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How Ben Franklin Became a Colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia

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Franklin statue image via Shutterstock

In the 1750s and 60s, Great Britain and France waged war in North America for colonial domination of the continent. Known as the French and Indian War, this American theater was just one part of the larger Seven Years War, which also involved most of the other great European powers of the era.

Benjamin Franklin was a colonial Postmaster General and a member of the Committee of Defense under the Pennsylvania Assembly at the time. At the Albany Congress, Franklin had proposed a plan for bringing the colonies together under some form of central authority. The plan was adopted by the congress, but rejected by colonial governments who feared it would lessen their power.

Instead, as Franklin lamented, “The British government, not choosing to permit the union of the colonies as proposed at Albany, and to trust that union with their defense, lest they should thereby grow too military, and feel their own strength, suspicions and jealousies at this time being entertained of them, sent over General [Edward] Braddock with two regiments of regular English troops for that purpose.”

Franklin was unsure of Braddock, whom he believed “might probably have made a figure as a good officer in some European war,” but was overconfident, and had too high an opinion of the British troops, and too low a one of both the American colonists and their Native American foes. When the two men met, Braddock explained his plans to take the French Fort Duquesne. Franklin cautioned the general that the Indians they were fighting against were “well practiced in ambush,” and one road to the fort in particular “may expose [the army] to be attacked by surprise in its flanks, and to be cut like a thread into several pieces.”

Braddock waved off Franklin’s concerns, saying, “These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the king's regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.” Franklin didn’t want to argue with a general in the area of his expertise, and didn’t push the matter.

Told ya so.

Sure enough, Braddock’s army was soon ambushed by Indians during its march to Duquesne in July, 1755. The troops panicked, and many fled, leaving their provisions and equipment to fall into enemy hands. All told, 714 soldiers were killed and 63 officers were killed or wounded, including Braddock, who was shot in the chest and died a few days later. The soldiers who escaped found their way to Colonel Thomas Dunbar’s camp, and their fear spread through the rest of the army. Dunbar ordered their equipment and provisions destroyed to free up the horses for a quick retreat to the safety of Philadelphia.

“This whole transaction gave us Americans the first suspicion that our exalted ideas of the prowess of British regulars had not been well founded,” wrote Franklin.

With their British protectors in disarray, and the French’s Indian allies attacking settlers throughout the colony, killing and imprisoning hundreds, the colonial government of Pennsylvania saw no choice but to take their defense into their own hands.

The Pennsylvania Assembly passed bills that established, disciplined and funded a voluntary militia. The new militia needed leadership, and the colonial governor asked Franklin to take charge of some troops to bulk up defenses in the northwestern regions of the colony by raising troops and building a line of forts.

“I undertook this military business, tho' I did not conceive myself well qualified for it,” Franklin wrote. “My son, who had in the preceding war been an officer in the army raised against Canada, was my aid-de-camp, and of great use to me.”

Franklin’s militia marched to Gnadenhütten, a Moravian mission (in what is now Carbon County) that had been attacked by Indians, to build a fort there and provide some protection for the Lehigh Valley area. He was careful not to repeat Braddock’s mistakes and positioned flankers out on his sides and scouts in front to keep an eye out for ambushes. Upon arriving at the ransacked settlement, Franklin’s men quickly began chopping down trees to build defenses. “…our men being dextrous in the use of [axes], great dispatch was made,” Franklin wrote. “Seeing the trees fall so fast, I had the curiosity to look at my watch when two men began to cut at a pine; in six minutes they had it upon the ground.”

“We had one swivel gun, which we mounted on one of the angles, and fired it as soon as fixed, to let the Indians know, if any were within hearing, that we had such pieces; and thus our fort, if such a magnificent name may be given to so miserable a stockade, was finish'd in a week, though it rain'd so hard every other day that the men could not work.”

Franklin soon got a letter from the governor, asking him to attend a meeting of the Assembly. On his way back to Philadelphia, he spent a few days in Bethlehem to rest and recover from the campaign. “The first night, being in a good bed, I could hardly sleep,” he wrote. “It was so different from my hard lodging on the floor of our hut at Gnaden wrapped only in a blanket or two.”

After he arrived in Philadelphia, Franklin was given command of a new regiment. When he needed to go to Virginia on business of the Postmaster General, some of his officers decided they should escort him out of town.

“Just as I was getting on horseback they came to my door, between thirty and forty, mounted, and all in their uniforms,” Franklin wrote. “I had not been previously acquainted with the project, or I should have prevented it, being naturally averse to the assuming of state on any occasion; and I was a good deal chagrined at their appearance, as I could not avoid their accompanying me. What made it worse was, that, as soon as we began to move, they drew their swords and rode with them naked all the way.”

Office politics

Somebody tipped off the colonial Proprietor, Thomas Penn, about the incident and he took great offense. “No such honor had been paid him when in the province, nor to any of his governors; and he said it was only proper to princes of the blood royal, which may be true for aught I know, who was, and still am, ignorant of the etiquette in such cases,” Franklin wrote.

Franklin had sparred with the Penn family before, having proposed in the Assembly to end the tax exemption of their estate, and his military escort appears to have been too much for Thomas to bear.

“He accused me to the ministry as being the great obstacle to the king's service,” Franklin wrote. “And he instanced this parade with my officers as a proof of my having an intention to take the government of the province out of his hands by force.”

Franklin lost his militia commission and the title of Colonel when the British passed a law removing his honors, but he continued to work on ways to keep the colonial troops well-supplied for a while.

But the Pennsylvania Assembly, fed up with Penn, soon had a new task for Franklin. In 1757, he was sent to London to act as the Assembly’s agent in protesting against the Penn family’s political influence, and as a general representative for their interests in England. He was largely unsuccessful in battling the Penns, but would return to the colonies in a few years to play a less martial role in the American Revolution.

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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