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June 11, 2008 / howardmestas

American Philosophical Society and Atwater Kent Museum

John Brown

Today our group traveled to the American Philosophical Society and the Atwater Kent Museum where we gained exclusive access to some American treasures rarely seen by outsiders.  On our first stop at the APS library where we had the priviledge of viewing many important documents, most of which were associated with the founder of this exclusive club established in 1743, none other than Benjamin Franklin himself.  The building contains over 250,000 journals and books including the largest folder of Charles Darwin’s works outside of England.  Among the many documents was a letter sent to Franklin’s son from Franklin’s grandson across the English Channel via hot air balloon.  Of course this was the first “air mail” letter in world history (Jan. 1784) and just happened to have the Franklin family involved.

Another pair of amazing “white gloved” documents were two letters, one which must has challenged the spirit of Washington at a time when he should have been basking in glory as a victorious commander-in-chief.  On June 12, 1784, when the war was already over, Washington sent a letter to three Virginia representatives of the new congress requesting support for Thomas Paine who was rumored to be in financial distress.  Washington’s heartfelt letter explained that Paine’s motivational writings helped to inspire the revolutionary cause, and that he should be awarded some measure of compensation such as a veteran’s pension.  This was not requested  by Paine, but done on the good graces of Washington with respect for a man he considered a friend.

Fast forward about 10 years later and Paine is arrested and imprisoned in Paris by radicals of the French Revolution.  Paine then fires off an inflamatory letter (1795) accusing Washington of doing nothing to secure his release.  Paine’s letter is extremely rude and impersonal and addressed to “The President of the United States” and starting with a simple, “Sir.”  Who knew?  I always thought they were best friends for life, but a new side was revealed in Paine.  Perhaps he only wrote pamphlets like “The Crisis,” which sold over 500 thousand copies for profit and not for more noble causes.  Nonetheless, Washington must have felt slighted by a man he thought he knew well.

In the main hallway we were able to see many treasures, including the original printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, and a draft by Jefferson that had many lines crossed out by members of the congress who made corrections (click thumbnail to read Jefferson’n note to Franklin requesting a review of his draft).  We saw the only existing document that has the signature of four presidents; Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.  We were also treated to the journals of Lewis & Clark and many other items I will not soon forget.

At Atwater Kent, we learned of the powerful Abolition movement in Philadelphia; our class was in the same room where Frederick Douglass met with many who were sympathic to the cause.  The Pennsylvania Abolition Society founded in 1775 is the oldest such organization in the world, primarily because of the Quaker influence.  Franklin joined the society which gave it prominence, although his motivations are unclear since his newspaper made most of its profit through advertisements of all aspects of the slave business.  Needless to say, the entire movement was controversial, mainly because of the geographical location of Philadelphia, and its proximity to many slave states.  The worst case event started with the burning of Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, a building which was to serve as a home base for many radical anti-slavery groups.  It was destroyed by a mob just three days after opening, beginning a wave of violence against African Americans in the city.  In a print from the Philadelphia City History Collection (Atwater Kent Museum), it shows a crowd watching the structure burn while the city fire department only hoses water on an adjacent building.  That same evening, a black orphanage is burned to the ground only blocks away.  For more information on this topic, go to GOOGLE and enter quest for freedom philadelphia.

We were shown artifacts related to some incredible individuals, including the best portrait I’ve ever seen of John Brown (pictured top of page) and his very own musket he had in his possession at Harper’s Ferry. 


One Comment

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  1. history591fifteen / Jun 11 2008 10:23 pm

    Very informative- good job on your blog!

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