Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The first citizen of Chester County to receive the Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, William Darlington was one of the organizers of the Chester County Medical Society. Read out of Meeting by the Society of Friends for serving in the War of 1812, Darlington was elected to Congress in 1815 and was a member of the House of Representatives for six of the next eight years. In 1825 he was appointed a Canal Commissioner for the Commonwealth. He was the first president of the West Chester Railroad, served as president of the Bank of Chester County from 1830 to 1863, and founded the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Sciences in 1826. Author of various botanical publications, Darlington was a corresponding member of more than forty literary and scientific societies in Europe and America.

Thus, William Darlington’s long and distinguished career marks him as one of Chester County’s most eminent citizens. A physician, botanist, soldier, politician, author, businessman, and farmer, he combined his interests and skills in such a way that he may be described not only as a man for his times but as one for ours as well. How, we might ask, does he have relevance to our generation?

One mark of a great man is his concern for others­ – his family, his friends, and his fellow man. As a family man, Darlington was confronted on one occasion (1826) by his son’s insistent desire to be appointed a Midshipman in the Navy. The father was not especially happy with the prospect (having turned away himself from an earlier interest in the military) but he did petition the Secretary of the Navy to make the appointment. Then, when the lad went to sea, Dr. Darlington admonished him to write to his family each time his ship was in port. He called on his son to be an obedient and industrious sailor, always putting duty ahead of survival. But, more important, he offered wise advice:

Life is at all times uncertain, – and liable to be lost on shore, as well as at sea: But the reputation of a man of honor and a patriot, soars above all accidents, and remains an imperish­able jewel to himself and his family.

For his friends, Darlington generously wrote letters of introduction and recommendation, sought appointments to political office, and petitioned on their behalf for pensions.

When he spoke of the black man and the Indian, Darling­ton showed himself to be a true humanitarian. Early in 1803, he addressed himself to the “too-much-neglected theme” of African slavery in a speech before the Tullian Society of Philadelphia. His words are powerful and convincing, for he genuinely opposed human slavery and called it a form of criminality, “the most hateful of all curses”:

You must be chilled with horror, upon reading the history of their [the African blacks] unparalleled sufferings, – and convulsed with indignation against their cruel and inhuman oppressors.

He called his listeners to task for his and their insensi­tivity, telling them that “the wrongs and miseries of our injured fellow-beings are too apt to be forgotten, during our enjoyment of the Blessings which Freedom and Plenty afford. The zest which attends our own happiness, appears to oblivionize all thought of the sufferings of others.”

Dr. Darlington predicted that the slave would “wade through rivers of blood, to obtain his unalienable Rights.” He feared that slavery might lead to violence, and worried that this would “shake our nation to the centre.” His proposed resolution of the problem reveals both personal wisdom and naiveté. Immediate emancipation “would be injurious both to themselves and society,” for the liberated black would surely be looked down upon by “all Whites” and imposed upon by “every designing knave.” His reasoning, however, does reflect the age in which he lived. Many slaves, he said, “are nearly in a state of nature” and “as unfit to become independent members of [soci­ety] as illiterate children.” Therefore, in his opinion, the slaves were entitled to “an Education from their Masters” who, having enjoyed the labor of the slave in the past “can, in justice, do no less than prepare the sable sufferers for a gradual and complete emancipation.” He challenged society to work up a plan to achieve “this desirable end.”

Darlington made his most telling statement on slavery in 1820 in an address before the United States House of Representatives. Although the substance of his speech dealt more with the extension of slavery into Missouri than with the institution itself, he reiterated his earlier stand. To him, “the existence of slavery seems to be uni­versally regarded as a great moral and political evil, … a curse and a scourge to society, … a malignant disease, in the body politic.” He could not understand the rationale for allowing slavery to be extended into Missouri for, in his opinion, slavery was “detrimental to the union [and] destructive of the principles of Government.”

Late in his career, Dr. Darlington became concerned about the Indian through the writings of Col. Thomas L. McKenney. A letter from Darlington to McKenney in 1843 is indicative of the former’s sincerity and under­standing:

I would fain hope, that your graphic delin­eations – your thrilling eloquence – and above all, the heart-touching earnestness with which you advocate the Cause of the unhappy red man, will not yet arouse our nation to a just sense of the wrongs we. have inflicted on that ill-fated race, and speedily call forth one magnanimous united effort, to save the rem­nant of a People whom we have despoiled of their possessions, and whose reproaches, for our misdeeds, still reach up from the in­hospitable wilds, to which they have been driven by our insatiable cupidity.

In a similar tone, Dr. Darlington spoke out (in 1812) on capital punishment. Claiming to have been a long-time foe of superstition, custom, and ignorance, he thought that an “era [had] dawned upon our race, when the advo­cates of Truth, Justice & Humanity, can at least raise their voices, without the apprehension of inquisitorial intol­erance.” Within this setting, a “noble idea” had been ad­vanced by the Society of Friends and others, that is, the abolition of capital punishment. He called capital punish­ment a “disgraceful relic of barbarism,” “legalized ven­gence,” and “an exhibition of human degradation.” More­over, he was particularly aggravated by the scenes of public executions, saying these had a “much greater effect in demoralizing society than in deterring from crime.” Darlington’s solution for this problem, however, was comparable to his antidote for human slavery – somewhat naive and not well thought out by our standards but very much in keeping with the attitudes of his era:

Let us apply the punishment with more rigor to the guilty mind … and let that punish­ment be certain as the conviction which pre­cedes it.

Then the criminal would be “consigned to an awful com­munion with his guilty conscience”; obviously this would suffice as “a terror and a warning, to the wicked.”

More than his family, his friends, or mankind, Darling­ton loved our country. His letters and speeches, regardless of the time period in which they were presented, are filled with references to his patriotism and his hope that Ameri­cans would place country above other loyalties. On two occasions, he delivered “Fourth-of-July” orations, first in 1814 at Downingtown, then in 1817 at Great Valley. These show Darlington’s perception of the United States and our system of government as “the hope of the virtuous, and the object of jealousy and hatred to tyrants.” America was always equated in his mind with peace and the peace­-loving while England was identified as a nation which committed “oppression, violence, devastation, and … manifold aggressions.” It was time, he thought, for “Free­men … to support the Government of their choice.” Darlington was convinced that “a National spirit, and a national feeling, are all that we require to make us a great and powerful people.” To achieve this, we had to stop looking to Europe (“a polluted and uncongenial source of maxims and opinions”) and to England for our leadership; in place of these, Americans should cultivate “a spirit exclusively national” among the factions at home and thereby show the world that the United States was the “last refuge of persecuted Liberty.”

At Great Valley in 1817, Darlington demolished those countrymen who had voiced a kind of neo-Toryism and who “loved British institutions” and “decry and defame every thing American.” His feelings were not intended to be mistaken:

It is our duty, then, to bear the fact in mind; and by our vigilance, and fidelity to the true principles of our Government, to preserve inviolate the inestimable bequest of our an­cestors. No earthly blessing can be secured without a faithful and vigilant attention; and in no instance is the maxim more true, than in reference to our Political Rights. In a demo­cratic Republic, where the whole power of the Government is immediately delegated by the People, this vigilance is indispensable. No man can be a good and faithful citizen of our Republic, who does not feel a lively interest, and take an active part, in the public concerns.

Darlington believed, as most Americans did, that ours is a government of laws, in which it is the duty of citizens “to hold those Laws in habitual veneration.” To protect these laws and the institutions of American government, Darlington asserted in true Jeffersonian style, “a well-armed and well-trained yeomanry” was needed. He put his faith in the people, saying “no where could the physical power of arms be so safely deposited, as with those who own the Government, and possess the soil.” Preparedness for war was not something to be avoided out-of-hand; rather “we are not only conscious of the blessings we enjoy, – but are always ready and determined to defend them.”

A strong believer in commerce and trade, Darlington saw these as essential elements in the growing economic strength of our new nation. During the Napoleonic Wars, when various embargoes and non-importation agreements were in effect, he offered the opinion that “it would not be good policy . . . to prohibit commercial intercourse with foreign nations.” The prohibition would “most probably prove worse than the disease.” He argued that:

Nature . . . designed nations to exchange commodities, for their mutual benefit …. The World is a commonwealth, and the Inhabitants are its citizens: All men, and all nations, should be continually employed in affording mutual aid, and promoting universal benefit!

Continuing this theme, Darlington saw trade serving an even more important function: “Nothing would be so effectual in spreading the principles of our Government, as foreigners trading in our ports and witnessing the good effects of Republicanism. They can imbibe the glorious principles, and communicate them to their country men. He continued:

… commercial intercourse with foreign nations … would be a focus to which the benign rays of Liberty, which pervade our land, would be collected, – and from which, in time, foreign nations – now groaning beneath the galling yoke of Tyranny – would catch the genial flame! The whole great Commonwealth would then soon feel the enlivening effects of Liberty’s diffusive fire, – and every Inhabitant be an enlightened Citizen!

Years later, after service in the Congress and experience in the business world as a banker and the president of a railroad, Darlington saw this question in a different light. Distressed by circulars, petitions, resolutions, and memorials on nullification, Darlington nevertheless was sure that “there is scarcely a dissenting voice on the subject of protecting the great Interests of our country – whether they be Agricultural, Manufacturing, or Commercial.” Optimist that he always was when it came to our country, he was certain that the nation and its people ultimately would profit from “the severe lessons which it is now taking in political science.”

Darlington, the physician turned botanist, saw his beloved science as a worthy adjunct to our nation’s political and military greatness. By 1818, exploration of the trans-Mississippi territories was a matter of continuing interest to many, and teams of explorers were being sent westward. He suggested that an important outcome of these expeditions would be that of “enhancing our reputation … among the learned of the old world,” provided the right persons were selected. He meant, of course, that not only should experienced explorers be dispatched but also trained botanists, a geologist, a surveyor and draughtsman, an astronomer, a zoologist, a mineralogist, and a cartographer. These professionals could undertake research on the nature of the soil, the topography of the land, animal and vegetable varieties, and minerals. From this, Darlington believed, “our national character would be accelerated towards its destined eminence” and “the garlands of Science would be appropriately blended with the civic wealths of our republican Polity.” Even more directly in this letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, he drove home his argument:

No one . . . can appreciate more justly than yourself, the lustre which a government de­rives from the successful and liberal promotion of Natural Science.

He was acutely aware of European accomplishments in science, and he wanted the United States to be the Old World’s equal. Years later, in 1830, in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Darlington repeated this argument: “I am ambitious that our efforts in the cause of Science should reflect credit upon us as a Nation, – and compare notably with those of England, France, and Russia.”

Darlington did not expect that everyone would become “profound Botanists.” He did believe that “there can be no question, that both the dignity and happiness of a rational being may be enhanced … by the cultivation of his intellectual faculties.” The farmer, for instance, might well profit from the study of botany, for it would help him to acquire knowledge about useful plants and the tech­niques for eradicating pests. Such study would cultivate “his [the farmer’s] mind as carefully as he does his acres,” and would help him to “keep pace with the march of improvement, and .. . be distinguished for [his] general intelligence.” Darlington hoped that the farmer would become what “he ought to be – a gentleman of enlarged views, correct intelligence and cultivated taste.” The study of science could help the farmer to achieve these worthy goals. Like many of his contemporaries. Darlington visualized “an enlightened Yeomanry as constituting the best hope of the Republic, and the surest guarantee for the duration of its freedom.”

Although he lived in a male-dominated society, Dr. Darlington took several opportunities to make cogent comments about women and their status in nineteenth­-century society. In 1838, he learned that Mrs. A. H. Lin­coln Phelps had been invited to accept the position as head of the Literary Department at the Female Seminary in West Chester. Not only did he find her qualified for this post. but Darlington thought that “all authority for op­erating the facilities” should have been given to her in light of her outstanding qualifications. When Mrs. Phelps was not hired (apparently because of “pecuniary concerns”) Darlington was certain that this reflected “an inferior view of women,” and he criticized this apparent effort to reduce female education to a “paltry consideration of dollars and cents.” In 1844, in an address before the Ladies’ Botanical Society of Wilmington, Darlington made his most memor­able statement in regard to women:

The time, happily. has gone by. when a Lady of cultivated mind, and scientific attainments. was regarded as a sort of unnatural curiosity. Such ornaments of society are now becoming famil­iar to our eyes; and we are beginning to estimate them at their just value. The sagacious observers of human nature have discovered, that the dignity of our race is essentially de­pendent upon the elevated condition and char­acter of WOMAN: and most especially so in a community like ours, where the sovereign power is vested in the whole People.

Politician that he sometimes was, Darlington was frequently called upon to support individual candidates for office. Late in 1827 he had to decide whether to support John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson in the next year’s Presidential campaign. Darlington cast his lot with Adams, proclaiming “it is a maxim with us, to go for Men only so far as they are identified with Principles & Measures.” Adams’ administration was the kind of “genuine Democ­racy” that Darlington preferred and he wanted nothing to do with the radicalism that he thought Jackson represented. In a forceful statement which is as relevant to us in the nineteen seventies as it was a century and a half ago, he declared:

We hold it to be a fundamental principle in our Republican System, that high and responsible officers are appointed to administer the Govern­ment – not for their own emolument, nor as mere rewards for particular services, – but ex­pressly for the purpose of promoting the wel­fare of the community which thus delegates its powers. In selecting a chief magistrate, it is of far less importance to us who the Individual is, than what are his qualifications to serve us. Our great concern is with his general fitness for the station.

Two decades later, at the time of the Mexican War, he returned to this important issue of power and authority and the role of men in positions of leadership. Initially, he focused his attention upon war and his now-evident opposi­tion to it: “The nations of the earth, that would become truly civilized, and thereby fitted to enjoy and perpetuate a perfect system of free government, must learn to eschew that cruel and destructive relic of Barbarism – the appeal to arms. for purposes of conquest, rapine, and indiscriminate revenge.” Further, he feared that too many Americans were liable to be “dazzled by military achievements” and that the masses might reward “daring and ambitious” military heroes with “both the Military and the Civil Power of the Republic.” In his calm, sound manner, Darlington ration­alized his opposition to the soldier-turned-politician. “It is not because I esteem the patriot Soldier less,” he said, “but that I love republican Freedom more.” He taught us a lesson that we should not have forgotten:

. . . the very essence of a Republican Govern­ment consists in the principle, that all political power is delegated expressly for the benefit of the governed; and that all officers are public servants, appointed to act – not for themselves, but – for their constituents.

The magnitude of Darlington’s qualities and his rele­vance to our age are thus rather easy to measure. But how did he perceive himself? He gives us a clue, for he was once asked for his autograph by a friend; he wrote in her album:

… although I have no pretension – and trust I am reasonably indifferent to what the world calls posthumous fame, I will not deny that, in my idle revelries, I do sometimes indulge in a pleasing fantasy, that those who knew me, and participated in my favorite pursuits, may per­adventure, allow me an occasional place in their recollection – even when the Flowers of Chester shall be blooming on the turf which is to con­ceal me forever from their view.


Dr. Robert E. Carlson is Professor of History at West Chester State College.