by Jack D. Marietta and G.S. Rowe. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 368pp. Hardcover. $59.95/£39.00. ISBN: 9780812239553.

Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Email: matwell [at]


Jack Marietta and G.S. Rowe make the argument that Pennsylvania, during the colonial and early national periods, failed as an experiment in Enlightenment inspired community. Despite the hopes of William Penn and his fellow Quakers that the colony would be characterized by brotherly love, respect, ample resources, tolerance, and most of all, civil peace, Pennsylvania saw more than its share of violence and crime. Is this explained by a flaw in the original vision, or is it explained by social, economic, and demographic changes unforeseen by the colony’s founders?

Penn and his generation set out to establish a place where good laws would enable people to be good, where exceptional freedom from royal and clerical control could allow the best human qualities to flourish. Up until the 1720s, Pennsylvania had an unusually humane criminal justice “system,” a progressive judiciary, a penal code that seldom prescribed capital punishment, and a focus on the rehabilitation of offenders. As long as the colony comprised a homogeneous population dominated by Quakers, Pennsylvanians experienced little crime and violence. Marietta and Rowe note that unlike the Chesapeake region, Pennsylvania had no staple crop that attracted numbers of young, single, risk-taking men eager to make their fortunes—the sort of people who tended to contribute to disorder. Nor did slavery with its accompanying violence really take hold. During the first decades, Pennsylvania remained peaceful until its professed openness and tolerance were tested by waves of immigrants, many of them Scots-Irish and German, in the years between 1717 and 1730.

Culturally, the Scots-Irish could hardly be more different from the Quakers. They were people with a history of violence at both the political and personal level, placing a high value on manly “honor” and little trust in government to settle disputes. The homicide rate in Pennsylvania increased dramatically after 1717, not because the old pacifist settlers changed their behavior but because a new element entered the population in significant numbers. In 1718 the criminal code was modified in response to this apparent “crime wave.” Reversing the Quaker approach, more crimes were made eligible for the death penalty, and capital sentences and executions became more frequent. The authors comment that this Pennsylvania response, addressing an increase in crime with harsher punishments, was typical both in the eighteenth century and in the contemporary period. “They did not explain the reasons for their confidence in severity. But despite their silence, they believed in deterrence and retributive justice” (p.80). However, [*256] there is no way of knowing that the lawmakers – still strongly influenced by their Quaker heritage – had suddenly completely reversed their beliefs to accept the idea of retribution instead of rehabilitation. They may have been hopeful about deterrence without embracing retribution.

Along with harsher laws against violent and property crimes came reduced enforcement of laws governing personal morals. With more diversity in the population there was less consensus about private behavior and less attention to monitoring it. An exception involved increased prosecutions for fornication and bastardy after the 1720s. Although a pregnant unwed woman would have drawn initial public attention to the case, the major motive for prosecution seems to have been to force fathers to pay child support and to relieve the community from the burden of dependent women and children. But unwed mothers were prosecuted as well, presumably so their shame would serve as a deterrent to others similarly tempted.

Examining the records of those charged with crimes in the eighteenth century, the authors find that the vast majority of the accused did not appear on the tax roles. In other words they did not own property – young, transients or indentured servants, bachelors – the sort of men who had few stabilizing ties to the communities. In fact, they were the sort of men who in every age disproportionately come to the attention of the criminal justice system. In VIOLENT LAND, Courtright argues that throughout American history one can find such a “bachelor subculture” associated with high levels of violence. The changes to Pennsylvania brought about by immigration, economic change, and urbanization in the Philadelphia area contributed to the growth of this population. And, in Marietta and Rowe’s view, the “liberal” legal system was unable to control them.

Although young, single, unattached men may have been the major offenders and the most frequent victims of violent crime, the authors devote significant space to women as victims and offenders. There are no surprises in their discussion of rape and domestic violence – crimes where women were the likely victims and in which the legal system had little interest and offered few remedies. Children too were victims of violence in their homes but courts tended to “sustain” traditional families by closing their eyes to what went on within households. One could argue then that during the nineteenth century, the story of crime and punishment related in TROUBLED EXPERIMENT parallels that in virtually every other colony in British North America. The main difference is that the hopes of the enlightened founders of Pennsylvania were higher before being snuffed out under the weight of problems that accompanied a larger, more diverse population.

The Revolutionary War meant new challenges in the area of crime and punishment and some further deviation from the original ideals of Pennsylvania. With divisions between Patriots and Loyalists, politics became more contentious and for many, their previously legal behavior was [*257] criminalized. From 1776-1777 no courts functioned in Pennsylvania. When they reopened, all Quaker jurists were removed because they refused to take an oath of loyalty. Although there were violations of personal rights under the guise of wartime necessity, the refusal of principled judges to suspend habeas corpus helped to preserve that fundamental protection. Marietta and Rowe claim that the Revolution affected the treatment of women by the justice system, making them more likely to be prosecuted for crimes. At the same time their formal legal status remained one of subordination. Equal prosecution, then as later, served as both a pretense and a poor substitute for full citizenship. For Native Americans, the Revolution meant the definite end of any mutually good relationships established with earlier generations of Pennsylvanians. Civilians and military in the western part of the state decided that all Indians were hostile and sympathetic to the British, no matter what their history of peaceful coexistence. Racism, coupled with greed, rationalized by the exigencies of war meant that Native Americans could be massacred with impunity.

In the early national period, Pennsylvanians attempted to write new laws and to structure a system that would reflect ideals of human dignity, again limiting the use of capital punishment and focusing on rehabilitation. Yet violence and public disorder persisted. One could argue that those problems had their roots in the growing economic gaps between the rich and the poor, between rural and urban, and between debtors and creditors. Marietta and Rowe find that the very ideals of liberalism – individualism, freedom, acquisitiveness – deserve both the credit for Pennsylvania’s humaneness and the blame for crime and violence. They say that “the intersection of liberalism with abundant crime was more than coincidence. Liberalism supported and stimulated crime” ( p.264).

It is the liberal emphasis on individualism and free market economics that Marietta and Rowe ultimately blame for the persistence of crime and disorder in Pennsylvania. Freeing citizens to pursue happiness also freed them to pursue deviant behavior. The authors are historians but they implicitly incorporate criminological theory throughout their book. At times one might see an explanation for Pennsylvania’s criminal problems in social disorganization, at other times, they seem to bemoan the lack of social bonds. Treating the theoretical issues more explicitly would offer some provocative possibilities.

One may applaud the thoroughness of this study and the value of its arguments while wishing that Marietta and Rowe had made a few different editing choices. Perhaps the two authors divided the writing with one responsible for the historical chronicle and the other for the numbers. In any case, too often the narrative is interrupted by tedious examinations of statistical data in most cases based on a single county and not subjected to any statistical tests. Even if social scientists take historians more seriously when they include an appropriate number of charts and tables in the text, it is possible to use numerical [*258] data judiciously to strengthen arguments without killing the pace of the narrative. Much of this information might have been more effectively included in appendices.

Courtwright, David T. 1996. VIOLENT LAND: SINGLE MEN AND SOCIAL DISORDER FROM THE FRONTIER TO THE INNER CITY. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.