A Pennsylvania Quaker Boy

WAS was a beautiful corner of Pennsylvania in which the Quaker settlers of 1682 and the following years found a home. The great river fronted it, and streams, some of them navigable, paralleled each other up into the country. The gently rolling upland was covered with a great forest of hard wood which, when cleared, uncovered a soil of unusual fertility and freedom from surface rocks. Within it wandered immense numbers of deer and not a few elk. The only animals of prey were the small wolf and the black bear, neither dangerous under ordinary conditions. The marshes abounded in waterfowl, and at certain seasons wild pigeons and other migratory birds could be captured in abundance by throwing stones into the flocks. There were turkeys, pheasants, and partridges. Shad and other sea-fish were plentiful in the river, and the little streams were amply stocked with trout.

Nor were the settlers unworthy of their possessions. A few men of rank and education began a life of trade in the towns, burying their coats of arms as unworthy a Christian democracy. But the greater part were British yeomen, some landowners in their native land, the most of them renters who had loaded all their furniture, plate, clothing, and in some cases framed houses, into the little sailing vessels, and set out on the two or three months’ voyage to the free land which the foresight and generosity of William Penn had secured. They had shown their capacity to suffer by lying months and years in British dungeons for a point of conscience, small perhaps, but which, because it was conscience, they had persisted in thinking was worth more to them than property or liberty or life. They had shown their fraternity by offering themselves — man for man and woman for woman—for their unfortunate brethren who were about to die for conscience’ sake in the horrible pestholes of England. They were to find the free air of the woods, a soil as good as the best they had left, a life of conquest over nature to draw out their best energies, and, better than all, an ideal commonwealth where persecution should never come, and where fraternity would know no bounds of rank or sect or race.

It was a venture, as all emigration is; but the results were happy. There was none of the suffering of Massachusetts and Virginia. Flesh and fish and fowl were to be had for the capture. “We could buy a deer for two shillings and a turkey for one shilling” of the Indians, one of them has recorded. The wise arrangement of Penn had made the redmen more than friends. They were glad to have the Quakers, who paid for everything, who never cheated them, whose guns were used only against the beasts of the wood, and who tried their best to restrain them from fire-water. Little troubles occurred. The Council listened to a complaint of the Welsh settlers of Haverford against the Indians “for the rapine and destruction of their hogs,” but the Indian “kings” were sent for, and the matter quickly settled. The Quaker home and children were left in perfect security, while the adult attended the quarterly meeting, or the marketplace at Philadelphia or Chester, and so far as the Friends were concerned these kindly relations never ceased.

A cave in the bank, a brush lean-to against a rock, or a log hut, sufficed for the first winter; but better houses soon arose. Each settler had made his purchase in England from rude maps, and quickly found it in the woods. The sales were liberal, five hundred to five thousand acres to a family, for a trifling sum and a quit-rent. The woods fell before their axes, and with a plough drawn by oxen the soil was quickly prepared for wheat, barley, and Indian corn. In one year every farmer had a sufficiency of everything but money, and improvements began. The old houses were discarded and stone buildings arose. Barns for crops and cattle kept pace with the clearing land and increasing produce. As the first settlers died the great farms were divided among the boys, or the younger ones piunged farther into the woods and repeated the process.

They were practically all Friends. If you lay a straight-edged ruler from a point on the Delaware River midway between Trenton and Easton to the point where the Susquehanna crosses Mason and Dixon’s line, you will cut off a corner which for one hundred and fifty years was largely Quaker land. Up to the Civil War not a few townships knew no landowners outside the fold, and the farms had come down without a deed except the one from William Penn. As time progressed the farms grew smaller by subdivisions, till one hundred and twentyfive acres or thereabouts became the normal size, and the productivity always increased. The young man who could not buy a farm with borrowed money, and stock it, and by middle life have it clear of debt, was seriously lacking in business management or economy, or both. Expenses of living were trifling. The boys did the work outside and the girls within, and there were usually plenty of both. The fields and the garden gave the vegetables, and the barn, the pig-pen, and the poultry-yard the meat. The housewife spun the flax, wove the cloth, cut out and sewed the garments. She made sausage and scrapple and mince pies, carpets and candles and feather-beds. Such lives developed qualities of saving and hoarding, and so it happened that not a few families passed from generation to generation an everincreasing stock of money at interest, and enlarged houses and barns, and ideas of fine tillage and care of soil, and furniture plain but solid, and shade-trees around the place, and looks that bespoke comfort, homelikeness, and family pride.

The New England farm developed strong men; but the rugged soil did not invite their continuance, and the strength of New England went to the cities or the West. The western farm made great crops, but western farmers are nomads, and in general have no ancestral homes. Perhaps nowhere else in the United States has there been that combination of soil and social conditions which created a satisfied, intelligent, permanent yeomanry. The land itself was treated almost as a sentient being. It must not be abused any more than a horse or an ox. It must be fed, and not cropped into sterility, and so, unlike the south land, it grew in fertility with each generation, clearer of weeds and stones, more mellow and rich and kindly. The great stone houses, of plain but harmonious outline, the whitewashed outbuildings and fences, the evergreen and deciduous trees, all bespoke the comfortable and prosperous home, to which the wandering children would return as long as they lived, as the family gathering called them from distant business or residence, and to which their thoughts would revert with everincreasing fervency as they reviewed their boyhood days.

For truly the Pennsylvania Quaker farm and homestead was a great place for a boy to grow into a man. The old conditions lasted till the Civil War. Since then there has been a gradual scattering of the old families, and their places have been taken by immigrants and renters of another type. The old race will be largely extinct in another generation; but many a man now in middle life or beyond who has made his mark in Philadelphia or elsewhere, in business or professional life, blesses the fate that gave him the physical and moral basis of such a boyhood.

The boy’s life was not a vagabond life, though streams and woods were well known, and wild animals and birds and flowers were sources of unfailing pleasure and instruction. As soon as he was old enough there was work to be done, wood to carry in from the woodpile, cows and horses to bring in from the field, apples to gather, and fruits and vegetables to pick. The work was done, if not willingly yet faithfully, and a great lesson learned.

The father was an autocrat, a kindly and wise one whose commands were never questioned. “John,” said he to his boy at the table, “John, hold thy plate.”

“I don’t want that, father,” faltered the boy.

“I did not ask thee what thee wanted; I told thee to hold thy plate;” and John took what was olfered and ate it without a word. If too wet to go to the field, father and John could pull weeds in the garden. John did not understand why this was not as wet as the field, but father said not, and John accepted it as true. When too cold for other work, you could pick stones in the field. Again John could not understand why prying up stones frozen into the ground, with gloveless fingers, was not as cold as anything else; but father said it was coldweather work, and when John got homesick at boarding school he sadly reflected that if only he could go home he would gladly even pick stones with the thermometer at freezing. As the boy grew up, the duties and responsibilities increased, and the labor was the more continuous. Driving horses to plough or harrow, the more strenuous work of the harvest time, the family consultation as to which field to work out of grass for the regular routine of corn, oats, and wheat, and two years of mowing, to be followed by pasture, became his larger functions.

But there was always plenty of time for the boyish recreation which the country afforded. He was never a slave to work or to authority. There was the stream to fish, and the charms of fishing grew upon him, till a busy life afterwards only made it more enticing, as memory brought back the great sucker in the mill-dam or trout in the clear stream. There were muskrats to be trapped in winter and the raccoon that stole the chickens and turkeys. There were the games in which boys on the neighboring farms would join, or the ride on the big sled in winter. All of these and many more were a constant source of pleasure and education which the older people were too wise to curb.

Nor were intellectual opportunities lacking. Every house had some books, — often Friends’ books, Sewel’s History and Piety Promoted ; the first stirred the boy’s denominational patriotism as he heard of the brave deeds of his ancestors; but for the latter, to tell the truth, he did not care much, though he had to take a share of it on First Day. There was, too, the neighborhood library sustained by the farmers for a few miles around. The key was kept in a neighboring store or meeting-house and any one could get it, select his book, register it himself, lock up, and go home. As practically all the subscribers were Friends, fiction was disallowed; but the healthy boy found in history and biography and travel a substitute which charmed him through many a wintry evening and slack hour through the day. Macaulay was too critical of the Friends, and was outlawed; but Rollin and Ranke and Motley and Prescott became a part of the boy’s permanent stock in trade, and he learned to read to good purpose. The wilds of Africa were explored with Livingstone, and the wastes of Greenland with Franklin and Kane; and if an occasional volume by Mayne Reid crept in through an unsuspicious committee, on the ground that it was a record of travel, probably no one was the worse. The different families read the same books, and a comparison of views kept the memory fresh.

But above all else these old farmers retained something of the conscience of their ancestors. To go to meeting twice a week was the most inevitable part of the weekly programme. It was always the “previous engagement.”

“It will rain to-day and that hay just ready to come in will be spoiled,” John would urge on a Fourth Day morning.

“Harness the horse and we will all go to meeting,” was the uncompromising answer.

The meeting was mostly silent, just a gathering of men, women, and children sitting on unpainted and straight-backed benches for an hour. The boys did not always enter profoundly into the spiritual exercise of the occasion, and sometimes perhaps even the older ones had not such sustained mystical communion as their faces then seemed to indicate. But after all, the lesson of the supremacy of religious duty over all business affairs was well taught, and the quiet influence of the Spirit was not always a delusion; while the cramped physical powers of the healthy boy found relief afterwards in an unrestrained and joyous exercise. The habit of at least formal attention to religious obligations was seldom lost.

It was in the “monthly meetings” that the moral standards were set and maintained. These business sessions were as imperative upon old and young as the purely religious gatherings. The “ queries ” were to be answered in open meeting, not individually but as a body, and the answer inscribed in a book.

Do you go to meeting regularly, and behave yourself when there ?

Do you have “love and unity” with other members ?

Do you live a simple life, avoid complicity with warlike operations or judicial oaths ?

Do you look after the poor Friends, and do you pay your debts ? — and other questions relating to conduct and habits.

The boy, perhaps, could not define Quakerism ; but he got an idea very firmly that a quiet, kindly, moral life was required of him, an idea which often survived the vastly lower standards among which he had to work out his adult conduct.

The home confirmed the meeting, — or the reverse might be a more true way of writing it. The little silence before each meal, the Bible-reading at the breakfast-table and on First Day evening by one whose life was a manifest effort to live by its precepts; even the absence of formal teaching and the general reticence as to religious subjects, along with the seriousness at rare intervals when the rebuke or the commendation was evidently needed, — all these were daily building character, whether any one was conscious of it or not.

In 1827 Quakerdom was rent by the great “Separation.” Hicksite and Orthodox, as they were popularly called, lived side by side as neighbors and relatives; but a great gap opened between them. The Orthodox were influential in Philadelphia, but the Hicksites controlled the country. They kept the old stone meeting-houses. For a time the two worshiped in the two ends of the same house, or in the same room at different hours; but these arrangements in the excited state of feeling were too close for peace. All through these Quaker counties one sees meeting-houses in duplicate, the old one almost always Hicksite. The feeling during the first generation was intense. Social intercourse ceased. Ministers of the two bodies meeting in the road gave each other the least possible recognition, and mutual individual “disownments ” cleared the skirts of each of responsibility for the other. The two had the same moral standards and the same methods of worship. In the main they looked at life from the same point of view; but the Hicksite was supposed to have beliefs with Unitarian tendency, the Orthodox to be unbearably dogmatic; and so they parted, except that the boys and girls might safely go to the same little school by the meeting-house.

They were not potent factors in party politics. They had forgotten the great colonial days when the Holy Experiment was building the most prosperous, free, and progressive commonwealth along the Atlantic, under Quaker legislation unintermitted for seventy years; when David Lloyd, John Kinsey, and Isaac Norris led the Quaker hosts in a well-defined but strictly moral political machine. They had rather accepted the mediæval doctrine that introversion and not outward activity was the badge and safeguard of the Friend. In township matters, as school director, or road supervisor, they performed their duty, and the Quaker vote could be counted on, on election day. But the noisy convention and political meeting did not know them, and the candidate for an office higher than township was an object of concern. They were conservative in most matters, but on a moral question to which their society was committed, they could be the leaders of the radicals. Every Quaker was an anti-slavery man, and many of them were uncompromising abolitionists of the Garrison type. The Underground Railway had an unfailing route through the Quaker counties, and the runaway once over the line found plenty of sympathy and active aid. The boy at the table or during the winter evening drank in, in respectful silence, the iniquities of slavery till a negro became a hero, and he would warmly resent any appellation less respectful than colored man.

Then came on the war. It seemed to present a conflict of duties. The elders saw clearly that the long history of opposition to slavery was fairly matched by an equally long testimony against war; yet to a man they fervently desired the success of the Union arms. If the tradition of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet and the example of John G. Whittier kept them true to the cause of freedom, the history of their own ancestors during the Revolutionary War kept them true to the cause of peace. For it was known that every little complicity with war had been conscientiously avoided. When the American army had taken blankets and left the money with the boy, the father had ridden miles to find the purchaser and return the price, though, of course, he never recovered the blankets. When a boy had thrown down a bar in response to the demand of a British trooper, enforced with a drawn sword, the conviction that he might be a party to taking human life so seized him that he refused to proceed with the others. These traditions and convictions held the soberer ones steadily to non-participation. The boys and young men were more influenced by the excitement, and some of them responded to the call. Such usually lost their Quaker connection, but never the influences of their early training.

What better boyhood could there be for a man who is to do great work ? A body hardened by years of pure air and active but not excessive exercise; a mind braced by a school life which required things to be done by himself and not by the teacher, and broadened by a careful reading of a limited number of improving books; a character formed by regular duties, the example of conscientious living, the ever-present sacredness of moral responsibility, abhorrence of evil, and sympathy with suffering; and a hearty respect for a religion of the simplest character and absolutely without hypocrisy. In some respects, to be sure, it was a narrow and circumscribed life; but these qualities may not be the worst evils for the boy. There was to be plenty of breadth and liberty later, and he approached manhood without the feeling that life was a sucked orange; rather it was to him a glorious opportunity of unknown possibilities in which his untried powers of strong resolve and sustained effort, kept well in hand, might do their best.