Big Grizzly

Gargantuan, gross, and cynical, the patrician boss Boies Penrose descended from aristocracy to dominate Pennsylvania Republican politics for thirty years

The history of politics is a history of words. “Boss” is as American as “Santa Claus,” both words being Dutch in origin. “Boss,” wrote the English captain Thomas Hamilton, was a peculiar Americanism, a substitute for “master.” Hamilton’s book, Men and Manners in America , was published in 1831, roughly coincident with the rise of machine politics in the United States. It was during the 1830’s, too, that “big” became a favorite Americanism, an adjective suggesting quality as well as quantity; power and prestige, not merely size.Read more »

George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly

Miss Eleanor Custis … has more perfection of expression, of color, of softness, and of firmness of mind than I have ever seen before or conceived consistent with mortality. She is everything that the chisel of Phidias aimed at but could not reach, and the soul beaming through her countenance and glowing in her smile is as superior to her face as mind is to matter.” Read more »

Porn In Philly, 1912

Pornography seems to be doing very well these days. Every fair-sized town has its “adult-book store,” and x-rated feature films have advanced from their first big-city beachheads of the midigGo’s to occupy theatres in suburban shopping centers. Naturally, the vigorous state of the industry has not gone unnoticed. A national news magazine, for instance, devoted a cover story to the proliferation of pornographic films, topless bars, and what are universally and euphemistically known as “massage parlors.” Read more »

The Revolution Continues

The bell is old and it is badly cracked and it has not been rung for years, nor will it ever be rung again. But although it is quite useless from a practical standpoint, it is perhaps the most prized possession we have. It carries words about proclaiming liberty to all the people, and when it spoke it set off long echoes that have never stopped reverberating.Read more »

“a Representative Of America”

Vain, snobbish, distinctly upper-class in his libertine social habits, Gouverneur Morris nevertheless saw himself justifiably as

Of all the remarkable men who forgathered in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, and perhaps to do even more, Gouverneur Morris was certainly the most talkative. Between May and September, when the delegates adjourned, he made a hundred and seventy-three speeches—twelve more than Madison, his nearest competitor.Read more »

When The New World Dazzled The Old

Fifty European nations came to America on her hundredth birthday—and, for the first time, took her seriously

Centennials don’t make sense. It should be evident that a hundredth anniversary is a mere numerical happenstance without historic significance. Yet our schools teach history by the numbers, and we talk about “Eighteenth-Century Civilization” or “The Gay Nineties.” These decimal labels derive from the simple fact that we have ten fingers; this kind of numerology is not helpful to an understanding of the past. History is a flowing stream that must not be dammed into stagnant puddles of decades or centuries. Read more »

The Signer Who Recanted

Under duress in a British prison, Richard Stockton of New Jersey had the singular misfortune to become

Various legends linger around the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the circumstances of the signing.Read more »

The Memorable Bartrams

They were botanists, but not of the dull variety: William’s journals inflamed the imaginations of the European romantics, and John may have inadvertently touched off the American Revolution

You can sum up the beginnings of natural history in America in one name: Bartram. John Bartram and his son William laid the groundwork for American botany and either directly or indirectly taught most of our early naturalists. Their combined lives spanned a hundred and twenty-four years. Sir Isaac Newton was still in his prime when John Bartram was born. Audubon was a young man and Thoreau a child when William Bartram died. Read more »

The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush

To spend and be spent for the Good of Mankind is what I chiefly aim at

One of Benjamin Rush’s biographers has compared him to quicksilver, the brilliant and elusive element mercury that changes so unpredictably yet so curiously reflects the images around it. The metaphor is appropriate in another sense, too, for not only was Rush mercurial as a person, but as an eighteenth-century physician he freely resorted to the use of mercury in its various forms to purge patients of certain “morbific” or disease-making substances that were supposed to lurk in their bodily fluids. Dr.Read more »

1876: The Eagle Screams

HISTORICAL REGISTER of the CENTENNIAL EXPOSITION 1876.

Philadelphia’s vast Fairmount Park stretches acre after acre, plateau after ravine, all empty now under the brittle blue of a winter sky. The people that came here in crowds a century ago to celebrate the country’s centennial are hard to imagine, however many faded photographs and woodcut illustrations one has seen of them. The some two hundred Exhibition buildings they massed in front of and wandered through are gone—torn down or changed utterly.Read more »