There was a young man from Nantucket/.... It's as though I started with "Nantucket Origins," but the other way round. That's because we're starting with a very famous early American, who kept his cards close to his chest. We've been straining to pretend that he had nothing to hide for two centuries now, because that's kind of what politics does to you.
It's funny that as I wrote the title of this piece, I had to reflect on the President's birth certificate instead of the hapless Mormon dude and his tax returns. That's the thing with secrets. They're secrets. Even when we make them up in our head. The proof of the conspiracy is that there's no proof. So what if the scales fall away, and we still pretend that there's a mystery? Sometimes, things have to stay secret even when we know that they're not.
Honestly? I searched Youtube looking for a better clip about secrets than this one, but it's got a guy with a secret identity, a prank, and a mysterious envelope, so it's at least vaguely relevant. The real point of today's audiovisual aid is that I've become a Community fan of late. I have no secrets from you. Well, maybe one.
Let's talk about a young man of the Eighteenth Century, with a Nantucket connection. He is handsome and smart, tall, and, in spite of his later denials, clearly well educated.
So if he's a real world figure of the early eighteenth century, what we really care about first thing is his class, and you will already have drawn your conclusions. Unfortunately, this is a tricky one. Our man made quite a bit of noise about his father's low station in life, and he is our only source. Otherwise we have only formal evidence.By this I mean that we know quite well that he was a tradesman of Boston, and that his son uses this as evidence of his own claim to humble birth. It's just that this exact fact is so notoriously misleading. Guildsmen can be very rich and very well born indeed, and not just in London.
Besides, we have to go up both sides of the family tree. There's a reason that they call it "nepotism," and not "I got my son a jobism." Your sister's children may be some of your closest relatives, but they have a different last name from you! Tricky!
And it's on his mother's side that our man has a Nantucket connection. There were 20 full shares at Nantucket and 14 half shares, and our man's grandfather is one of the half-share men. I'd call him, oh, "lower-upper" class if he weren't also an Indian translator, surveyor, and miller. That'd be clues, there. Nantucket records being fairly complete, we can also catch a glimpse of the grandfather's business over in Boston, and there we find our man's father acting as his father-in-law's business agent. Oh, Eighteenth Century, how you sometimes fail to surprise me.
A little extra trickiness here, by the way: according to the records, our man's mother was born in her mother's 47th year, eight years after her older brother, but only a year before her younger sister (at least per Wikipedia; Rootwebs sows doubts.) Again, secrets: there's probably another woman in the picture here.
So, taking our man as an unreliable narrator off the top --no mention of his grandfather when he makes so much of his father's middling status-- we attend the facts. Which are that at the age of 16 he was thoroughly engaged in a pamphleteering war under his brother and father's unconvincingly denied aegis. A look at the pamphlets produced, which have a certain fame, suffice to give the lie to our man's later picture of his father as a poor tradesman who could not afford to give his youngest son an education. But it's not our first lie, and it won't be the last.
At 17, our young man found it best to seek a new clime, specifically, Philadelphia, with a stop in New York to meet the governor, as runaway printer's devils are wont to do. Not unexpectedly, within a few months, the young man had made the acquaintance of the daughter of a distinguished Philadelphian and also the governor of Pennsylvania, who entrusted the young man with a confidential mission to London. More specifically, the young man's story has it that he was to buy a printing press for himself (this being the kind of thing that governors did for runaway printer's devils, to recycle some heavy irony) or for the governor's interest, which seems more likely. Our young man's story is that the governor reneged on his promise and failed to provide the necessary funds. It is thus somewhat surprising that he remained in London for three years, meeting famous people and even publishing a scurrilous pamphlet. Perhaps London was less expensive in those days.
It should, however, not be surprising that there are murky politics here. The proprietor of the colony, who appointed the governor in question, died in 1718. The proprietor left sons by two wives to dispute his inheritances Old World and New, and the governor is thought to have aligned himself with the older, granting him a large tax-free estate in the immediate interior of the colony. Thus when the two branches of the proprietal family came to an agreement in 1725 that granted the colony to the younger, the governor was rather exposed politically, and fell soon afterwards. Our young man returned to the colony in 1726 at about the same time as the new governor, although specifically in the train of a wealthy merchant gentleman of the colony.
In 1728, the young man finally set up his own printing house. It immediately received exclusive contracts to print the journals of the colonial assembly and its Indian treaties, which were in those days quite sumptuous editions. This point is omitted in our man's account of his life, which prefers to dwell on an anecdote of the young man inviting his established, prospective competitors around to his home to see him eating a single daily meal of porridge. The inference is that they immediately realised that they could not compete with a young man of such industrious habits. One might wonder where this industry had been during the London years if meeting the competition over dinner didn't arouse other associations in me.
Five years later, our young man began publishing an almanac, a rather more popular genre. The popularity of this issue, he would vaguely intimate in later years, was the root of his fortune. This would be a great deal more convincing were it not for what we know about his real estate speculations; indeed, what we know of how real wealth worked in the Eighteenth Century in general. Twelve years after that, he placed his son in the Pennsylvania Line, to serve his King in the current war.
Oh. The son? Quite the fetching boy, by all accounts; even taller than his father, born to the saddle and the canoe, with a commanding presence and an easy manner --"condescending," as they would say back in the day, in a particularly meaningful bit of language change. Too bad his father wasn't married. Oh, he was in a common law relationship with that girl that I mentioned. The story is that she had married before, and that the scoundrel had made off and vanished, and nothing was to be done. Because it would have been impossible for her wealthy father to have him declared dead by a Philadelphia court.
Oh, that hilarious irony again. What I meant to say was that in this particular scenario, the one thing that didn't have to come up was anyone's baptismal certificate.
In any case, our man's son served in this war and the early part of the next before going off to London to attend the Inns of Court, where, in September, 1762, married well. In 1763, Junior returned as Governor of New Jersey, aged perhaps 36. He still held that office at the time of the Revolution, in which he was loyal to the crown, while his father joined the patriots. This, we are told, caused a rift between father and son. Because when aristocratic families end up with members on both sides of a civil war, it is always because of deep ideological division. Further evidence of the hard feelings; all of the sons' lands in America were deeded over to his father after the Revolution in payment for various unspecified debts incurred, resulting in (some of those) lands passing on to his son, our man's grandson and not being confiscated, as victorious state governments were wont to do. No documents survive
I could fill in further details of our man's life. I could talk about how this famous workhorse retired at 41 to a life of leisure; of how he was prominent in Pennsylvania, American and even British politics. I could dig up all sorts of entangled shenanigans and speculative traces. Except two things: first, the father's long and contentious relationship with war, the fur trade, and the west, from which I intend only to extract the single detail of the thousands of Pennsylvania horses that trade and war consumed. Where did these horses come from? Sure, Pennsylvania had a stud, but, although I haven't the numbers, I am going to guess that it was pretty tiny in the 1750s. It would have needed imports.
Second, there's the grandson. Born in February of 1762. You will note the dates.
Now, William Franklin was the heir of Benjamin, and William Temple Franklin was heir to both. Indeed, William was only legitimated as his father's heir after the birth of William Temple. It could hardly have been otherwise for a Royal Governor and the husband of the woman he married. Contrary to myth, we do know who William's mother was: a "useful servant" named Barbara. Our source is a little tainted, in that it is (another) partisan pamphlet from a 1763 election fight, but that doesn't give us much reason to doubt it. The reason that this fact has been repeatedly buried and resurrected over the years is often represented as an implication that Barbara wasn't White.
Oh. The shock of it all. I mean, seriously. I'd say that the real concern is that Barbara was the boss' daughter, that Ben has picked up someone's loose ends. I'd say that that's the story of William and William Temple, too. I mean, "useful?" What else does that mean when it is delivered as a sly insinuation?
Okay, the big leap here: what family's loose ends could the Franklins have been attending to, here? Whose marriages and descents were so vitally important that they had to be kept so privy, that birth certificates and marriage licenses and parish registers could never come out? We're not talking scandal here; families can withstand scandals. We're talking the kind of families where unfortunate births are issues of state. Royal families, or, to take it down a notch, proprietary families. The Penns.
So this isn't a story of certainties, save only the certainty that the myth of old Ben Franklin is so much patriotic rubbish. The story of Barbara, so often recovered from the library stacks and as often politely suppressed, tells us that. But go with the speculation. That's the pivot of this post. What plausible story am I going to spin to explain how Peter Folger's grandson has come to be aimed at William Penn's granddaughter?
Horses. That's my story. Nantucket, before it became a whaling town, was established for a reason. The full shares and half-shares that I mentioned above were to "winter grass."* Here, in the softening embrace of the sea, was a place on the New England shore where there was year round grazing. It was used, of course, by sheep and cattle; but the deeds that Peter Folger translated, witnessed, and deposited for the leading Indian men of New England refer specifically to "horse commons." That was the big deal.
So. Shadowy intimations of a business in horses. Where, one wonders, did colonial America get its horses? The same place it got its slaves, which is to say, the most economical place. There happens to be a country with a substantial equine industry in the same latitude as colonial America. That same coast has good winds. A shorter trip means lower costs and less attrition. Overall, a good place to buy horses and mules for the American market, because the need to buy and carry less fodder.
The place? Today, we know it by the name of its old imperial capital, Marrakech, as butchered by the Frankish tongue: Morocco. That being said, Old Marrakech is situated to command the passes of the High Atlas and the grass of the Tensif River, so that the sultan's followers from the high desert can graze their kine while they attend divan. It is not situated to command the Atlantic shore, and that can be an issue. In 1636, it was an issue. Sallee, as the old Knickerbockers called the suburb of Rabat that also gave its name to the pirate Republic of Salé, was so situated. (On account of having the 'van Salleys,' descendants of Jan Janszoon, amongst them). You will not be surprised to hear that anarchist historian Peter Lamborn Wilson has a high opinion of this "pirate utopia," or that real history is more complicated and that it was probably the chief saint of the Dilaites who had really got in Marrakech's face. I don't know much Maghrebi history, but I do know to look to the saints for my answers.
Whichever be the case, an agent was soon in London, agitating for an English naval expedition against the corsairs of Salé. This was in the midst of the trouble over the Ships Money, and not for the last time, it seemed politically expedient to use Barbary to demonstrate that tax moneys for naval armament were not wasted. A naval expedition set off under Thomas Rainsborough, admiral, religious agitator, Leveller, and associate of the Massachusetts Bay colony. It was successful, and rewards abounded. For example, the ambiguous inspiration behind the expedition was made English consul in Salé, with the right to appoint delegates at Fez and Marrakech, while Rainsborough's father got the even riper plum of the ambassadorship.
Why so rich? Besides the trade, there is a legend, supported or not, that the corsair captains of Barbary were always looking for offshore havens for the money they earned from condemned cargos, ships, and ransoms, and the French certainly didn't find all the gold paid to Barbary when they took Algiers in 1830, although they were most definitely looking (20). What with all the ambiguities of religion, crime, and crusade, with Maghrebis being accused of going Christian and Europeans of going renegade, it might have been best that some things stay legend. For example, there is one Joshua Gee who was for seven years ship's carpenter aboard a corsair of Algiers (1680--7). According to his captivity narrative, he was redeemed in 1687, came to Boston, and was the father of the Reverend Gee, eulogist to Cotton Mather. Again, connections that lead me to suspect higher social status than the facts at first suggest. But the point is, by amazing coincidence, a Joshua Gee was William Penn's secretary and a colonial trade promoter well known to Benjamin Franklin? Coincidence? Probably. It's not exactly a unique name. It's like the fact that there was also a merchant named Robert Blake mixed up in the Penn-Rainsborough business. There were lots of Robert Blakes. (152--62.) You'd go crazy if you attended every weird coincidental "connection."
What I do know is the name of our indefatigable agent and advocate, become English consul at Salé: Giles Penn. According to family historians, Giles died in Fez in 1641 This proved too early in life for Giles to oversee his son William's career, but it comes as no surprise that William was married middling well to the daughter of a Dutch merchant and made his career in the Parliamentary fleet. Enough of the style of his father's connections rubbed off on William that he made the deftly political move to side of the incoming king in 1660. Fighting at the future King James II's side in 1666, he earned what any man who takes that place must earn; a fiefdom for his son. That William Penn's province was in America is another story.
Or is it? The wind that carries ships from Barbary to America, and the fishing fleets of Newfoundland back past Barbary to England must carry horses to good winter grazing if they are going to recruit their strength after the hard voyage from the Eastern Hemisphere, and take their place on the horse trails of Pennsylvania, or at the traces of a Conestoga wagon. Call it a hypothesis: a consortium of family interests, inward-turned by marriages that dared not be made public; outward-turned to profit from piracy and horses between America and Barbary.
* (My cite isn't here; 72, I think, in the hard copy. Here's something interesting, if not directly relevant.)