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1778: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, triggering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal?

November 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1778, the hanging in Philadelphia of two elderly Quakers for treason perhaps set in motion Benedict Arnold’s notorious defection from the American Revolution.

Brotherly love was a little scarce on the ground in Philly after Gen. William Howe occupied it for the British in 1777-1778.*

British control of the cradle of liberty exacerbated the social tensions swirling around the revolution, most particularly between radical revolutionaries and those of a more go-along, get-along variety. Plenty of North Americans, after all, were British loyalists. Plenty of others were fine with political independence but horrified at the more radically democratic ideas of, say, Tom Paine.

Pennsylvania had proven a relative bastion for militants, who authored its progressive 1776 constitution and imposed loyalty tests to disenfranchise Tories and neutrals. When Howe withdrew from Philadelphia, these elements returned, loaded for bear. Or in this case, Quakers.

Members of this sect were suspect to begin with for pacifism, which is the sort of ideology that would fail a loyalty test. Spurning a Moravian pitch for exemption from the oath, the authorities complained of

persons among us, preferring a slavish dependence on the British King, from prejudice, expectation from lucrative offices, or the most unworthy motives, and screening themselves from the notice of Government, by a professed neutrality, have, nevertheless, as soon as opportunity offered declared themselves in favour of our Enemies, and became active against the Liberties of America

Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, Quakers of an advanced age who had collaborated with the British, were thought to have done precisely this perfidious thing. In the sentence delivered to Roberts (the men had separate trials), the judge insisted his defendant was either with liberty, or against it.

Treason is a crime of the most dangerous and fatal consequence to society; it is of a most malignant nature; it is of a crimson colour and of a scarlet dye. Maliciously to deprive one man of life, merits the punishment of death, and blood for blood is a just restitution. What punishment, then, must he deserve, who joins the enemies of his country, and endeavours the total destruction of the lives, liberties, and property of all his fellow citizens; who wilfully aids and assists in so impious a cause; a cause which has been complicated with the horrid and crying sin of murdering thousands, who were not only innocent, but meritorious; and aggravated by burning some of them alive, and starving others to death. It is in vain to plead, that you have not personally acted in this wicked business; for all who countenance and assist, are partakers in the guilt.**

The wholesale purge such a logic would license was thankfully not forthcoming, because even revolutionary sentiment was uncomfortable with the treatment of these exemplars. Roberts’s own jury had to be cajoled into a conviction, and most of its members joined thousands of Philadelphians of different political stripes petitioning for mercy.

The post-Howe military governor of Philadelphia at this time was none other than Benedict Arnold, still an American general but putting himself ostentatiously into the tug-of-war over the proper revolutionary line with his profligate living and his courtship of a British-friendly merchant‘s daughter.

Arnold stuck his thumb in the radicals’ eye by hosting a party on the eve of this date’s hanging for society ladies of doubtful [revolutionary] virtue … prompting a fulsome protest by Joseph Reed

Treason, disaffection to the interests of America, and even assistance to the British interest, is called openly only error of judgment, which candour and liberality will overlook … it would astonish you to observe the weight of interest excited to pardon [Carlisle and Roberts] … will you not think it extraordinary that General Arnold made a public entertainment the night before last, of which not only common Tory ladies, but the wives and daughters of persons proscribed by the State, and now with the enemy at New York, formed a very considerable number. The fact is literally true.

Left- and right-wing factions of the revolution crystallized around Reed and Arnold, and the abuse of the more-patriotic-than-thou set soon wore on Gen. Arnold. The latter put his contacts with un-revolutionary Philadelphia to work — specifically, that merchant’s daughter’s former suitor, British Major John Andre. Arnold and Andre began their correspondence six months after Carlisle and Roberts hanged; little more than a year later, Arnold ditched the American revolution … and entered the American lexicon.

* This was the winter George Washington famously spent at Valley Forge, 20 miles from Philly.

** The sentence is as printed in in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, Nov. 6, 1778. The magistrate concludes the sentence by pointing out that in Pennsylvania’s “leniency,” treason was punished “only” with hanging … while in the mother country, it could still get you drawn and quartered.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Pennsylvania,Power,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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3 thoughts on “1778: Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, triggering Benedict Arnold’s betrayal?”

  1. Craig Carlile says:

    Yes. In my line then; Thomas J. Carlile, mayor of Chattanooga; Walter Cope Carlile, scallywag; Thomas Burnham Carlile I, Thomas B. Carlile Jr., MD; and me.

  2. Gary Miller says:

    Did Abraham Carlisle, who was executed for treason in 1778, have a son of the same name that worked as a silversmith in Philadelphia around 1790?

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