Philadelphia Day 6
How have I been in Philly this long and not done a blog post on Ben Franklin? I mean the guy is everywhere. There’s a larger than life bust of him beside the fire station outside my hotel. I found a bronze life-size statue of Ben lounging on a random bench at U. Penn. I walk past his much visited grave every morning on my way to class – for some reason it is traditional to drop pennies on Franklin’s grave and there are often lots of pennies on it. And that isn’t even 1/50th of the spots honoring the man, who is clearly Philadelphia’s favorite son (even though he was originally from Boston). You’d never know that he was sort of sketchy character in some ways who had very loose morals, particularly by 18th century standards.
Today I visited Franklin Court, which is where the Franklin post office and print shop are. Franklin Court is also the former site of Ben’s house. For a city so Franklin obsessed you’d have thought they would have kept the structures their hero built, lived in for several years, and died in; but no, they were torn down. Now all you can see of the actual structures are the brick foundations and two “ghost houses” which give you an idea of the shape. I was disappointed to see no actual ghosts however.
Ben ordered the house to be built and then had to travel to France for a long time. He wrote lots of letters to his not-really-wife Deborah. This line makes me wonder what he was hiding in that room.
The recreated printing office, which you can see in the background above was much more interesting. They’ve done an excellent job of restoring and refurnishing Franklin’s printing rooms and two National Park employees give wonderful demonstrations using a replica of Franklin’s original printing press. While I was there they printed a couple of copies of the Declaration of Independence right in front of me. I was really quite impressed, and I kind of want to find a printing press to mess with.
As I was leaving I found that another room had been recreated. Perhaps one of the most infamous rooms in American history.
I know, the picture isn’t great but I was trying to take it through very thick glass with and old (and much abused iphone) so give me some slack, alright. This is the newspaper office of the Aurora, a paper owned and run by Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Bache was vehemently opposed to the presidential administrations of Washington and Adams and printed some pretty harsh accusations in his paper. Our old friend Alexander Hamilton was one of Bache’s favorite targets. This was the no holds barred era of American journalism and Bache claimed without much evidence at all that Adams was trying to become king of America, Hamilton was stealing money from the treasury, and George Washington was an old senile fool letting them do it. Sometimes he complained about real injustices like the Alien and Sedition acts, but most often printed attacks on political enemies or in favor of Thomas Jefferson, with whom he collaborated. Many of the Aurora’s articles are so blisteringly hateful I can’t really quote them here.
Some people (Jefferson and his party) loved Bache, but railing against Washington was sure to make some enemies and man did it ever. Bache was attacked in the street several times by angry citizens, this very office (or the original at least) was attacked and smashed, his family was terrorized. He eventually was arrested by the government for the printed attacks he made in the Aurora and was awaiting trial when he died of yellow fever, as disease that ran rampant in Philadelphia throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Some people treat Bache as a hero standing up for freedom of speech while other view him as a hyper-partisan who contributed to the ugly political and societal atmosphere of his day. He certainly was one of the first purveyors of ‘fake news’ in our country, so it seemed appropriate that I took a minute to soak up the historical feeling of this very well created room and try to steep myself in a time when news was just as political and sharp-edged as it is now, maybe more so. Then I shivered, hunched my shoulders, and went back to my hotel for a very hot shower.