Fort Wilson: Fighting Familiar Foes: The Battle at Fort Wilson

Photograph of exterior of Fort Wilson.

205 S 3rd Street

At 205 S. 3rd Street, an apartment complex now stands on the site of the former home of James Wilson. Wilson is usually associated with Independence Hall (then the Pennsylvania State House)—just a couple blocks away—where he and other founders debated and drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787. He, however, was very involved in the creation of a government for the new state of Pennsylvania as well. And it did not just happen behind closed doors!

Sometimes Philadelphians took to the streets to quarrel over important issues, such as who should be allowed to vote and how much power the elected should hold. In 1779, Wilson and other Philadelphians clashed violently at his home over these issues. The Battle at Fort Wilson, as the incident was known, came to symbolize Philadelphians’ struggle to define the republic.

For many Americans, the Revolution was not just a rebellion against the British, but against traditional power hierarchies in their local governments. In Pennsylvania, this battle was led by two political segments of the Whigs: the Constitutionalists and the Republicans. Pennsylvania Whigs (or those who supported the Revolution) had come together to declare colonial independence from Great Britain in 1776. Their members, however, disagreed strongly on several political, economic, and social issues in the years that followed. On one side of the Whig political spectrum were the Constitutionalists. They wanted more - and more diverse - people to have a say in the new government. Led by Philadelphians like Thomas Paine, Charles Willson Peale, David Rittenhouse, Timothy Matlack, and others, they got their name because they supported the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution. It extended citizenship to a greater number of people by eliminating voting restrictions like property requirements.

Many Constitutionalists, however, were less inclusive when it came to accepting people who did not share their radical worldview. They insisted Pennsylvanians take a loyalty oath and foreswear the British monarch. Those who refused on political grounds (like Loyalists and those who were neutral about independence) and those who declined based on religious beliefs (like Quakers) were stripped of their rights to hold office, vote, bear arms, and buy or sell property. To many Constitutionalists, anyone who refused to take the loyalty oath or participate in the patriot war effort was deemed suspect and duly terrorized by a fearful, and often violent, segment of the population.

Whigs who opposed the Constitutionalists were known as anti-Constitutionalists, or Republicans. Their leaders, like James Wilson and Robert Morris, believed that the Constitutionalists’ democratic tendencies promoted mob rule. They also worried that persecuting Loyalists, neutrals, and even moderates would alienate a large segment of the population, including the state’s wealthy Quaker elite.

The two parties also differed over how to solve the serious financial problems facing the Pennsylvania population at the time of the Revolution. Republicans looked to free trade, while the Constitutionalists believed in commercial regulation and price-fixing.. The Republicans wanted to seek help from wealthy businessmen, while the Constitutionalists blamed them for the state’s economic failures. In early 1779, the Constitutionalists even formed a committee to investigate Morris, whom they accused of profiteering and monopolizing commodities.

When investigations and price-fixing failed to curb inflation, Constitutionalist leaders backed off. The Pennsylvania militia, however, decided to take a more violent tack. Congregating at a tavern on Front and Walnut Streets on October 4, the militiamen marched into town to hunt down Republican leaders. James Wilson, Robert Morris, and nearly thirty others had gathered on Chestnut Street, believing they had strength in numbers. When faced with “that many headed monster (the Mob),” as described in Francis Holland’s letter to Wilson, , the Republicans retreated to Wilson’s house and barred the doors. The militia surrounded the house, taunting their cornered adversaries. Soon both sides began firing their weapons, and the conflict escalated into an all-out battle. Just as the mob managed to break down one of the doors, Constitutionalist leaders Charles Willson Peale and Timothy Matlack intervened, bringing two companies of Light Dragoons to restore order. Six men were killed and many more wounded in the conflict.

The following week, the Constitutionalists trounced the Republicans in the state elections. The battle at Wilson’s house had only boosted the Constitutionalists’ popularity and increased Pennsylvanians’ commitment to a more socially inclusive government, if one that also had little tolerance for dissent. Neighbors who joined together in favor of a new republic found themselves firing at each other in the streets of Old City over who would have a say in that government. For many Philadelphians, the Revolution was not just fought on distant battlefields, but often took place on local fronts with more familiar foes.