Railroads, War, and Conscience: Reconciling Business and Religion in 1840s Philadelphia

Albert Churella

            Business and religion have each been regarded as profoundly civilizing forces, sometimes operating in tandem, and sometimes in opposition to one another.  Since the seventeenth century, Philadelphia’s Quakers had successfully blended economic acumen with religious commitment as part of their civilizing vision.  The transportation revolution of the early nineteenth century induced new forms of corporate organization and business finance, calling into question the ability of Friends to maintain both their religious and their commercial values.

            This paper explores the difficult choices facing Quakers who invested in the railroad business during the 1840s.  Disagreements between Hickside and Orthodox (Gurneyite) Friends shaped debates concerning the investment of municipal funds in railroad construction.  On the state level, charter provisions requiring that railroads transport troops and war matériel at a discount troubled many Quakers who viewed the Mexican War as an act of unprovoked aggression designed to enhance the power of the slave-owing southern aristocracy. 

      Primary sources, ranging from the diaries of merchants to the minute books of railroad corporations, suggest that a crisis of conscience affected the Quaker community during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Quakers went to extraordinary lengths to reconcile their new business activities with their longstanding religious traditions.  Friends opposed both war and slavery, yet invested in activities that promoted both.  Theirs was not a crass decision to place profits ahead of principles.  Instead they struggled to balance their obligations to their community and to their businesses against the moral imperative of their inner light.  In an economic arena where business, society, government, and politics had become so thoroughly intertwined, they found it impossible to opt out of any activities that violated the tenents of their faith.