The Best Poor Man’s Country in the World

In the 18th century, many Europeans entered the colonies as indentured servants. Conditions were improving, but autonomy was a rare commodity.

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In his 1743 memoir, “The Infortunate,” Moraley detailed his sad circumstances and vague notions of bettering them in the Americas. In what appeared to him a chance encounter, an unknown man encouraged this flight of fancy and signaled that he would join William in Pennsylvania. After plying young Moraley with pints and sweet stories about American abundance, the two prepared and signed William’s indenture contract of five years. Once aboard ship, the recruiter disappeared to lull another fool into the trap.

Klepp & Smith, eds. The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant. Penn State University Press. 1992.

Reid-Maroney, Nina. Philadelphia’s Enlightenment, 1740-1800: Kingdom of Christ, Empire of Reason. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press. 2001.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin Books. 2001.

Anthony Comegna: In 1693, while Puritan New Englanders solemnly reflected on the Salem Trials, Philadelphia’s main quaker meeting house erupted in shouts, and violence. These normally peaceful, humble folks, ignored their faith’s tradition of allowing each friend to address the gathering. When the competing factions failed to outshout one another, they attempted to destroy the opposing galleries. It wasn’t exactly New England’s witch mania, [00:00:30] or Virginia’s servile rebellions, but the divisions between Pennsylvania’s early Quakers point to the parts of America we love the most, and to the radicalism we lost long ago. This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of I’m Anthony Comegna.
In 1664, [00:01:00] Charles II’s brother, the Duke of York carved out two territories in the south of his American empire to a company of Scott’s, he granted East Jersey, more reserving West Jersey for his allies in search of religious toleration. One of the western proprietors was Admiral Penn’s young son William, who converted to Quakerism against the father’s will. Most early friends of God were of the middling sort, and the ostentatious, wealthy Penn was fairly unusual. [00:01:30] Penn inherited massive lands in England, and Ireland, including a personal estate is Sussex. He traveled with a small fleet of coaches, he was attended by eight servants, and he dressed as godly as any French Aristocrat at Versailles.
He received a personal income of about 2,000 pounds annually, and King Charles discharged a debt of 16,000 pounds by handing over 45,000 square miles in North America. Quakers were not necessarily antinomians, [00:02:00] but like Ann Hutchinson, they believed that the individual relationship with God, should not be impaired by earthly forces. Early Quakers indulged mystical philosophy, and radical politics. They disavowed all liturgies as catholic relics, then joined the papists in calls for toleration. Each individual friend was guided by their own inner light, and most practitioners disdained formalities of every sort. Puritan’s scorned Quakers as baseless, and lawless. Perhaps [00:02:30] they grew annoyed with naked friends disrupting morning services on both sides of the ocean. The friends joined the levelers, the diggers, the Hutchinsonian’s, and others on the radical edge of mid-century liberalism.
Under the influence of person’s like William Penn though, antinomians in the colonies lost much of that spirit. William Penn spent the year 1667 to 1671 in jail for spreading his religion, but his personal interests in the colonies helped [00:03:00] divide, and water down the Quaker movement. Gradually, Penn’s holy experiment to provide a free colony for all mankind, gave way to his own class interests and profit motive. In the early 1680’s, Penn wrangled 9,000 pounds from 600 English investors. In exchange, he granted them an average of over 1,000 acres each in the new world. Smart little fiefdoms for whomever could purchase one.
Half of the venture capitalists sailed to their new [00:03:30] homes, while the rest remained content as absentee landlords. Penn created the fastest growing colony in the British empire. The order he imposed there was one of brotherly love, and peace with the native inhabitants. But Penn also brought us a land plotted out by the master proprietor. Cities centrally planned into straight streets, neat rows of houses, centralized city parks, and the all-encompassing grid. It may have been a more cheerful, and friendly society [00:04:00] than those further north or south, but Penn’s Quaker city on the hill was yet another attempt by old world aristocrats to force their own personal visions on whole societies.
In the later 17th century, Penn’s variety of Quaker became much more common. These new [00:04:19] friends derived their wealth from the far corners of the empire, profiting from the slave trade in Africa, the sugar fields in the Caribbean, the Mid Atlantic fur trappers, and everything in [00:04:30] between. [00:04:31] friends connected Quaker communities across the world, and helped integrate their revolutionary faith into the new corporate capitalism.
In 1684, Penn returned to his family in England. During his absentee period, the assembly and colonial council generally ignored the proprietors instructions. Among the complaints that violently divided that 1693 Philadelphia meeting house, was a popular conviction that Penn and his handpicked elites [00:05:00] monopolized the choicest lands for themselves, while exacting harsh, futile; quit rent’s on the actual occupants and laborers.
In 1699, the year Penn returned to America, William Moraley was born in London to a family of modest means, with some land, and even a bit of aristocracy in its history. William’s parents intended to train him at law, but when the south seas bubble collapsed, much of the family fortune went with it. Unable [00:05:30] to pay for legal training, William apprenticed in watchmaking for his father in New Castle upon time until conflict poisoned their relationship beyond repair. William’s father disowned him and by 1729, he was in desperate circumstances. In his 1743 memoir, “The Unfortunate,” Moraley detailed his sad circumstances and vague notions of bettering them in the Americas.
In what appeared to him a chance encounter, an unknown man encouraged this flight of fancy, and [00:06:00] signaled that he would join William in Pennsylvania. After plying young Moraley with pints and sweet stories about American abundance, the two prepared, and signed William’s indenture contract of five years. Once aboard ship, the recruiter disappeared to lull another fool into the trap. Moraley immediately noted the sick faces on his company of fellows.
Speaker 2: Selections from the unfortunate, the voyage and adventures of William Moraley, and indentured [00:06:30] servant, 1743. “The money being soon spent and not readily falling into business, I was reduced to poverty. I had now my ingenuity to trust to, and it was in vain to expect any subsistence from my family. I, being resolute as not caring what became of me, it entered into my head to leave England, and sell myself for a term of years into the American plantations. Accordingly, I repaired to the royal [00:07:00] exchange to inform myself by the printed advertisements fixed against the walls of the ships bound to America, where musings by myself, a mana costed me in the following manner.”
“Sir, said he. I have for some time observed you, and fancy your condition of life as altered for the worse, and guess you have been in better circumstances. But, if you will take my advice, I’ll make it my business to find out some way, which may be of service to you. Perhaps [00:07:30] you may imagine, I have a design to inveigle you, but I assure you, I have none.” “The man appearing sincere, I gave ear to him. Sir said I, a person like me, oppressed by dame fortune. Need not care where he goes. All places are alike to me, and I’m very willing to accept of your offer if I could have some view of bettering my condition of life. Though I might’ve expected a better fate than to be forced to leave my native country, [00:08:00] but adverse fortune has become familiar to me by a series of misfortunes. So had rather leave a place where I have no prospect of advancing myself, than to continue here where I have no friends to relieve me. Besides, in a distant place not being known, no person can reflect on me for any ill management, which oftentimes discourages one’s friends from supporting one, knowing the ill use that is made of their support.”
“Sir, [00:08:30] says the person. I’m entirely of your way of thinking, and believe you will better yourself by following my advice. I will recommend you to the captain, who is bound for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, a country producing everything necessary for the support of life. When your time is expired, you’ll be free to live in any of the provinces of America.” “Then he asked me if I was bred to any business. I told him watchmaking was my occupation. [00:09:00] He said he was afraid I would not do for any other business, that being of little service to the Americans. The useful trades being brick layers, shoe makers, barbers, carpenters, joiners, smiths, weavers, bakers, tanners, and husbandmen more useful than all the rest.”
“They bind themselves for four years, but if I would consent to buying myself for five, he said he would undertake to get [00:09:30] me admitted. I absolutely agreed to go, and to that intent, we went before Sir Robert Baylis, Lord Mayor, where I was sworn as not being a married person, or an apprentice buying denture. He paid for my oath one hilling, a prerequisite of it’s clerk. From thence, we went to London Bridge, to a stationer shop, and there and indenture of servitude was drawn, which I signed. There were on board 20 persons, all men, [00:10:00] bound to the same place and on the same account. As soon as I entered the ship, my friend left me to think better on it, and wished me a prosperous voyage and a good wife. I observed several of my brother adventurers seemed very dejected from whence I guessed they repented of their rashness.”
Anthony Comegna: Throughout the 18th century, roughly half of all Europeans entering the colonies did so as indentured servants. Their conditions vastly improved [00:10:30] from the days of early Virginia, but autonomy was still a precious, and rare commodity. While earlier generations could expect land and supplies once their servitude was over, Moraley was one of 73,000 European immigrants to the colonies in the 1730’s, and one of 17,000 that arrived in Philadelphia alone. They couldn’t reasonably expect to own land, nor did these city dwellers and apprentices have much familiarity with farming. When we tunneled below the level of exceptionally [00:11:00] fortunate William Penn’s, and Benjamin Franklin’s, even early Pennsylvania was split into classes created by grants of corporate power and privilege.
Speaker 2: “During my stay at Philadelphia, which was three weeks, I had an opportunity to survey one of the most delightful cities upon earth. My master employed me in his business. I continued satisfied with him for some time, but being desire is to settle at Philadelphia. During the rest of my servitude, [00:11:30] I declared to him I would stay no longer, and desired of him to dispose of me to some other master, and insisted upon it. Agreeably to the tenure of my indenture, this demand made him cross to me, and I attempted an escape, but was taken and put into prison, but was soon released with a promise to satisfy my demand. I continued with him three years, he forgiving me the other two, I was ever after perfectly pleased with my master’s [00:12:00] behavior to me, which was generous.”
“Our family consisted of a wife, and two daughters with a nephew, a negro slave, a bought servant, and myself with the aforesaid gentle woman. Almost every inhabitant in the country have a plantation, some two or more, there being no land let as in England, where gentlemen live on the labor of the farmer to whom he grants a short lease, which expiring, he is either raised in his rent, or discharged his farm. [00:12:30] Here, they improve their lands themselves, with the assistance both of bought servants and Negros. This country produces not only almost every fruit, herb, and root as grows in Great Britain, but diver sorts unknown to us. The country is everywhere diversified with woods, and well manured farms, and the hospitable inhabitants dispense their favors to the traveler, the poor, and the needy.”
“I have traveled some hundreds of miles at [00:13:00] no expense. Meat and drink being bestowed upon me, all the subjects of Great Britain. For they strive to outdo one another in works of good nature and charity. In short, it is the best poor man’s country in the world, and I believe if this was sufficiently known by the miserable objects we have in our streets, multitudes would be induced to go with hither.”
Anthony Comegna: Moraley’s experience was admittedly more pleasant sounding than most of what we’ve heard [00:13:30] from the new world so far. But the good times were balanced by loneliness, celibacy, insecurity, and hopelessness. Pennsylvania crowded with religious dissenters of all description, even Catholics, Jews, and Rosicrucian’s, but clock makers, and their apprentices were in very low demand. Every household had its own small orchard and cider operation, but the landless young male servants who picked the fruit, were painfully aware that they nonetheless did not own [00:14:00] an equal share in natures plenty.
The colony’s Quaker disposition may have made it the best poor man’s country in the world, but the poor men well understood that even the new world was not really for them. Neither incidentally, was it for the slaves, and there were slaves in Pennsylvania. Even the proprietor himself invested in the slave trade, and owned several slaves on his American estate. Colonial statutes turned cultural, and religious differences into the new [00:14:30] institutionalized racism. Though Moraley makes comparisons between slavery and servitude, he was aware that the law offered no limit to the term of a slave, nor any official recognition of their equal humanity. The slave’s inner light was sacrificed for the landholder, and the merchant’s bottom line.
Speaker 2: “The first settlers not being sufficient of themselves to improve those lands were not only obliged [00:15:00] to purchase a great number of English servants to assist them, to whom they granted great immunities and land at the expiration of their servitude, but were likewise obliged to purchase multitudes of Negro slaves from Africa, by which means they’re become the richest farmers in the world, paying no rent, nor giving wages either to purchase servants or Negro slaves. So that instead of finding the planter rack rented as the English farmer, you will taste of their liberality, [00:15:30] they, living in affluence, and plenty.”
“The condition of the Negros is very bad, by reason of the severity of the laws. There being no laws made in favor of these unhappy wretches. For the least trespass, they undergo the severest punishment. There is no law against murdering them. So, if one man kills another slave, he is only obliged to pay his value to the master, besides damages that may accrue for the loss of his in his [00:16:00] business. The master’s generally allow them a piece of ground with materials for improving it. The time of working for themselves is Sundays, when they raise on their own account diverse sorts of corn, and grain and sell it in the markets.”
“They buy with the money, clothes for themselves and wives. As for the children, they belong to the wives master who bring them up, so the Negro need fear no expense. His business being to get them for his master’s use, who [00:16:30] is as tender to them as his own children. On Sundays in the evening, they converse with their wives and drink rum, or bumbo and smoke tobacco, and the next morning, return to their master’s labor. They’re seldom made free for fear of being burdensome to the provinces. There being a law that no master shall minimize them, unless he gives security that they shall not be thrown upon the province by settling land on them for the support.”
“A wedding day is the only [00:17:00] free day they have, except Sundays throughout the whole course of their lives. For then, they banish from them all thoughts of the wretchedness of their condition. The day being over, they return to their slavery. I have often heard them say: They did not think God made them slaves anymore than other men, and wondered that Christians, especially Englishmen, should use them so barbarously. But there is a necessity of using them hardly, being of obdurate, stubborn [00:17:30] disposition, and when they have it in their power to rebel, are extremely cruel. The condition of bought servants is very hard, notwithstanding their indentures are made in England, where in it is expressly stipulated that they shall have at their arrival, all the necessaries specified in those indentures.”
“Yet upon complaint, made to a magistrate against the master for nonperformance, the master is generally heard before the servant, and it is 10 to one if he does not get his [00:18:00] licks for his pains, as I have experienced upon the like occasion, to my cost. If they endeavor to escape, which is next to impossible, there being a reward for taking up any person who travels without a pass, which is extended all over the British colonies, their masters immediately issue out a reward for the apprehending them. Notwithstanding these difficulties, they’re perpetually running away, but seldom escape. For a hot pursuit being made, brings them back. [00:18:30] When injustice settles the expenses, and the servant is obliged to serve a longer time.”
“I was forced to carry wood for firing. I’ve worked in the water stark naked, among water snakes. Sometimes, I was a cow hunter in the woods, and sometimes I got drunk for joy that my work was ended. If ever I have the good fortune to reach my native country, I’m resolved to reform my life in conversation in such a manner, as [00:19:00] not to suffer a sinful thought to harbor in my breast.”
Anthony Comegna: While Moraley hued wood, and drew water for wealthier Pennsylvanians, he longed for autonomy in his homeland. He called himself, “The Tennis Ball of Fortune,” battered about by a string of bad luck starting at birth. He eventually made it home to England, but independence still eluded him. In 1742, he had a nervous breakdown. A year later, he published his [00:19:30] memoir, spiced and punched up with stories of giants bones buried across the countryside, freshwater sharks in the Delaware River, encounters with ghosts, and even a rare Pennsylvania witch trial. Exciting tales from arcane corners of the empire were selling well in the new London book markets.
Going from indentured servant to struggling author, must have seemed a natural enough transition. We know almost nothing about his later years, but that he was buried in New Castle on January [00:20:00] 19, 1762. William Moraley remained the lifelong infortunate, a potential Ben Franklin, but for his bum luck. Moraley seems to have bought into the gentile [Waidy 00:20:12] friend ethical standards of the day. He constantly chided himself for squandering good opportunities, and for harboring a bad attitude. He internalized the developing Calvinistic cultural norm that worldly failure was indicative of an unclean soul. He also knew well that [00:20:30] in a world where hierarchy extended, even to the furthest frontiers, luck of the draw could be everything. Now, just imagine how the slaves felt.
As Antinomianism blended with, and mixed into imperial political culture, radical elements settled peacefully into equilibrium with competing paradigms. For the most part though, it all washed out statist and slave holding in [00:21:00] the end. Even bastions of dissent, like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania became deeply enmeshed in the slave trade, and slave holding itself. The Philadelphia brand of liberalism, became the best of what we identify as early America. It was a far cry from the planter terror regimes of Virginia and the Caribbean, and a radical intellectual, and political departure from New England. Philadelphia liberalism welcome toleration, while imposing the great grid across a virgin country. [00:21:30] It built a revolutionary new Atlantic society by rearranging, and reorganizing ruling and serving classes, but it failed to abolish the distinctions.
Despite significant defeats, and compromises on the landed frontiers of the Atlantic, Antinomianism lived on across the high seas. In the golden age of Atlantic piracy, Moraley contemporary generation of masterlous men and women, implemented their own kind of Antinomianism. [00:22:00] Floating, democratic, egalitarian hydrarchy’s under the black flag of king death.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit