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FRONTLINE: Retrospect 2


Freedom Fighter
For Timothy Matlack, the path to independence was a bumpy but historic ride.

In Philadelphia, the National Park Ser-vice wants a seven-foot fence across Independence Square to keep out terrorists. Critics say walling off the birthplace of liberty is a bad metaphor.

“These proposals,” said Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah, “would turn our most hallowed ground of liberty and openness into a kind of stockade.” But a stockade would not be historically inaccurate. In the spring of 1776, Independence Square is where Timothy Matlack and a mob overthrew the elected Pennsylvania Assembly because it didn’t suit their views. Matlack became a Main Liner posthumously when his body was moved from Center City to a private cemetery near Valley Forge Park in 1905.

On May 20, Matlack was among an (unelected) crowd of 4,000 pro-independence radicals that gathered in the statehouse yard and agreed, on a voice vote, to disband the legislature and write a new constitution. Their problem? The Assembly reflected the thinking of most Pennsylvanians, who opposed breaking ties with Great Britain by a two-thirds majority. That majority would now be fenced out of power.

The independence party elected Matlack secretary of a new council that replaced the governor. The new constitution—which disenfranchised anyone refusing a loyalty oath—was never adopted but was enforced during the war. (On the upside, it extended the vote to the poorer classes.) In 1790, when Pennsylvanians finally had their say, Matlack’s crowd and their “constitution” were finally replaced.

“The members constituted a mediocre body to frame a constitution for the state,” said Rev. Francis Allison, the chaplain of the Continental Congress. “They were mostly honest, well-meaning country men entirely unacquainted with such high matters as were entrusted to their hands.”

Oh, and two other tidbits about Matlack: President George W. Bush is a descendant of Timothy’s Aunt Sarah. And Matlack wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Beer and Bankruptcy
Born in New Jersey to a Quaker family, Timothy Matlack Jr. was the son of a former farmer and storekeeper who moved to Philadelphia in 1745 to run a brewery. The brewery failed and the senior Matlack defaulted on his creditors, a grievous sin against Quakers’ stringent standards of honesty. Church members insisted that Timothy Sr. turn over assets to pay off debts. The experience, wrote descendant Asa Matlack Stackhouse in 1908, “no doubt hastened his death,” and “the bitter feeling that his sons entertained for the Quakers as a body may be traced primarily to this.”

Timothy Jr. was no better at business, nor much of a Quaker. In 1762, Matlack was operating a hardware store on Market Street near 4th when Quakers began sending delegation after delegation to discuss his lax ways. A 1765 resolution laid out the charges: “Neglect of attending [worship], also for his contracting debt which he became unable to discharge, and that it appeared his falling short in this respect proceeded in some measure from his spending his time from home and neglecting a due attention to his business. Though he surrendered his effects for the use of his creditors, he does not manifest a proper concern.”

Matlack liked the ponies. “A horse race,” wrote Stackhouse, “was his delight.” He also liked chickens, bulls and bears—that is, cockfighting and bear- and bull-baiting. The diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer, a casual acquaintance, records numerous events at which Matlack was present when he should probably have been at work or worship. On Sept. 2, 1767 (a Sunday), Matlack “measured the new race track.” On March 3, 1770 (a Tuesday), New Yorker James DeLancey came to town to match his birds against Matlack’s in “a great cockfight.” On Aug. 31, 1770 (a Friday), Matlack and Hiltzheimer spent the morning at the track, watching Regulus, a brown colt, run a two-miler.

“He loved everything in which the element of contest, endurance and rivalry were present,” wrote Stackhouse, who also described Matlack as “robust in health, brimful of animal spirits and vigor, virile, pugnacious, undauntedly courageous, quick to resent an insult or injury, self-reliant [and] a good hater.” Not so much a man’s man as a guy’s guy, Matlack was the sort who today might paint his bare chest for an Eagles game. “There was nothing in the Quaker quietism that appealed to him,” concluded Stackhouse.

The state’s Quaker founders had originally banned Matlack’s games, mostly because they objected to the gambling that accompanied them. Some also objected to animal cruelty. On a 1772 visit to England, Quaker John Woolman of Mount Holly, N.J., walked 230 miles from London to York rather than ride one of the coaches that were notorious for running horses to death. The legal bans were repealed as Quaker influence waned, but Friends maintained the rules among members.

To the Friends, the fact that Matlack’s business was suffering made his carousing worse. But despite owing money to several Quakers—including merchant/Assemblyman James Pemberton, who had bailed him out of debtor’s prison—Matlack told his somber visitors to shove off. He was disowned.

In the battles of Lexington and Concord, however, Matlack had a cause to match his passions. Previously active in committees of correspondence—unofficial bodies through which the independence party traded information—Matlack was appointed in 1775 to Pennsylvania’s Council of Public Safety, which was in charge of military affairs. That fall, he was given the job of clerk to Charles Thomson, secretary of the Second Continental Congress.

Power of the Pen
Among Matlack’s clerking credentials was excellent penmanship. When the Congress gave George Washington command of the continental armies, Matlack wrote the commission in longhand. In 1776, when Congress finally finished revising Jefferson’s text, it was Matlack who picked up a feather quill pen to put the approved version of the Declaration of Independence on parchment in an English roundhand script. (Jefferson’s own writing was simpler, with fewer loops.) The 2004 film National Treasure referenced Matlack’s role with a riddle—“Fifty-five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can’t offend”—that actor Nicholas Cage used to find a treasure map on the back of the Declaration.

Matlack also saw combat, leading an infantry unit at the Battle of Princeton in 1777. But the sight of ne’er-do-well Timothy wearing a uniform and sword apparently made some Quakers giggle. One story involves a sidewalk encounter with Pemberton, who sarcastically asked Matlack to identify “this thing dangling at thy side.” The sword, replied Matlack, was to defend his liberty and his property. To which Pemberton—whom Matlack still owed money—devastatingly replied, “As for thy property, Timothy, thou knows thee has none. And as for thy liberty, thou owes that to me.”

Understandably, then, Quaker opposition to the Revolution may have made Matlack’s activities more satisfying. In 1777, he would sign the order to arrest 20 leading Quakers—including Pemberton—as security risks and imprison them without trial in Virginia. Another time, Matlack virtually exploded when he came home one day to find two senior Quakers in his house, advising his own son, William—still officially a Friend—to abandon the Revolutionary cause.

“His indignation knew no bounds,” wrote Stackhouse. “Driving them out into the street, he thrashed them severely with his walking stick until he broke it over them.”

Matlack helped organize the Free Quakers, 100 or so former Quakers excommunicated for offenses ranging from Matlack’s shoddy business practices and Christopher Marshall’s involvement in counterfeiting to Betsy Ross’ improper marriage and Samuel Wetherill’s participation in the war. The Free Quakers’ mantra: no rules.

“No man who believes in God, in a supreme, wise and benevolent Ruler of the Universe, and who joins with us, should be disowned or excommunicated for any cause whatever,” wrote Wetherill.

In 1781, Matlack argued before the Assembly that the Free Quakers were entitled to part of the orthodox group’s property—specifically, a meetinghouse. The Assembly refused to get involved so, in 1783, the Free Quakers built their own meetinghouse, which still stands on Independence Mall.

What brought Matlack and his cronies to power was the impatience of the independence party. With Pennsylvania’s delegates forbidden to vote for independence and the Assembly unlikely to reconsider, the Second Continental Congress turned against the Colonial governments that had created it. Voting 6-4, it resolved in May 1776 that all governments deriving authority from the Crown should be “totally suppressed.”

This swept from power not only Loyalists but also moderates—solid merchants and educated lawyers—knowledgeable in political affairs. The men replacing them included Franklin and Benjamin Rush, but most were inexperienced and often heavy-handed. Though not known to have said, “If you’re not with us, you’re with George III,” Matlack probably thought it.

Conservatives and moderates spent the 1770s and ’80s fighting their way back to power. And as when any group monopolizes power (think Washington, D.C.), the political environment was toxic.

“Social life was not exempt,” wrote historian Robert Brunhouse. “In December [1778], a warning appeared in a newspaper that no one but ‘active patriots’ should presume to participate in the dancing assembly,” an annual social event. In 1781, Matlack’s heckling of Assemblyman Whitehead Humphreys resulted in a public fist fight. Reflecting upper class contempt for Matlack, Humphreys subsequently wrote and distributed a satirical poem describing his rise “from trimming cocks to trim the state.”

Gradually, the radicals of 1776 were pushed out. Charges against Tories were reduced or dropped. Charles Cessne, a Matlack ally, was expelled for “notorious frauds,” possibly on trumped-up evidence. In 1782, Matlack’s enemies charged he’d pocketed fees from tavern and marriage licenses. It was probably just sloppy bookkeeping, but the Assembly removed Matlack from office nonetheless, deeming him “unworthy of public trust.”

Late in life, Matlack finally found a secure job. Hired as caretaker of Independence Hall, his task, ironically, was to tend the building from which his fellow citizens still refuse to be barred.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.

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