William Rawle: Abolitionist, Federalist, Loyalist?
In his life, William Rawle was involved in the creation of many of the United States’ new institutions. He was the first president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in its infancy, and the founder of Rawle and Henderson Law firm, now recognized as the oldest law firm in the nation. Yet, prior to these positions, he grew up in a wealthy Loyalist Quaker household with his stepfather, Samuel Shoemaker, and mother Rebecca Warner Rawle Shoemaker. Growing up in a Loyalist household made William’s journey to finding a deep love for America, and its history, an interesting journey.
William, born in 1759, was only two years old when his father, Francis Rawle, died. A couple years later, his mother married Samuel Shoemaker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1769-1770. The family was very well off, as they spent their summers at Laurel Hill, in what is now a part of Fairmount Park and can still be toured today. Having a country retreat was normal for people of their status and the area became a safe haven for the rich of Philadelphia to escape the heat and disease of the city. As Quakers, the family stayed neutral when the Revolution broke out. Then when the British occupied Philadelphia, Samuel Shoemaker joined the occupation by helping with law enforcement in the City. Convicted of high treason once the British had fled, Samuel had no choice but to leave Philadelphia for New York, and he took William with him.
Sailing first to New York, and then to England, William kept a diary of his travels and wrote letters often. He never stated his political views at the time, and he only mentioned that he left due to his sense of filial duty. While in England, he received his law degree from Middle Temple, and his writing illustrated his frustration over the lack of equality in England. He disapproved of the emphasis of rank and birth over merit and skill; his writing consistently noted how American citizens have true equality regardless of birth which he found much more appealing. He eventually wrote his frustrations to his mother and sailed home in 1783.
Upon arrival, he joined “The Society for Political Inquiries,” where he discussed politics with revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Paine; their minutes are still held here at HSP. He latched onto the federalist ideas in support of the U.S. Constitution and wrote “A View of the Constitution of the United States” that is still used by law students as an early interpretation that focused on a strong central government. He hailed George Washington as an admirable man and was appointed by Washington to the position of US attorney for Pennsylvania. William devoted the rest of his life to preserving the history of America and upholding the law in Philadelphia. He fought for Native American and African American equal rights and maintained his Quaker religion until his death in 1836. During his inaugural address to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he stated that the institution would not hold an “apathy to progress” rather he wanted “no opportunity to be lost” in preserving the interests of those in the present time for future generations.
If you wish to visit Laurel Hill, the summer home of William Rawle, please visit laurelhillmansion.org for a list of events or just stop by Thursday-Sunday 10am-4pm.
Alicia M. Parks
Laurel Hill Mansion, Marketing Manager and Guide
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Education Intern
Thank you to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for their kind permission to post this article by Alicia M. Parks.