A self-made man with no patience for social niceties, John Adams described himself as “obnoxious and unpopular” in his advocacy for Independence, and many of his upper-class peers at the Second Continental Congress agreed.
For Adams, America was in the right. Strained social and economic ties with England had to be severed on principle. He was willing to gamble his own reputation, and even his life, on this position.
“Thanks to God that he gave me stubborness when I know I am right,” Adams once said.
Even when he achieved his goal in July 1776, Adams realized his victory simply cleared the way for yet another battle.
“You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” wrote Adams to his wife shortly after the Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Through all the gloom,” he wrote soon after the Declaration of Independence, “I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory!”
Yet many members of the prosperous Philadelphia establishment were unnerved by the Declaration and the hot-headedness of New Englanders like Adams.
The Cliveden estate
Averse to war because of their Quaker heritage, they were even more terrified of the disruption of trade. One of the most prominent was a friend of John Adams: fellow attorney Benjamin Chew, chief justice of Pennsylvania.
Benjamin Chew (1722-1810) embodied many of the contradictions in colonial American society. Born a Quaker, he was a Philadelphia lawyer with financial interests in England.
He was also a slaveholder with extensive Southern landholdings. Respected throughout the colonies as a jurist, Chew was intelligent but no ideological firebrand. He advocated for the rights of the colonies, but abhorred violence and did not want to lose the lucrative legal patronage of the London-based Penn family.
His family seat was a massive stone Georgian mansion perched atop a knoll in the bucolic suburb of Germantown. Named Cliveden, its namesake was a British country house where the famed song “Rule, Britannia” was first performed.
Completed in 1767, Chew’s mansion was one of the largest homes in North America, comparable with George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Yet as a summer residence it was no frilly bagatelle — it was sturdy, practical, and built to last the ages.
The estate consisted of acres of manicured gardens, as well as a coach barn and slave quarters.
‘Where there is no law, there is no freedom’
Adams himself was a guest at Cliveden. Although he looked askance at the lavish lifestyles of the Philadelphia elite, his friend Benjamin Chew’s hospitality made a deep impression.
“I drank madeira at a great rate and found no inconvenience in it,” he wrote in his diary. He no doubt saw in his friend’s library a bookcase topped with a bust of John Locke, the great English philosopher. “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain,” Locke wrote, “but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”
Soon after Independence was declared, prominent moderates like Benjamin Chew were caught in the maelstrom. He was stripped of his office, arrested as a suspected Tory, and detained in New Jersey. And some of the bloodiest fighting of the American Revolution took place at his idyllic Germantown home.
After defeating General Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine, the British Army marched into Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, and many in London suspected the rebellion was finally crushed. Yet Washington refused to leave Philadelphia with his tail between his legs.
Rallying his demoralized Continental Army of 11,000 men, he planned an attack on the strongest building in Germantown: the deserted Chew mansion, now being used as a fortress by 120 British soldiers under Colonel Musgrave.
Washington trained all the heavy artillery he could on the house, and let loose a barrage of cannonballs. British soldiers firing from the house’s second story cut dozens of the charging Continentals down. Cannonballs bounced off the schist walls. The front door could not be broken because it was reinforced with metal plating. A few Continentals broke into the library. Musgrave’s men brutally shot and bayonetted them, spattering their blood on Chew’s legal books and fine English furniture.
With 153 of his men dead and 500 wounded, Washington gave up and retreated to Valley Forge. As the Continental Army shivered and starved, Benjamin Chew’s daughter Peggy danced with Major John André at the lavish Mischianza ball held in honor of the departing British General Howe.
Restoration and reconciliation
In the meantime, Cliveden, one of the grandest houses in America, was in ruins. Walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, its roof broken and open to the winter sky. Dried blood caked its floors, and rotting corpses lay scattered on the lawn.
Benjamin Chew was released a year after the Battle of Germantown. He took one look at his beloved mansion and decided it was not worth repairing. It was not until 1797 that he repurchased the house and restored it to its former grandeur.
The Chews reconciled with many leaders of the American Revolution. When Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital, they entertained George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and even John Adams.
Yet by the early 1800s, the Chews’ position as slaveholders in a free state had become untenable, and Benjamin Chew Jr. divested the family estate of its Southern landholdings. A letter sent to his aging father reveals the younger Chew’s mixed feelings of family duty and personal disgust as a participant in chattel slavery.
“I found it absolutely necessary to return to this Place which I did last Evening and tomorrow sell off the Remains of any poor Uncle John’s Remnants,” Benjamin Jr. wrote his father on November 15, 1809. “I have fortunately succeeded in providing Homes for all but 7 or 8 of the Black People—a Task indeed of the most conflicting Difficulty—I have I believe succeeded in giving the poor Creatures as much Satisfaction as they could have, under a disappointment in not having their Freedom bequeathed to them…”
A reminder of the revolution
The Chews lived at Cliveden until 1972, when they donated the house and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Visitors can still see Benjamin Chew’s law library, the John Locke bookcase, the bullet holes, the front lawn, and the slave quarters.
After the Declaration was signed, John Adams predicted that Independence Day would be marked by “Pomp and Parade with shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
As the birthplace of America, Philadelphia justly deserves to celebrate with “pomp and parade” on Independence Mall. Yet amidst the celebration, Cliveden stands as a reminder of other aspects of the Revolution: the sacrifice of “Toil and Blood and Treasure,” the conflict between master and slave, and the reconciliation of Patriot and Loyalist.