Season 2 | Episode 8 | “Philadelphia” | Aired Aug 19, 2014
Drunk History is ringing the Liberty Bell with a trip to Philadelphia, home to cheesesteaks and revolutionary glory. Apparently, the Founding Fathers had more tricks up their sleeves than your history teacher might have let on. What’s on tap tonight in the City of Brotherly Love?
1. Clean people win wars.
In the winter of 1777, the troops under George Washington (Stephen Merchant) were freezing and starving in Valley Forge. Washington reached out to Ben Franklin in Paris and asked him to stop partying long enough to lend a hand, which seems like the least a Founding Father could do. Franklin tracked down a Prussian war general, Baron von Steuben (David Cross), and asked him to go to America. Von Steuben initially resisted; he’d already been kicked out of Prussia for being gay, and he was happy in Paris. As it turned out, though, being gay in Paris in 1777 wasn’t so great either, so von Steuben rolled into Valley Forge with an entourage of chefs, butlers and pets (delightfully represented here by a single stuffed dog). It was time to give these troops a good old-fashioned training montage.
Von Steuben enlisted the help of a young captain named Ben Walker (Derek Waters), who could translate his Prussian instructions. Walker was also gorgeous, which was a nice bonus. Together, the pair taught American soldiers how to wield bayonets and how to use soap—because cleanliness is next to victory, and you can’t win a war if you’re dying of dysentery. The strategy worked, and von Steuben’s troops played a major role in the success of the revolution. In 1784, Washington gave von Steuben a home, which he wanted him to share with Walker. (“I will grant you the most beautiful love ever.”) Von Steuben and Walker moved in together in their matching furs, and the army compiled their tactics into a “Blue Book” that dictated policy for the next century. I think the moral of this story is that we should expect the best-dressed people to take over the world.
2. Presidential campaigns have always been dirty.
If you think elections used to be civilized, look to John Adams (Joe Lo Truglio) and Thomas Jefferson (Jerry O’Connell). The two were close friends, despite the fact that they differed on how strictly to interpret the Constitution, until the election of 1800 pitted them against each other. Adams suggested that the country would be lawless under his opponent. (“If you elect Thomas Jefferson, here’s what you’re gonna get: murdered. All the time.”) Jefferson told reporters that Adams was a hermaphrodite who had prostitutes shipped in from overseas, so Adams told the papers that Jefferson was DEAD. (“It’s a pretty good campaign. ‘Vote for me. I’m alive.’”) Jefferson, obviously not dead, delivered the fatal blow when he announced that Adams wanted to go to war with France. It wasn’t true, but Americans were so afraid of another war that they elected Thomas Jefferson to be their third President.
3. It’s never too late to fix a friendship.
Adams used the rest of his presidency to appoint people who opposed everything that his successor stood for, making it difficult for Jefferson to pass any laws. Four years later, Jefferson’s daughter died, so Abigail Adams (Jayma Mays) wrote him to express her condolences. In his response, Jefferson thanked her for her kindness, but he also took the opportunity to insult both Abigail and her husband. (“Like, that should have been two separate letters.”) The relationship went silent for another decade, until Jefferson and fellow Founding Father Benjamin Rush started reminiscing about their glory days. Jefferson sent Adams a generic letter, just to ask how things were going, and the two picked up a correspondence.
By the end of their lives, Jefferson and Adams had exchanged 158 letters and were best friends again; so much so that in 1826, Adams used his last words to celebrate the fact that Jefferson lived on. What he could not know was that Jefferson had passed away just a few hours earlier. The two men died on the same day, July 4, 1826: the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
4. Bring history up to date by nicknaming the Founding Fathers.
Narrator Patrick Walsh is full of quotables, but one of the best parts of his story is that it involves Jefferson and Adams addressing each other as “Johnny Ads” and “Tommy Jeffs.” Wouldn’t all historical letters be better if they opened like that?
5. Powdered wigs are no excuse for treason.
Benedict Arnold (Chris Parnell) was a hero in the American revolution, but he took it personally when the Continental Congress promoted five other generals and not him. In 1778, Benedict met a young British woman named Peggy Shippen (Winona Ryder), the “it girl” of Philadelphia. Peggy had a suitor, John Andre (Derek Waters), but she married Benedict and convinced him that he wasn’t being properly appreciated by his government. Peggy wanted Benedict to write her letters with inside information, which she would relay to Andre. Benedict agreed, but he messed with his wife’s ex-boyfriend by making his letters as passionate as possible. (“Also the Continental Army is going to West Point. Also I love you, and I love you, I love you.”)
Benedict met with Andre behind American lines, gave him a signed map and promised that he would have George Washington (John Lithgow) over for breakfast on a specific date. On his way out of camp, Andre was stopped by three American soldiers, who saw Benedict’s signature on the map and realized that they had been betrayed. They warned Washington, but Benedict had already prepared Peggy, who ripped off half of her clothes and accused Washington of coming to kill her baby. Washington wrote off Peggy as crazy but innocent, and Benedict was the only one whose name was tarnished. His reputation as a traitor was so pervasive that even the British didn’t want him on their side. (We have all since gotten over our “Benedict” aversion.) He died in his American Army uniform, regretting ever having worn any other.
Parnell really knows how to rock a floppy wig, as if there were ever any doubt. The whole cast seemed to be enjoying themselves. Cross and his stuffed dog were a highlight of the first segment, and Mays stole the scene with her expressiveness as she wrote that letter. How much did you know about these stories from Philadelphia’s past? And can we nickname all of the Founding Fathers?
Drunk History, rated TV-14, airs Tuesdays at 10/9C on Comedy Central.