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William Hartshorne: Quaker, Merchant, and Signer of the Fairfax Resolves

Two Philadelphia Merchants Move to Alexandria

In the spring of 1773, George Washington learned about two Quakers from Philadelphia who were planning to move their merchant business to Alexandria, Virginia. Reese Meredith wrote Washington that the two Quakers were both “Industrious, Careful, and Sober Men.”[1] While Washington was not a Quaker, he admired these qualities. Throughout Washington’s life, he tried to be disciplined, exert self-control, and avoid drunkenness, all of which were principles of the Quaker faith. Thus, with the letter of introduction in hand, Washington soon made the acquaintance of John Harper and William Hartshorne. In fact, one of the earliest recorded visits took place on June 11, 1773, when Washington noted Captain Harper dined at Mount Vernon.[2] 

Both Harper and Hartshorne purchased property on the 200 block of Prince Street near the Potomac River before the Revolutionary War began. Harper bought land on the north side of Prince Street. Hartshorne bought a lot from a merchant named John Dixon, who was from Whitehaven, England. Hartshorne's lot was on the south side of Prince Street. Hartshorne built two double dwelling wooden homes around 1785 or 1786. Both homes still exist today at 212 and 214 Prince Street, which is situated in the middle of a block known as "Gentry Row." [3]  

William Hartshorne was a prominent merchant in Alexandria. As farms around Alexandria shifted from tobacco to wheat production, Alexandria became a major exporter of wheat and flour. Merchants like Hartshorne were critical players in this economic shift. In fact, George Washington built his gristmill for the purpose of taking his wheat and turning it into fine flour. Hartshorne was one of the merchants in Alexandria that bought and then resold Washington’s flour. In turn, George Washington bought tools and equipment from Hartshorne and relied on his vast network of suppliers that spanned major cities on the East Coast.

A Peaceful Patriot

In the lead up to the Revolutionary War, Hartshorne was a critic of Britain’s policies towards colonial America. He opposed the treatment of Americans as second-class citizens. Like many Alexandrians, Hartshorne believed that the British Coercive Acts and the blockade of Boston harbor, were actions that fell outside of Britain’s constitutional and legal authority. We know this about Hartshorne because he signed the Fairfax Resolves in Alexandria on July 18, 1774.

While Hartshorne was inspired to speak out against British policy, his opposition was peaceful. As a Quaker, pacifism was a central tenet of the faith. Unlike many “fighting Quakers” (i.e. Nathanael Greene) who did abandon their pacificism to fight, Hartshorne did not take up arms. In fact, he went as far as to refuse to pay money to support the Fairfax Committee of Safety.   

Hartshorne and George Washington Remained Friends

Despite Hartshorne’s refusal to take up arms, he continued to be friends and business associates with George Washington after the war ended. In fact, there are many letters detailing transactions between Hartshorne and Washington throughout the 1780s and even during Washington’s two terms as president from 1789 to 1797.

One of the more interesting exchanges between Washington and Hartshorne involved Washington’s trip from Mount Vernon to New York City. After Washington was elected first president of the United States, he began his journey to New York City for his inauguration. The first stop on his trip was Alexandria on April 16, 1789. Washington’s inauguration occurred on April 30, 1789. During the trip to New York, he also made a stop in Philadelphia.  

Hartshorne wrote a letter to Washington in which he expressed concern over the persecution of Quakers in Philadelphia. Hartshorne specifically alluded to an incident in which Quakers had been targeted in 1781. After the British surrendered Yorktown and American independence appeared assured, Philadelphia residents put candles in their windows as a sign of celebration. Quakers did not take part in this celebration as it contradicted their religious beliefs. As a result, their homes were targeted by people who were angry that they would not celebrate.

Hartshorne’s apprehension in 1789 was that Washington’s visit to Philadelphia would be a similar occasion for celebration. He worried that Quakers might be targeted if they did not show outward zeal for Washington’s visit in the form of candlelight illuminations. Hartshorne brought this issue to Washington's attention to prevent any possible persecution of the Philadelphia Quaker community.


George Washington’s reply to Hartshorne reveals a lot about his character. The letter manifests Washington’s compassion, thoughtfulness, and toleration for other religious denominations like the Quakers. A significant portion of the letter reads as follows:

I do not see how I can, with any degree of propriety or delicacy, interfere, at this moment, to prevent the ill effects which are feared from an illumination of the City of Philadelphia. Could any way be pointed out to me by which I might ward off the evil dreaded by the Quakers, I would, with peculiar pleasure, take every proper step to prevent it; for altho’ I have no agency in these matters, yet nothing would be more painful to me than to be the innocent cause of distress or injury to any individual of my Country. [4]

In another part of the letter, Washington told Hartshorne, “I can truly say that few events would distress me more than the realizing of the apprehensions of so respectable a body of my fellow Citizens as the Quakers of Philadelphia.” Thus, in this letter, we see Washington’s friendship with Hartshorne as he took his concerns very seriously. Additionally, we also see a clear demonstration of Washington’s concern for his fellow American citizens of different religious beliefs.

Hartshorne's Business and Educational Endeavors

Hartshorne's other post-Revolutionary War business endeavors helped build America. Like George Washington, Hartshorne envisioned a commercial republic with trade and commerce as the bedrock of American prosperity. As a result, Hartshorne became involved in the creation and operations of the Potomac Company. This company was founded in 1785. Its goal was to build a series of locks and canals that bypassed an area known as the Great Falls along the Potomac River. The Potomac River was seen as the gateway to the interior of America. However, parts of it are impassable to ships. The Potomac Company wanted to build a solution to this transportation problem. Hartshorne was commissioner of the company and treasurer from 1785 to 1800.

Alexandria Academy
Alexandria Academy Historical Marker

In previous blog posts, we have detailed how the Potomac Company was unsuccessful as a commercial enterprise. However, it was successful as a political catalyst for a series of meetings that led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Insofar as Hartshorne was actively enmeshed in the water rights disputes between Virginia and Maryland, we can credit him and others with being at the forefront of the issues that would carry America from a government under the Articles of Confederation to a republic under the United States Constitution.

Hartshorne was not only treasurer of the Potomac Company, but he was also involved with the Bank of Alexandria and served as the bank’s president. In a previous series of blog posts, we discussed the history of the Bank of Alexandria and how Hartshorne lost his position as bank president. Nevertheless, Hartshorne never stopped working hard, taking risks, and building businesses. He helped establish the Marine Insurance Company in 1798. He also served as director and treasurer of the Little River Road Company in 1802 and 1803 respectively. Furthermore, he was one of the original trustees of the Alexandria Academy. [5]

Late Life Struggles

Late in Hartshorne’s life, he struggled financially, especially during Thomas Jefferson’s administration. Unlike Washington, Jefferson was not beloved by Alexandria’s many merchants. One of the most consequential policies of Jefferson’s presidency was the Embargo Act of 1807. This act crippled the commercial activity of port cities like Alexandria and caused severe economic hardship. For Hartshorne, the financial hit was significant enough to force him to sell a plantation that he built in 1790 called Strawberry Hill. [6]

Almost a decade after the 1807 Embargo Act, Hartshorne died on October 13, 1816. He is currently buried in the Quaker Burial Ground in Alexandria, Virginia. Hartshorne was 74 years old when he died. [7]

Alexandria Quaker Burial Ground
Alexandria Quaker Burial Ground

William Hartshorne's Legacy

Hartshorne’s life and legacy helped build America into a strong and prosperous republic. As a signatory to the Fairfax Resolves, he helped spearhead a political movement that put in motion the wheels of American independence. Furthermore, his involvement in commercial enterprises like the Potomac Company and the Bank of Alexandria were important to the development of America’s political and economic institutions.

If you would like to see the Quaker Burial Ground in Alexandria, Virginia, then consider taking the Discover Alexandria guided walking tour and ask to see it. People frequently pass by it without knowing it is there. However, we are proud to promote the memory and legacy of Americans like William Hartshorne.    

Sources and Works Cited

[1] “To George Washington from Reese Meredith, 5 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[2] [Diary entry: 11 June 1773],” Founders Online, National Archives,

[3] Miller, Michael T. The Alexandria Chronicle. “Prince Street Profiles: Part II”. Fall 1997. Vol. V, No. 3.

[4] From George Washington to William Hartshorne, 1 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Crothers, A. Glenn. “Quaker Merchants and Slavery in Early National Alexandria, Virginia: The Ordeal of William Hartshorne.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 25, no. 1, 2005, pp. 47–77. JSTOR, Accessed 21 May 2024.


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