Slavery, Consumption, and Social Class: A Biography of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew (1722-1810)

Brian Hanley


The central question for this study is how did Benjamin Chew, the jurist assigned significant responsibility for interpreting Pennsylvania’s provincial and commonwealth constitutions, contribute to the formation of the stratified class structure that developed over the last third of the eighteenth century in Philadelphia, by consuming conspicuously and exploiting enslaved labor? In Meeting House and Counting House, Frederick B. Tolles explains that by mid-century, Quaker merchants dominated the largest proportion of Philadelphia’s wealth, social prestige, and political power. In A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise, Thomas M. Doerflinger agrees that Philadelphia’s distribution of wealth became increasingly unequal in the second half of the eighteenth century. One indication of the rising inequality, as Billy G. Smith argues in The “Lower Sort,†was residential segregation. The lines of demarcation between the homes of the rich and poor grew increasingly distinct as the revolution loomed near. During the summer months, for instance, when disease beleaguered inhabitants of urban Philadelphia, Chew and his elite counterparts had the immense advantage of escaping to country estates. In Gentlewomen and Learned Ladies, Sarah Fatherly’s discussion of Philadelphia’s growing inequality focuses on the conspicuous consumption of the city’s elite. Benjamin Chew devoted a significant amount of time and money to cultivating his personal appearance, frequently purchasing luxuries from London that were meant solely to convey his high social status and distinguish him in public as a gentleman. Perhaps even more important to Chew’s public image, however, was his exploitation of enslaved laborers. Slave owning earned Chew more than freedom from physical labor; it also bolstered his reputation as a wealthy and powerful individual. The fact that enslaved laborers kept Chew’s leisure activities afloat reinforced the asymmetrical distribution of wealth and power that crystallized in the Quaker city over the last third of the eighteenth century. As Chew and his elite counterparts bolstered their wealth and augmented their economic power, they simultaneously worked to accentuate class differences and stratify the socioeconomic structure that came to define post-revolutionary Philadelphia.

Full Text: