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‘“When Friends Had the Management It Was Entirely Different”: Quakers and Calvinists in the Making of New York Prison Discipline

From: Quaker History
Volume 97, Number 2, Fall 2008
pp. 19-40 | 10.1353/qkh.0.0011

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In an 1818 letter, New York reformer and Friend, Thomas Eddy, bemoaned the state of New York City’s prison. He listed recent examples of civil servants’ bad management. He pointed to the institution’s increasingly high deficits. In his letter to the British Quaker and activist, William Allen, Eddy shared his cure for these ills, namely a discipline based on congregate labor by day and solitary confinement by night. Most notably, Eddy compared the present problems in the prison system with a time, about 15 years earlier, when he and some reforming colleagues administered the institution. To his colleague Allen, he wrote, “When Friends had the management,” he wrote, “it was entirely different.”1

Eddy was one among many English and American citizens lobbying for changes to the penal code at the end of the eighteenth century. These reformers of various persuasions argued that bodily punishments were barbaric, unfit for enlightened nations. The Americans among them added that bloody penalties were particularly unsuitable in a democratic republic. Many of these reformers, Eddy included, proposed incarceration as a humane alternative to the pillory and the gallows. In the 1790s, Pennsylvania and New York started building prisons. Other states soon followed.

While citizens from many backgrounds played a role in the penal reform movement, a great number, including Eddy, were committed members of the Society of Friends. Both in England and America, Quakers and their sympathizers influenced significant legal change. John Howard, an English nonconformist and admirer of the Society, proposed several changes to British penal law. In the U.S., Quakers dominated the Pennsylvania Society for the Alleviation of the Miseries of the Public Prisons. These Friends and their colleagues from other Christian denominations proved influential in Philadelphia’s experiments with solitary confinement at the Walnut Street Jail in the 1790s. Friends such as Eddy lobbied for the creation of New York’s famous Auburn prison discipline, which was copied in prisons around the country. This Quaker connection lingers in popular memory. When I tell people about my research on the religious roots of the American penal system, they look at me knowingly and reply, “Ah, the Quakers.”2

But what is it about the Friends and their prison work that makes us identify them so closely with penal reform to the exclusion of other groups? To take words from Eddy’s letter, how was the Friends’ management so different? To be sure, literature abounds on this topic. Several historians have detailed Quaker participation in a variety of nineteenth-century disciplinary institutions, including asylums, workhouses, and free schools. Nevertheless, work on Quaker actions in the developing prison system exhibits several problems. First, these treatments often deal vaguely with the Society’s beliefs and practices. The writers point to the Friends’ love of silence and the Inward Light to explain their preference for solitary confinement. A few observe that Quaker discipline probably played a part as well. But these are usually gestures to big (and I should add, contested) ideas. They present an essentially unified and uncomplicated picture of Quakerism.3

The second problem is related to these vagaries about Quaker thought and practice. Most histories of the early prisons portray gentle Quaker reformers as a vivid foil to bloodthirsty Calvinists who simply loved to see somebody swing from the gallows. This is worrisome not only because these accounts look like good-guy/bad-guy history. But more importantly, at least in the groundbreaking context of New York’s prisons, they are simply wrong. Calvinist prison reformers, like their Quaker counterparts, believed in inmate reformation through labor, reflection, and solitary confinement.4

How is that these two groups, usually perceived to be opposed in all things, could share in the spirit of the prison’s creation and, later, its reform? First, consider anthropology. I am not alone in arguing that Thomas Eddy’s work with prisoners was informed by the Society’s understanding of human connectedness and the Inward Light. In a report to the legislature, Eddy affirmed the prison’s work to help the “whole family of mankind.” Every person, even the prisoner, was connected by the presence of the Light within. The lawbreaker’s circumstances simply blocked the Light...

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