The oldest son of John Mifflin and Elizabeth Bagnall, Thomas Mifflin was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 10, 1744. His father, a prosperous merchant, served as a city alderman and a trustee of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania).
Obtaining his degree from the College of Philadelphia in 1760, the fourth generation Quaker soon hired on with William Biddle’s mercantile business. During his apprenticeship, he capped off his training in 1765 with a year-long trip to Europe in an effort to obtain a better insight regarding trading patterns and markets. Upon his return, he quickly accomplished two goals – 1) he began a commercial enterprise with his brother, George, and 2) on March 4, 1765, married his distant cousin, Sarah Morris. The young couple soon began to rise through the ranks in Philadelphia’s elite levels of society. Thomas served two years as the secretary of the American Philosophical Society, which helped bring him to the forefront among the highest ranking of Pennsylvania’s politicians.
Thomas began his political career in 1771 when he won the election for port warden, then became a member of Pennsylvania’s Provincial Assembly. He served in this capacity until 1776. He was also sent by the citizens of Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress for both occasions – 1774-1775 and 1782-1784. From November 1783 to June 1784, Mifflin served as presiding officer over the event.
The color of Mifflin’s political beliefs soon matched his business experiences. He was no fan of Parliament’s taxation policy and began voicing his opinions on the matter in 1765. While in Massachusetts during 1773, Mifflin made the acquaintance of Samuel Adams and other patriots. He soon discovered the mindset of these patriots mirrored his regarding England’s policies. The Coercive Acts, designed to punish Bostonians for the ruined tea cast into the harbor, were implemented in 1774. The Acts not only received an unwelcome reception in Boston, they also provoked a storm of protest in Philadelphia. Pennsylvanians were now concerned over the fact that if England could levy punishment against Boston Harbor, what might she try doing to Philadelphia’s port?
As the winds of revolutionary war began to blow throughout the commonwealth, Mifflin was transformed into a fiery Whig speaker. He was later referred to by Silas Deane as the “Soul of Philadelphia.” Instrumental in helping to create Philadelphia’s military forces, Mifflin, with the help of John Dickinson, soon rallied a group of patriotic volunteers and resurrected the Associators. He now became actively involved in the Continental Army and was named Quartermaster General until 1778. The fact he lacked military experience never seemed to occur to Mifflin and before long he was elected to be senior major in Philadelphia’s 3d Battalion. In accepting the commission, Thomas was removed from the roster at his local Quaker church.
On June 14, 1775, the Continental Army was born by an act of Congress to serve as a national armed force. Mifflin left Philadelphia’s regiment and became a Major, serving as George Washington’s aide-de-camp. This was short-lived; due to the fact Washington recognizing Mifflin’s merchandising skill was being wasted in the process and could be made better use of in another capacity. In August, Mifflin was made the first Quartermaster General of the Continental Army.
Mifflin’s responsibilities now grew in proportion to the size of the Continental Army. On one occasion, he was given the responsibility of finding transportation for the heavy artillery which was transported to Dorchester Heights. The Battle of Dorchester Heights would not only be won without Washington’s army firing a shot; it also served to end the siege of Boston. In addition, Mifflin arranged troop movement to be in New York City when the British invading force arrived.
Never envisioning himself as a field commander, and though promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Mifflin petitioned General Washington and Congress to return him to the infantry in the opening days of the New York City campaign. Here he played an important role in evacuating Brooklyn under cover of darkness.
Not long afterwards, problems in the Quartermaster’s Department called for the return of Mifflin to his former position; something he did not take to with a positive frame of mind. If babysitting the Quartermaster’s Department was not enough to frustrate Mifflin; he soon became astutely aware of the fact General Nathanael Greene had risen in ranks to become Washington’s principal advisor; a post Mifflin had aspired to for some time.
Mifflin’s final military act occurred during the Trenton-Princeton campaign. In the latter days of November 1776, the Continental Army’s position was beginning to crumble in northern New Jersey. Thomas was sent by Washington to Philadelphia where he was to lay the groundwork for restoring the army. Though overlooked for the most part in history books, Mifflin’s efforts played a vital role. He was instrumental in mobilizing the Associators, who reinforced the army. Add to that the fact he restocked the forces once they were on Pennsylvania’s side of the Delaware River. Mifflin’s efforts became the shot-in-the-arm Washington needed to counterattack and gained him a promotion to major general.
Following the British takeover of Philadelphia, Mifflin lost his home and found himself in the grips of poor health. He attempted to resign from his post in the Quartermaster’s Department and in the process, outwardly expressed his negative attitude towards the advice offered to Washington by General Greene. Those gathered at Valley Forge soon developed the impression Mifflin was no longer loyal to Washington.
In 1776, the state constitution adopted by Pennsylvania offered a very narrow definition of the powers to be given to Congress. Over the next 10 years, Mifflin was one of the more prominent voices to call for changes in these limitations in an effort to develop a balance in the allocation of political power between the states and the national government.
The Conway Cabal arose in late 1777, stretching into early 1778. Named for French-Irish General Thomas Conway, it was composed of a series of events seeking to replace George Washington as commander of the Continental Army. Conway sent a number of letters to the Second Continental Congress in which he strongly criticized Washington. General Conway later resigned from the army and General Horatio Gates, who Mifflin supported for Commander in Chief, expressed his sincere apology to Washington for the role he played in the event.
Though still on active duty in 1778, Mifflin wasted no time in resuming a political career. He won reelection to the state legislature and in 1780, returned to the Continental Congress where he was elected presiding officer in 1783. An iconic moment soon occurred when Mifflin, serving as president of the congress, received and accepted Washington’s formal resignation as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
Following the American Revolution, the importance of Congress in the eyes of the general public plummeted to such a level; Mifflin faced a debilitating challenge with respect to having enough delegates present to ratify the Treaty of Paris. The ratification finally occurred on January 14, 1784, ending the American Revolution.
In 1787, Mifflin became a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and penned his signature to the Constitution of the United States. He was also an active member of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On November 5, 1788, he was elected to replace Benjamin Franklin as President of the Council; then experienced a unanimous re-election in 1789.
While a member of the Assembly, Mifflin chaired the committee responsible for writing Pennsylvania’s State Constitution in 1790. The state’s new law eliminated the Executive Council and replaced with a governor. On December 21, 1790, Mifflin started the day wearing one hat and ended it with another when he ended his time in office as President of Pennsylvania and became the first Governor of the Commonwealth.
Though Mifflin wore no political label, the Federalist Party promoted him to the voters prior to the election of 1790. When the votes were tabulated, Mifflin experienced an easy defeat of his opponent, General Arthur St. Clair. This would be followed by two re-election bids, both times facing off against Frederick A. Muhlenberg. In 1793, Mifflin won the election by a 2-to-1 margin. The results of the 1796 election probably had Muhlenberg wondering why he even bothered to throw his hat into the ring a second time due to the fact Mifflin won by a 30-to-1 margin.
During his time at the Constitutional Convention, Mifflin experienced moments when he appeared to be a complete contradiction to himself. As a businessman who twice held the position of Chief Logistics Officer for the Continental Army, he never seemed to master the skill of managing his own money and would later die penniless as a result. Another contradiction had to do with the fact he was a practicing Quaker, yet he was instrumental in organizing the Pennsylvania militia when the American Revolution broke out – and he served in the military, rising to the rank of major general. Though possessing a shrewd demeanor the majority of the time, his disposition could be seen “warming up” on a number of occasions, resulting in various quarrels.
The fundamental view of government Mifflin held to changed little thoughout his years of intense political activity. On the other hand, the experience he acquired during the war as Quartermaster General created in him a sensitivity regarding the need for order and control. Mifflin had witnessed firsthand Congress’s weakening in dealing with the feuds occuring among the various state governments in an effort to gain vitally needed supplies. (In 1987, General Mifflin was inducted into the Quartermaster Hall of Fame.)
Mifflin also concluded the idea of trying to govern through a loose confederation was impossible under the Articles of Confederation. Representing Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mifflin took to the stage and pressed his argument. Though he remained loyal to the feelings he held regarding Federalist principles; he sensed the need for change and became the driving force in convincing Pennsylvania’s other representatives to ratify the Constitution.
Serving as governor under Pennsylvania’s new constitution for nine consecutive years, Mifflin made consistent effort to minimize partisan politics. His goal was to build a consensus. Though he disagreed with the federal government on a number of positions, he fully supported Washington’s efforts to maintain the primacy of the national government.
In 1794, western Pennsylvania was the site of the Whiskey Rebellion. During this time, President George Washington summoned Pennsylvania’s state militia. His actions miffed Mifflin, who immediately set about making the use of a state’s militia a state’s right. Though he sympathized with the economic plight the western farmers were experiencing; Mifflin called out a contingent to quell the rebellion because he placed the principal of the common good ahead of momentary issues and local concerns.
As commander of Pennsylvania’s state militia, he took seriously the need for adequate training so these troops would be in a position to reinforce the Regular Army if and when they were called upon to do so.
During the course of Mifflin’s administration, the state’s political parties were organized. He was also instrumental in molding Pennsylvania into a powerful center for Jeffersonian Republicanism following a number of years under the Federalist persuasion.
Mifflin’s third term in office was a trying time of immense proportions for the governor. During this time, he was personally plagued with financial problems and chronic illness while he battled a Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia. He was, at this time, credited with helping Pennsylvania recover from her Revolutionary War debt, in addition to undertaking a number of public works projects and establishing the state’s model penal code.
Thomas McKean replaced Mifflin as governor on December 17, 1799, at which time Mifflin returned to the state legislature. Here he would spend the rest of his life (one more month). Thomas Mifflin died on January 20, 1800. Due to the fact he was now penniless, had no heirs and with creditors knocking at the door; Mifflin laid to rest in the yard of Trinity Lutheran Church at state expense.
* * * * *
“There can be no Right to Power, except what is either founded upon, or speedily obtains the hearty Consent of the Body of the People.”