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June 2002

A Spirit Forged in Fire

This June my family and I will gather together to mark the hundredth anniversary of a tragedy. On June 15, 1904, my great-grandmother (we called her Nanny) Catherine Connelly, then 11 years old, boarded the excursion steamer General Slocum along with her mother, Veronica, her 10-year-old brother, Walter, and her year-old sister, Regina. They were setting out on a church-picnic trip up Long Island Sound.

As the General Slocum approached Hell Gate, it caught fire. As panic took over, Nanny’s mother grabbed hold of her, but she broke away and ran to the Slocum’s railing, where a man reached from a tug standing close alongside and lifted her aboard.

Alexander Hamilton conceived an America that encouraged huge successes like his own 

The eighteenth century was an aristocratic age, even in relatively egalitarian America. The elite were the major landowners in the plantation colonies, such as Thomas Jefferson, and the great merchants in port cities, such as John Hancock.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that of all the Founding Fathers, only two were not born into the higher reaches of American society. One was Benjamin Franklin. His father was a Boston chandler and soap maker, what today we would call lower middle class, and Franklin was apprenticed to his older brother to learn the trade of printing. But by the time of the American Revolution, he had become one of the most famous people in the world, not to mention very wealthy. If he was not born into the elite, Franklin had most certainly risen into it by the time of the Revolution.

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