- Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment
In an especially brisk and dramatic narrative, Kevin Kenny tells the tragic story of Pennsylvania’s declension from its beginnings as a “Holy Experiment” to its numbing end in bloodshed and warfare. That basic story line is evident in previous works by Francis Jennings, James Merrell, Jane Merritt, Daniel Richter, William Pencak, and Peter Silver. But Peaceable Kingdom Lost is distinguished by Kevin Kenny’s narrative skill. This well-researched book is ideal for use in history courses as a readable and engaging narrative that very ably synthesizes much of the recent scholarship on Indian-European relations in colonial and revolutionary Pennsylvania.
Kenny’s well-told, yet familiar story is premised on the notion of Penn’s “holy experiment” where racial coexistence was writ into the colony’s foundation. [End Page 365] The author describes Penn as having a “benign spirit,” and an “unusual respect and decency” in his dealings with Native peoples (2). Kenny acknowledges, however, that Penn’s experiment was “already in decline by the time of his death in 1718” (3). Over the course of the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania’s relentless settlement expansion, along with the colonial government’s imperialistic collusions with the Iroquois Confederacy, led to displacement of the region’s original Native inhabitants from their lands. The Walking Purchase of 1737 symbolized the unholy experiment that Pennsylvania had become under William Penn’s descendants. By 1755, the Delawares, Shawnees, and other Natives of the Ohio Country waged an incredibly destructive war against the colonists who had earlier displaced them. Overall, the work is more a portrait of the destroyers of the Peaceable Kingdom, not the destroyed. One significant improvement to the narrative would be a more detailed examination of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Iroquois worlds. For example, Iroquois dominance and Delaware passivity is a bit overstated throughout the book. Greater skepticism is also needed regarding stories that express European gender stereotypes, such as the incident in 1742 where Canassatego disparaged the Delawares as women and allegedly dragged the sachem Nutimus by his hair out of the conference room (49). It is highly doubtful that any self-respecting Delaware sachem would allow anyone to seize his sacred scalplock and humiliate him. Using a European vocabulary—“king,” “succession,” “heir”—to describe Native political structures unfortunately misrepresents how Native leadership actually functioned (49, 54).
As an accomplished scholar of Irish history and Irish American history, however, Kenny focuses attention on the Ulster Presbyterians who were at the forefront of the Peaceable Kingdom’s grisly end in 1763: first with the Paxton Boys’ massacre of the Conestoga Indians, their menacing march on Philadelphia itself, and their political challenge to Pennsylvania’s government. With thorough research in Pennsylvania manuscript collections, Kenny reconstructs the events that led Pennsylvania’s “most aggressive colonists” to murder the Conestoga Indians (3). Kenny explains in a helpful appendix that most of the Paxton Boys “will forever remain anonymous,” though he identifies Rev. John Elder, Lazarus Stewart, and Matthew Smith as important ringleaders (237). The vigilantes were violent men “who did more than declare an end to Pennsylvania’s Peaceable Kingdom. They ushered in the new order that reached fruition during the American Revolution” (5). Indeed, the book is particularly effective in demonstrating the relationships between the Paxton crisis and the origins of the Revolution [End Page 366] in Pennsylvania. The political aftermath of the massacre—including the pamphlet wars that erupted—“destablized the provincial government to an extent the Paxton Boys could never have imagined possible” (191). Readers will readily see how incredibly fragile colonial law and authority was, particularly among the backcountry settlers who defied all proprietary attempts to bring the Paxton Boys to jail or to justice. One of Kenny’s finest sections is his methodical tracing of Pennsylvania’s serpentine political factions from 1763 to the beginning of the Revolution, and how those factions emerged from the Paxton crisis. In...