World of Trouble by Richard Godbeer

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

World of Trouble: A Philadelphia Quaker Family’s Journey through the American Revolution
by Richard Godbeer
Yale University Press, 480 pp, hardcover $38

Fortunately, some historians are meticulous researchers, and their thoroughness inspires deep confidence in their narratives. And fortunately, some historians are skilled topic-choosers and narrative-spinners; readers are mesmerized by their chronicles. And fortunately, Richard Godbeer is such an historian.

In World of Trouble, Godbeer has created a remarkable drama. With nine engrossing, painstakingly footnoted chapters — each titled with quotes from contemporary participants — he invites his readers into evocative minutia and nuance of the revolutionary America, through the lens of one family’s experience. Godbeer begins his tale by introducing Philadelphian Henry Drinker, who was being incarcerated by American revolutionaries — far from home — on suspicion of treason, because his religious faith eschewed the violence that accompanied resistance to British tyranny. Catapulting off the correspondence between Henry and his now-distant wife Elizabeth — whose detailed and impassioned journal of the era is well-known and much valued by historians — Godbeer describes his goal as “revisit[ing] the familiar story of the American Revolution from an unfamiliar perspective, that of Americans who felt unable to choose either side, and paid a heavy price for acting in good conscience.”

Expanding into some of the contextual tremors typical of unsettled times, Godbeer recounts some of the collateral effects of war: military intrusion into intimate domestic spaces; unrest among the servant classes; high morbidity and mortality, not only among combatants, but also among civilians and prisoners; violence and treachery carousing along the fine line between righteous patriotism and unbridled cruelty. Through the eyes of the Drinker family, wartime theft, confiscation, and other economic hardships become real. And the residual effects of the world of trouble are long-lasting: though Henry Drinker eventually returned home, his life, wealth and family legacy never rebounded. By 1809 Godbeer reports that “save for the memories of those who had lived or visited there, the Drinkers’ domestic world had evaporated.” Godbeer has delved deeply into contemporary sources and has read widely in the secondary and interpretive scholarly works published since Henry Drinker’s time. His readers are in for a treat.

Emma Lapsansky-Werner
Haverford College