterization of them as ignorant “Aliens,” which, as William Smith wrote in their defense, denied their agency as “the industrious” people” to whom this province is so much indebted for its flourishing state.”
In a colony that was marked by tremendous cultural diversity by the mid-eighteenth century, the writers and illustrators who fanned the flames of the Paxton crisis employed looking glasses of their own making to scrutinize the objects that their ethnic, religious, or racial rivals wore, carried, or desired. Their goal was to reveal truths that would allow them to assess and dismiss their rivals’ claims to status and power in the colony. But context mattered, as these critics knew, because material items could be used in artful ways to disguise, obscure, or even blind. Thus, their works ought to be read as cautionary tales. In an age when consumer goods, including pamphlets and prints, were more readily available than ever before, colonists, these writers and illustrators warned, had to be wary about how they perceived and interacted with the diverse others around them, because not every group was who they appeared outwardly to be.
This essay is based on Judith Ridner’s article “Unmasking the Paxton Boys: The Material Culture of the Pamphlet War” (Early American Studies, 2016). For more about Judith Ridner, visit the Creators page.
- Benjamin Bankhurst, “A Looking-Glass for Presbyterians: Recasting Prejudice in Late Colonial Pennsylvania,” PMHB 133.4 (October 2009): 317-348.
- T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Cynthia Falk, Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).
- Benjamin Franklin, “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (Benjamin Franklin Papers (1751): Vol 4: 225).
- Kate Haulman, The Politics of Fashion in Eighteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
- Kevin Kenny, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Krista J. Kesselring, “Gender, the Hat, and Quaker Universalism in the Wake of the English Revolution,” Seventeenth Century 26.2 (October 2011): 299-322.
- J. A. Leo Lemay, “The American Aesthetic of Franklin’s Visual Creations,” PMHB 111.4 (1987): 465-499.
- Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, Account of the march of the Paxton Boys against Philadelphia in the year 1764. (Philadelphia: John Pennington and Henry C. Baird, 1853).
- John Smolenksi, Friends and Strangers: The Making of a Creole Culture in Colonial Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
- Michele Lise Tarter, “Quaking in the Light,” in A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America, eds. Janet Moore Lindman and Michele Lise Tarter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).