It has been a long day and I don’t have the time or inclination to do a deeper dive, but I would be neglectful not to mention that Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane, and their French counterparts signed the Treaty of Alliance on this date in 1778, 245 years ago today. I don’t think I grasped until a fateful visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in 2017 how intertwined the world was even in the eighteenth century. We think today that globalization is new, but really each generation for centuries has had its own manifestation.
I hope everyone is having a relaxing and meaningful holiday weekend. I was in Greenwood Cemetery yesterday and things are blooming. Today is the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s passing in 1790. His death came less than a year after Washington’s inaugural in New York City and nine months prior to the federal government’s move to Philadelphia. The Poor Richard Club placed the plaque we see here beside Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Burial Ground. When I saw it last weekend I was struck at how new it appeared. The Poor Richard Club was a group formed in 1906 (the bicentennial of Franklin’s birth) by Philadelphians who worked primarily in the advertising world. I couldn’t nail down the exact year but by what I could piece together the group disbanded sometime in the late 1980s or 1990s. Presumably demographic and other changes are what ultimately rendered the club extinct. When I was in Philly I did cross the still-extant Union League Club. Who knows why one group survives and another one does not? I am becoming increasingly intrigued by the history and memory of the Revolution and Early American Republic. The hows and whys of what gets remembered, preserved, commemorated, or forgotten are fascinating in and of themselves.
I was up and out of the house before 6:00 am yesterday in order to meet some friends at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It was a June 2017 visit that spun me off on a different intellectual path that I am still on today. One of the friends with whom I was meeting too has been on something of a new trajectory these past several years relating to the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Early Republic Eras. We met at Federal Hall on Presidents Day 2020 just before the pandemic. He has been making great strides in his pursuits. All of us in our party found the museum overwhelming and exhilarating. There is so much to take in. The MOAR opened in April 2017 and has done such an incredible job in such a short period of time that it is difficult to believe it has been a mere half decade. A highlight of the day, one of many, was talking to the museum staff who intermingle and converse with patrons in the galleries. I struck up conversations with at least 3-4 and they have disparate intellectual interests. There is something in there about pursuing one’s own happiness. All were very knowledgable and dynamic. One thing I brought up with each was what they might be planning for 250th anniversaries coming up, especially for 2026. That is only four years away. It was on the radar of each of them.
We also took a guided tour of Christ Church Burial Ground. As you can see in the image above, somewhere along the way over the centuries church officials tore out a portion of the brick wall and replaced it with fencing that allows passersby to see Deborah and Franklin’s headstone from the sidewalk. Christ Church is still an active congregation and, in addition to the ecumenical work, its members have been doing a lot these past twenty years to archive and disseminate their historical records and heritage. That work has included upkeep and tours of the cemetery. You get a sense when you are here of how small a city colonial and revolutionary Philadelphia was. At the time this was considered the outskirts of town, even what we would today call suburbia. Yet it is all within walking distance of Independence Hall.
I watched part one of Ken Burns’s “Benjamin Franklin” last night and thought it was quite good. I don’t know if it is just my interpretation, but it seems that over the past several years there has been a greater seriousness and sense of urgency in Burns’s work. Absent now are the Lost Cause tinges one saw in “The Civil War” and such dramatic touches as the violins of “Ashokan Farewell.” I’m not sure if that is because Burns has matured as a filmmaker or due to our current historical moment, but either way I find it striking. I’m glad Burns made the film now, at a time when I know more about the period than I did even five years ago. I know he and his team are working on a larger project about the Revolutionary War slated for release in 2026 for the 250th anniversary.
Artistically the black-and-white engravings in the film are striking. Though I don’t know for sure, I assume the engravings were made specifically for the film. I loved that in addition to younger scholars he interviewed Gordon Wood and the late Bernard Bailyn. We have so much still to learn from the work these giants have done. I certainly do. The film does a good job of placing the colonies in an international context within the Atlantic World. Part one ends in 1774 and hints at the trouble to come between Benjamin and son William, the governor of the New Jersey colony and a Loyalist. We see hints that the American Revolutionary War was very much a civil war, and I think part two tonight will go into that.
Later this month some friends and I are going to Philadelphia on a day trip already planned several weeks ago. We booked our tickets for certain venues in advance figuring that the release of “Benjamin Franklin” would attract larger crowds, which would be good. I haven’t been to Philadelphia in a good 3-4 years–a summer or two before the pandemic–and am psyched to return.