Does Colonial Philadelphia Drown in Illegal Trade, Piracy and Vice?

Dateline: Philadelphia, 10 Feb 1698. Or at least that’s what a letter from England claimed. How would the Philadelphia Council reply?

William Penn was over in England, and the authorities there accused Philadelphia of debauchery and illegal trade and piracy, particularly with the Scots (who were not yet united with Great Britain at that time) and the Dutch.

Penn sent a letter, dated 5 Sep 1697, to his province, scolding them for the looseness of vice and this illegal trade. Piracy in this context appears to mean traders who are not officially recognized.

Joseph Growdon, later promoted to the “supreme court” in Philadelphia on 30 May 1715, led the committee to observe his hometown and write a report.

Thursday, 10 Feb 1698


William Markham, Esq. Governor under William Penn, etc.

Samuel Carpenter, Edward Shippen, Joseph Growdon, John Simcock, Caleb Pusey, Richard Halliwell, William Clark

Modernized transcription begins:

First, as to the Scotch and Dutch trade, etc., we are not privy thereto, nor any of us concerned therein, but if any such trade has been and escaped unpunished, it may rather be attributed to the connivance or neglect of some officers appointed by Edward Randolph [England’s representative authority] to inspect those things, or others particularly appointed in that behalf;

For we can say that the magistrates and courts of justice have been ready and diligent upon all occasions to punish, suppress, and discourage all illegal trade that came to their knowledge.

Secondly, As to embracing pirates, etc. we know of some who have been entertained here, unless Clinton and Lassell, with some others of Avery’s crew [a reputed pirate or independent trader] that happened for a small time to sojourn in this place, as they did in some of the neighboring governments, but as soon as the magistrate in Philadelphia had received but a copy of the Lords Justice’s proclamation, [they] got all that were here apprehended and would have taken the care and charge of securing them until a legal court had been erected for their trial or an opportunity had presented to send them to England. But before that could be effected, they broke jail and made their escape to New York, where hues and cries were sent after them.

And as to pirates’ ships, we know of none harbored or ever came here, much less encouraged by the Governor or people who as it is well known are genuinely  sober and industrious and never advanced their estate by forbidden trade, piracy or other will ways, notwithstanding what is suggested by our enemies to the contrary.

As to the growth of vice, we cannot but own as this place has grown more populous and the people increased, looseness and vice has also crept in, which we lament, although endeavors have been used to suppress it by care and industry of the magistrate from time to time, offenders having received deserved and exemplary punishments, according to law.

As to Ordinaries, we are of [the] opinion that there are too many in this government [jurisdiction, province], especially in Philadelphia, which is one great cause of the growth of vice and makes the same more difficult to be suppressed and kept under.

On the whole we being at all times heartily inclined to show loyalty to the King and ready obedience unto his laws do think it necessary and do therefore make or request to the Governor and Council that an ordinance be made and a proclamation do forthwith issue from the Governor and Council strictly to suppress forbidden trade and pirated, if any shall happen;

And also the growth or vice and looseness within this government [jurisdiction, province] until some wholesome and severer law be made for a more effectual remedy and the ordinaries or house of entertainment be reduced to a less number and that all such as have not already given good security for keeping good orders and discharging the place according to law be speedily required so to do or otherwise to be suppressed;

And for the future that the justices in the Quarter Sessions in each county may have the approbation, if not the licensing ordinary keepers throughout this government.

Transcription ends.

The Lt. Governor put the report up for the vote, and it was unanimously approved. Then the Lt. Governor resolved the council into a grand committee to draw up a proclamation to suppress trade and unlawful piracy and the growth of vice and to regulate and reduce the ordinaries, until severer laws can be made.

So it seems the Council defended their management of Pennsylvania, up to a point. They observed the growth of vice and took steps to reduce and regulate its source: the ordinaries or houses of entertainment.

The Council wrote up a proclamation and produced six copies for each county.


Minutes of the Provincial Council, vol. 1, 1683-1700, (Jo. Severns and Co. 1852), pp. 527-29

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