Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Two Different Ways of Looking at the American Revolution.

If you are a resident of Boston, the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord for reasons having to do with smuggling and tea. If you live in Philadelphia, the chances are fairly good you believe the Revolution began on July 4, 1776, because Admiral Howe attacked us. What's this all about?

The colonies had fought the French and Indian War loyally together, with George Washington at Fort Necessity and Ben Franklin supplying wagons to General Braddock with his own money, against the hated French and their Indian allies, English colonists fighting off the enemy, side by side from 1754 to 1763, and traveling together to the Albany Conference in 1745. Ben Franklin drew the first newspaper cartoon, Join or Die, at that time, and first proposed an alliance of the thirteen English colonies with the homeland. The Quakers woulod probably still dominate Philadelphia, if they hadn't chosen religious consistency over the dictates of power. And yet a few years later the British were chasing gunpowder stores around the countryside. The British wanted the Americans to help pay the cost of their own defense, but we were all Englishmen, together, and everybody wants something for nothing. New Englanders wanted an arrangement like Ireland or union like the Scots. The slogan was representation, not independence. "No taxation without representation" for English-speaking colonists. Eventually, they hoped for parliamentary membership. They were mainly fighting against mercantilism and used taxation as a weapon to fend off taxes, while they continued to be proud Englishmen colonists. Franklin wanted a little more, moving the capitol to America because it was biggest, and he nursed this view until King insulted him in person,a few weeks or months before he grudgingly returned to America to help lead the Independence movement.

But this is the story of the forming of the Constitution, and in the fight to remain untaxed, English settlers got left behind and will be left to drift along. Got left behind by the Treaty of Westphalia. Everyone hates to be persuaded of something which hurts his self-interest, and Westphalia said the land became private property if the King had the exclusive right to adjust the borders, and by implication the local religion. That may have been useful in dealing with Indian lands, but in the sixteenth century, people took their religion pretty seriously. That was a serious matter, and it was made worse for Protestants as a consequence of Catholic activity in which Protestants played no role. Even worse, it was accepted by an English King who was German about whom Episcopal Englishmen had some reservations. And still worse was to see German Hessian soldiers about to do most of the fighting arriving in the troop transports, paid for by a German King, enforcing a law most of them didn't understand which had unexpected twists to it which sounded like the fight they ware already fighting about taxation without representation. Remember, Ben Franklin only had a second-grade education, and most of the colonists couldn't read and write. There were only a handful of lawyers in America, and most of them had a conflict of interest about this subject, which was cataclysmic in its sweeping implications.

The logic of the new German law which only a few lawyers could follow sounded like a trap. The lawyers back in England at the Inns of Court might explain it, but the essence was that rebellion was punishable by hanging, while Independence was settled by treaty. The colonists might not understand how they got into this fix, but the new legal situation created a much worse punishment for rebellion than for Independence, and hence a strong incentive to prefer Independence. Admiral Howe was only 90 miles away with dozens of warships and hundreds of troop transports, and the Continental Congress was in Philadelphia with the power to make a choice. The Germans had just experienced a large wave of immigration, more German soldiers were sitting in the transports, anxious to obey the orders of a German King, which started as a law passed by other Germans without a vote by any of the colonists affected, starting fight a war about taxation without representation, which hardly anyone had the education to understand.

It was, so to speak, a perfect storm. We came very close to losing that war, so after three centuries it is still true: Whether it was the League of Nations or the United Nations, or changing the Health System -- you have a hard time convincing the American public that it's a good idea to follow he decisions of non-American leaders. If the idea was foreign, and particularly if control is left in non-American hands it's going to be a hard job persuading Americans to vote for it.

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