Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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THE ENGLISH SETTLEMENTS 1619-1776

At first, the British Empire wasn't even British, it was English. English history, English religion, English unification, even English court intrigue, and gossip. When Sir Francis Drake brought home the Spanish gold, it was welcome enough, but it was just part of the English Revolution, on its way to becoming the British Empire. English settlers were just a curiosity, like the "Indians" they brought home. England was Ben Franklin's idea of home, left behind by his prosperous family because of largely religious quarrels. The silk-dye Franklins, by the way, had to start over at the bottom in Boston because Cotton Mather's crowd wouldn't accept their money, or see their side of an English religious quarrel. England was, in fact, everybody's home, intellectually, although that was fast coming to an end. Because of the plague and the fire, lots of things were coming to an end, and lots of other things were just starting. For now, the important thing was they were people of former substance, wide acquaintance, and thoroughly English. Whiggish and out of favor perhaps, but not seriously in rebellion.

When they got to America, the whole Franklin family was rambunctious and supported itself with sister Jane's invention of bar soap, her father's candle-making shop, and brother James' printer shop. They got in trouble somewhat with a straight-laced community, but most of their troubles would be called "scrapes" and "quarrels" of a family trying to re-establish itself in new circumstances. When he got to Philadelphia, Benjamin repeated the performance. Arriving at a strange town as a penniless teenager, he turned a print-shop into a chain of newspapers and was ready to retire to his hobbies and politics at the age of 42. Along the way, he learned to keep his mouth shut, selectively.

Franklin was not an aristocrat, but there were scarcely any aristocrats who did not seek him out. In spite of writing one of the most famous autobiographies in America, few people could be certain of his religion, his marital status, his politics. He was definitely not a Quaker, but for a while, he led the Quaker faction. He never went past the second grade, but would have won a Nobel prize if there had been such a thing, and financed his own research. He spent eighteen years living in London, inventing a musical instrument which pleased Mozart, and regularly visited Parliament. When the King's Saint Paul Cathedral was struck by lightning, the King sought his advice. When King George III rejected this advice, the personal quarrel turned him into a personal enemy of the King. As a consequence of a forty-minute public tongue-lashing by Lord Wedderburn at the King's request, he finally turned rebel, joined the Continental Congress, and eventually helped write the American Constitution. At the Albany Conference of 1754, he had proposed a Union of the Thirteen Colonies and lived to see it a reality in 1789, although it was an independent America, not a British colony. But in spite of that, it took a personal confrontation with King George III to convince him Independence was a good idea. In spite of his greatly praised autobiography, no one suspected it of him. No one seems to have known.

Originally published: Monday, August 12, 2019; most-recently modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2020

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Posted by: george   |   Aug 19, 2019 9:52 PM

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