Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker
Quaker housewife who suffered trying to stay neutral
Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and her husband Henry Drinker opposed military service and the swearing of oaths as members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. During the American Revolution, many considered these Quaker beliefs to be treasonous. After 1776, Philadelphia’s Quakers risked being branded as Loyalists for their failure to swear allegiance to the new Revolutionary government of Pennsylvania, or to support the war effort against the British. In the case of Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, however, refusal to swear an oath worked to their advantage. The Drinkers clearly identified with the Crown in the conflict, but as long as they did not overtly aid or support the British cause, their political sympathies could be kept hidden. Unlike other, more open Loyalists, like Joseph and Grace Growden Galloway, Elizabeth and Henry Drinker thus survived the war and kept most of their property from being confiscated.
Elizabeth’s father, William Sandwith, had emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1727 from the predominantly Catholic county of Wexford in southeastern Ireland. He soon prospered, becoming a successful merchant and shipowner in Philadelphia. In 1731, he married Sarah Jervis, a shopkeeper’s daughter, and four years later in 1735, the couple celebrated Elizabeth’s birth. By the time Elizabeth reached her twenties, Philadelphia had become one of the greatest commercial centers in colonial America. Henry Drinker, a co-partner with James Abel, was one of the booming city’s successful merchants. After the death of his first wife, Ann Swett, Henry’s attentions turned to Elizabeth. The courtship began coolly, but the couple eventually “declared their intentions of marriage with each other before the monthly meeting.” They were married in a customary Quaker ceremony on January 13, 1761. Over the next decade and a half, childcare primarily occupied Elizabeth’s life. She bore eight children between 1761 and 1774, though three died within their first fourteen months of life. The couple lived at first on Water Street, but with their growing family soon needed more room; in 1771, the Drinkers moved into an elegant three-story brick mansion on Front Street overlooking the Delaware River. From this location, Elizabeth could see the Arch Street Ferry and the James & Drinker Company’s warehouse from her windows.
Troubles loomed for the Drinker family in 1773 when the British Parliament granted a monopoly on the sale of tea in America to the British East India Company. Outraged by the law, many Americans formed non-importation agreements to block the import of tea into the colonies. As agents for the British East India Company, Henry Drinker and James Abel found themselves in a difficult position. Their ship Polly was en route to Philadelphia with a cargo of tea. Henry planned to handle the landing of the cargo, but public pressure mounted against the firm. To avoid a riot, Henry and James issued a written statement “that it [being] the general opinion of the people that they [James & Drinker Company] should not act under their appointment as agents. [we] therefore decline under said appointment” to receive any cargo from the Polly. When the ship reached Philadelphia in December 1773, eight thousand people gathered to protest its entry. Under orders from Congress, the ship’s captain refitted the Polly in Chester, and sailed back to England with all her tea still aboard.
The Drinker family thus avoided the initial crisis facing many merchants in colonial America. By 1775, however, war became a certainty and the colonists had to choose sides in the conflict. As Quakers, Henry and Elizabeth refused to participate in the war, and their continued friendship with Quaker Loyalists, like Joseph and Grace Galloway, made them targets for political persecution by Patriots. Henry further aggravated public opinion by refusing to accept Continental Dollars, insisting on hard currency for payment of goods. To many Patriots, Henry’s refusal to accept Continental money was treasonous, and his actions finally provoked the Continental Congress. On August 28, 1777, Congress declared that the “uniform tenor” of Henry’s conduct proved that he was “disaffected to the American cause.” The report warned that Henry and his associates will “no doubt communicate intelligence to the enemy,” and thus ordered his arrest. On September 4, 1777, upon orders from Pennsylvania’s Executive Council, Colonel William Bradford arrested Henry and nineteen other Quakers, and exiled them to Winchester, Virginia without a trial. Several Philadelphia newspapers leaped to Henry’s defense, but the government silenced the criticism.
Elizabeth worked hard in early 1778 to win the release of her husband, Henry. In April, she and several other wives of the imprisoned Quakers sought an audience with George Washington. Elizabeth first met Martha Washington, whom she described as a “sociable pretty kind of Woman,” and then confronted the general with her “busyness.” Washington stated that he could do nothing for them, refusing to interfere with the proceedings of a state government. He did issue a pass for them to travel to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and from there to meet with their husbands. Finally, on April 25, 1778, Elizabeth met Henry, and the couple were allowed to return together to Philadelphia.
For the remainder of the war, Elizabeth continued to fend off soldiers from both armies attempting to commandeer or confiscate her property. During the British occupation, a soldier took a blanket, claiming he did so under orders from General Howe. When the Americans returned, the situation became even worse. On June 9, 1780, Joseph Reed of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania declared martial law. On June 10, Captain James Pickering “and 6 or 8 others with Bayonets fixt” came to the Drinker home and “demanded our Horses.” Despite protests from Elizabeth, the soldiers stole “a fine Horse . . . and a Mare.” Even the news of General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown provoked a public response against the Drinkers. The city celebrated the victory with a grand illumination, but the Quakers refused to participate. Angered by the Quakers’ continuing lack of support for the Revolution, angry mobs damaged many Quaker homes on October 24 and 25, 1781. The Drinkers’ home was no exception, with “70 panes of Glass broken.” Yet the Drinkers had survived the war.
Elizabeth’s later years were occupied by her children and her twenty-five grandchildren. Philadelphia continued to grow during the 1780s and 1790s, and the city suffered from numerous public health problems. During 1793, a Yellow Fever epidemic struck the city, forcing the Drinkers to flee to the countryside during the summer months. Spared the ravages of the Yellow Fever, Elizabeth did help her children and grandchildren fight off dysentery, tuberculosis, measles, and malaria. She had the entire family inoculated against smallpox, and later vaccinated using cowpox. Elizabeth also proved an avid reader, and often commented on books in her diary. In 1796, she wrote that “I have read a large octavo volume entitled The Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. In very many of her sentiments she, as some of our friends say, ‘speaks my mind.’ In some others, I do not altogether coincide with her. I am not for quite so much independence.” While not a suffragist, Elizabeth proved a woman of considerable independence of spirit. She died on November 24, 1807, at the age of seventy-three. She was survived by her husband Henry, who died of pneumonia two years later at the age of seventy-six.
Source Documents: Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker
The following passages are taken from Elaine Forman Crane, ed., The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994).
By order of Pennsylvania’s Executive Council, Henry Drinker and nineteen other Quakers were arrested on September 4, 1777 for being “disaffected to the American cause.”
1777 Sepr. the third day–HD [Henry Drinker] having been, and continuing to be unwell, stay’d [home] from [the Quaker] meeting this morning. he went towards Noon into the front Parloe to copy the Monthly meeting minuits [minutes] . . . when Wm [William] Bradford . . . entred, offering a Parole for him to sign–which was refus’d. they then seiz’d on the Book and took several papers out of the Desk and carried them off; intimating their design of calling the next morning at 9 o’clock; and desiring HD to stay at home for that time, which as he was unwell, was necessary; they according calld the 4th, in the morning and took my Henry . . . in an illegal, unpredesented [unprecedented] manner. . . [and with] several, other Friends [Quakers] with some of other [political] proswasions [persuasions], made prisoners.
[1777 September] 9 . . . My self Sally and little Molly went this Afternoon to the [prison] Lodge, during my stay there, word was brought from the Council that their [Henry’s] Banishment was concluded to be on the Morrow, the Waggons were preparing to carry them off–I came home in great distress . . .
While preparing for her husband’s departure, Elizabeth comments on a “great fireing heard below.” This was a reference to the Battle of Brandywine, where a combined British and German force under General Sir William Howe defeated the American Continental Army commanded by General George Washington.
[1777 September] 11 The Sending off our Friends is put of[f] till 3 this Afternoon, [because] they find it difficult to procure Waggons and Men–My Henry Breakfasted with us; then went to the Lodge. I went there about 10 o’clock . . . the Town is in great Confusion at present a great fireing heard below it is supos’d the Armies are Engag’d, ’tis also reported that several Men of War are up the River . . . Some time after dinner Harry came in a hurry for his Master’s Horse for a Servant to ride, informing me that the waggons were waiting at the Lodge to take our dear Friends away. I quickly went there; and as quickly came away finding great a number of People there but few women, bid my dearest Husband farewell, and went in great distress to James Pembertons, Sally with me . . .
After the American defeat at the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, the British army occupied Philadelphia. Elizabeth comments on the “heaviest fireing that I think I ever heard,” a reference to the battle for Forts Mifflin and Mercer on the Delaware River.
[1777 September] 12 . . . this has been a day of Great Confusion to many in this City; which I have in great measure been kept out of by my constant attension on my sick Child. part of Washington[‘]s Army has been routed, and have been seen coming into Town in Great Numbers . . . the Wounded have been brought in this Afternoon, to what amount I have not learnt . . .
[1777 September] 19 Jenny awoke us this Morning about 7 o’clock, with the News that the English were near; we find that most of our Neighbors and almost all the Town have been up since one in the Morning The account is that the British Army cross’d the [S]weeds-Foard last night, and are now on their way . . .
[1777 September] 26. Well, here are the English in earnest, about 2 or 3000, came in, through second street, without oppossition or interruption, no plundering on one side or the other . . .
[1777 October] 6 . . . The heaviest fireing that I think I ever heard, was this Evening, for upwards of two hours, thought to be the English troops, engag’d with the Mud-Island Batt[e]ry . . .
[1777 October] 23 this day will be remember’d by many; the 2500 Hessions who cross’d the River the day before yesterday, were last Night driven back 2 or 3 times, in endeavoring to Storm the fort on Red Bank. [Fort Mercer], 200 slain and great Numbers wounded . . .
During late 1777 and early 1778, Elizabeth fought for the return of her husband, Henry Drinker. For the remainder of the Revolution, Elizabeth coped with the vicissitudes of war in Philadelphia.
[1777 November] 5 . . . A Soldier came to demand Blankets, which I did not in any wise agree to notwithstanding my refusial he went up stairs and took one, and with seeming good Nature beg’d I would excuse his borrowing it, as it was G[eneral] Howe’s orders . . .
[1777 December] 18th . . . An Officer who calls himself Major Carmon or Carmant, call’d this Afternoon, to look for Quarters for some Oiffecer [officer] of distinction . . .
[1777 December] 29 very clear and cold, Cramond here this morning, we have at last agreed on his coming to take up his aboud [abode] with us, I hope it will be no great inconvenience, tho I have many fears, he came again in the Afternoon with a servant.
[1777 December] 31. J. Cramond who is now become one of our Family, appears to be a thoughtful sober young man, his Servant also sober and orderly; which is a great favour to us .
[1778 April] 6 . . . after Breakfast . . . [I] proceeded on to the American Picket guard, who upon hearing that we were going to head-quarters, sent 2 or 3 to guard us further on to another guard where Col. Smith gave us a pass for Head Quarters where we arriv’d at about 1/2 past one; requested an audience with the General–set with his Wife, (a sociable pretty kind of Woman) untill he came in . . . it was not long before G[eorge] W[ashington] came and discoarsd with us freely, but not so long as we could have wish’d . . . he told us, he could do nothing in our busyness further than granting us a pass to Lancaster, which he did . . .
[1778 April] 25 I can recollect nothing of the occurances of this Morning–about one o’clock my Henry arrived . . . just in time to dine with us . . . [he is] much hartier than I expected . . .
[1778 April] 30 . . . we set of[f] after 8 o’clock, and traveled on without interruption, were wellcom’d by many before, and on our entrance into the City–where we arrived about 11 o’clock, and found our dear Families all well, for which favour and Blessing and the restoration of my dear Husband, may I ever be thankful . . .
[1778 June] 18 last night it was said there was 9000 of the British Troops left in Town . . . this moring when we arose, there was not one Red-Coat to be seen in Town . . .
 June 10 James Pickering a[n American] Capt[ain] at the Corner of race street–and 6 or 8 others with Bayonets fixt–came and demanded our Horses–after some talk they went and broke open the Stable [and] took a fine Horse bought some time ago . . . and a Mare . . . they took Horses from many others.–they now act under a Martial Law–lately proclaim’d . . .
First Day Octo[be]r  . . . my dear little Charles was born, on the 16th Aug[us]t towards evening; was favour’d myself beyond expectation, but my poor Baby was alive . . . [I] did not expect he would survive many days; but he is now between 10 and 11 weeks old, and appears to be thriving, which is wonderful, considering how unwell I was for near a Month before his birth . . .
After the defeat of the British at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Philadelphians celebrated by illuminating the city. Many Quakers refused to participate in the celebration, once more aggravating public opinion against them. Angry mobs subsequently damaged many prominent Quaker homes, including the Drinkers.’
the 17th. of this month Octo[be]r  Gen[era]l Cornwallace was taken; for which we grievously suffer’d on the 24th. by way of [others] rejoyceing–a mobb assembled about 7 o’clock’ or before, and continu[e]d their insults untill near 10; to those whose Houses were not illuminated scarcely one Friends House escaped we had near 70 panes of Glass broken the sash lights and two panels of the front parlor broke in pieces–the Door crack’d and Violently burst open, when they threw Stones into the House for some time but did not enter–some far[e]d better and some worse–some Houses after br[e]aking the door they enter[e]d, and distroy’d the furniture &c–many women and Children were frightened into fitts, and ’tis a mercy no lives were lost.
For Further Reading:
Frederick Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia (1963).
Thomas Gilpin, Exiles in Virginia (2003).
John Jackson, With the British Army in Philadelphia (1979).