Novel Update – July/August 2022:  Penn, Hamilton, and Franklin

I’m sorry I did not post the promised monthly update for July. Let’s count this post for July and August.

First, the novel continues. I still intend to release a sample in October. My Plan for the Novel (which I have added to the menu bar) said this sample would be a single chapter, but I might expand that to several chapters. The novel begins with a prologue to introduce elements of this alternate history, but the main characters and plot are introduced in later chapters. It makes sense to share both.

I tried to write several posts about history in the past two months, but research led me into nasty cycles of further questions until I felt unable to do a topic justice. I’m fed up with my own delays, so I’ve crudely sewn my drafts together into one mutant train of thought. It involves three men: William Penn, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.

William Penn

You’ll remember William Penn from my earlier post introducing him as the founder of Pennsylvania. I shared my frustration in finding records of his meetings with native leaders around Philadelphia. After that post, I realized I had the wrong approach. When I searched for accounts of particular events, most results tended to be municipal historical websites that lacked details and citations. I suspected that the best scholarship would be found in longer-form works focused on William Penn generally. Once I turned to Penn biographies, scholarly articles, and collected writings, the quality of my research improved substantially. 

I still can’t find many descriptions of particular meetings with local native groups*. However, I’ve discovered many other aspects of Penn’s life, both flattering and damning. 

The most shocking was that the man owned slaves. This surprised me because Penn was a Quaker. The Religious Society of Friends (i.e., the Quakers) are known as some of the earliest abolitionists in American history. But I’ve recently learned the sect did not adopt that position officially until years after Penn’s death. Sadly, Penn’s behavior was hardly taboo in his day: in the 1680s, about half the English Quakers in Philadelphia owned slaves.

The best I can say for William Penn is that he was instrumental in organizing several institutions that would help end American slavery: the state of Pennsylvania, the city of Philadelphia, the American Quaker movement and, interestingly, the German-American community.

Penn had visited several German states as a young man (Germany wouldn’t unify until the 19th century) and used his connections to encourage German settlers in his new colony. This resulted in the Philadelphia suburb of Germantown. The German states had no slave colonies, which is perhaps why, unlike English settlers, the Germans saw a contradiction in seeking freedom in a new land while owning people. Shortly after settlement, the Germantown congregation published the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, the first anti-slavery statement made by a religious body in the English colonies. It is among the first modern claims for universal human rights, explicitly rejecting religion or ethnicity as excuses to abuse people. German-Americans remained some of the staunchest opponents of slavery up to the Civil War, as demonstrated in Django Unchained.

My original plan for this post was to further discuss Penn’s moral contradictions and the ideologies of competing factions in early Philadelphia. However, this topic quickly grew beyond the scope of a post, so I abandoned it. Then one day I had the random thought that William Penn makes a great foil for Alexander Hamilton, and I decided to run with that angle.

Alexander Hamilton

Perhaps you have seen the Broadway show Hamilton**, based on the identically-titled biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The show’s central conflict is between Hamilton and his friend and rival Aaron Burr. Both are orphans, intellectual prodigies, daring soldiers, suave romantics, talented lawyers, loving fathers, and ambitious politicians. Some similarities are oddly specific, such as that Hamilton and Burr had neighboring law firms and both slept with married women. 

Of course, the play makes them interesting foils by highlighting their differences. Hamilton was born poor, while Burr was born into money and status. Hamilton is pathologically bold and defiant; Burr is cautious and a chameleon. Burr’s romance with a married woman led to a loving marriage, while Hamilton’s affair damaged his marriage and led to his political downfall.

All interesting stuff. However, I submit that William Penn would be a more interesting foil to Alexander Hamilton.

(Note, this is considering the theatrical presentation of Hamilton and Burr; I am not an expert on their actual biographies)

Penn was born into more money and status than Burr. His family was friends with the King, and he was eventually the largest private landowner on the planet.

Penn, Burr, and Hamilton all had legal training, but only Penn and Hamilton shared a habit of penning lots of essays to propose bold new forms of government.

Hamilton saw himself as a fearless underdog with nothing to lose, so he was willing to speak truth to power. Penn had everything to lose and still spoke truth to power: he went to jail several times for it. 

Both came to America at least partly to make some cash. 

When Penn came to America, the English colonies were small outposts. He had lived in the big cities of Europe, so this was an adventure into the wilderness. When Hamilton came to America, the Thirteen Colonies boasted their own cities. He had come from a remote island, so this was a trip into the heart of civilization.

They were both sincere progressives for their time, and their careers involved some form of public activism. However, neither man was a saint, their benevolent acts often had some selfish or ambitious angle. This wasn’t covered in the play, but Hamilton may have owned slaves as well. 

Both saw devastation as a child. Hamilton saw disease take his mother and a hurricane ruin his community. Penn witnessed plague and the Great London Fire.

Penn had a sister Peggy. Hamilton had a sister-in-law Peggy.

Once Hamilton made some money, he didn’t hesitate to flaunt it, dressing in fine clothes and buying a nice house. Penn was born into money and picked up an extra taste for finery as a teenager in Paris. He never lost the urge to flaunt it, even when it annoyed his fellow Quakers. That meant big houses on several continents, lots of servants, exotic food, the whole nine yards. 

Hamilton had a keen mind for finance and accounting. Penn did not. While Hamilton famously paid his debts, Penn had trouble affording those expensive tastes. This caused many of his problems and bad decisions.

Hamilton was a soldier and statist; he supported a strong military and an agressive central government. Penn was a staunch pacifist and didn’t like the trappings of kings or national squabbles; he was the closest a man of his era could be to a globalist hippie. Ironically, Penn became a champion of the British Empire, while Hamilton helped establish a neutral federated republic with a tiny standing army.

Hamilton’s son took after him too well; they both died in duels. Penn’s sons ignored his moral lessons and became crooks. Penn lived to see many of his children reach adulthood, and he was disappointed in them.

These were fun comparisons to make, but I couldn’t think of a theme or thesis to close this post, so again I left it as a draft. Then one day I wondered whether anyone else had compared Penn to Hamilton before, someone who had a better grasp of their personalities. Perhaps someone who knew both well. Then I wondered whether any individual met both men. It seemed unlikely. Hamilton was born about forty years after Penn died, and Penn spent his later life in England, while Hamilton never left the Americas. On the other hand, they were well-traveled public figures with plenty of social connections. It was worth checking out.

But who to check first? Someone old enough to have lived in both lifetimes. Someone involved in Philadelphia and the American Revolution. Someone who had visited England. A socialite – someone who knew everyone.   

I knew at once who to check: Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin

Did Ben Franklin meet William Penn and Alexander Hamilton? No, but we can confidently link Penn and Hamilton by two degrees of separation, with Franklin as one of those links. 

Franklin certainly met Hamilton. I was unable to find any surviving letters between them, but I still believe it beyond a reasonable doubt. They were both delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Franklin’s home city Philadelphia. Hamilton was in Philadelphia again from 1789 to 1795 as the Secretary of the Treasury in President Washington’s cabinet. Franklin died in 1790, but it’s impossible to imagine that they didn’t become acquainted in those few years. The Hamilton musical even references Franklin’s Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1790***.

The connection between Franklin and Penn is more speculative, but there were plenty of opportunities. A teenage Franklin made his first trip to England in 1724, six years after Penn’s death there. It’s easy to imagine the precocious Franklin, then working in a famous London print shop, crossing paths with one of Penn’s many surviving friends.

Even if Franklin never had such an encounter, he certainty met some of Penn’s children later. When Penn died, three of his sons shared proprietorship of the Pennsylvania colony. They traveled back and forth between England and the colony over the years. I’m not sure whether they were physically present by the time Franklin made a name for himself in Philadelphia, but it seems plausible.

The best odds of a meeting were in 1757 or soon after, when Franklin was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Penn boys, as colonial proprietors, could overrule the Assembly’s laws and avoid its taxes. The Assembly found this intolerable, so they chose Franklin to petition King George the Second to end the Penns’ special privileges. Franklin spent several years in England pursuing this mission. He failed, but he must have met some of the Penn family during his attempt.

Of course, given their adversarial circumstances, I doubt the Penns would have been in a mood to reminisce about their father with Franklin. One of them, Thomas Penn, said of Franklin, “I should be very Glad he inhabited any other Country, as I believe him of a very uneasy Spirit.”. For his part, Franklin described Thomas Penn as “a low Jockey”, and said that he “conceived that moment a more cordial and thorough Contempt for him than I ever before felt for any Man living — a Contempt that I cannot express in Words.”

Of course, spending a few years in England also offered Franklin a second opportunity to meet other acquaintances of William Penn (though even Penn’s younger acquaintances would be old by then). Such a connection might even offer an advantage in contesting the Penn family proprietorship****. I suppose the person might be reluctant to speak if they held any affection for the Penn family, but it’s never wise to underestimate Ben Franklin.


* The tribes around Philadelphia were not politically unified, so colonists wishing to negotiate had to deal with leaders of many individual settlements. There was no great king to speak for the entire region (a fact Europeans found confusing). There were so many little meetings that many likely went unrecorded. This reality is less romantic than the idea of one grand diplomatic summit, though I’m sure some meetings were more consequential than others.

Related to this: the modern PepsiCo website claims that the man on the Quaker Oats logo is not a particular person, but in the past, it was clearly intended to be William Penn. A 1909 advertisement for the brand said, “We will keep faith with you as the Quakers of old kept faith with the Red Men.” 

** Overall, I liked Hamilton (I saw the film). Even beyond entertainment value, I think it stands as a piece of art and an educational tool. Yes, the play is full of historic errors and omissions. Yes, it makes singing heroes out of men whose actions deserve cold scrutiny. Still, the show has earned my respect as a gateway drug for history. I have faith that many fans will be inspired to investigate these characters on their own. These private studies might correct whatever lies the fans learned from the play, but regardless they will have practiced genuine historical research. That’s a priceless habit.

If you’re interested in seeing other portrayals of Alexander Hamilton, I recommend the HBO series John Adams, where Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton is a smooth empire-builder, corralling money and power. 

Then I recommend the 2000 film The Crossing, about General Washington crossing the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton. Here, Captain Hamilton is Washington’s personal enforcer and commando(?). In reality, Hamilton was an artillery officer during the battle and would not join Washington’s staff until early the next year. Still a great movie.

Fun Fact: I always assumed Washington’s crossing of the Delaware was an amphibious assault, but no, Washington landed miles away from the enemy camp and marched for hours on the other side of the river to reach the battle. Also, the Revolutionaries stole those boats from local civilians.

*** I was saddened to discover that, as a young man, Franklin also owned slaves. He became a passionate abolitionist in his later years.

**** As I mentioned, William Penn was bad with money. He spent time in debtor’s prison after he moved back to England and died penniless. I wonder whether there were any living creditors with a grudge against Penn that Franklin might have met. While I maintain that Penn’s sons were crooks, the sorry state of the family finances does shed some light on their unscrupulous behavior.

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