Pirates and the Metric System

From Taking Measure, a blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (via Slate Star Codex), an interesting historical anecdote offering a reason why the United States did not adopt the metric system.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Metric Edition)

September 19, 2017
by Keith Martin

To save his own life, Joseph Dombey had an idea. As two pirate ships surrounded the ship he was on in the Caribbean Sea in 1794, Dombey scrambled below deck, disrobing as he went. He appropriated the outfit of one of the ship’s many Spanish sailors and prayed that he had picked up enough of their language during his trips to South America to blend in. Dombey shouldn’t have been in this position. In fact, he shouldn’t have been in the Caribbean at all. None other than Thomas Jefferson himself was expecting to meet with Dombey in Philadelphia at that very moment.

Dombey’s fate that day arguably delayed the adoption of the metric system in the United States by almost a century and left us as one of the few countries in the world still using non-metric units for our everyday measurements.The marauders now swarming Dombey’s ship were a particular breed of pirate: British privateers— the state-sponsored terrorists of the 18th century. These waterborne gangs had the tacit approval of the government in London to harass and plunder other countries’ maritime commerce and keep part of the spoils as their profit.

After seizing control of the ship, the pirates came across a sailor speaking Spanish with a curiously French accent—Joseph Dombey. A French physician and botanist acting under orders from the French government, Dombey had left the port city of Le Havre, France, weeks earlier for Philadelphia and the meeting with Jefferson, the United States’ first secretary of state and future president. But storms had pushed Dombey’s ship off course and deep into pirate territory.

France had supported the United States against the British in the War of Independence, and now they intended to build closer economic ties with the new American nation. Dombey was to negotiate with Jefferson for grain exports to France and to deliver two new French measurement standards: a standard of length (the meter) and a standard of mass called, rather ominously, a grave, to be considered by the U.S. for adoption. (The grave would be renamed the kilogram a year later in 1795.)

In many ways, Dombey was an excellent choice for this mission. Having already been on several trips to South America to collect botanical specimens, he was an experienced trans-Atlantic traveler. His knowledge of plants would also be of help in his agricultural trade negotiations with Jefferson. And Dombey’s scientific training as a physician and botanist gave him an understanding of the importance of accurate weights and measures, so it was highly likely that he would be able to convince Congress to adopt the new French standards, which would later come to be known as the metric system.

Despite his qualifications, Dombey lacked one important attribute: luck. His previous trips had all ended in failure. He had spent two years in Peru collecting plants that could be usefully cultivated in France, only to have the shipment captured by the British. A second collecting trip, this time in Chile and in collaboration with Spain, fell apart over a business dispute, with Spain keeping all the valuable specimens. But Dombey’s voyage to Philadelphia would turn out to be his most disastrous.

Upon learning his true identity, the pirates imprisoned Dombey on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Unfortunately, Dombey died before they were able to ransom him to the French, and the units of measure in his charge never made it into Jefferson’s hands.

Some historians view this event as a tragic missed opportunity whose consequences we are still living with today. When the U.S. became an independent nation, it inherited an inconsistent collection of traditional British weights and measures. Congress was aware of the flaws with its British measures, and a congressional committee was formed to recommend solutions. Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of French scientific ideas, lobbied for a measurement system similar to that of France. But Congress didn’t adopt it, and the British-influenced system took hold in the U.S. instead. However, If pirates hadn’t intercepted Dombey on his way to Philadelphia, the situation might be very different today.

More at the link.

Adam Smith

A Wikipedia discovery, entry for Adam Smith (note 1):

In his fourth year, while on a visit to his grandfather’s house at Strathendry on the banks of the Leven, [Smith] was stolen by a passing band of gypsies, and for a time could not be found. But presently a gentleman arrived who had met a gypsy woman a few miles down the road carrying a child that was crying piteously. Scouts were immediately dispatched in the direction indicated, and they came upon the woman in Leslie wood. As soon as she saw them she threw her burden down and escaped, and the child was brought back to his mother. [Smith] would have made, I fear, a poor gypsy. (John Rae, Life of Adam Smith,  [1895])

Franklin’s Family

One of the interesting things we learned this summer in Philadelphia is that Benjamin Franklin lived in a common-law relationship with his wife Deborah Read, from 1730 until her death in 1774. Was this on account of Franklin’s principled unorthodoxy, the same spirit that impelled him to reject organized religion and to appear at the court of the French king wearing a rustic fur hat? Not really – it was simply that Read could not prove that her first husband was actually dead, and could thus not remarry without committing bigamy. Franklin and Read spent much time apart, however – allegedly she hated sea travel, and so did not accompany Franklin on his many trips to Europe. Another theory “suggests that a debate over the failed treatment of their son’s smallpox was the culprit.” See an extensive article in this month’s Smithsonian Magazine for more details.

Franklin already had an illegitimate child by another relationship before he set up house with Read; this was William Franklin (d. 1813). William grew up to be the last colonial governor of New Jersey and interestingly, remained a steadfast loyalist during the Revolutionary War. He ended his days in London unreconciled to his father.

Simcoe Day

The first Monday in August in most parts of Canada is a statutory holiday, essentially an excuse for another long weekend between Canada Day (July 1) and Labour Day (first Monday in September). In Ontario, this holiday was usually known the placeholder name “Civic Holiday,” although I seem to remember that the monicker “Simcoe Day” was becoming more and more common by the time I left in the 1990s. It turns out that Simcoe Day is only what it’s known by in Toronto, while other municipalities have named the day after their own local heroes, like Colonel By (Ottawa), Joseph Brant (Burlington), and John Galt (Guelph). But Simcoe Day would make a good province-wide name for the Civic Holiday, because its namesake John Graves Simcoe was the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada (1791-96), the polity that became Ontario in 1867. Simcoe is perhaps most famous for legislation that gradually abolished slavery in Upper Canada. From a CBC article from four years ago:

Simcoe was a known supporter of abolition.

“His bill was brought about by an incident — the Chloe Clooey incident,” said Natasha Henry, a curriculum consultant specializing in African Canadian history.

Simcoe received word of a slave owner violently abusing his slave, a girl by the name of Chloe Clooey, on his way across the Niagara River where he went to sell her into the United States. It was said that her screams were heard by many and the matter was brought to Simcoe’s attention by Peter Martin, a former slave.

“It was his impetus to introduce the bill, but it was then met by objection from a number of the members of his government,” Henry said.

Many members of the legislative assembly at the time owned slaves of their own and so resisted Simcoe’s urge to abolish slavery in Canada.

The resulting law was a compromise that would gradually lead to the end of enslavement.

The act allowed slave owners to maintain the workforce they already had — who would remain enslaved until their death.

Owners were not allowed to purchase new slaves from the United States and any children of female slaves that were born after the act was passed would become free at the age of 25.

Simcoe’s anti-slavery act was the first to pass in a British colony and remained in effect until August 24, 1833, when Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act put an end to slavery in most of the empire.

The Autobiography

Some good ones from Ben Franklin. I pasted these Quotations from the Project Gutenberg e-text, which unfortunately does not preserve Franklin’s eighteenth-century Custom of capitalizing Nouns.

• His reason for writing:

“And, lastly (I may as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody), perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words, “Without vanity I may say,” &c., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.”

• Not rational, but rationalizing!

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”

• Thus always to nay-sayers:

“There are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin. Such a one then lived in Philadelphia; a person of note, an elderly man, with a wise look and a very grave manner of speaking; his name was Samuel Mickle. This gentleman, a stranger to me, stopt one day at my door, and asked me if I was the young man who had lately opened a new printing-house. Being answered in the affirmative, he said he was sorry for me, because it was an expensive undertaking, and the expense would be lost; for Philadelphia was a sinking place, the people already half-bankrupts, or near being so; all appearances to the contrary, such as new buildings and the rise of rents, being to his certain knowledge fallacious; for they were, in fact, among the things that would soon ruin us. And he gave me such a detail of misfortunes now existing, or that were soon to exist, that he left me half melancholy. Had I known him before I engaged in this business, probably I never should have done it. This man continued to live in this decaying place, and to declaim in the same strain, refusing for many years to buy a house there, because all was going to destruction; and at last I had the pleasure of seeing him give five times as much for one as he might have bought it for when he first began his croaking.

• Eighteenth-century Deism:

“Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

“At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more.”

• Useful advice for advancing in the world:

“I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto [the literary society he founded], the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.”

• On female education:

“On his decease, the business was continued by his widow, who, being born and bred in Holland, where, as I have been inform’d, the knowledge of accounts makes a part of female education, she not only sent me as clear a state as she could find of the transactions past, but continued to account with the greatest regularity and exactness every quarter afterwards, and managed the business with such success, that she not only brought up reputably a family of children, but, at the expiration of the term, was able to purchase of me the printing-house, and establish her son in it. I mention this affair chiefly for the sake of recommending that branch of education for our young females, as likely to be of more use to them and their children, in case of widowhood, than either music or dancing, by preserving them from losses by imposition of crafty men, and enabling them to continue, perhaps, a profitable mercantile house, with establish’d correspondence, till a son is grown up fit to undertake and go on with it, to the lasting advantage and enriching of the family.”

• On vaccination:

“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

• Famous advice:

“I therefore did not like the opposition of this new member, who was a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House, which, indeed, afterwards happened. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical proceedings.”

• On how we manage to serve both God and Mammon:

“My being many years in the Assembly, the majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarrassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. They were unwilling to offend government, on the one hand, by a direct refusal; and their friends, the body of the Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles; hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying, and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable. The common mode at last was, to grant money under the phrase of its being “for the king’s use,” and never to inquire how it was applied.”

• An astute observation:

“Human felicity is produc’d not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day. Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas. The money may be soon spent, the regret only remaining of having foolishly consumed it; but in the other case, he escapes the frequent vexation of waiting for barbers, and of their sometimes dirty fingers, offensive breaths, and dull razors; he shaves when most convenient to him, and enjoys daily the pleasure of its being done with a good instrument. With these sentiments I have hazarded the few preceding pages, hoping they may afford hints which some time or other may be useful to a city I love, having lived many years in it very happily, and perhaps to some of our towns in America.”

• Another one (although I don’t quite agree with this; busy work to no real end is also demoralizing):

“This gave me occasion to observe, that, when men are employ’d, they are best content’d; for on the days they worked they were good-natur’d and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day’s work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with their pork, the bread, etc., and in continual ill-humor, which put me in mind of a sea-captain, whose rule it was to keep his men constantly at work; and, when his mate once told him that they had done every thing, and there was nothing further to employ them about, ‘Oh,’ says he, ‘Make them scour the anchor.'”

• You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar:

“We had for our chaplain a zealous Presbyterian minister, Mr. Beatty, who complained to me that the men did not generally attend his prayers and exhortations. When they enlisted, they were promised, besides pay and provisions, a gill of rum a day, which was punctually serv’d out to them, half in the morning, and the other half in the evening; and I observ’d they were as punctual in attending to receive it; upon which I said to Mr. Beatty, “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.” He liked the tho’t, undertook the office, and, with the help of a few hands to measure out the liquor, executed it to satisfaction, and never were prayers more generally and more punctually attended; so that I thought this method preferable to the punishment inflicted by some military laws for non-attendance on divine service.”

• On arranged marriages:

“I inquir’d concerning the Moravian marriages, whether the report was true that they were by lot. I was told that lots were us’d only in particular cases; that generally, when a young man found himself dispos’d to marry, he inform’d the elders of his class, who consulted the elder ladies that govern’d the young women. As these elders of the different sexes were well acquainted with the tempers and dispositions of their respective pupils, they could best judge what matches were suitable, and their judgments were generally acquiesc’d in; but if, for example, it should happen that two or three young women were found to be equally proper for the young man, the lot was then recurred to. I objected, if the matches are not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy. “And so they may,” answer’d my informer, “if you let the parties chuse for themselves;” which, indeed, I could not deny.

• The Fundamental Disagreement:

Accordingly Mr. Hanbury called for me and took me in his carriage to that nobleman’s, who receiv’d me with great civility; and after some questions respecting the present state of affairs in America and discourse thereupon, he said to me: ‘You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend that the king’s instructions to his governors are not laws, and think yourselves at liberty to regard or disregard them at your own discretion. But those instructions are not like the pocket instructions given to a minister going abroad, for regulating his conduct in some trifling point of ceremony. They are first drawn up by judges learned in the laws; they are then considered, debated, and perhaps amended in Council, after which they are signed by the king. They are then, so far as they relate to you, the law of the land, for the king is the Legislator of the Colonies.’ I told his lordship this was new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent laws without his assent, so neither could he make a law for them without theirs. He assur’d me I was totally mistaken.


Obviously I would need to read others’ opinions of Franklin before coming to my own judgment of his character. But I quite like the image he presents of himself in his Autobiography. He is constantly striving for improvement, in himself and in the world around him, which is how he came up with all the inventions for which he is famous. He even lists thirteen virtues that he would like to cultivate in himself, and keeps a chart recording how he exercises each one on a daily basis, much as my kids get a chore chart on the fridge. (Not everyone acts this way, of course, but an unwillingness to accept the world as it is, and to seek to change it through work and ingenuity, seems a particularly American trait.) And yet through it all he never loses his wry sense of humor (which is not American, but something I certainly appreciate).

Washington’s Teeth

An update to the post below about Mount Vernon, in particular about the nature of George Washington’s dentures. A web comic that goes by the name of The Oatmeal, earlier this year, used Washington’s false teeth as an example of beliefs that fundamentally challenge us. I recall that this one was widely shared on Facebook. The relevant bits:

You may have heard that Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood.

Except it isn’t true. In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth.

Upon learning this information, how did you feel about George Washington’s teeth?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably, your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

But what if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials?

What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves? (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

Now, let’s try this again. How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington?

Any of the friction I mentioned earlier?

You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, goes on to examine this so-called “backfire effect,” which occurs when we encounter beliefs that fundamentally challenge us and prompt our limbic system to respond as though we are being threatened with physical danger. This phenomenon deserves wider attention, if only to make people ashamed of it and encourage them to get over it, perhaps through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. After all, we cannot have universities, devoted to the free pursuit and communication of ideas, if everyone is running around being “triggered” by ideas they disagree with, equating those ideas with “violence,” requiring “safe spaces” as protection from them and soothing expressions of parental concern from the university administration, who have better things to do. Alas, this fundamentally adolescent mode of behavior is becoming all the more common in American academia, doubtlessly because the anti-bullying movement has encouraged people to believe that any difficulty they encounter is not only unpleasant, but morally illegitimate (requiring “emotional labor” to overcome), because university staffers feel the need to justify their employment by “doing something” about whatever is brought to their attention, and because liberal academics are desperate to be seen as being on the correct side of things politically.

But I digress.

I swear that I was not particularly upset to discover that Washington’s dentures were made of the teeth of slaves, although it doesn’t reflect all that well on him. My first thought was that surely they extracted them from dead bodies, in an early form of organ donation? Apparently not! But the evidence is somewhat oblique. It comes in the form of an entry in one of Wasington’s account books, which:

details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.

“Source 2” above (the Washington Papers Project at UVA) provides more information:

The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books. The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.” While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.” That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

Sad, if true. But at least he paid something for them, rather than just taking them without any compensation at all…


Happy to have experienced Philadelphia for the first time this summer. Unfortunately, we did not get to spend too much time there, but we did get to see the two biggest historical attractions: the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As a bonus we got to learn something about Benjamin Franklin.

The Liberty Bell, so-called from the 1830s, was cast in London for the legislative building of the Province of Pennsylvania (now designated Independence Hall). The idea is that the bell was rung to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, although there is no documentary proof that this actually happened. Its distinctive large crack developed some time in the early nineteenth century, rendering it unringable – but granting it a great amount of what Stephanie Trigg would call “mythic capital.”

You get to see it in the Liberty Bell Center, run by the National Parks Service, located across the street from Independence Hall. Annoyingly, you have to pass through an airport-level security checkpoint to get in, but the NPS does give you information about the object’s history and its place in the American psyche – it used to go on tour throughout the country, and in the nineteenth century became a symbol of the desire for liberty by African-Americans and women, in addition to being reproduced countless times in various media.

UPDATE: I just received this in the mail:

Also, I saw these at a local supermarket:

Here are a couple more:

Independence Hall isn’t quite as well-known a symbol as the Liberty Bell, but it certainly has been influential architecturally (see buildings at Dartmouth, Berea, Mercer, Rust, Dearborn, etc.)

The building’s original function was as the seat of the colonial legislature of the Province of Pennsylvania. The first floor housed the supreme court on one side, and the legislative chamber on the other. It was in the latter of these that the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence (July 2, 1776), and members of the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787.

Our NPS interpreter (a recent Temple University BA in English) explains the room’s history.

A fun fact: the Declaration of Independence was printed before it was handwritten. The representatives spent two days debating what exactly they were going to accuse George III of before sending it to the printer on July 4 (the reason that this date now marks Independence Day); they regathered in August to affix their signatures to a manuscript copy, which is now on display in the National Archives in DC.

(Related: the first printer of the Declaration was John Dunlap; in 1777 Congress commissioned Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore to print a new edition [the “Goddard Broadside“] including the signatories’ names; she boldy printed her own name at the bottom.)

Walking down the street afterwards we were accosted by Ben Franklin (a.k.a. actor Rick Bravo), with whom we had a good chat.

He enjoined us to visit his house further down the street. Not much of it still exists, although a “ghost house,” designed by architect Robert Venturi, now outlines where it once was, with concrete hoods that allow you to view the foundations of the original structure.

On the west side of this “Franklin Court” is the Benjamin Franklin Museum, a brutalist structure put up for the bicentennial in 1976. The National Parks Service has recently redone the exhibits, and they provide an informative and interactive view of Franklin’s career. To the north end of the court is a print shop (one of Franklin’s jobs was as a printer), where NPS employees will demonstrate the use of an eighteenth-century printing press. An adjacent working post office (Franklin served as the first Postmaster General) will allow you to send letters with specially designed cancellation marks.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is now on my reading list for the summer.

Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

Vive la Révolution!

For Bastille Day (July 14), let us take symbolic tour of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution of 1789 is often billed as “the birth of modern politics” and the Jacobins who took it over “the first modern political party.” Indeed, they shared more than a little in common with the Bolsheviks who took over Russia in 1917. It wasn’t enough to have a regime change; both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks felt they had to remake their respective countries from the ground up. There came to be a “revolutionary” way of doing everything! In this way did the the French Revolution differ from the American Revolution that inspired it. For the Americans to dissolve the political bands that tied them to the British crown was psychologically easy enough, given that 3500 miles of ocean separated the two; the Americans adopted a new flag and national emblem, and rejected anything monarchial, but left pretty much everything else about their society intact. The situation was rather different in France, given that the government, and its numerous supporters, were all right there, and ready to make alliances with neighboring powers hostile to the revolution. Thus there was a greater imperative to extirpate everything associated with the ancien régime, through terror if necessary.

France’s original experiment with republicanism ended in 1804 in favor of Napoleon’s empire, and the country reverted to monarchy in 1815. Another dynasty took over in 1830, which in turn was ousted in 1848 in favor of another republic. Then followed (from 1852) another empire, which fell in 1871 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Since that time, France has been consistently republican, so many of these revolutionary symbols are now respectable (and unremarkable) state symbols. Some of them did not stick, however. All of them were highly political when they were first introduced. If there was any principle in operation at the time, it was that anything monarchial, Catholic, or medieval was out, and anything republican, classical, or “enlightened” was in. Things like…


Philatelic Mariannes (author’s collection).

Allegorical female figures. In Latin (and in French), most abstract nouns are feminine, so it is easy to imagine “Justice” or “Hope” as female figures. The revolution saw the increased use of these – the idea was to avoid saints like Joan of Arc, Louis IX, or Denis. The seal of the First French Republic (1792) featured “Liberty”; in 1830, Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People (see below). Eventually a female figure representing France acquired the name “Marianne” and is now an integral part of French symbolism. A young woman is even elected as a model Marianne on a regular basis by all the mayors of France. She’s everywhere!


French stamp (author’s collection); emblems of the French national rugby league team, ice hockey team, rugby union team, and football team; Le Coq Sportif logo (Wikipedia)

Rooster. Another classical reference. The male chicken is a “gallus” in Latin, which was also the name of the Roman province of Gaul, which became France after the Franks settled there. The rooster itself is watchful, and will preserve the revolution. After Marianne, the coq gaulois is the most common animate symbol of France today. (Certainly the fleur de lys, that sacred symbol of French royal power, was right out!)


Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830), detail, via Wikipedia.

Bleu-blanc-et-rouge. I understand that the French tricolor actually dates from the early days of the revolution, when people thought that a constitutional monarchy was still possible. White was the Bourbon color, and red and blue the colors of Paris, so the idea was that the three colors represented an alliance between the monarchy and the citizenry. The three colors survived the execution of Louis XVI, however, and as a cockade identified the revolutionary National Guard. A tricolor flag of vertical stripes soon followed. It has been France’s national flag continuously since the July Monarchy of 1830.


Tympanum of a state-owned French church, via Wikipedia.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The three colors of the revolutionary flag are often linked to the three words of the revolutionary motto, which is perhaps why this motto won out over others in use at the time. Any man of the Enlightenment would recognize “liberty” and “equality” as ideals; the fact that the motto goes on to embrace “fraternity” is probably a testament to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his mystical concept of the General Will. (Many people have pointed out that the motto ends up contradicting itself – are you at liberty to drop out of your fraternity?)


Seal of the First French Republic, 1792. From Clip Art Etc.

Fasces and Phrygian cap. These were two more revived classical symbols beloved of the revolutionaries. A fasces consists of a bundle of rods bound around an axe. It was a ceremonial object borne before the consuls in republican Rome, and is thus a symbol of republicanism (although it isn’t as popular as it once was, given that it’s also a symbol of fascism). The Phrygian cap was worn by Phrygians and others in the ancient Near East; through confusion with the pileus, cap worn by freed slaves in Rome, it came to be a symbol of freedom. Marianne wears one, often with a tricolor cockade; sometimes the cap is shown lifted aloft on a pole.


Inscription (1792-1794) on a church at Ivry-la-Bataille, via Wikipedia.

Cult of Reason. Nothing better illustrates the anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries than their sponsorship of the Cult of Reason as a replacement for Roman Catholicism. Churches across the land, including Notre Dame in Paris, were transformed into Temples of Reason, and a national Festival of Reason celebrated on 20 Brumaire Year II (see “Revolutionary Calendar” below). As the name implies the religion was dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy, and the object of its worship was “the people.” This was too much for everyone to stomach, and Robespierre himself sponsored a competing Cult of the Supreme Being, which at least acknowledged the existence of a god of sorts. After Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, he banned both cults.


Le Panthéon national, via Wikipedia.

Panthéon. Another aspect of the revolutionaries’ anticlericalism was their expropriation of the church of Ste. Geneviève in Paris and its transformation into a mausoleum for national heroes, such as Voltaire and Rousseau. This Panthéon (a nice classical reference there) has reverted to being a church on a couple of occasions and a cross remains on the dome as a memento of the building’s original purpose, but it is still in use today as a secular French hall of fame (the most recent interments were in 2015). Foucault’s Pendulum, proving the rotation of the Earth, was first demonstrated in the Panthéon in 1851.


A map of the départements of 1798. From Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution.

Départements. The thing about the ancien régime is that its traditional geographical subunits (Aquitaine, Burgundy, Brittany, etc.) were also the titles, and private fiefdoms, of various dukes and counts. Such particularism, and anything smacking of aristocratic privilege, could not be welcome in the new France. So the revolutionaries divided the country into 83 départements, each one to be governed by a civil servant known as a prefect and each one named, neutrally, after a local river or some other geographical feature. The capital of each département was to be no more than a day’s ride from any settlement in it, as a security measure. It remains the fundamental administrative division in France, even if people might still claim to be from “Champagne,” “Normandy,” or some other traditional area.


“Use of the New Measures,” woodcut from eighteenth century France (detail), via Wikimedia Commons.

Metric System. This one is still in use; in fact, it’s one of the most successful of all the products of the Revolution, exported to Europe and then to the world. Only eccentric places like the USA hold out against it. One can understand the revolutionaries’ desire for a uniform system of measurement, given the multiplicity of different systems within France prior to 1789 (although why the Bourbons, with all their absolutist power, didn’t manage to impose one on France themselves, has always been a mystery to me). It is very much a product of the Enlightenment, in which everything is Logical. The base units are derived from nature, and relate to each other, and a uniform set of prefixes indicate by which power of ten we are to multiply the base unit. A gram, the base unit of mass, is equal to one cubic centimeter of water, which itself represents one milliliter of liquid measurement. Zero degrees centigrade is the freezing point, while 100 is the boiling point. A thousand meters is a kilometer, a thousand grams is a kilogram, a thousand liters a kiloliter. All very rational – although sometimes twelve is actually an easier number to work with, in that you can divide it in half, and then in half again, and also in thirds. Also, what’s easier to say, a “mile” or a “kilometer”? And a yard may be all of three inches shorter than a meter, but the one is allegedly derived from the length of the king’s arm, while the other is one ten-millionth the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. I can’t help but think that the former is intuitive and human centered, while the latter is abstract and inhuman. (Or perhaps I have just lived too long in the United States…)


Personifications of the autumnal Revolutionary months of Vendémiaire (“vintage”), Brumaire (“mist”), and Frimaire (“frost”), from Journal d’un Ségoleniste.

Revolutionary Calendar. Like revolutionaries everywhere, the Jacobins claimed they were living in a new era, and designated 1792, the year of the abolition of the French monarchy, as Year One. They also reorganized the calendar so that there were twelve months of thirty days each, with an extra five or six intercalary days dedicated to revolutionary virtues like “talent,” “labor,” or “honors.” Every other day of the calendar was dedicated to a fruit, vegetable, animal, or tool, and the months themselves were given descriptive names like Messidor (“harvest,” June-July) or Nivôse (“snowy,” December-January). No longer would people be celebrating the saints’ days of the old calendar! This innovation did not stick (Napoleon revived to the Gregorian system in 1806), although the names of some of the months live on, as in Lobster Thermidor, Emile Zola’s Germinal, or Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. An interesting website has more information, and a calendar converter.


French decimal clock from the time of the Revolution, via Wikipedia.

Decimal Time. This one was even more bizarre. That there are sixty seconds in a minute, and sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day, was displeasing to some people. Metric is based on powers of ten, so the revolutionaries sponsored a decimal system of time measurement whereby each day had ten hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and each minute 100 seconds. This was deprecated in 1795.

Guillotine. Everyone knows about this instrument of the Reign of Terror (although it was only one of several methods of execution that the Jacobins employed). The irony is that the guillotine was actually considered humane, and a social leveler to boot. In the ancien régime, commoners got hanged, while only aristocrats were entitled to decapitation. The trouble is that often the hanging victim did not die instantly, while the executioner of nobles sometimes required several sword strokes to finish the job. The guillotine was not going to miss, and provided an instant, painless death no matter what social class you were from. It remained the preferred method of capital punishment in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981.

Sans-culottes. Men did not always wear trousers in the western world; certainly in the eighteenth century, if you had any sort of position to keep up, you wore breeches – trousers that stopped just below the knee, with hose covering the remainder of your leg. Only the lower classes wore trousers that went all the way down to the ankle. But insofar as the Revolution was about lifting those people up, it became briefly fashionable for everyone to wear pantalons. It was certainly a good idea during the Terror, when any hint of association with the old ways could spell death. “Sans-culottes” means “without breeches” and refers to radicalized members of the working classes who were some of the revolution’s most fervent supporters, although their ideas were more about equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity and they were marginalized following the Thermidorian Reaction (1794). (Apparently the fashion arbiter Beau Brummell introduced trousers to London society during the Regency [1811-20], making them safe for the upper class to wear.)


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806), detail showing collar of the Legion of Honor, via Wikipedia.

Legion of Honor. This was a Napoleonic innovation, meant to replace the chivalric orders of St. Michael (1469) and of the Holy Spirit (1578), sponsored by the French monarchy. The Légion d’honneur, in good republican form, was meant to recognize talent, merit, and achievement, not birth. It has survived all subsequent vicissitudes of French politics and remains the pinnacle of the French honors system.


From the blog of 98.7 WFMT.

The Marseillaise. This song was composed in 1792 after the declaration of war against Austria and declared the revolutionary anthem in 1795. It derives its name from a group of volunteers from Marseilles who sang it as they traveled to Paris. You know the tune – it opens the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” strains of it are heard in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and it is played by the man with the tape recorder up his nose in the Monty Python sketch. The lyrics are pretty violent – the enemy is coming to “slit the throats of our sons and companions,” so we must fight back and “let an impure blood soak our fields”! It was deprecated by Napoleon and banned by the nineteenth-century monarchs, but restored to official status in 1879 and remains France’s national anthem.

Jean-Pierre Houël, Prise de la Bastille (1789), via Wikipedia.

Finally, there is Bastille Day itself, or as the French call it, la Fête nationale. There were many events in the fateful year of 1789, including the convocation of the Estates-General (May 5), the Tennis Court Oath (June 20), the Great Fear (July-August), and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 27). But the one that everyone remembers, and that stands in for everything else, is the Storming of the Bastille on July 14. The Bastille was a prison in Paris that had come to symbolize royal tyranny, and following the dismissal of the reformist Finance Minister Jacques Necker on July 12, the Parisians stormed it. Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the battle; afterwards, the governor of the Bastille had his head removed and paraded around on a pike. The prisoners – none of whom was actually political by that time – were freed, and the building quickly reduced to rubble.

The elevation of July 14 to its current status of premier national holiday came about in 1880, in the early years of the Third Republic. I do not know why this event of all that took place in 1789 became so important – I guess, as with the Marseillaise, that violence shows you’re serious.

UPDATE: I suppose a better reason is that the destruction of a physical barrier, like in Berlin on November 9, 1989, is psychologically satisfying. Here is a photo of a model of the Bastille, made from one of the bricks of the Bastille, presented to Washington by Lafayette, on display at Mount Vernon.

Photo: Anne Good.

Dartmouth and Canada

Ron Good apprises me of an interesting article by Thomas Peace at Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History entitled “Dartmouth College and Canada: The Problem of National Historiographies.” As a Canadian and a Dartmouth alum, I was naturally curious – and pleased to see that Peace deals with Joseph Brant, UE (alias Thayendaneaga), the Mohawk chieftain who was educated at Moor’s Indian Charity School (the precursor to Dartmouth), who sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, who relocated to Brantford, Upper Canada following the war – and who subsequently sent his own sons back across the border to be educated at Dartmouth. If ever I have enough money to donate a building to Dartmouth College (admittedly a highly unlikely possibility), I would name it Brant Hall, after Joseph and his sons, representative of the connections that have existed between Dartmouth and Canada from the beginning. Peace points out, however, that Brant was one of several such people, and that their cross-border existence has been obscured by the fact that historians tend to focus on writing either a history of Canada, or of the United States. I sure hope he makes more of this.