November 4

This Day in History

American Revolution

Nov 4, 1801:

Patriot, politician and physician William Shippen dies


Patriot William Shippen, of the powerful Shippen family of Philadelphia dies at the age of 89 at his home in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on this day in 1801. He was a descendant of the well-known Edward Shippen, colonial Philadelphia’s mayor and Pennsylvania’s chief justice.

William Shippen pursued a medical education instead of following in the footsteps of his father, a successful merchant. He established a large practice in Philadelphia and spent the 1740s immersed in civic projects including the establishment of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia and Benjamin Franklin’s Public Academy. The Academy evolved into the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, of which Shippen served as a trustee from 1755 to 1779. William’s brother, Edward, was instrumental in the founding of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, of which William also served as a trustee.

Shippen went on to serve as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress from 1779 to 1780, before returning to his medical practice. His son, William Shippen Jr., graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1754, received a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1761 and, with his father’s support, became an early faculty member at the first medical school in what would later become the United States at the College of Philadelphia in 1765. William Jr. then put his medical expertise to a patriotic purpose, serving the Continental Army as the director of hospitals from 1777 to 1781. He married Patriot Thomas Lee of Virginia’s daughter, Alice. Their daughter, Nancy, further tightened the bonds between the leading families of the new United States by marrying Robert Beekman Livingston of New York.

By contrast, William Sr.’s niece—Edward’s daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Shippen—married Benedict Arnold in 1779, when she was 18 and the then Patriot war hero was 37. Arnold’s attempt to keep his young bride in the affluent lifestyle to which she was accustomed is generally understood to be one cause of his decision to accept a bribe from the British. Peggy had courted British Major John Andre before meeting Arnold and likely introduced her old beau to her husband; Arnold later conspired with Andre, agreeing to hand over West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds sterling. For her part, Peggy is thought to have passed information to the British before her marriage to Arnold, although she convinced George Washington of her innocence after Andre’s capture and her husband’s flight. She remained a devoted wife to Arnold despite their financial and personal hardships when they fled to England, where she remained after his death in June 1801.

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