Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform


The 1764 Pennsylvania election debate that followed the Conestoga Massacres and Paxton Boys’ march on Philadelphia featured tropes born of past political and religious struggles within the British Atlantic world during the seventeenth century. The chaos that characterized Britain and Ireland in 1640s and the 1680s served as a warning to those who feared that the Paxton March represented a threat to the social order in Pennsylvania. Anti-Presbyterian rhetoric was a cornerstone of the Assembly Party’s strategy to attack and discredit their pro-Paxton and Proprietary opponents during the pamphlet war of 1764. These pamphleteers re-worked aspects of the British and Irish debates on toleration to suit the fractured and anxious political landscape of the middle colonies in 1764. In so doing, they crafted an unique and startlingly nativist rhetoric to support their political aims, including Benjamin Franklin’s attempts to secure a Royal Charter.

For their part, the Quaker party addressed the growing disorder in the western colonies by utilizing arguments and stereotypes born of late-Stuart party politics in Britain and Ireland. That is, Assembly pamphleteers read the Paxtons’ conduct in the historical context of past Presbyterian rebellions and suggested that the perpetrators of both outrages, many of whom were Presbyterians of Scots Irish descent, conformed to patterns of behaviour supposedly characteristic of the denomination. Assembly authors overlooked or ignored the local origins of these events—a decade of warfare in the backcountry, encroachment on Indian lands, and disparities between the east and west when it came to legislative representation—in favour of another explanation: Presbyterians, and especially Irish Presbyterians, were violent by nature. Presbyterian influence in Pennsylvania, therefore, had to be curbed, preferably with a new charter.

The rhetoric of anti-Presbyterianism emerged during an era of Anglican entrenchment across Britain and Ireland after the Restoration of the Monarchy, and it was a facet of the wider push to marginalize religious Protestant Dissent. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century non-conformists in both kingdoms faced political exclusion as the English confessional state consolidated under the monarchy and Church of England (Harris 176-188). Anti-Presbyterianism was a common feature of eighteenth-century British Atlantic politics. At its core, it was a paranoid discourse that reflected the distinct insecurities and fears of the political establishment (usually Anglican). Anti-Presbyterian rhetoric was most vociferous during periods of war and domestic turmoil. For example, it underpinned moves against extending toleration to Dissenters in the middle colonies and the Chesapeake, and it featured heavily in the London press coverage of the Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745.


It is therefore not surprising that anti-Presbyterianism should feature prominently in the Pennsylvania debates over the Conestoga Massacres and the Paxton Boys’ march on Philadelphia. It is, however, striking that the origins of Pennsylvanian anti-Presbyterian lay not in metropolitan politics or reactions to the Scottish Jacobite risings, but rather in the early-eighteenth-century Irish debates over toleration and Presbyterian loyalty.

Assembly authors attacked Presbyterianism by claiming that the denomination’s organizational structure and its Calvinist theology were inherently republican. Presbyterians, they argued were at their core, anti-monarchists and were therefore disloyal subjects to the Crown. Allegations of republicanism and disloyalty rested upon two foundations: Calvinist church organization and seventeenth-century British and Irish history.

Presbyterian church infrastructure and hierarchy were based on the congregation model established by John Calvin in Geneva in the 1530s. The congregation selected a minister through their representatives or elders, who assisted the minister in the everyday functions of the congregation. Matters pertaining to neighboring congregations were discussed at presbytery meetings, while issues facing the church as a whole were dealt with at the annual convocation of ministers, or synod. Here theological, financial, and other practical matters were debated and voted upon by the entire assembly. This structure differed from the Episcopal system of the Church of England, and seemed to many within the established church to challenge the prevailing social order. In their view, Calvinist organization and teaching instilled too much independence in its adherents, whereas the established Church inspired loyalty and deference.

Isaac Hunt, the leading pamphleteer on the Assembly side, wrote that normality would have returned to Pennsylvania by the summer of 1764 “if the Doctrines of Peace and Loyalty had been sufficiently inculcated” in the Presbyterians by their clergy. At one point he claimed that Presbyterians wanted to refashion Church and State after the “Model of a Geneva Rebublic [sic].”

The narrator in Hunt’s satire, A Letter From a Gentleman in Transilvania, observed that “those of the Emperor’s [George III] Religion,” or Anglicans, were his most loyal subjects because “their principles in Religion and the maxims by which they and their Ancestors were govern’d for one Thousand Years, were peculiarly adapted to support the Emperial Family.” Piss-Brute-tarian principles, in contrast, were “diametrically opposite to Monarchy.” They were “not only sworn Enemies to the Emperial Family, but murder’d one of the Emperors before his own palace; and have always been the foremost in all the Rebellions that have been rais’d against his Successors ever since.” This reference to the execution of Charles I is an example of the second foundation upon which questions of Presbyterian loyalty rested: seventeenth-century British history.

The Assembly party turned to the definitive decades of Presbyterian doctrinal and organizational formation during the 1630s-60s in order to prove Presbyterian disloyalty. They claimed that Presbyterians took up arms against their monarch and supported Oliver Cromwell for ideological reasons during the chaos of the War of the Three Kingdoms. This alleged support for Cromwell underpinned anti-Dissenter rhetoric throughout the eighteenth-century British world. Thus, one anti-proprietary tract opened with a Presbyterian prayer: “O! Do thou confound these cursed Quakers, that are endeavoring to bring us under a Kingly Yoke, which thou knowest that neither we nor our Fathers ever cou’d bear!”


Allegations of Presbyterian religious and political fanaticism were widespread in anti-proprietary pamphlets. In one farce depicting the march, two Paxton men discussed their intentions while awaiting news from Philadelphia. The first claimed that the march was agreeable to his “Forefathers Oliverian Spirit” before declaring that he would gladly die for the cause “rather than those Misecrants [sic] of the Establish’d Church of England, or those R[asca]ls, the Q[uake]rs, should continue longer at the head of Government.” His comrade agreed and answered, “you know when the Arm of God is with us, and our Counsels, we need not fear what Man can do unto us.”

A Philadelphian minister allegedly told his friend that he was not “fearful to brandish the Sword in the Cause of Christ,” and that this sword was ready “to push at all the Opposers of the true Word of God.” The anti-proprietary faction feared that Presbyterian belief in their pre-destined infallibility lie behind the march on Philadelphia. If the mob had reached the city they would have “destroyed the Constitution of Government, and settled a Republick, agreeable to their own darling Principles.”

But Presbyterian ascendancy was not confined solely to the realm of politics. Dissenters dominated the colonies’ institutions of learning, allowing them to manipulate the minds of the young. Indeed, it seemed as though they held a virtual monopoly over education; Harvard, Yale, and the College of New Jersey were all non-conforming academies and seminaries (Perry 318). The new college at Princeton, situated in a neighbouring province, posed an immediate threat to the stability of the province and stood as a testament to the increasing influence of Presbyterianism in the middle colonies. Isaac Hunt, having recently born witness to the destabilizing presence of Presbyterianism as a student at College of Philadelphia, was suspicious of the institution across the Delaware:

Prince-Town was chosen for the Seat of their College, because it was situated in such a manner that no Place of Worship was within many Miles of it, by which means, the Students wou’d be oblig’d to attend Presbyterian Preaching. This was an Artifice to erect Presbyterianism on the Ruins of all other Societies, and to instill their Mode of Worship, and Principles of Calvinism into the tender Minds of the Youth, who by the Time, they had taken their Degrees, wou’d either be Converts to Presbyterianism, or at least go away with favorable Ideas of it.

Hunt’s observation indicated a plot to mislead colonial youth in an effort to propagate Calvinism. Worse yet, the foundation of the College of New Jersey was not the most recent educational victory for the Presbyterians. Francis Alison and his fellow tutors at the College of Philadelphia had seemingly overcome the Anglican administration by incorporating William Smith, earlier one of their most ardent critics, into the proprietary confederation (Silver 192-199, 217-18).

Assembly authors claimed that Presbyterians everywhere flaunted authority and subverted government so as to prove that the body as a whole threatened the British State and, more immediately, the colony of Pennsylvania. To build their case, they ignored theological, historical, and regional distinctions within the denomination, thus presenting Presbyterians as a homogeneous bloc acting under the command of an organized clergy. More often than not, this resulted in a litany of past misdeeds, real or fictitious, that could be attributed to Dissenters from the seventeenth century onwards.

The author of An Answer to ‘The Conduct of the Paxton Men’ defended early Quakers by contrasting them unfavourably with other Dissenters. In so doing he laid the blame for recent Indian violence on the settling of the contested Wyoming Valley by families from Connecticut. He asked, “Did not a Colony from New-England settle on Lands, unpurchased of the Indians, in Contempt of Government and contrary to all Rules of Equity?” New Englanders, whose region had been a bastion of congregational Dissent from its inception, were linked with the Paxton Boys, for were they all “not Presbyterians?

Another author pointed to the murder of Quakers in Boston, or “Sodom” as he put it, in 1659 and the divine punishment that followed in the form of pestilence and crop failure as a reason to resist western pressure for greater representation in the Assembly. The author warned that Pennsylvania could expect similar judgement and exclaimed, “beware, my Countrymen, keep the Reins of Government out of the Hands of Presbyterians.

Hunt claimed that the entire denomination was culpable for past crimes, writing:

not only Covenanters, but the whole Body of Presbyterians are actuated by the same rebellious Principles since the Revolution, they were before: and that not even the Establishment of their Profession in Scotland can make them in Love with Monarchy.

Any crime or rebellion that took place in a region or country dominated by Dissenters, or the established Church of Scotland, could be pinned on Presbyterians. For example, the Scottish Jacobite risings of 1715-16 and 1745-46 was, strangely though not surprisingly, foisted on Pennsylvania Presbyterians. According to their detractors in the Assembly, from the formation of denomination, Presbyterians simply would not accept rule from any group outside of their fold.

The author of Remarks on the Quaker Unmask’d put it succinctly when he claimed, “To be govern’d is absolutely repugnant to the avowed principles of the Pr[resbyteria]ns.” Indeed, Presbyterians’ thirst for power “infected by their Pastors” had become so common “among the Sons of the Kirk, that Opposition Sentiments [had] almost become a Criterion of Orthodoxy.”


Fears of Presbyterian scheming is perhaps best exhibited in a fictional depiction of a council of ministers held in Lancaster on August 28, 1764. One author described the province’s possible future overlords, “Some in, black, some in grey, and some in no coats; but all in a rueful Uniform of face.” The killjoy appearance of these “reptiles” foretold the fate the province if a new Puritan commonwealth were founded, which, as it turned out, was the main topic for discussion at the meeting.

Another pamphlet purporting to be the minutes of the synod began with a prayer from the moderator, Reverend John Ewing: “Enable us thy Servants at this time so to settle Matters that Presbyterianism may be establish’d among us, and all other Professions crumble before it!” Ewing’s prayer depicted the Germans as pawns in this Presbyterian plot. He beseeched God: “Do thou turn the Hearts of the ignorant Dutch from King George to serve the P[ropriete]r in such a manner as will enable us to establish our Religion upon the Necks of both [the Germans and the Quakers]!” The most useful group to the Presbyterians, however, were the city’s Anglicans. But how could the remaining members of the Church of England whose principles were “all for Monarchy” be lured into an alliance with non-conformists? The answer lay in the temporary alliance with William Smith, the Provost of the College, who would use his influence to “make them as good Republicans” as the Presbyterians. These imagined laws illustrate Assembly fears about the future of Pennsylvania should Presbyterian influence continue unchecked.

Religious fanaticism is final, recurring feature of the anti-Presbyterian stereotype in Assembly literature. The fact that many Presbyterians were recent immigrants stoked nativist euro-American fears of Presbyterian fanatics crusading militant in search of a promised land. Assembly pamphleteers claimed that Presbyterians took their inspiration from the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. The Pennsylvanian equivalent of the Canaanites was obvious. Andrew’s claim that he was “fetching the Lord’s battles” when he murdered the Conestogas corroborated with Franklin’s assessment of the situation: “With the Scriptures in their Hands and Mouths, they can set at nought that express Command, Thou shalt do no Murder; and justify their Wickedness, by the command given to Joshua to destroy the Heathen.”

The scope of who the Presbyterians allegedly considered to be heathen expanded as the year progressed and the debate shifted from the Paxton massacres to the impending elections. By the end of the summer, the second resolution of the fictional Lancaster Synod detailed the enemies of Presbyterianism:

2dly. Resolved, n.c. That Presbyterians have as good a Right to Pennsylvania as the Children of Israel had formerly to the Land of Canaan; and that it is lawful and right for Presbyterians to make use of the same means in extirpating Quakers, Indians, or any other of their Foreign or Domestic Enemies, that the Israelites did to extripate the Cananites [sic].

Assembly party concerns over the strength of the Proprietary confederation led them to re-imagine the prospective victims of Presbyterian extremism so as to frighten euro-Americans away from the New Ticket. Continued focus on the Conestogas, a segment of a popularly despised and socially marginal community, yielded little political capital. However, they found more success insinuating that the Paxton marchers would have visited the horrors committed at Lancaster on Philadelphia’s white population – namely those groups that mustered to resist them, including the Quakers and Anglicans. Such accusations also reveal the limits of white racial unity in Pennsylvania in the years following the Seven Years War.

This essay is based on Benjamin Bankhurst’s article, “A Looking-Glass for Presbyterians: Recasting Prejudice in Late Colonial Pennsylvania,” PMHB 133.4 (October 2009): 317-348. For more about Benjamin Bankhurst, visit the Creators page.

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