Jonathan Zane: Traitor?

Week 8: #52 Ancestors — Power

By Eilene Lyon

“Revolutions, by their very nature, produce dilemmas of loyalty. Practically overnight men who previously had been considered good citizens find themselves suspected of treason while those who betray the existing order are hailed as heroes and patriots.”  Robert F. Oakes

The two men huddled through a chill breeze along Second Street in downtown Philadelphia on a late November day in 1780. They wore their unpowdered hair in a club tied in black ribbon beneath their broad, nearly flat-brimmed hats, turned up ever so slightly on the sides and back to mimic the more fashionable tri-corn crowns of their non-Quaker fellow citizens. Under their capes, their gray frock coats lacked pockets and had the plainest of buttons.

They stopped at the door of the ironmonger’s shop, then entered. The proprietor, 39-year-old Jonathan Zane, in his shirt-sleeves and waistcoat, greeted Isaac Cathrall and Joseph Drinker before lowering his gaze. He knew well the purpose of their visit. They weren’t here to buy hinges.

The past few years had very nearly wrung the life from Jonathan Zane, and things weren’t looking up. Many members of the Society of Friends had been persecuted for taking a pacifist stance during the Revolution.

Jonathan’s father, Jonathan Zane, Sr., may have leaned toward the cause of the revolution. He’d been a business associate of Benjamin Franklin, after all, but probably owed more allegiance to his religion. Jonathan Jr. was part of the third generation of American-born Zanes, so it stood to reason he might also support the American cause. A year earlier, in October 1779, he’d signed an oath of allegiance.1

Cathrall and Drinker expressed their concerns to Jonathan about his behavior. The Philadelphia Monthly Meeting was preparing to censure him because “he had been in the excessive use of Strong Drink, and had paid Fines and other requisitions for the purposes of War…” contrary to the doctrines of his faith.2

Once again, Jonathan assured them that he was trying to control his appetite for liquor, but it was tough. His wife, Mary, had died in January, and he had three young children to rear.3 Plus the ongoing war with Britain put a strain on all the merchants of Philadelphia.

Despite appearances, though, Jonathan Zane was no patriot. Early in the war, he had refused to take Continental currency in his hardware store (though this report may pertain to his father or both of them).4

(Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1778, in the middle of the war when control of the city was changing hands back and forth, the colonial government in Philadelphia opened a Court of Oyers and Terminers, primarily for the purpose of hearing testimony on charges of treason. Against whom? The Americans, not the king. Zane got caught up in the trials.

The law of treason during the war is interesting, because the revolutionaries denied they were traitors to Britain, but they considered anyone who did not support them (whether neutral or opposed) as traitors to their country or to liberty itself.

However, it turned out that some Philadelphians had little stomach for punishing their fellow citizens for the crime of treason. The men who had been charged were represented by prominent attorneys, many of them deeply enmeshed in the revolutionary cause, such as James Wilson (who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution).5

James Wilson. (Wikimedia Commons)

Merchants like Jonathan Zane suffered the onerous tax burdens from the crown, but also equally onerous demands from the “rebels.” And, from the Society of Friends, an exhortation to remain neutral on both fronts.* It was an impossible situation, leaving him virtually powerless over his own life and business.

Zane was brought from the jail on September 18, 1778 when his case was presented before the Commonwealth. He was “Charged under Oaths of Catharine Weir, Wife of Peter Weir, & Wm Harman that he declared he would fight for the King of Britain as long as he had a Drop of blood against the Rebels, meaning the American Army, & that he would get a Captains Commission & go up the River & take the American Rebels…”6

Additionally, “Peter Weir charges him on Oath with being Capt of the City Guard & Compelling said Weir to be one of the Guard &c.”7 There appears to have been no evidence that Jonathan Zane ever took up arms against Americans. He may well have been “in his cups” when these things allegedly occurred.

The opening statement for the trials: “…the Jurors for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon their oaths & affirmations do present [names of several men] being Inhabitants of and belonging to & residing the state of Pennsylvania & under the Protection of its laws & owing Allegiance to the same state, as false Traitor against the same not having the fear of God before their Eyes but being moved & seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, the Fidelity which to the same State they owed wholly withdrawing” (

Most of the men charged with treason were either acquitted or discharged. A few, like Jonathan, had their indictments labeled “bill Ignoramus,” a legal term indicating the grand jury did not find true cause, thus his case did not proceed to trial.8 However, the Society of Friends stated that Jonathan had at least paid a fine.

The people of Philadelphia thought of him as a Tory, and the Quakers saw him as a drunken war-monger. On top of that, shortly after his court case concluded, his father, Jonathan, Sr., died.9 One has to wonder if he was heartbroken about seeing his namesake son in such a predicament.

It’s entirely possible that Jonathan’s justification for disliking the “Rebels” resulted from their imprisoning prominent Philadelphia Quaker men (including Joseph Drinker’s brother, Henry) in Virginia in the winter of 1777–78. Two of them died during the ordeal. The Continental government forced them to pay the costs of their imprisonment while denying them the liberty to earn a living and to care for their families.10

Jonathan’s troubles with his congregation did not abate after 1780. Not only did he continue drinking heavily, he remarried in 1782 – to his dead wife’s sister, Hannah.11 That was too much. He was disowned from the Society and never regained their favor.

Photo by Donovan Reeves on Unsplash

But the separation didn’t last long. After having two sons with Hannah, Jonathan Zane, Jr. died in December 1785.12 The Quakers buried him in the Arch Street Friends Burial Ground.13


*The Quakers did engage in non-violent protest against the Stamp Act of 1765.

Feature image: by Matt Briney on Unsplash

Jonathan Zane on

  1. Westcott, Thompson. 1865. Names of Persons Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania Between the Years 1777 and 1789… John Campbell, Philadelphia, p. 18. 
  2. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 for Jonathan Zane: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia: Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Northern District: Index, 1772-1781 image 471. 
  3. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 for Mary Zane: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia: Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Northern District: Births and Deaths, 1754-1806 image 74. 
  4. Oaks, Robert F. 1972. Philadelphians in Exile: The Problem of Loyalty during the American Revolution. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 96(3), p. 301. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from 
  5. Larson, Carlton F. W. 2019. The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, pp. 1-3. 
  6. Pennsylvania, U.S., Oyer and Terminer Court Papers, 1757-1787 for Jonathan Zane: Philadelphia: 1778 image 17. 
  7. Ibid. 
  9. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 for Jonathan Zane: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia: Philadelphia Monthly Meeting Minutes, 1770-1785, image 221. 
  10. Oakes, pp. 321-325. 
  11. Pennsylvania, U.S., Compiled Marriage Records, 1700-1821: Philadelphia: First Baptist Church, Philadelphia, 1761-1803 image 46. 
  12. U.S., Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935 for Jonathan Zane: Pennsylvania: Philadelphia: Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Southern District: Record of Births and Interments, 1734-1806 image 57. 

35 thoughts on “Jonathan Zane: Traitor?

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      1. There were so many negative repercussions for people just trying to go about their lives and business. Farmers really got screwed. All their production requisitioned and paid for in what became worthless Continental scrip.

        It’s funny, in an ironic way, that Jonathan’s first cousins were famed Revolutionary heroes: Ebenezer and Betty Zane.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, those Quakers exiled to Virginia never got a trial. They suffered harm, but were never compensated for it.

        The book is coming along. I’m working on filling in gaps in information to complete the 2nd draft. Then it’s time for editing and word-craft.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. This is fascinating! Even though I majored in American history (a hundred years ago), I never read about trials of those who stayed loyal to the British during the Revolution.

    I take it Jonathan Zane is somehow related to you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He is my 5th great-grandfather. There used to be a street in Philadelphia named for the Zanes, but now it is called Filbert St. I wonder if this episode had anything to do with the name change.

      There’s a recent book out about these Trials of Allegiance (in my footnotes). I hope to be able to read it soon. I only had an excerpt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very much so. The oldest child, Jonathan, III also got into trouble with the Society of Friends for drinking, fighting, fathering a child out of wedlock and marrying outside the faith. His wife and child died, then he died very young, at 39. I’m sure the other four children had difficulties as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. wow, 👍💙you are so fortunate to know your ancestors and to collect info by finding and researching such wonderful stories! My grandfathers didn’t know their parents. So all research ends right there – orphans + war.

    Liked by 1 person

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