Twenty-first-century Quakers owe a large debt to Richard Godbeer, an historian at the University of Kansas, for this fine book about a family of eighteenth-century Friends, Henry and Elizabeth Drinker. Born in the early 1730s, they lived as upper class and were well-to-do until their mid-70s. Elizabeth Drinker kept a very full and complete diary for almost every year of their marriage; that extremely detailed source forms the basis of this readable exploration into their public and private lives. Even the title comes from one of Elizabeth’s comments about the world they traversed: the world they knew was a world of trouble.
A prominent and successful merchant, Henry Drinker was temperamentally conservative. He and his wife were people who abhorred change, yet they lived through massive social, political, and economic transformations. During the period of the most turbulent upheaval, the American Revolution, the rebel leaders of Philadelphia wrongly believed that Henry was a Tory supporter, and exiled him to Winchester, Va. When he returned home after months of Elizabeth’s having taken charge of family affairs, the two confronted a world in which the lower orders had gotten a large enough taste of power to frighten them with unseemly prospects.
Fortunately, Godbeer did not limit his account to the era of the Revolution—despite his subtitle—and mines Elizabeth’s diary for all it’s worth. Sometimes historians are criticized for trying to “psychologize” their subjects, but with the Drinker diary Godbeer has the sources to justify his forays into the mental world of the Drinkers. He has the diarist’s own word to show how she and her husband worried about their children, their servants, their world.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Henry had his income to worry about. He had invested in vast amounts of real estate in the west of Philadelphia and had a hard time saying no when it came to people who seemed in need. Plagued by seemingly endless demanding wards, who sometimes appeared without notice; debtors; and consequent lawsuits, we see his income plummet and his trust in people headed in the same direction. Though still rich in land, he was poorer in judgment and cash coming in. Troubles seemed unbearable to both Drinkers and their children.
Godbeer has used his sources creatively, tellingly, and believably, and makes the Drinkers come alive, even as their deaths near: Elizabeth in 1807 and Henry 19 months later in 1809. And when the author finishes his epilogue, readers will agree with Elizabeth: they had lived in times that were hardly serene but instead filled with too much tragedy, disappointment, and anxiety.
History is never a roadmap into the future, but this creative one will open our eyes to how one Quaker family pulled off their journey. It demands our consideration.