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A nineteenth-century artist imagined George Washington’s entry into New York in November 1783. Rebecca Shoemaker describes in a letter to her husband a similar scene a few weeks later when Washington reached Philadelphia. Washington's triumphal entry into New York, Nov. 25th, 1783 / C. Inger lith. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

An American Loyalist Family and the Meaning of Home: Rebecca Rawle Shoemaker’s Post-Revolutionary War Letters to Her Husband

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“Tho I do not know when Capt. Willet will sail I begin to scribble & thee knows by this time I do a great deal of that.”
Rebecca Rawle Shoemaker to Samuel Shoemaker, October 20, 1784.

When British troops evacuated New York City at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, many Americans who had supported the British sailed with them. Among the loyalists sailing “home” to England was Quaker Philadelphian Samuel Shoemaker and his young son, Edward. Samuel had been in British-occupied New York since 1778, relocating there after the British ended their occupation of Philadelphia. When Samuel left for England, Rebecca Rawle Shoemaker (1734-1819), his wife and Edward’s mother, stayed behind in Philadelphia with the three children from her first marriage. Since the family’s property had been confiscated by the revolutionaries as punishment for their loyalty to Britain, Shoemaker and her children moved in with her mother. From there, she wrote her husband, she could look across the street and see her old house “in which I suffered so much distress” (January 14, 1784).

This letter and more are in a leatherbound notebook of approximately 120 pages kept by Rebecca Shoemaker to preserve copies of the letters she sent her husband and son while they were exiled in England between 1783 and 1786. The volume was recently acquired by the Manuscript Division for use by researchers interested in the Revolutionary War, the fate of loyalists after the war, and the experience of Philadelphia’s Quaker community in this period. Shoemaker was also attentive to events affecting Quakers and loyalists in New York, where she had connections.

As a woman, Shoemaker could neither vote nor hold office, but this did not prevent her from keeping her husband informed of events in Congress and in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Unlike many women, who received limited schooling, she seems to have had a superior education. When she died at age eighty-five, a lengthy obituary reported that “the intellectual faculties of Mrs. Shoemaker were in every stage of her life remarkable. Her understanding, originally clear and powerful, was improved by a thorough acquaintance with books and mankind.” This, despite some faulty spelling, is apparent in her letters, as is her sometimes acerbic perspective. “Hugh David & Sally Greenleaf have mad an elopement together,” she wrote, “Sally has money & Hugh is Handsome” (December 29, 1784).

Shoemaker noted the precarious situation of loyalists, and also of Quakers, whom some other Pennsylvanians resented for their pacifism. In 1784 she sent her husband a pamphlet on legislation concerning repeal of Pennsylvania’s “test law.” Pennsylvania’s 1777 Act of Allegiance, also known as the “test act” or “test law” required white male Pennsylvanians to take an oath of allegiance to the state. Those who did not were excluded from important aspects of public life, including voting, holding office, and making real estate transactions. This disadvantaged Quakers, who in addition to refusing to take up arms, did not take oaths. Shoemaker wrote hopelessly, “… we have now lost all expectation of a repeal or revirsal of the test law,” and added, “but we are still to be governed by these creatures—who will never do anything to enable you to return here” (December 29, 1784). She was ultimately wrong about the test act, which was later repealed. Things also improved for the loyalists. While on November 30, 1783, she wrote of “evil treatment” and “threats” to loyalists, less than a month later, soon after the British left the continent, she wrote that loyalists can now “walk dayly & publickly about the streets” without meeting “incivility or insult” (December 13, 1783).

Shoemaker had a front seat when General George Washington passed through Philadelphia after seeing off the British in New York. She wrote: “We are now (but I will not say we for I am sure, I bear no part in it) in the height of rejoicing. Gen W. has been in town all this week & has been, tis to be entertained at several publick dinners” (December 13, 1783). Her letters are interesting not only for her descriptions of what happened, but also for what she and the people around her thought might happen. Her speculations on the future of Guy Carleton (1724-1808), the last commander of British forces in the American colonies, are an example of this.

Carleton was appointed in 1782 to oversee the evacuation of British forces and loyalists, and he left with them in 1783, but Shoemaker told her husband that she had heard (November 30, 1783) that Carleton would instead be coming to Philadelphia, possibly in some diplomatic role. Soon she learned that “Sir G.C.” was actually on his way to England. “I do not know what the general’s own feelings might have been,” she wrote, “I think it must be humiliating that the commander in chief of the British Army should stay here, at least while civil affairs are conducted with so little spirit & reputation for Congress whatever they may once have been, are certainly at present very little respected” (December 13, 1783).

This is just a sampling of the themes these letters contain. Shoemaker’s letters to her son include an assurance that “the most minute incident is interesting to me from those I love & my affection is not abated since we parted” (September 19, 1784). And there is more, for example, about the annual freezing of the rivers, which impeded the movement of mail, a subject of concern to her; her efforts to cope with the confiscation of family property, including her country house, Laurel Hill; the doings of family, friends, and neighbors, as well as prominent people such as artist Charles Willson Peale, abolitionist Anthony Benezet, loyalist Joseph Galloway, and former New York chief justice William Smith; and the definition of home.

Before the Revolution, many Americans of British descent, including the Shoemakers, thought of England as “home.” American-born loyalists in England were sometimes forced to learn otherwise. Shoemaker wrote her husband when he had been gone less than a year: “I need not tell thee that I do prefer America—and I believe thee does too & I do hope that kind Providence will yet be pleased to open a way for thy return” (October 20, 1784). He did finally return in 1786, at which point his wife’s letters to him come to an end.

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“Samuel had been…” For another loyalist acquisition in the Manuscript Division see: Julie Miller, “New Acquisition: 1783 Petition of a Revolutionary War Loyalist,” Library of Congress Blog, July 26, 2017. Link.

“When Samuel left…” Biographical information about the Shoemakers comes from: “Memorial of Saml Shoemaker Esq,” in Hugh Edward Egerton, ed., The Royal Commission on the Losses and Services of American Loyalists 1783-1784 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1971), 283-284; Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 117-118, 125, 143; “Samuel Shoemaker” in Gregory Palmer, Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1984), 783; William Brooke Rawle, “Laurel Hill and Some Colonial Dames who Once Lived There,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 35 (1911), 388-414; obituary for “Mrs. Rebecca Shoemaker,” Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), December 25, 1819, 3. This obituary gives her age at death as 85. A collection of Shoemaker Family Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania includes a typescript copy of these letters, as well as other Shoemaker family letters and diaries.

“When she died…” Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), December 25, 1819, 3.

“1777 Act of Allegiance…” Karen Guenther, “A Crisis of Allegiance: Berks County, Pennsylvania Quakers and the War for Independence,” Quaker History 90 (Fall 2001), 21.

“She was ultimately wrong…” Guenther, “A Crisis,” 32n20.

“home”… For Shoemaker’s use of the word “home” in reference to England, see her letters to Samuel Shoemaker of December 13, 1783 (“let us hope that your going home now is the right time”) and August 8, 1784 (“I am told Jacob Watson’s wife went home in the ship with Dr. Malet.”)

“He did finally return”… Rawle, “Laurel Hill,” 411 and Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles, 143.

Comments (2)

  1. William Rawle Shoemaker, a descendent, of Rebecca Rawle Shoemaker, attended the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1800s. He graduated, served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. He attained the rank of Rear Admiral and later a U.S. Navy base was named in his honor during World War II. Thus this family history goes from somewhat disgraced to honored. This is why I love history and these wonderful blogs. Thanks.

  2. Fascinating!

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