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Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts Trials: 1778 - Chosen As Examples

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There is little doubt that both men received fair trials. They had first-rate counsel—James Wilson, a lawyer for both, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and one of the best lawyers in America. But on the basis of the evidence presented, both men were guilty of treason under Pennsylvania law. The question about their trials relates to the comparative fairness of their sentences. Several other defendants, shown to have committed equally serious offenses, were acquitted on technicalities or given much lighter punishment by the same court. It seems clear that Carlisle and Roberts were singled out for harsh treatment on the basis of something other than their acts.

That basis was political necessity. McKean was convinced that it was essential for the courts to take control of the punishment of collaborators, and for them to show that they were prepared to be severe, in order to head off the danger of private revenge and mob violence in a wartime situation. In other words, a few defendants had to be sentenced to death to show that the courts meant business. McKean, not a bloodthirsty man, hoped that the sentence could be reversed at a higher level—hence his petition to the State Executive Council.

Carlisle and Roberts were selected because their guilt was clear and because they were older men of some prominence in the community. McKean, in an earlier case not involving treason, had commented that it did little good to execute a poor, obscure defendant, since his death would have less effect on people's behavior than that of a defendant who was of high status and widely known. By sending the two men to be hanged, the courts showed that wealth and prominence were no protection against strict justice.

Carlisle and Roberts were both Quakers. There were suggestions at the time, which have been repeated since, that their deaths were part of a persecution of Quakers by the Pennsylvania authorities, who resented the Quakers' refusal to fight on the American side because of their peace testimony. In fact, the pro-British actions of both men were inconsistent with the peace testimony of the Society of Friends. They were disowned by the Philadelphia Meeting, which refused to seek a pardon for either man, although it deplored the severity of their sentences. No other Quakers were put to death.

Other collaborators who stayed in Philadelphia suffered no private violence or vigilante justice in the years after 1778. After the war ended, most of them were accepted by their neighbors. The executions of Carlisle and Roberts may or may not have been related to this outcome.

Hendrik Booraem V

Suggestions for Further Reading

Oosterhout, Anne M. "A State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution."

Contributions in American History, no. 123. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Rowe, G. S. Embattled Bench: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Forging of a Democratic Society, 1684-1809. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

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