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Never Take Kinship Personally: Confronting Slavery, Masculinity, and Family in Revolutionary America

From: Quaker History
Volume 103, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 17-35 | 10.1353/qkh.2014.0005

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Suffering from a “severe spell of sickness,” David Cooper spent most of 1751 confined to his room. One night of that year, he was awoken by loud knocking at his front door. Startled and worried that the noise might wake his pregnant wife Sybil and his two young children, David gathered the strength to get out of bed. Upon answering the door, he laid eyes on his beloved younger brother John, who he had not seen in months.

John Cooper was caught in a “violent hurricane” while traveling in the West Indies and was “thought to be lost.” Now John had suddenly returned from beyond his watery grave, causing David to admit he “had never known such an effect from joy.” David was speechless, declaring that “The surprise was so great that I could not speak to him, but the tears gushed from my eyes.”

John Cooper evaded this brush with death in the West Indies, and later became a leader of the American Revolution, author of the New Jersey Constitution of 1776, and First Judge of Gloucester County, New Jersey. He was also elected to the Second Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence. John chose to ignore Quaker doctrine instructing Friends to distance themselves from the Revolution and maintain their allegiance to the “power that be.” As a result of his political actions, John was disowned by the Society of Friends, causing his familial relationships to deteriorate.

John’s family had prematurely mourned his death in 1751. Thirty-four years later, in 1785, he did pass away, but “without any of his relations being present, or even having the knowledge that he was ill.” Upon hearing of John’s death, David reflected that he and John “had been as nearly united as perhaps two brothers ever were.” But the two had not spoken in over eight years, causing David to lament that he had not been able to give “a last farewell to one who had been very dear.”

The Cooper brothers spent their lives linked together, but became divided by a subtle, albeit significant, difference in their approaches to Quaker theology and the American Revolution. They embody the struggle of those who navigated through changing conceptions of what it meant to be a Quaker, an American, and a man during the late eighteenth century. Drawing on Quaker meeting records, tax records, and the personal papers of the Cooper family members, this work offers an analysis of the Cooper brothers’ personal, spiritual, and political struggles as they pursued markedly different paths. It offers a microcosmic view of the moral uncertainty, dual loyalties, and role conflicts faced by many eighteenth century Quaker men as a result of familial and communal ties, class consciousness, civic engagement, religious affiliation, and conflicting notions of masculinity.

Yet despite their differences, the Cooper brothers found common, ethical ground on which to stand during the last years of their lives. An examination of the Coopers’ abolitionist efforts elucidates the fact that although David and John followed different paths during the Revolution and may have disagreed on what it meant to be a man, they were reunited in the cause of abolitionism during the final years of their lives because they were both good men.

The Coopers of the Delaware Valley

The Cooper brothers were born in Woodbury, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River, directly east of Philadelphia. Both their maternal and paternal grandparents arrived in southwestern New Jersey during the latter half of the seventeenth century. The Coopers’ maternal grandfather Benjamin Clarke was one of the first Quaker abolitionists, writing against the institution in the late seventeenth century. William Cooper, their paternal grandfather, was a minister in Hertfordshire, England, and an acquaintance of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Coopers’ grandparents had helped transform the “untamed” territory of southwestern New Jersey into an “idyllic, peaceful countryside, with an air that was very clear, sweet and wholesome.”

John Cooper Sr.—David and John’s father—received a generous inheritance from his grandfather’s will. He and his cousin “were made tenants in common of all land belonging to him,” and...

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