The Quaker Exile: A Hidden History Comes to Light

May 16, 2023 | by Amy Cohen

Did you ever hear about a group of leading Philadelphia Quakers who were banished to the Virginia frontier for over seven months during the American Revolution? Did you know that these men were never charged, never convicted, and even denied the centuries-old right to habeas corpus?

Even if you are relatively knowledgeable about the American Revolution, an aficionado of the Quaker past, or conversant in the chronicles of late 18th century Philadelphia, this chapter of history is probably completely unfamiliar to you. Don’t feel badly about your ignorance. The “Quaker exile,” although widely discussed during and immediately after its occurrence, has been nearly absent from the historical narrative for over 200 years. But no more.

Norman E. “Ned” Donoghue’s Prisoners of Congress, to be published in June by Penn State University Press, recounts the fascinating, complex, and distressing series of events that led to the forced expulsion of 20 men during the time of our nation’s founding. Donoghue, formerly an attorney with the Dechert law firm and a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Orchestra, first heard of the Quaker exile over 25 years ago. His curiosity was piqued, but it took the discovery of a familial connection to two of the key players—and, more importantly, retirement—to give Donoghue the motivation and the time to dig more deeply.

As Donoghue explains, Quakers had been among the wealthiest and most powerful residents of colonial Philadelphia. Drawn here to participate in William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in religious tolerance, many Quakers became prosperous merchants as they freely practiced their religion based on direct and personal relationship with God, simplicity, equality, and pacifism. The Quakers’ pacifism, however, became increasingly problematic following the outbreak of war between the American Patriots and the British crown.

For most of the 18th century, Quakers had dominated the Pennsylvania Assembly. But by the time of the Declaration of Independence, there were no longer any Quakers in Pennsylvania’s governing body. When the Pennsylvania Assembly required that individuals with a religious objection to bearing arms must pay for a substitute, the Quakers refused to do so. When the Assembly passed the Test Act of 1777, obligating all white men to take an oath of loyalty to the state, the Quakers again refused. This led to them losing both the right to vote and the right to hold office.

As British forces threatened to invade Philadelphia, Quakers declined to participate in preparations for the city’s defense. Nor would the Quakers donate blankets, wool stockings, or other materials desperately needed by the soldiers of the Continental Army. The Quakers also refused to use or accept the new Continental currency, arousing the ire of the fledgling Congress meeting in Philadelphia. Add in the fact that some Quakers were indeed active Loyalists, and the circulation of a (probably fabricated) letter in which a New Jersey Quaker Meeting gave military secrets to the British. The Quakers had become enemies of both the Pennsylvania Executive Council and the Congress.

A portrait of prominent Philadelphian and Quaker exile James Pemberton, circa 1893, by David McNeely Stauffer. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Thus, on September 11, 1777, 20 men, all but one Quaker or formerly Quaker, were escorted out of Philadelphia, bound for the frontier town of Winchester, Virginia. There they would remain for the next seven months, never having been charged, much less convicted, of any crime. Nor were the Quakers even allowed a hearing to defend themselves, despite frequent requests.

Prisoners of Congress tells the story of the escalating tensions that led to the Quaker exile in much more vivid and compelling detail than can be conveyed in this summary. The next section of the book describes the experience of the men in exile and of their families left behind in Philadelphia, enduring the hardships of the British occupation without the protection and income of husbands, sons, and fathers. In the final chapters, we learn how the men were eventually released and about the aftermath of the exile which included the public hanging of two Quaker men for treason in Centre Square, the location of today’s City Hall.

Donoghue writes with the clarity and precision of a lawyer and the enthusiasm and passion of a novice historian with a pet project. Although he is not a professional academic, Donoghue’s account is fully documented, rigorously sourced, and he received the counsel of numerous historians in relevant fields. Appendices, timelines, lists of key figures, and illustrations with detailed captions are further evidence of Donoghue’s thoroughness and commitment to bring this hidden history fully into view.

George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge, pictured here in 1887, was visited by delegation of Quaker women seeking release of their exiled family members. | Photo courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Although he read any secondary sources he could find that related to the Quaker exile, the power of Donoghue’s narrative comes mainly from the wealth of primary source material. In his quest for understanding, he made use of the Philadelphia area’s treasure trove of Revolutionary-era materials. The American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Quaker Collection at Haverford College became his frequent stomping grounds. Donoghue read over 30 diaries, hundreds of letters, and scores of documents, some of which had never been seen by historians and virtually none of which had been read primarily for information about the Quaker exile.

Among the sources are 65 unpublished letters between exile Henry Drinker and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth Drinker’s diaries, kept from 1758 to 1807, are another important source for Donoghue, as they have been for many historians before him. Donoghue even includes a note from the margins of a Poor Will’s Pocket Almanack carried by exile John Pemberton on the day of his departure from the city. Such small, intimate details of the daily lives of the people involved lend a richness and texture to events that took place nearly 250 years ago.

The evenhandedness with which Donoghue presents the conflict between the Quakers and the Patriot leaders is striking. He clearly admires the moral convictions and dedication to religious principle that inspires the Quakers’ actions, but he also portrays their self-righteousness and their Loyalist tendencies. Donoghue venerates the courage of the Americans who sought to establish a new nation based on lofty, anti-authoritarian beliefs. Nonetheless, a central tenet of the book is that these same Founding Fathers followed the example of tyrants when they chose to make political prisoners of the Quaker dissidents. This original sin at the time of our nation’s birth has had echoes throughout our history, including the preventive detention experienced by Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Elizabeth Drinker historical marker at 147 N 2nd Street. | Photo: N-gio, Wikimedia Commons

Donoghue also faults both sides for their hypocrisy regarding slavery. The Patriots espoused ideals of liberty and equality while 41 of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence held Black people in bondage. The Quakers were quick to point out this contradiction. But much Quaker wealth had been accrued using the labor of enslaved people, and it had taken until 1776 for Quakers to be expelled from the religion for owning human beings.

Who will want to read Prisoners of Congress? Anyone with an interest in Quaker, Philadelphia, or Revolutionary history will learn a great deal. Although written to a high academic standard, the cogent prose makes the book approachable by those without extensive knowledge or expertise. Familiar personages of the American Revolution can be seen in a new light. John Adams and Thomas Paine, for example, were among the ardent advocates of punishing the Quakers. Old Philadelphia names such as Drinker, Wharton, and Pemberton, are among the exiles. Charles Willson Peale participated in the initial arrest of these men.

There is also a remarkable chapter of women’s history that comes to light through Donoghue’s research. The first political petition in American history to be written by women was penned by a group of Quaker women seeking freedom for their exiled family members. The women traveled to Valley Forge where they dined with George and Martha Washington and attempted to persuade General Washington to expedite the release of their kin.

A drawing of the home of Israel Pemberton, a wealthy merchant, member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and a Quaker exile, on 21st Street in South Philadelphia. Pemberton built the house in 1751. It was demolished in 1860. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Early reviews of the book are enthusiastic. According to Patrick Spero, librarian and director of the American Philosophical Society, “Norman Donoghue’s Prisoners of Congress brings to life one of the most important and compelling events of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It is an untold story of national significance.”

In something of a cosmic confirmation of Donoghue’s nine years of work on this project, he discovered a remarkable intersection between his family history and the story of the Quaker exiles after the manuscript for his book had been written. To hear about this coincidence and much more, Donoghue will be launching his book with a talk and celebration at the Arch Street Meeting House, 320 Arch Street, at 6 pm on June 14.  Register for this free event here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/prisoners-of-congress-philadelphias-quakers-in-exile-1777-1778-tickets-549463188187?aff=ndonoghue


About the Author

Amy Cohen is an educator, historian, and writer. Her forthcoming book "Black History in the Philadelphia Landscape: Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy" will be published by Temple University Press.


  1. M. A. O’Donnell says:

    Great review – Looking forward to reading the book!

  2. Mike O’Donnell says:

    Sounds like a fascinating parallel to the moral dilemmas of today – When is it appropriate to speak up, and when to remain silent in public affairs?

  3. Maggie says:

    Fascinating topic. Looking forward to diving in!

  4. SLG says:

    I look forward to reading Prisoners of Congress but meanwhile I feel it’s important to point out that the remarkable petition written by Quaker wives for the release of their husbands, and the journey they took to deliver it, did not “come to light through Donoghue’s research,” but was already know and discussed in the historical literature. In the interests of crediting important work by women scholars, here are citations to two excellent articles going back more than twenty years, which I’d like to think the present author made good use of:

    Hatcher, Patricia Law. “‘Entirely an Act of Our Own’: Women’s Petition for Quaker Prisoners, 1778.” The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 42, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2001): 145–61.

    Castro, Wendy Lucas. “‘Being Separated from My Dearest Husband, in This Cruel Manner:’ Elizabeth Drinker and the Seven-Month Exile of Philadelphia Quakers.” Quaker History 100, no. 1 (2011): 40–63.

    1. I give full credit in the book to Patricia Law Hatcher. I thank the writer for calling attention to Castro. Recently, I looked at a favorite book by Elizabeth Drinker’s own descendant, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Family Portrait, which had inspired me, and found that she called attention at an earlier date (1970) to the petition but mistakenly left unsaid who wrote it, allowing the reader to think it was by the men and just “carried” by the women. Elizabeth Drinker’s diary makes it clear that the women (not all of them “wives,” but relatives of the exiles) rejected the men’s draft and wrote it themselves and in their own fashion. Not surprisingly, it met with some success.

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