Response to the Riot Outside James Wilson’s House

Response to the Riot Outside James Wilson’s House

October 16, 1779

When passion and mistake give way to candor and benevolence, we sensibly forget the injury in contemplating the effect, and pay a reverence to virtue tho’ provoked into action by a fault. The late unfortunate affair of the fourth inst. will, to different minds, administer a different medicine. Surviving relations will feel as nature teaches; their part requires no invention, needs no apology, and whoever were to blame they are to be pitied. Those who unfortunately fell on either side, have paid a martyrdom to mistake, and distinguished themselves as the lamented victims of wasted bravery. In the softer sentiments of a thoughtful world, the whole affair will become a subject of concern; and the only consolation it affords is the hope of feeling the same degree of spirit exerted against the enemy, which, warped by error and aggravated by passion, produced a tumult in which no one enemy fell.

The countenance of the city during that affair, wore an unusual contemplative gloominess. It had nothing of that heated appearance which accompanies the disturbances of other countries, and was totally void of that eagerness of enterprise which takes place against a known enemy. Neither Whig nor Tory could rejoice; all were at a stand, concern produced in the one what dread created in the other; and on once the city was affectedly united.

Neither can I see any hope the enemy can derive, when they learn the story with its causes and consequences. As a misfortune which we lament, it may to them become a matter of malignant joy; but it promises them nothing; it neither gives encouragement to their arms, nor invitation to their artifice; it neither indicates unwillingness to the field, nor wariness in resisting. On the contrary, it holds out to them a redundancy of zeal, a vehemence of spirit, which, however injudicious in its plans, or unfortunate in its effects, was intentionally aimed at their abettors.

It was the fourth of October. The anniversary of the action at Germantown. A day, distinguished by perplexities and consigned to misfortune. Whether the circumstance occurred at the time the matter was concerted, is what I have not authority even to guess upon; but be that as it may, we cannot but lament that the events of the evening should, in both instances, close with a tear the spirits of the morning.

As it is one of those occurrences which it is unpleasant to enquire into, I wish not to know more than I already know, nor indulge any other thoughts on the subjects than what may tend to abate the painfulness of remembrance, and extinguish the acrimony which error may have kindled. It is over, and thank God it was no worse. But were nothing said, the matter might suffer abroad by aggravated misinterpretation. The deaths of three men might be multiplied into as many hundreds, and perpetuity be added to the contention of an hour.

That nothing more was meant by those who assembled on the Commons than to remove persons suspected of disaffection, is universally consented to, and in this light their design was naturally prompted by an attachment to the cause of an injured country. The difficulty of attempting such a measure, the hazard of executing it, and the consequences which might probably ensue, without first obtaining an authoritative sanction and consent, were matters which do not always accompany an excess of zeal. Those whose talent it is to act, are seldom much devoted to deliberate thinking; and feeling that they mean well, they suppose it impossible to be wrong, and in the confidence of success overlook the trouble that lies concealed. Where is the man who has not, in his turn, exclaimed, that the Tories ought to be removed; and who had those men laid hold of, that could be deemed a Whig? The measure, while it existed in words, was a measure of popularity; and every one who has promoted it in conversation, has prompted them on.

On what occasion, or by what contrivance a number of Gentlemen were brought together in Mr. Wilson’s house, makes up the most mysterious part of the business. As far as I can discover, I cannot find the least trace whereon to conclude that any one who went there had the least reason to be apprehensive of his own safety. They must, in general, have been induced by misrepresentation tho’ some, I am well assured, were led by a generous intention of preventing mischief; and pity it is their advice was not taken. That Mr. Wilson is not a favourite in the State, is a matter which, I presume, he is fully sensible of, yet the difference is exceedingly great, between no being in favor and being considered as an enemy. But that he who never armed when the country was in danger, should arm his house to provoke danger, and draw to it a number of Gentlemen at the hazard of their lives, when a timely application to the Civil Power might have prevented every thing, was at once both unconstitutional and unfriendly, a disregard to the laws of the State and the peace of the city. By this imprudent conduct, parties became pitted who knew not each other; and that which had the appearance of a challenge, produced an action.

The affliction which followed, soon extended itself over the city. Every one asked what was the matter; how it began, who were the persons, with every other question of curiosity concern, and still the matter was inveloped in darkness; some supposed one thing, and some another, without being able to satisfy themselves or those who enquired. But when the parties in and out of the house were known, and became known to each other, the animosity began to [surface]; and the whole, exclusive of the imprudence, explained itself into a tragedy of errors.

It generally happens that distress is the forerunner of benevolence; at least it serves to quicken into action that which might otherwise might take a longer time to awake. The sickness that has so generally prevailed through the city, added to the misfortune already mentioned, has been the means of setting on foot two well intended subscriptions; the one for the relief of the families of those who were killed or wounded on the fourth instant, the other for the relief of the sick and distressed in the several wards. Both of them have been liberally supported; and most of the persons both in and out of the house, who could afford it, have been ample contributors. How different this, to that spirit of rancor which generally accompanies, and most assuredly succeeds, premeditated domestic feuds. It calls back the mind to a state of serenity; and shews, by the most convincing proofs, that the affair, now too late to be remedied, was not the quarrel of enemies or of parties, but the unfortunate blunder of friends.

C_ S_