Hail, Lafayette!

A story for an election year, by Ronald Bailey on History Net (hat tip: Wanda Cronauer). Who would play such a role in 2020?

The spirit of 1776 had faded as America expanded westward. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 papered over festering sectional rivalries by balancing Missouri’s admission to the union as a slave state with Maine’s admission as a free state. But by setting a geographical boundary on slavery, the compromise also effectively defined a line on which the nation might split apart. Lafayette’s old friend Thomas Jefferson likened it to “a fire bell in the night [that] filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”

The first months of Lafayette’s tour coincided with a bitterly divisive presidential campaign, which brought James Monroe’s two-term Era of Good Feelings to an end. Monroe ran unopposed four years earlier, but now the host of candidates who threw their hats in the ring seemed unable to agree on anything but the apparent certainty that the union was on the verge of collapse.

America was in desperate need of a hero….

When Lafayette arrived in America, newspapers were filled with vitriol as the presidential campaign devolved into a contest pitting the interests of the North—represented by John Quincy Adams—and the South and West—represented mainly by Andrew Jackson. But soon Lafayette’s tour “paralyzed all the electoral ardour,” observed James Fenimore Cooper. “At the public dinners, instead of caustic toasts, intended to throw ridicule and odium on some potent adversary, none were heard but healths to the guest of the nation, around whom were amicably grouped the most violent of both parties. Finally, for nearly two months all the discord and excitement produced by this election, which, it was said, would engender the most disastrous consequences, were forgotten, and nothing was thought of but Lafayette and the heroes of the revolution.”

Lafayette himself, in a letter home, concluded that his trip had “contributed to tighten the union between the states and to soften political parties, by bringing them all together in common hospitality toward a ghost from another world.”

Greensboro

I regret that I did not have time to visit the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The walk between my hotel and UNC-Greensboro allowed me to snap pictures of a statue of the city’s namesake, Nathanael Greene…

…and of the city’s flag:

It’s a shame, though, that the Guilford Courthouse flag was nowhere in evidence. That would give the place some style points. 

Wikipedia.

Every university needs a carillon clock…

…and a statue of the founder.

I was pleased that Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, featured so prominently on campus. I assume that this is a testament to the UNCG’s origins as a women’s college.

So I must say that I’m puzzled why UNCG’s sports teams are known as the Spartans. Like the words “automobile” or “television,” this mixes Greek and Latin! Plus, if the standard visual representation of the Spartan is the hoplite warrior, it’s sexist to boot. 

Fathead.com

Real Independence Day

Gail Heriot on Instapundit (emphasis added):

RIGHT SENTIMENT, WRONG DAY:  On this day in 1776 (and not July 4th), the Continental Congress voted for independence from Great Britain.  The next day, in a letter to Abigail, John Adams rhapsodized:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Yes, we did eventually come to celebrate Independence Day with parades, bonfires and illuminations. But we chose the 4th of July (the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed) rather than the 2nd of July when the vote for independence was taken.

Here’s one way the difference might matter:  Choosing the 4th made Jefferson the most significant figure in the story, since he wrote the Declaration. If the 2nd had caught on as the day to celebrate, it would have put Adams more at the center, since he was the more important oral advocate for independence.

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.

Braves

The Gwinnett Braves, the AAA-affiliate of the major-league Atlanta Braves, have announced that they will be changing their name for the 2018 season (although they will still be affiliated with Atlanta). You might think that this is another example of the desire to eschew Native American symbolism in sports team naming, but it is only a desire to avoid confusion with the major league team – Gwinnett being close enough to Atlanta to be considered the same market. There is a shortlist of six finalists,* and you can vote for the name you prefer; being a historian, my personal favorite is the “Gwinnett Buttons.” (Button Gwinnett, representative to the Second Continental Congress from Georgia and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, is the namesake of Gwinnett County. I had not known that he was killed in a duel in 1777 – come to think of it, the “Gwinnett Duellers” would also be a good name for the team.)

* UPDATE (12/17): The names were Buttons, Big Mouths, Gobblers, Lambchops, Hushpuppies and Sweet Teas. The name eventually chosen was “Stripers,” after the fish.

Philadelphia

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.