Remembering to remember


First Posted: 7/5/2013

It was a day of heat and humor, of history’s hidden tidbits and lessons on how they can help mold the future.

Serving as chairman of the 135th annual commemorative service of the Battle and Massacre of Wyoming, Kingston Mayor James Haggerty on Thursday brought his usual wit. In introducing the Wyoming Commemorative Association president, Haggerty riffed on Frank Conyngham’s 24 years in the post.

“I asked why he stayed on so long,” Haggerty said. “He said he thought he was eligible for a pension after 25 years.”

Conyngham, well known for injecting his own quips into his speeches, thanked many who helped make the ceremony possible, noted this month marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and said he felt a few comments were appropriate regarding that pivotal Civil War event.

“Four score and seven years ago,” he said, beginning Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address and evoking laughs. But Conyngham had had his joke with those six iconic words, waved and said, “Thanks for coming.”

As old as the commemorative event is, the battle it marks occurred 100 years before the first such service, on July 3, 1778, when patriot forces and British Loyalists and their Iroquois allies clashed. About 340 patriots were killed and several survivors were tortured in the aftermath. It became known as the Wyoming Massacre, and Thursday’s service was held near an obelisk monument built to commemorate the event.

The ceremony included a volley fired from muzzleloaders by the 24th Connecticut Militia, a group of meticulous Revolutionary War re-enactors and the annual presentation of floral tributes by descendants and others connected to the battle. The ceremony culminated in a speech by John Frantz, history professor emeritus at Penn State University.

Acknowledging that many facets of the battle and the monument have been covered by past keynote speakers, Frantz opted to discuss Benjamin Franklin’s rather unwelcoming attitude about non-English immigrants to Pennsylvania, though he kept with the comedy vein by cracking a few jokes at the start.

“I always check the mike before I start to speak. I remember when a clergyman was conducting a service, and he thought the mike wasn’t working, so he leaned over to a choir member and said, ‘There’s something wrong with this mike.’ Well, the congregation responded as it always did at that point of the service and said, ‘And also with you.’”

Frantz gave a quick recap of Franklin’s rise to prominence and success from his birth in Boston in 1706 and his decision to run away from home at 17 and end up in Philadelphia. Within six years he was running a printing press that lead to the publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper and, a few years later, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Franklin wrote essays in the almanac and “was a little ahead of his time complaining about the double-standard of morality,” Frantz noted, including prominent people condemning a woman for her illegitimate children even as they had helped father them.

By age 42, Franklin had been so successful in business he could retire and devote himself to public service and science, Frantz said, creating the lightning rod in the latter pursuit, and getting elected to Philadelphia City Council and the state Legislature in the former. Traveling the world, Franklin developed a clear vision of what he thought Pennsylvania should become, and that vision did not include a rapid growth of non-English immigration, particularly those from areas of what would be Germany.

Noting that included people who were in the Battle of Wyoming, Frantz said Franklin felt they were stubborn in sticking to their own language, unattractive and a potential ally of the French in the French and Indian war.

“He should have known his history,” Frantz said. “If Franklin had known their history of suffering at the hands of the French in Europe, he would not have had to worry about the Germans allying with the French.”

He also should have known “they needed to be patient with the immigrants,” Frantz said. It was natural that they congregated in their own communities and retained their own customs. Many went on to adapt very successfully.

“It is essential we understand our past,” said Frantz. “It won’t provide a road map to the future, but it will give us perspective on our past. We need to know where we’ve been in order to know where we are, and possibly even where we’re going.

“We need to be patient with people who are different, because they will catch on to the ways of their new country,” he added, noting many of the ancestors being commemorated came from families that did not speak the language spoken by the crowd.

“We should be grateful to our Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, for providing us with these lessons.”

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