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Another Unsung Hero of American History

American history is replete with unsung heroes, people who did their duty to the best of their ability and then faded back into everyday life and were forgotten.

Today, I want to focus a little well-deserved attention on another such unsung hero: Dr. William Shippen.

Shippen was born in Philadelphia on October 1, 1712. His father, Edward Shippen, was a successful merchant in Philadelphia, but William decided to buck the expectation that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, studying medicine instead. He eventually built up quite a large practice in the city. In fact, he became so well off that he was said to possess three great things: “the biggest house, the biggest person, and the biggest coach.”

But, like many other unsung heroes, Shippen had a life beyond his profession. He and his wife, Susannah Harrison, had four sons. William was active in religious activities, helping to found the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia and was active in its ministries. He also was a member of Ben Franklin’s “Junto,” which prompted his interest in educating the future generations. That interest that led him to help establish Benjamin Franklin’s Public Academy, which later became the College of Philadelphia and still later the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a trustee of the school from 1755 until 1779. (He was also a trustee of the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton, which his brother, Edward, helped establish.) He lived an exemplary life before the community and never tasted wine or liquor until shortly before his death.

Shippen was elected a delegate to represent Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress, serving from 1779 until 1780, but then he returned to his medical practice. His son, William Jr., served in the Continental Army as the director of hospitals from 1777 until 1781.

It seems, however, that in every family–even the most honorable–are some black sheep. And so it was in the Shippen family. William’s niece, Margaret (Peggy) Shippen, married a man who was, at the time (1779), a Patriot military hero in his own right–Benedict Arnold. She liked to live an opulent lifestyle, and that might have played a role in Arnold’s decision to sell out West Point to the British enemy. In fact, Margaret had courted one British Major John Andre before she married Arnold. It’s quite likely that she introduced the two men to each other. And, as they say, the rest is history.

But one can’t control what other family members do; he can only try to rear his own children right and be accountable for his own actions. And Shippen and his immediate family remained true to the Patriot cause and were assets to their young country and the greater Philadelphia area. Shippen died at his Germantown, Pennsylvania, home on November 4, 1801, and was buried in the cemetery at the church he helped found.

Our history is filled with such unsung heroes. What they did might not, in itself, have changed the course of history, and they are long forgotten by posterity, but the combined actions of many such people made America great. I’d be interested in hearing about other such people. Since they are “unsung,” most of us probably never would have heard of them. I look forward to hearing from you!

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