My question for Benjamin Franklin might surprise you

A copy of The Pennsylvania Gazette from May 9, 1754, which includes the earliest publication of the most celebrated editorial cartoon in American history – Benjamin Franklin’s woodcut illustration “Join, or Die” – sold for $53,775 at an April 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

I suppose that most people interested in history have given consideration to the traditional question, “Who would you like to have dinner with?” There are many excellent choices, but my personal No. 1 is Benjamin Franklin and his youngest sister, Jane Franklin Mecom. I’d select “Benny and Jenny” (as they were called) since they were so close and corresponded with each other over a string of 60 years.

Jane did not attend any school and Franklin ended up teaching her how to read. She survived him by four years, until 1794, and subsisted almost exclusively on an allowance from Benjamin that included a house until she died. The house was then converted into a monument to Paul Revere. Of her 12 children, she survived all but one. At the time, 25 percent of all children died before their 10th birthday. It was so routine that, from a religious standpoint, children were taught not to fear death.

I would invite Jane to my dinner simply to get a female’s perspective on life in the 18th century. Much of what we know about those times is slanted to a narrow slice of the population (i.e. white males who were landowners). Benjamin was never really committed to religion. Asked about his views when he was near the end, he ducked it by saying he’d never really studied it and would soon be able to find out with a degree of certainty.

The choice of Benjamin might seemingly appear to be obvious: He was a polymath of the first order (a 20th century term reserved for exceptional people). Some rank him on a level with Leonardo da Vinci, despite the stark difference in versatility in creative arts. Even Walter Issacson, who wrote biographies of both men, describes Franklin as “the most accomplished American of his age and influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

Consider his resume as inventor, diplomat, printer, politics, scientist, the postal system and wit as a writer. It would have to be a l-o-n-g dinner to touch on even a partial list of accomplishments. Besides, there are dozens of modern books on every single topic available on an e-reader in a matter of seconds. Why waste time listening to his dated thinking, which has been overtaken by later experts?

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, which means it was during the reign of Anne, Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland (1702-07). On May 7, 1707, under the Acts of Union, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain. She continued to reign as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland until her death in 1714. Anne was in ill health for much of her life and despite 17 pregnancies, died without any surviving. Under the Act of Settlement (1701), which excluded all Catholics, she was succeeded by a second cousin, George I of the House of Hanover (a German Royal House).

George III became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1760 at age 22 following the sudden death of his grandfather George II. In his accession speech to Parliament, he played down his Hanoverian connection. “Born and educated in this country,” he said, “I glory in the name of Britain!” In his long life (81 years), George never traveled beyond England … not to Ireland, to the continent, not even to Scotland and most certainly never to America. As an aside, none of his ministers had been to the New World. They had no idea that America had a population of 2.5 million that was doubling every 25 years, a growth rate never seen in recorded history. George III would reign for 59 years, longer than any of his predecessors and only exceeded by two queens: Victoria and Elizabeth II.

He was aware of the outcome of the French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War that lasted nine years, 1754-1763) that was resolved by the Treaty of Paris. The spoils were perhaps the greatest ever won by force. Britain took Canada from France and half a billion acres of fertile land from the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. Florida and the Gulf Coast were ceded by Spain. Britain emerged with the most powerful navy in history and with 8,000 sails, the world’s largest merchant fleet. George Macartney penned the still well-known descriptor of “this vast empire on which the sun never sets.”

Ten years later in June 1773, King George III participated in a great celebration of his reign over the greatest empire since ancient Rome. However, at the end of the next decade, Britain’s bright future had dimmed by a series of provocative taxes levied on his increasingly rebellious American Colonies: 1764’s Sugar Tax, 1765’s Stamp Act and, finally, the Tea Tax that provoked the Boston Tea Party and lead directly to April 18, 1775, and the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the American Revolution.

The war would last eight years and though at least 1 in 10 Americans would die for the cause, the treasure was beyond measure: freedom from oppression and the creation of a new republic. This is my conversation for Benjamin Franklin. What happened on Jan. 29, 1774, that transformed him from a conciliator to a revolutionary … from a loyalist to the British Crown to “the First American?” … and exactly what role did the Hutchinson Letters Affair play?

The God question can wait, but I would like to know if Benjamin has a sense of humor … and what makes him laugh.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

British General Had Unfortunate Assignment of Quelling a Revolution

A letter signed by Thomas Gage, a year before the opening shots of the Revolutionary War, sold for $5,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Gage was the general in charge of Great Britain’s forces in North America from 1763 to 1775. As commander-in-chief, he held the most powerful office in British America, although he spent a disproportionate amount of time in New York City, enjoying the lively social scene.

It was during Gage’s tenure that colonial tensions escalated over political acts in London, starting with the highly unpopular Stamp Act of 1765.

Thomas Gage

Although Gage and his family were in Great Britain in late 1773 and missed the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16, 1773), it provoked the British Parliament to enact a series of punitive measures that became known as the Intolerable Acts (or the Coercive Acts). Since Gage had experience in North America that extended all the way back to the French and Indian War in 1755, he was selected to be the military governor of Massachusetts in early 1774. It was his job to implement the Acts and quell the nascent rebellion.

In April, John Hancock and Samuel Adams had decided to hide out in Lexington, Mass., in Hancock’s childhood home to avoid contact with the British as they made their way to the Second Continental Congress. It was a wise decision since Gage had received instructions from London to arrest them as ringleaders of the insurgency. He also planned to seize gunpowder that was stored in nearby Concord.

However, the patriots received a tip about the raid and Paul Revere was dispatched to warn Hancock and Adams. When British troops descended on Lexington on April 19, they were confronted by a small band of volunteers. Now-historic shots were fired, killing eight Americans and wounding 10, while the British lost a single horse before they moved on to Concord.

It was a much different story when the British proudly marched back to Boston in their crisp red uniforms. Suddenly, they were engulfed on all sides by armed men, many of them local farmers, who were protected by buildings, trees, rocks and fences. They were known as the Minutemen, since they were highly mobile, self-trained in weaponry, deadly accurate with firearms, and able to respond quickly to military threats.

The British, frantic to seek safety, scrambled back to Boston after 273 soldiers were either killed or wounded. The colonists lost 95 men and were now prepared to challenge the once-invincible British, despite the enormous difference in resources. A larger and longer conflict was finally ignited.

John Adams got it exactly right when he said, “The battle of Lexington on the 19th of April changed the instruments of warfare from the pen to the sword.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Paul Revere Was a Patriot – and Silversmith – Who Helped Win Our Independence

This set of six silver tablespoons made by Paul Revere sold for $83,650 at an April 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic, they published a (now) well-known poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that begins:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

It was an attempt to bolster the North’s courage and resolve on the eve of the Civil War. Longfellow hoped to illustrate how much impact individuals can have during times of dramatic, historic occasions. He used Paul Revere as an example in the hope it would inspire others as the nation stared into the abyss of war.

At the time, it was titled Paul Revere’s Ride and also known as The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere or The Landlord’s Tale; Paul Revere’s Ride. (Take your pick since HWL fictionalized the facts for poetic effect.)

Paul Revere

We do know that PR was at various times a silversmith, engraver and patriot. He was even a part-time dentist when the Boston-area economy was slow. As a militant, he was one of the “Indians” at the Boston Tea Party and probably participated in the Stamp Act Riots.

He joined the “Sons of Liberty” in 1765, acting as a courier for the revolutionary forces. The famous ride he is associated with was to alert the Colonial militia about the advancement of British forces just before the Battle of Lexington and Concord (“The shot heard around the world”). One of his personal accounts is that he yelled, “The Regulars are coming out” instead of the more familiar “The British are coming” as he dashed around alerting everyone.

He had a long commercial career in iron casting and bronze bell and cannon casting, in addition to all the silver metalwork that Boston is replete with. In fact, his extensive metal factory work led to him becoming the first American to successfully roll copper into sheets in 1800 for use as sheathing material for naval vessels.

But, thanks to Longfellow, we will always fondly remember him as a genuine patriot who helped win our independence. (Naturally, all the men from that era were in fact dead as Longfellow suggests in his famous poem.) Whether the poem had any effect on the North is doubtful. By 1861, the terrible war that cost 630,000 lives was already just a short time away, unfortunately.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].