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Don’t tread on me. September 16, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, critters, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to explain why a rattlesnake became a major symbol of American resistance and independence. Our friend Ben recently asked me if the yellow flag with the coiled rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto hadn’t been created by our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. Then Silence Dogood said, “No, Ben, that was the flag of the rebellion in New Hampshire.” Well, no.

Ben Franklin does get all the credit for promoting the rattlesnake as a symbol of the American spirit. In 1751, Franklin, publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, satirically suggested that, since Britain made a policy of sending criminals to America, America might return the favor by sending rattlesnakes to England. Then in 1754, during the French and Indian War, Franklin published the first-ever political cartoon, showing a rattlesnake cut into eight pieces to represent the 13 Colonies (all New England was compressed into the head) with the message “Join, or Die.”

This “cartoon” was so powerful that it was used in the opening credits of the marvelous TV docudrama “John Adams,” and it was what our friend Ben was thinking of instead of the “Don’t Tread on Me” coiled rattlesnake flag. During the vote to ratify the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Franklin echoed the sentiment in his famous statement “Gentlemen, we had better all hang together [i.e., ratify the Declaration], or we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

So where did the “Don’t Tread on Me” (originally “Dont Tread on Me,” punctuation wasn’t that great in the Colonial period) flag originate? In South Carolina, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden designed the flag, based on a concept initiated by the first American Marines, and presented it in 1775 to the first Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, who flew it on his mainmast. No wonder OFB and Silence found it in the Naval Academy gift shop on a recent trip to Annapolis! Historians usually refer to it as the “Gadsden Flag” for that reason.

It’s easy to see why Libertarians adopted the flag as their symbol: They want to mind their own business and for the government to keep out of their private affairs. But when the Tea Party took it up, that sort of tainted it, turning it into a symbol of intolerance, bigotry, and reactionary thinking. How demoralizing for everyone who would like to display the flag as a comment on their personal feelings, without any connection to the Tea Party! It’s rather like when the Cross of Christ was co-opted as the masthead of the Spanish Inquisition. Many good Christians were tortured and died while being shown the very Cross that was the foundation of their faith.

So there you have it: What Benjamin Franklin began in 1751 and immortalized in 1754 with “Join, or Die” morphed into “Don’t Tread on Me” in 1775 and electrified the U.S. Navy into victorious action. By then, Ben’s snake cut into eight parts had indeed been united into one, coiled and ready to strike, with 13 rattles representing the 13 Colonies. More than any other symbol of American freedom, the rattlesnake ended up standing for us.

Incidentally, Silence’s mistake comes from New Hampshire’s official motto, “Live Free or Die,” penned by its Revolutionary War hero General John Stark. Do you know your state’s official motto?

Warmly,

Richard Saunders

Death and taxes. April 14, 2014

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“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

To think that this famous quote from our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, was said more than a hundred years before the Federal income tax was even instituted. Those of us who grew up with income tax, property tax, estate tax, school tax, and the like tend to associate old Ben’s quote with them, and especially income tax. Yet income taxes as we know them weren’t passed into law until 1913!

The taxes Dr. Franklin was referring to were those imposed by Britain on everyday goods, like stamps, tea, sugar, beer, spirits, tobacco, and salt. These ever-increasing sales taxes, intended to help Britain pay her debts for the French and Indian War, aka the Seven Years War, led to a cry of “Taxation without representation!” from the outraged Colonists and eventually to the American Revolution.

To think that taxes on something like tea could once fire a revolution, while today, though we may grumble, we hand over monstrous amounts of our hard-earned income to our own government like so many sheep. Taxation with (supposed) representation. Ben Franklin’s quote is more applicable than ever.

But to those who are frantically trying to file their income taxes today, our friend Ben has another quote for you, courtesy of the comedian and wordsmith Steven Wright: “If you think nobody cares about you, try missing a couple of payments.”

Coin collecting: Toning up. March 15, 2014

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about one of the fun things about coin collecting. If you’re a pocket-change collector like me, you know how much fun it is to collect pennies, nickels, and quarters that have different designs. (Where are new dimes, U.S. Mint?!)

And I’m sure you know that coins change color over time. If you have old nickels, you may be grossed out by the greasy dull grey color they’ve taken on in their many years rattling around in pockets and purses. If you’re lucky enough to have found some “wheat ears” pennies in your change, you’ll have seen how they turned from their original bright copper to flat brown over time. (“Wheat ears” pennies had two ears of wheat on the back, and the design was used from the debut of the Lincoln cent in 1909 until 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial replaced it.)

Nobody would call these changes for the better. But there is a color change that is cherished by coin collectors. It’s called “toning.” Basically, it’s when a coin takes on attractive colors as it ages, and it’s another great reason to check your pocket change. Toning is usually most pronounced on silver coins—especially silver dollars, half-dollars, and quarters. You can buy spectacular examples covered with an entire rainbow of colors or just a couple, such as blue and gold, or coins that are now a gorgeous gold tone but started life as silver. (But buyer beware: Because toned coins have a higher market value than regular coins, there are a lot of fakes out there.)

But here’s what’s exciting: Regular pocket change can also be toned, and it doesn’t have to be old, either. Just last week, I found a Lewis and Clark nickel from 2004 in my pocket that had started to turn gold. Mind you, not that this is real gold, and not that pocket change ever has much more than face value, unless you really do come upon a rare penny or an old silver dime, quarter, half-dollar, or dollar. (I never have; they were pretty much all grabbed up after the Mint stopped producing silver coins in 1965 and went to alloys.) But toning is a fun and different look to add to your collection, and some of these toned coins really are quite beautiful.

So don’t forget to check that pocket change! As our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

Warmly,

Richard Saunders

The rarest marble in the world? November 13, 2013

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Our friend Ben isn’t talking about the marble that is used to make kitchen countertops, palaces, and sculptures here, but about the round glass marbles, the so-called “toy” marbles, revered and collected by folks like me.

On my computer desk is a “Dr. Franklin” marble, named after our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. It was created in a marble run sponsored by Steve Sturtz, “Dr. JABO,” produced at the JABO plant in Marietta, Ohio, one of the last marble producers in the U.S. (with the iconic Marble King), and created by the preeminent machine marble-maker of all time, the legendary Dave McCullough. (Check out Sammy’s Mountain Marbles for his latest amazing creations.)

“Dr. Franklin” is a beautiful, complex creation, with brilliant opaque orange, opaque pink, and glittery black aventurine suspended in a clear matrix. It’s spectacular. But it’s also rare. There are probably fewer than 50 Dr. Franklin marbles in existence, certainly fewer than 100. They are one of the most beautiful marbles our friend Ben, a rabid marble collector, has ever seen. I love marbles, I have many jars and boxes of marbles, but the Dr. Franklin is the only marble I showcase.

Thank you Dr. Franklin, thank you Steve, thank you Dave, and thank you to the crew at JABO that made these marvelous marbles. As the Marines’ motto goes, the few, the proud. The rarest marble in the world?

Batting 2000. October 9, 2013

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It’s hard to believe, but today’s is the 2,000th post for our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. On behalf of all of us, and of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, our sincere thanks for your support and encouragement from Day 1 to today. We look forward to sharing many more thoughts, discoveries, observations and recipes with you in the days, weeks and years to come!

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Without representation. September 30, 2013

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“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.”

—Mark Twain

Perhaps if our esteemed members of Congress represented the people of their states and districts rather than the corporations and PACs that buy and sell them, we wouldn’t be facing a standoff between the House, the Senate, and the President, and an imminent government shutdown.

This shutdown will deprive our 1.4 million military, who defend our borders at the cost of their lives and must support their families and pay bills like the rest of us, of their salaries for an indefinite period. I suggest that we send Congress and the President, who presumably will still be drawing their salaries during the shutdown, on the ground in the combat zones where our military is currently deployed, to defend us in their place until they can all stop acting like spoiled children and work together to find a viable solution.

As our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, famously said when urging the representatives of the Thirteen Colonies to sign the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.” Unfortunately, in this case, it’s America’s citizens who are left hanging. For shame!

The art of the blog. June 6, 2013

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Our friend Ben read an op-ed piece yesterday by Jules Witcover in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, titled “Journalism’s golden age is far behind us.” (Check it out in its entirety at http://www.themorningcall.com.)

Mr. Witcover’s point is that, nowadays, anybody can set themselves up as an instant expert, whether they know what they’re talking about or not, and air their views online, in print, or on the air. He also points out that in the past, reporters were supposed to at least try to be impartial and unbiased, to the extent that it’s possible for anyone to set aside his or her own beliefs. But now they blatantly shill for their own political parties and stands, and some of them are even professional campaign managers.

Admittedly, long before Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, there was William F. Buckley. But unlike today’s hate-mongers, Buckley didn’t pursue an agenda of hate. He was brilliant and well-educated, and he knew whereof he spoke. He didn’t claim to be always right; rather, he simply offered to pit his mind and morals against those who held different views, and let the audience decide. My passionately Democratic mother adored the conservative Mr. Buckley and enjoyed watching his iconic show.

But I digress. As a blogger, what captured my attention was Mr. Witcover’s description of blogging: “With the advent of the Internet, the art of the blog has flourished. A blogger has an unlicensed license to offer all manner of views, speculations, rumors or just plain fantasies to a receptive audience, with or without forethought.”

This is, of course, true. But it has always been true in America, where free speech is a right, even if “free” isn’t “true.” Back in the day, George Washington was so incensed by the libelous, scandalous reporting of such newspaper journalists as James Callender that he referred to them as “infamous scribblers.” Many were no better than today’s paparazzi, chasing down scandals to titillate their readers: Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous affair, Thomas Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.

Even Ben Franklin, our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, didn’t bat an eye at making up humorous or salacious “news” to spice up his paper. Mind you, Ben didn’t libel real people; his were all fictitious, and often served up a lesson in common sense along with their misdeeds.

Which brings me back to Mr. Witcover and his despair over the state of today’s “reporting,” be it in blogs, on Twitter, or in so-called news panels populated by political hacks. Ultimately, as was the case back in President Washington’s day, it is up to us to be informed readers, viewers, and listeners. It is up to us to filter out what is true from what is biased reporting, reporting that favors an agenda over the truth. It is up to us to understand when a report presents a partial truth, because the whole truth isn’t known or a study is premature or flawed. We are ultimately responsible for what we believe, and why.

We’re also responsible for what we read, see, and hear, and why. If we’re addicted to Stephen Colbert or The Pioneer Woman or Dr. Phil, that doesn’t mean we’re watching them to learn more about life. There’s a difference between entertainment and information. Let’s bear it in mind.

Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood went to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, yesterday. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a child.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the architecture, the majestic setting, the fact that it was the home of our first and greatest President, or even that it was the seat of my own relative Martha Dandridge (Custis Washington), that impressed the youthful Ben. Yes, I loved Colonial history and architecture even then. But no amount of history or achitecture could compete with the stench rising up from the (then) foully polluted Potomac River. It was basically the only memory I took away from my childhood visit to this historic site.

Mercifully, it’s been decades since the Potomac has been cleaned up. Now joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnicers enjoy trails along its banks, often with their families and dogs. Not a whiff of foulness and rot rises from the river. Instead, the whirr of power boats, the honk of towboats, and the majestic sight of yachts and cruise ships brings your attention to the great expanse of water that, legend has it, as a young man George Washington hurled a silver dollar across to show his strength.

Looking across what seems like miles of water, this story seems as much a legend as Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child. (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Yet it was supposedly witnessed. And certainly the young, athletic, 6’4″ Washington (he had shrunk to “just” 6’2″ in his 60s) prided himself on his prodigious strength.

If you think this feat unlikely, consider that the young athlete Benjamin Franklin regularly swam across the mighty Delaware River in Philadelphia for exercise, something few Olympic swimmers would consider doing today (and not one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted).

History affirms Ben’s wholesome swims, quite a slap in the face to the picture of the portly elder statesman. And Ben in his youth was not only a vegetarian but a teetotaler, denouncing the consumption of alcohol and advocating drinking water instead, a radical (and probably misguided) idea in an era when raw sewage was dumped in the streets and polluted the wells, rivers, and other water sources.

The general populace may have been ignorant as to why, but they were right that drinking water could kill you. No wonder they drank massive quantities of alcohol—beer, small beer, hard cider, grog, ale, wine, fortified wine like Port and Madeira, sparkling wine, wine punches, rum, gin, and so on—from morning to night. God forbid that you should drink a drop of that sickening, polluted water!

But I digress. As a Colonial history buff, I was probably a bit more aware of George Washington the man than many visitors to Mount Vernon the day Silence and I came. I knew how tall he was, and that only that other great Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, was as tall; I knew he had numerous sets of false teeth made, but they were made of ivory and human teeth, not wood. I knew he was a great gardener, farmer, and botanist, as well as a statesman, and I was aware not just of his keen interest in agriculture but of all the innovations he implemented on the Mount Vernon estate.

I knew he had the foresight to abandon growing tobacco, a nutrient-greedy and labor-intensive crop, on his land and turn it to more sustainable crops two hundred years before the idea caught hold with other American farmers. And I knew that he freed his slaves on his death, something Ben Franklin had done well before his death, but that Thomas Jefferson never did, his will requiring them to all be sold off to settle his massive debts, along with his home Monticello and all its furnishings, leaving his heirs with nothing. Washington by contrast not only left his widow and heirs well provided for, but also provided funds for the education and fortune of his freed slaves.

What I didn’t know, and what the tour of Mount Vernon told me, was that the house at Mount Vernon was made of wood, and that George Washington had had the planks planed, varnished, painted, and then covered with sand so that they resembled set stone. He also had the roofing shaped from wood to resemble Italian ceramic tiles, and painted red to match them. I can’t imagine the upkeep this would have required, but as trompe d’oeil (fool the eye), it was brilliant.

But there was something else I didn’t know, and it came as quite a shock. I knew that George Washington’s inherent courtesy caused his death. On a cold December day, he’d gone riding as usual over the lands of Mount Vernon to see how the plantation was faring. Rain, sleet and snow drenched his garments and soaked him to the skin. But Washington, who never regarded the weather or his own typically robust health, never thought to turn back. After a long day in this bitter weather, he returned to Mount Vernon.

Upon arriving home, Washington saw that his guests had already assembled for dinner. As punctilious a host as he was a commander, he refused to consider detaining them by changing into dry clothing. So he sat there, chilled to the bone, in wet, frigid clothes, for hours, entertaining his guests. By the next morning, he felt that he’d caught a chill. But colds and the like meant nothing to a man who’d never been sick and had emerged unscathed from barrages of bullets that had riddled his uniform and killed the horses he was riding. What was a little cold compared to that?!

Unfortunately, today’s doctors think that he caught a rare but horrendous bacterial throat infection. I’d always assumed it must have been a high fever that killed him so quickly in his prime, but the evidence says otherwise. Apparently a bacterial infection of the epiglottis caused the first President’s throat to swell shut and killed him by suffocation. (Contemporary accounts of doctors and slaves attempting to give him liquids and his being unable to swallow them tend to bear this diagnosis out.)

This would have been a horrific way to die, but comparatively quick, given the so-called medical treatments of most of the doctors of the day. (And of course they did bleed George Washington four times between the onset of his illness and his death, weakening him further. No doubt it was only his robust constitution that allowed him to hold on through the bleedings rather than dying like most people who were bled.)

But the real sorrow was that the account pointed out that, had antibiotics been known in Washington’s time, he could have been quickly cured and might have lived at least 20 years longer, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Father of Our Country died too soon, and pointlessly.

But there was something else our friend Ben didn’t know about Mount Vernon: That it was and remains the graveyard of George and Martha Washington and generations of other Washingtons. You can visit the crypt and pay your respects to the Washingtons. I had no idea. Thank goodness the site was preserved and not turned into townhouses or an industrial complex! Good grief. To think that a tour of Mount Vernon also includes a visit to George Washington’s actual grave! Yow. You can look into the crypt and see two plain marble sarcophogi. One bears the seal of office, carved into the marble, and says simply: “Washington.” The other is completely plain. It says: “Martha: Wife of Washington.”

Clearly, for a generation for whom George Washington was peerless, that was enough.

I’d love to end this post here, but I have to add one poignant and one humorous comment picked up during our trip. First, when I asked the hotel clerk, a pleasant, competent young man, how to get to Mount Vernon from our hotel in nearby Falls Church, VA (for those who think Washington and environs are somehow offshore, they’re actually in Virginia, George Washington’s home state), he seemed a bit bemused. As with all check-in desk clerks, he was very used to recommending restaurants and directing travelers. But this time, he was stumped. “Ah, ahem, is that a city in Maryland?”

Well, no. It happens to be the home of the Father of our Country. But of course, who wants to be rude? I thanked the desk clerk and turned to our maps.

Now for the humorous part. When Silence and I were lining up for our tour of the mansion, we overheard a woman saying to her son, “They want me to friend George Washington on Facebook. Do you think he’ll friend me back?” Oh, oh, oh. Classic! But if George were here, I wonder…

Words of wisdom. May 9, 2013

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Apparently, our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, had a 19th-century imitator. But this man, a British Baptist minister, didn’t simply crib Ben’s sayings, as our friend Ben discovered this morning while reading a piece from The Week called “15 less-than-inspirational quotes from a book of moral advice” (read them all on TheWeek.com).

I was intrigued by the title of the article and assumed it would be poking fun at some outdated moralist’s misguided ideas. Instead, the Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon had a wealth of commonsense wisdom of his own to impart, in Dr. Franklin’s famous homespun style. Here are my favorites:

“Eggs are aggs, but some are rotten; and so hopes are hopes, but many of them are delusions.”

“Expect to get half of what you earn, a quarter of what is your due, and none of what you have lent, and you will be near the mark.”

“Make as few changes as you can; trees often transplanted bear little fruit.”

“It is far better to work with an old-fashioned spade that suits your hand than with a new-fangled invention that you don’t understand.” [Yeah! Go, Luddites, go!!!]

“It is true you must bake with the flour you have, but if the sack is empty it might be just as well not to set up for a baker.”

“Every minnow wants to be a whale, but it is prudent to be a little fish while you have but little water.”

Wow. I think Ben Franklin would agree.

Ben got that right. April 15, 2013

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“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

—Benjamin Franklin

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