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Born: 1709, Died: 12/10/1779

Joseph Fox was a master builder and one of the most prominent leaders among the craftsmen of Philadelphia on the eve of the Revolution. The son of Justinian and Elizabeth (Yard) Fox, Joseph Fox was apprenticed to James Portues and became one of his heirs when the prosperous master builder died in 1737. An early member of The Carpenters' Company, he was already Master of The Company by 1763 when the earliest surviving minutes begin. (The earliest Company records were kept at Fox's home and were probably destroyed when the British burned his house during the occupation of Philadelphia.)

Although Fox's wealth made it possible for him to spend most of his time in public service, he maintained his trade connections, was regular in his attendance to Company affairs, and stood ready on occasion to make personal loans to assist the brotherhood when treasury funds were low. Unlike most of his colleagues, there is no evidence that Fox designed any Philadelphia buildings after 1750. He did lay out a lot for Isaac Zane, Sr. (see Zane account books) on which was to be built a house for John Smith, and measured two houses on Market Street, in 1754. Four years later he measured Zane's carpentry on a house just built for Samuel Powell. As Master of The Company and surveyor for the Contributionship, most of his professional activity appears to have centered on measuring and surveying. His investments in land and trade provide additional income, and, from 1758 until the Revolution, he was Barrack Master, "with full power to do and perform every manner and thing which may be requisite for the comfortable accomodation of his Majestye's troops." (Scharf & Westcott, 2, 1006) This doubtless was a lucrative post as it involved provisioning the troops and maintaining a large physical plant.

Fox was considered "a man of wealth, but no way avaritious, of great spirit, and esteemed a very honest man." (Letter from William Allen to Thomas Penn, quoted in Cresson, "Biographical Sketch," PMHB, 2, 1908) Consequently he was in great demand as executor and trustee of the estates of numerous tradesmen. Even among his political foes of the Governor's party he was considered "a person of some influence in the city." (Letter from James Tilghman to Thomas Penn, quoted in Cresson, "Biographical Sketch," PMHB) He became a Regulator of Streets in 1748, the same year that his friend Benjamin Franklin was elected to the Common Council, and within two years both men had entered the Assembly as representatives of Philadelphia City. In 1752 both were defeated, whereupon they stood from the County. This time Franklin was elected and Fox defeated. The following year Fox was able to gain a Philadelphia County seat that he held without interruption for the next eight years.

Fox's tenure in the Assembly spanned the Albany Convention, the French and Indian War, the Pontiac Conspiracy and Paxton Boys, and the Stamp Act controversy. During the War he was particularly involved with problems of defense and supply, for which he was disowned by the Philadelphia Meeting. He was also singled out by the Paxton Boys as a particular target for threats. To Governor Thomas Penn and his party, Fox was one of the "veriest Partisans against the Proprs and moderate measures as could be picked out of the Town." All the more reason for Penn to object when, in October 1764, Fox was appointed Speaker of the Assembly. Once seated, Fox presided over the Assembly that dispatched Franklin to England as an agent to lobby against the Proprietary Government. It was also during Fox's speakership that delegates were selected for the Stamp Act Congress.

As the Colonies moved toward Revolution, Joseph Fox was at the center of the American cause organizing the craftmen. (The role of Fox and The Carpenters' Company in the Revolution is discussed in Moss, Master Builders.) He was Master of The Carpenters' Company at the time of his death during the British occupation of Philadelphia; the distruction of his papers has deprived Fox of his rightful place in history as a revolutionary leader.

Written by Roger W. Moss.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia


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