Jacob Duche (1738 – 1798) was appointed Chaplain of Congress on July 6, 1776. Every day thereafter, by 9 AM, he was present to officiate the start of Congress’ proceedings. He was so dedicated to the American cause that the congressional delegates had called his “uniform and zealous attachment to the rights of America,” outstanding and beyond question. Prior to his role with Congress, he was made the rector of the united parishes of Philadelphia in 1775. He was a stout supporter of the American cause and an active member of the Pennsylvania Sons of Liberty.
Reportedly, his fervor for the patriotic cause began to falter after the Declaration of Independence was ratified. By mid-October of 1776, he resigned from his Congressional duties and asked that his $150 salary be used for the relief of widows and children of Pennsylvania officers.
When the British entered Philadelphia in September of 1777, Duche was supposed to have prayed for the royal family. Apparently this did not help his standing with the British authorities as he was arrested on September 28th for his previous participation in Congress. He was released after only one day in prison and on October 8th, he wrote a letter to Washington that created an uproar throughout the colonies.
Duche was the son and namesake of a former mayor of Philadelphia, Colonel Jacob Duche Sr. (1708 – 1788). Duche Sr. was the son of Anthony Duche, a French Huguenot who arrived in America on Oct. 28th, 1682; landing at Chester, Pennsylvania in the same ship that bore William Penn. Jacob Sr. was a colonel of militia and mayor of Philadelphia from 1761 – 1762. A loyalist, Jacob Sr. died in Lambeth, England.
Jacob Duche Jr. was well educated and graduated from the first class of the College of Philadelphia in 1757 [founded by Ben Franklin in 1749, it later became the University of Pennsylvania]. After graduation, he spent the next year at Cambridge and returned to Philadelphia with the orders of an Anglican deacon. He traveled to England for ordination in 1762. Over the next several years he became a popular preacher who delved in political affairs; preaching sermons with patriotic messages. In 1759, he married Elizabeth Hopkinson, sister of his friend and classmate Francis Hopkinson [lawyer, composer, patriot, and signer of the Declaration of Independence].
Duche intended the long letter he penned to Washington upon his release from a British prison to be held in strict confidence. He was aghast when Washington presented the letter to Congress now at York, Pennsylvania. It was soon printed as a pamphlet and distributed throughout the colonies. On November 29th, 1777, the letter was printed in Rivington’s Royal Gazette.
In the letter, Duche, urged Washington to give up the hopeless struggle and requested Congress to recall the Declaration of Independence. The letter went on to damn not only the Continental Congress, but also the army as a collection of “bankrupts, attorneys, men of desperate fortunes, and undisciplined men and officers, many of whom have been taken from the lowest of the people, without principle and without courage.”
Congress was appalled. They were more painfully shocked than they had been by the revelation of the Church’s treason in 1775 [Dr. Benjamin Church, staunch rebel and close friend of Boston’s patriotic elite who was caught sending coded intelligence to the British military]. It has not been recorded what prompted Duche to write the letter. It is believed that it was done without any British influence, however Washington doubted this.
After the letter became popular, Duche found himself cursed by Americans as a traitor and held in contempt by the British as a blundering fool. He sailed for England in December 1777 and was rewarded for his return to the fold by being made secretary and chaplain of the Asylum for Female Orphans in Lambeth Parish. As historian Mark Boatner states; “Who says the British don’t have a sense of humor?” The State of Pennsylvania confiscated his property, but left his family enough money so they could join Duche in England.
Later in life, Duche’s conversion to the teachings of Swedenborg [scientist and mystic who claimed he could freely visit heaven and hell and talk with angels] and certain eccentricities caused some to question his sanity more than his patriotism. His critics became more lenient towards his treasonous affiliations with the British. After the war, Duche wrote to Washington and other prominent men begging to come home. In May of 1792, he returned to Philadelphia, however he had already suffered a paralytic stroke and lived a lonely existence until his death on January 3, 1798.
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Handlin, Oscar. Harvard Guide to American History. 1954: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Van Doren, Carl. Secret History of the American Revolution; An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others. 1969: Popular Library, New York, NY.