Corruption and Vice in Colonial Philadelphia

Dateline: Philadelphia, 1704 to 1705. The description of corruption and vices that these new laws assume is startling. How would the Quakers deal with the vice?

Laws had to be passed to curtail or prevent all the corruption and vices. Why “you are there!”? Because the impression is clear that people actually lived like this.

First, public disorder is the name of the game at night, causing irritation in the sober citizens of Philadelphia.

3 Oct 1704

John Evans, Esq., Lietenant Governor

Edward Shippen, John Guest. Samuel Carpenter, William Clark, Thos. Story, Griffith Owen, Samuel Finney, James Logan, all Esquires

Modern transcription begins:

Several complaints having been publicly made of great disorders lately committed within the City in the night season, to the great disturbance of the sober inhabitants and the encouragement of vice by evil examples, it is ordered

That a proclamation be forthwith issued for the discouraging of vice and suppressing of disorders (p. 166)

Transcription ends.

Second, apparently things got so bad and the peace disturbed so badly, the Council had to act, agreeing to these laws sent to them by the Assembly or the House or strengthening the older ones.

13 Nov 1705

The Honorable John Evans, Esq., Lieutenant Governor

Judge Guest, Griffith Owen, Jasper Yeats, Wm. Trent, all Esquires; Goerge Roche, Joseph Pidgeon, James Logan

Transcription begins:

The Governor laid before the board 11 bills which had received of the Assembly last week as follows:

1. The law concerning liberty of conscience etc. which bill was read and being compared with the former law and the Attorney General objections in his report to the Lords of Trade. It is approved, only that clause in the former that enjoins the observation of the Sabbath being left out, it is proposed that the said clause be added or that there be a separate law for it.

2. An act against riots, riotous sports, plays and games, in which is observed that instead of obviating the attorney’s objection, this bill incurs it further than the former. It is proposed that all games that tend to riots should be forbidden, and all manner of gaming in public houses, upon a severer penalty than in the bill expressed, the last clause approved.

3. Against rape and ravishing, approved. But upon the last sentence it is proposed that provision be made by some other act for houses of correction; otherwise the clauses will be void.

4th An act against bigamy. Approved.

5th An act against burglary. Approved, only add the last line but two and make satisfaction as aforesaid.

6th An act against burning of houses etc. Approved.

7th an act against murder and manslaughter; that part of it against murder approved, but the other against manslaughter and chance medley [sic, which probably means a random sequence of events], to be left to the laws of England, for the penalty here is ill proportioned. A ruffian may be guilty of manslaughter and suffer no other punishment than one year’s imprisonment and a rich man may be forced se defendo [in self-defence] to be the death of one who attacks him and thereby his family be ruined. That for chance medley is also much too severe.

8th An act for county seals etc., leaving out the word immediate answers the attorney’s objections and putting in with intent to defraud, leave too great room.

9th An act limiting the presentment of the grand jury is approved.

10th An act for determining debts under forty shillings is approved.

11th an act against riots and rioters, approved.

Ordered that these amendments be drawn out and sent to the House by Judge Guest and Judge Pidgeon in the afternoon and that they be desired to send what other bills they have ready (pp. 216-17).

Transcription ends.

Third, the bills continue with a clear moral content, with the Council proposing some revisions noted here in quotation marks.

20 Nov 1705

Transcription begins:

The Governor laid before the Board a written message he had received from the Assembly, containing their answers to the amendments, to the bills sent by order of the last session of this Board, to all which amendments the House agree, saving those to the bill against riots and riotous sports and games, which they request the Governor may pass without the amendment, the House not being able to agree to any alteration to the same.

Then several other acts sent by the House were laid before the Board, Viz.

An act against adultery and fornication was read and agreed to.

An act against robbing and stealing was read and agreed to.

An act against incest was read. Ordered that it should be proposed by the Assembly, either to enlarge the Tables of Consanguinity etc. or to make some other provision against marrying with first cousins and the brother or sister of former wife or husband, not as a point of religion, but to have as near a conformity as may be to the law of England.

An act of drunkenness was read and agreed to.

An act about departers out of the province was read and it is ordered that the following amendment be made, viz. After courthouse door, add or “most public place” instead of “county seal” read “lesser seal of the province.”

An act for the trial of negroes was read and the following was made. Instead of “whereof” in the 3rd line read “thereof,” instead of “the sitting of such courts,” read “holding of such courts.” “The punishment of rape or attempted rape be death” instead of “imprisonment,” this being a punishment principally on the Master and the provision be made by the public for a compensation to the Master for the loss of his negro. In the clause “of negroes stealing and provision against it,” read, “the  master or owner of such negro shall make satisfaction to the party from whom such goods shall be stolen, provided the value of such good exceed not the sum of five pounds and in case such goods shall exceed the said sum in value, then the negro or negroes convicted of stealing that same shall be punished by death and the master shall have satisfaction for the loss of the negree [sic] made him by the public.”

In the clause “for preventing negroes meeting on the first days of the week,” instead of “four” read “three” and add “except they all belong to one master.”

An act for bailing of prisoners and about imprisonment was read and agreed to.

An act for taking lands in execution for payments of debts was read and agreed to.

An act for the relief of the poor was read and agreed to. … (pp. 217-18)

Transcription ends.

Note how the third passage changed imprisonment of blacks for rape or attempted rape to the death penalty.

Note how the House mentioned liberty of conscience. Were they on to something? Should the state require Sabbath keeping? How about civil laws against adultery and fornication?

Can laws actually prevent vice and corruption, or is this wishful thinking?

How would society look without many if not all of these laws?


Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania from the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, containing the Proceedings of Council from December 18 1700 to May 16 1717, vol. II, (Harrisburg Theophilus Fenn, 1838).

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