Notes on American Colonial Life and Humor

As we approach the 4th of July I thought I would reflect on those people who put their lives on the line to fight the mighty British Empire and win our Independence.  They had a great love of life and a sense of humor that was apparent even when the specter of treason hung over their head.

As a history buff much of what I’ve learned is that people of all time periods had a sense of humor that even today can give rise to a grin or even outright laughter.  Much of what we read in high school and even college was often historical  accounts of events that many today have a hard time connecting to.  But humor!  That’s something we can relate to

I am currently reading Richard Beeman’s “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution”.  And though it too mostly covers the events back in 1787 that led up to, during and after the Constitution that we now know today was written, Beeman does a great job of weaving real life narratives about more personal and intimate details of not only the men who achieved this amazing feat but some of the local citizens in Philadelphia and its environs.

Here are but a few excerpts in the early passages of the book that I found humorous and telling about a people who I have often come to view as haughty and dry witted, with the exception of people like Ben Franklin of course.

In one tale Beeman recounts a story by one of the Pennsylvania delegates, Gouverneur Morris, who lost a leg after it was caught in a carriage wheel at the age of 28.  After strapping a “simple oak peg to the stump of his leg”, he continued his life much like he had before.  A big part of his life until he married late was his sexual associations with the ladies.

Gouveneur Morris and wooden peg leg

According to Beeman’s account of Morris, “he developed a reputation extending to both sides of the Atlantic as a consummate philanderer.  Not allowing his peg leg to interfere with his amorous inclinations, he was a fixture at nearly all of the important events of Philadelphia high society, working his charms on married and single women alike.

Morris’ romantic adventures were so extensive that his friend and mentor, John Jay, was led to comment that though the loss of his leg was a ‘tax on my heart’, Jay was on occasion ‘tempted to wish that he had lost something else.’”

Then there was the story of a slow news day as James Madison, arriving early for the Continental Convention, awaited the arrival of other fellow delegates.  Eager to reform the Articles of Confederation, Madison arrived 11 days before the convention was scheduled to meet on May 14th.  To his disappointment only a few delegates showed up on the appointed day, not nearly enough for a quorum.

“The only interesting thing that happened in Philadelphia that May 14th as reported in the Pennsylvania Herald, occurred about a block from the Pennsylvania State House” Beeman reports in his book.  “‘A young cox-comb (dapper man) who had made too free with the bottle’ staggered up to a young ‘lady of delicate dress and shape,’ took hold of her hand, and, peeping under the large hat covering her face, exclaimed that he ‘did not like her so well before as behind, but notwithstanding he would be glad of the favour of a kiss.’  The young woman, unperturbed, cooly replied, “With all my heart, Sir,  if you will do me the favour to kiss the part you like best.

There is even subtle humor in the condemnation of John Adams toward his co-hort in France, Benjamin Franklin.  They were both there to gain favors with the French Court to finance the war in America.  Adams was all business and found Franklin of little use, he thought, in gaining the connections they needed to secure loans so the troops back home could get paid.

In Beeman’s conveyance of Franklin during his time in France we find the great man, late in his life, still enjoying the joies de la vie.  “Franklin loved every minute of his nearly nine years in France.  He may well have been the most popular man in all of Paris.  A much-sought-after celebrity among the aristocracy and the literati of the city, his own dinner parties were legendary for the quality of the conversation, food and drink … that he provided for his distinguished guests.”


Actors Paul Giamatti as Adams and Tom Wilkerson as Franklin in HBO’s Miniiseries On the Life of John Adams

But all this didn’t set well with John Adams, a man Beeman described at this juncture  as “Franklin’s puritanical diplomatic colleague”.

Found among his letters to friends back in the colonies, Adams fumed about how “the business of our commission would never be done unless I did it.  The life of Dr. Franklin was a scene of continual dissipation … It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as breakfast was over, a crowd of carriages came to his levee … some Phylosophers, Accadamecians, and Economists, some of his small tribe of humble friends in the literary way whom he employed to translate some of his ancient compositions.”

“[B]ut by far the greater part were women and children, come to have the honor to see the great Franklin, and to have the pleasure of telling stories about his simplicity, his bald head and scattering straight hairs among their acquaintances.  These visitors occupied all the time, commonly, till it was time to dress to go to dinner.”

I love those last lines of Adams’ as he pokes fun at Franklin’s balding pate along with his humble beginnings.  John Adams himself was bald much like Franklin but unlike the Doctor, Adams frequently wore a wig which was customary of the gentry at the time.

Adam’s comments are also a wonderful depiction of how the personalities of Ben Franklin and John Adams contrasted so much yet both worked so hard to create a new nation that has survived despite such diversities as it has with those millions who came to inhabit this land long after they were gone.

Our history is full of contrast that created a certain degree of animosity amongst the citizens in those early days.  But they had something to offset anxieties then that we no longer have – room to expand and establish a life far remote from the crowds that were beginning to cluster along the east cost.

We have fulfilled the manifest destiny that Jefferson had in store for us when he purchased the Louisiana territory and we are now one great populated nation that in many locales finds people packed on top of each other.  Now more than ever we need to lighten up and employ non-malicious humor to offset that animosity that has made our society one of the most polarized since the Civil War.

There is no going back to some imagined “better day in America.”  We are where we’re at because the dynamics that made this nation what it has become will not allow a civilization where only white men of property can vote and all others are considered second-class citizens.  And rather than becoming fraught over how different the racial and religious character of this nation has evolved, we need to find harmony in that we are all still one people who derives our national character from that document those men took great pains to create back in the summer of 1787.

P.S.  It would nice if those who like to tell us about how grand our traditons were and how Obama is taking them away from us would simply take the time to review basic American history.

4 responses to “Notes on American Colonial Life and Humor

  1. I love posts that show that people were always the same. Sometimes I think that we think that those who lived before us were not emotional or sexual beings. Such a great write!

  2. Really good post…..I spend a lot of time reading about the Founding and the guys who were there… is really great when someone gives a more detailed account of these men…beyond the generic textbook crap…well done!

  3. thanks for this! It is, I think ever so much better that we see our “heroes” as the humans they were, with the warts and flaws. Otherwise, we feel that what they created was so perfect that we cannot alter it. Today, we probably need to alter a good bit of it, and we of course are told by the Right that such would be sacriledge. I guess they got it wrong where race was concerned didn’t they? lol…And those amendments we’ve added since the original ten, suggests that we often tinker. In any case, they were amusing fellows. I have read much about Franklin and his fun in Paris. Less of the others. I enjoyed the read.

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