George Lippard wrote The Quaker City with the express purpose of creating a controversial and infamous exposé of criminal underworld of Philadelphia that would be embraced by a scandalized public and perhaps lead to wholesale reform. At least, there would be an intensified focus of much-needed attention on a situation that had been allowed to spiral out of control. To an extent, he met his expectations. The Quaker City was an instant success and went on to become one of the bestselling novels of the nineteenth century.
What really made The Quaker City such a sensation that it eventually became one of the best-selling books of the 1800’s is that the vice and illegal activities at the center of its story were most definitely not limited to the low-life element of that criminal world in the City of Brotherly Love. The focus of the exposé was quite egalitarian in nature and the popularity of the book spread evenly across class distinctions and economic strata because it was the ruling power elite of the Philadelphia that took the biggest hit. The feet of clay beneath the towering prestige of those near the top of city’s crust threatened to cause several big names to topple over in disgrace.
Almost apocalyptic in nature, Lippard’s novel characterized Philadelphia as a city that had gone from the heights of the Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress to a gloomy hellmouth that was “all rottenness and dead men’s bones.” Though its popularity cut across class divisions, the reasons for that popularity did not. The lower classes didn’t much like what they read and the upper classes certainly didn’t like having their little secret spoiled and divulged to those whom they considered had little right to know. Lippard himself received death threats for daring to fuel the divisiveness engendered sharing secrets he almost certainly had been told under the directive to keep them to himself. Such was the fervor of the political divide that a planned theatrical production based on the novel had to be canceled for fear of violence.
As for the extent of that popularity, The Quaker City was for a brief period of time the best-selling American novel published in America. It would remain so until Harriet Beecher Stowe created a publishing phenomenon in 1852 with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.