Danger is useful to political leaders. In peace, politics is all second-guessing and veto overrides. But when war threatens, even political adversaries stand up and salute. The appearance of danger is so useful that, if none exists, it’s often politically worthwhile to fake it.
And politicians do. In 1939, Germany staged a fake commando raid on a radio station near its border with Poland to justify the invasion that started World War II. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin attack, upon which the Vietnam War was based, likely never happened. The Iranian nuclear program, upon which President Bush based talk of “World War III” in 2007, had been suspended in 2003.
One of the few such stunts that blew up in its perpetrator’s face occurred here. In 1709, John Evans was removed as deputy governor after spreading a false alarm that the colony was under attack. Faced with an uncooperative Assembly and citizenry, Evans had thought his political clout might increase if an enemy was thought to be at the door.
Instead, an almanac published that year in Philadelphia carried this anonymous observation on its calendar for this time:
“Wise men wonder, good men grieve,
Knaves invent, and fools believe.”
Evans was appointed by William Penn at a time when the founder of Pennsylvania had almost given up on his Holy Experiment. Pennsylvania had experienced a large influx of non-Quakers who, when added to the squabbling settlers already here, destroyed most of the colony’s early consensus.
On one side were rich landowners and merchants led by Penn who, as proprietor, held almost-feudal powers to collect annual quitrents (property taxes) and appoint officials. On the other side was the mass of average citizens who refused to pay Penn’s quitrents—though they were a condition of their land purchases—defied his officials and refused, through the Assembly, to tax themselves.
As early as 1685, Penn had pleaded with the Assembly, “For the love of God, me and the poor country, be not so governmentish; so noisy and open in your disaffection.” In 1701, a new constitution—the “Charter of Privileges”—had shifted power further toward the anti-proprietary Assembly, guaranteeing future headaches.
These early Pennsylvanians even ignored Penn’s monopolies on the right to grind grain and manufacture lime, an essential fertilizer for farmers. Penn had depended on the income from those activities, along with his quitrents. When that income didn’t appear, his fortune dwindled, exacerbated by a lavish lifestyle and sloppy business practices. In 1707, Penn would be briefly imprisoned for debt. He even considered selling Pennsylvania to the crown.
In addition, royal officials were pushing Pennsylvania to be more active in Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713) against France and Spain. In this conflict, New England colonies would provide troops for an invasion of French Quebec. Pennsylvania sent nothing.
Against this backdrop, Penn learned in 1703 that Alexander Hamilton, the deputy governor he had appointed just two years earlier, had died unexpectedly. The office of deputy governor was important because Penn—the rightful governor under the proprietary system—could not serve without swearing an oath of allegiance to the king. Quakers refused to swear oaths, so Penn’s deputy governors ruled in his place.
That he chose the 26-year-old son of an old friend to replace Hamilton suggests Penn may have been too exhausted to care anymore. John Evans had no political experience nor, as it turned out, much instinct for governing. He was, however, a firm member of the Church of England. Religious conformity counted with the Board of Trade, which ultimately approved such appointments.
“The gentleman named in my petition is a person that has had a liberal education, been abroad and knows the world very well and is sober, discreet and of a good understanding,” Penn wrote the board. He was not a merchant (a low-status occupation), not in debt and, wrote the proprietor, “lives like a gentleman upon his estate.”
The board approved, and Evans arrived at Philadelphia in early 1704. With him was William Penn Jr., age 23, who, his father hoped, would learn some responsibility by helping out with the family business. “Be as much as possible in his company,” wrote Penn Sr. to his secretary, James Logan, “and suffer him not to be in any public house after the allowed time.”
Evans appointed young Penn to his governing council, which he rarely attended, being, wrote historian S.M. Janney, “more intent upon pleasure than business.”
John Evans was unprepared to govern. Penn had referred him to his original 1681 charter and to “the laws and constitutions of the country made in pursuance thereof by and with the early unanimity of the country.” But he never mentioned the new 1701 charter, which Penn delayed submitting to the Board of Trade until 1705.
Evans’ priorities included the creation of a militia, strengthening the proprietor’s position against the Assembly and maintaining Pennsylvania’s political union with its “Lower Counties” (Delaware).
Delaware was likely already lost. Penn was proprietor of both, and Evans was deputy governor of both. But Pennsylvania had grown so large that the Delawareans knew they must be outvoted in any joint government.
“Nothing remained for the Lower Counties but to set up their own Assembly,” wrote Delaware historian John A. Munroe.
The score: Assembly = 1; proprietor = 0.
Next, young Penn got into a bar fight—with Evans by his side. He’d been given the run of his father’s estate, Pennsbury, where he could keep horses and hounds in the style of an English gentleman. Soon after his arrival, young Penn wrote home to “beg I may have some more hounds sent over for they will do might well here.”
But Pennsbury was remote, and he became bored. Young Penn, though officially a Quaker, had been bred to society life and didn’t mix well with rural Friends. Increasingly, he shared Evans’ rented room in Philadelphia.
Evans and young Penn—only a few years apart in age—were regulars at city taverns, including one kept by Enoch Story in Coomb’s Alley (now Cuthbert Street, between Front and Second streets).
One night in August 1704, Penn had words with the night watchman, James Dough, and constable James Wood when they arrived to enforce closing time. According to a grand jury report, Penn assaulted them both.
“Young Penn in the affray called for pistols,” wrote Janney. “But the lights being extinguished, one of his antagonists gave him a hearty beating.” Evans was laid out by Alderman Wilcox, who “availed himself of the darkness to fail in recognizing the chief magistrate, to whom he gave a severe drubbing.”
Of the two, only Penn was charged. And it upset him so that he sailed back to England on the next ship. The scandal had no legal affect on Evans, but it weakened his moral authority with the Assembly.
The score: Assembly = 2; proprietor = 0.
Penn had authorized the previous governor, Hamilton, to organize a militia that would be supported by taxation, but from which Quakers would be excused. It was the proprietor’s way of compromising between the pacifism of his Quaker constituents and royal demands that Pennsylvania support the war. But the Assembly had refused Hamilton’s request for funds, and now refused Evans, too.
Evans needed a plan.
“Not being able to appreciate the motives of the Friends, and perhaps doubtful of their sincerity,” wrote Janney, “he determined to put their principles to a severe test.”
May 16, 1706, was the day of Phila-delphia’s annual fair. So the streets were full when a courier rode into town on a lathered horse and conspicuously handed Evans—who was in attendance—letters from the governor of Maryland and the sheriff of New Castle County. One announced a French fleet on the coast; the other, that Lewes, Del., had been burned.
In fact, as Logan later related to Penn, Evans had forged both letters. He then sent both letters to allies in Delaware with instructions that they be returned at the height of the fair.
“The governor acted his part,” wrote historian Robert Proud, “and, by his emissaries, made it fly through the city; while himself with a drawn sword in his hand, on horseback, rode through the streets, in seeming great commotion.”
Panic followed. Some threw their silver plate and other valuables down wells and outhouses. Many piled into boats and headed up rivers and creeks. Women miscarried.
Yet the trick was soon discovered. And if Evans had hoped to make a point, it was not appreciated. Members of the volunteer militia were so annoyed at the waste of their time that they refused to muster when called. Evans was regarded with scorn.
“The whole is looked upon to be a most mischievous, boyish trick,” Logan wrote Penn.
Evans hung on another two years—still trying, by various measures, to fund a militia—while the Assembly petitioned for his removal. Finally, Penn called him home.
Final score: Assembly = 3; proprietor = 0.
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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