LAWRENCE — The major events and players of the American Revolution are well-documented in history books. Yet the people who lived through that tumultuous period in American history are often assumed to have been patriots who fought to defy British policies and establish a new nation. A University of Kansas scholar has written a book examining the story of two early Americans who refused to take sides in the conflict and paid a heavy price for their neutrality.
“World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey through the American Revolution” (Yale University Press) tells a familiar story from an unfamiliar perspective, presenting a dual biography of a Quaker couple, Henry and Elizabeth Drinker, who claimed allegiance neither to the revolution nor the British Crown. For their neutrality they were harassed, jailed and tormented, as Richard Godbeer, director of KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities and Charles W. Battey Distinguished Professor of History, details in his new book drawn from the extensive writings the Drinkers left behind.
A prominent Philadelphia couple, the Drinkers rejected violence as part of their Quaker faith. Godbeer presents their firsthand accounts of suffering for failing to side with the patriots. Henry was jailed for eight months and never formally charged with a crime. Meanwhile, Elizabeth struggled to protect their family in a war-torn city. Those who chose not to support the revolution faced violence and intimidation, including beatings in the street and having rocks thrown through their windows.
“I think that many people have a rather rose-tinted view of the patriots as advocates for freedom and liberty, whereas in fact they had little patience with points of view that were different from their own and suspected anyone who disagreed with them of being Loyalists, including pacifists like the Drinkers who chose neutrality over support for one side or the other during the bloody War of Independence,” Godbeer said. “Many Americans had their doubts about the Revolution, but those who spoke out often paid dearly for doing so.”
Elizabeth’s detailed diary provides a unique look at the lives of those who lived through the revolution and was the impetus for the book.
“Ever since I first encountered Elizabeth Drinker’s lengthy and fascinating diaries, I have wondered why there was no book-length biography of this remarkable woman, who left behind one of the largest bodies of female-authored prose from the colonial or revolutionary periods,” Godbeer said. “But it didn’t occur to me that I should take this on until I stumbled across the amazing collection of letters written by her husband, Henry Drinker, on deposit at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It then occurred to me that I might be able to write a joint biography that would capture their lives as individuals and as a couple, a very rare opportunity for someone working on Early American history.”
Beyond their day-to-day experiences during the war for independence, the Drinkers’ writings provide insight into their thoughts on the crisis that led to revolution and their feelings toward the patriots. Elizabeth described the so-called “Guardians of Liberty” as “unfeeling men” and “cruel persecutors.”
While “World of Trouble” provides a window into the experiences of the Drinkers and others like them, it also illustrates how social movements and revolutions change the lives of everyday citizens not directly involved in the fighting. Those experiences, Godbeer points out, are just as much a part of history as the narratives of battles, presidents and historical figures.
“Most of all, I hope that readers will come away from my book with a renewed understanding that major historical events have a profound effect on the people who live through them, and that those individual stories are the threads that make up the fabric of history,” Godbeer said.
“World of Trouble” follows the Drinkers’ experiences after the war as well, documenting the lasting effect it had until the ends of their lives, all of which is documented in Elizabeth’s detailed diaries and Henry’s many letters to his wife. In all, a half-century of events before, during and after the war are detailed. The second half of the 18th century saw dramatic social, economic and cultural transformations that combined with political revolution to create an era of upheaval and uncertainty.
“That period,” said Godbeer, “can seem in retrospect one of historic and largely positive achievement, yet for contemporaries, living through those decades often seemed more traumatic than triumphant. The diaries and letters that Elizabeth and Henry Drinker left behind give us an intimate, human perspective on the revolutionary era.”
A leading scholar on early American history, Godbeer has written six books, including “Sexual Revolution in Early America” and “Escaping Salem.” Through his story of the Drinkers, he shows how the political and personal often intersect and shape American lives.
“In this magnificent dual biography, Richard Godbeer brings us to the hearth of Quakers Elizabeth and Henry Drinker, offering an intimate and beautifully textured account of the lives of these religious and political dissenters during the American Revolution,” said Early America scholar Jane Calvert of the University of Kentucky. “In Godbeer’s hands, their often-heartrending story is also quintessentially American.”
Image credit: "World of Trouble" by Richard Godbeer, Yale University Press