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John Adams Comes To Allentown, November, 1777

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 16 2011 12:11:53 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 08 2011 03:03:43 AM CDT

John Adams, the Founding Father from Massachusetts knew he had short temper. He did not suffer those he regarded as fools gladly. And among those who raised his ire the most were the wealthy Allen family of Pennsylvania. They felt, in his words, that America could not declare its independence "without asking their kind permission first."

So it is easy to imagine that Adams would not have been the most welcome visitor at James Allen's Allentown mansion of Trout Hall.

James Allen, in a long passage in his diary dated November 21, 1777, recapitulates the happenings of the prior several weeks, and notes that "Mr. John Adams," who "passed thro' here a week ago," said that "independence was unalterably settled; the Crisis is over."

Did Adams, the future second President of the United States, pay James Allen a visit?

Or were these words merely reported to Allen by others who had encountered Adams at what is now the King George Tavern or some other inn between Allentown and Bethlehem?

Consider first the background of James Allen. The Allen family had their differences with the British government. Like many American merchants William Allen, James's father and the founder of Allentown, often violated what he saw as its unfair trade regulations.

In 1765, when the Stamp Act, which taxed all paper items from legal document to playing cards, was passed, the Allens led the opposition in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin's wife (Franklin was then in London as the colony's agent and had supported the law's passage) noted in a letter to her husband that young James "Jemmy" Allen was in the street "spirten up the mob" against it.

By the early 1770s the Allens were leading opposition to new tax laws from Parliament, going so far as to donate cannon to the cause.

But independence was a line the Allens would not cross. The elder William Allen had attended Cambridge University and his sons James and Andrew had trained at London's Middle Temple Law School. The acres of land that William Allen possessed in Pennsylvania were acquired under British law. He could not be sure that any new government would recognize that the land was his. And as lawyers and judges the Allens had sworn an oath of loyalty to the crown.

On June 16, 1776, convinced that he could do nothing more to block independence, James Allen withdrew with his family and servants, seeking to play the role of neutral at Trout Hall, away from the turbulent debates of Philadelphia.

But Allen's hopes of finding a refuge at Trout Hall were quickly dashed. Local folks mostly looked on his neutral stance as nothing more than a cover for being a Tory. The more opportunistic among them used it as an excuse to steal Allen's wood and chickens. Local militiamen, suspecting spying, attacked Allen's coach, running it through with bayonets and nearly killing his wife and daughter.

Allen, tone deaf to the sympathies of the militia, did not help the situation. He entertained captured British officers at Trout Hall as they were traveling to New York to be exchanged for American POWs. Although it was standard procedure at the time to treat captured officers this way, James Allen was an easy target.

This was the scene by the fall of 1777. The British had seized and occupied Philadelphia. The Congress had moved to York for refuge. As a member John Adams had gone with it. That November, hoping to see his family in Boston before he was sent as a diplomat to France to aid Franklin in gaining an alliance, Adams left York with his cousin Sam Adams.

Adams travel diary records his first stop as Lancaster. That evening was spent just west of Reading at "Angelica," the estate of Continental Army Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin. Adams was a friend of Mifflin. At this time Mifflin had been accused of embezzlement, charges which were never proven. Perhaps this was a subject of discussion.

The next stop was a tavern between Reading and Allentown. Here the record becomes mottled. Sources suggest Sam Adams went on ahead with two other Congressmen from New England, and John Adams then went on alone.

Although Allen's diary mentions Adams, Adams's does not mention Allen. The night Adams would have passed through the Lehigh Valley, his diary merely says "Reached Schechter's"(perhaps the name of a tavern keeper.) Although there had been an innkeeper with something approaching that name in the area during the 1760s, there was not in 1777.

Since Adams never wrote of a meeting and Allen never wrote any more of it, there is no way of knowing, if they did meet, exactly what words if any were exchanged between the two.

An author in the 1936 issue of the Lehigh County Historical Society's Proceedings asserts the meeting as fact. The 1962 Proceedings merely includes the diary entry, not making a statement one way or the other.

What is known for certain is that Allen clearly knew what Adams had to say, even if not directly from his lips, when he passed through the Lehigh Valley. And Adams words must have been crushing for Allen. "Independence was unalterably settled." Allen had still been hoping that the old government could be restored.

Less than a year after this, James Allen would be dead, a victim of tuberculosis at age 37. His wife would remarry a U.S. senator from New York. In 1795 she and Allen's daughters would dance in celebration in Philadelphia at the inauguration of John Adams as the second president of the United States.