13 September 2011

Part I - Treasonous Loyalty: Benjamin Franklin, the Intolerable Acts, and the National Debt

He is inventor, diplomat, statesman, author.  Skilled in the craft of negotiation, unequalled in the art of courtship and love.  If we understand any of the founding fathers, surely we know him—his temperament, his beliefs, his motivations—better than any of the men whose vision, resolve, and oratory united colonists of disparate purpose into a single mind.  Yet, in flagrant challenge to our long-held beliefs, the greatest of the architects of rebellion considered himself first of all an Englishman.  Deeper, bewildering shocks await as we peer into this man’s life, accomplishments, and failures.

Following through history the cascade of events he set in motion late in the summer of 1774, we are not surprised to hear the shot heard ‘round the world on April 19, 1775, nor see with our own eyes the unanimous declaration he and his congressional colleagues signed a year later, during the hot summer days of July, 1776.  Perhaps, though, we are not only surprised, but shocked, to learn that this printer from Philadelphia—this Englishman—was almost single-handedly responsible for a greater number of American deaths and a deeper obligation of debt than any single person prior to the 1980s.  In fact, it is specifically because of the engrained Englishness of him that the American Revolution did not end in the spring of 1777, but instead engulfed the new United States, four European countries, and seven North American First Nations in a war that dragged on for eight and a half years, and became the inexorable trajectory that led to the French Revolution six years later, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, and the debt crisis of the early 21st century.  It is because Benjamin Franklin embodied an oxymoron—because of his treasonous loyalty—that French, not American English, to this very day is spoken in Montréal, Sherbrooke, and Québec, and the Stars and Stripes flies neither in Vancouver nor in Toronto.

The Englishman

The famous woodcut above does not represent a newly-patriotic Benjamin Franklin calling for united resistance to British overlords during the Revolutionary War, but rather a much younger Franklin’s appeal to fellow Englishmen to gather behind an earlier, but no less urgent, common cause.  Franklin’s stirring call to arms was not issued in 1775, nor even in the Stamp Act days of 1765.  Franklin created the woodcut in the early spring of 1754 (the version above was embellished by Samuel Kneeland of the Boston Gazette and published in May of that year) not in response to British tyranny, but in reply to French attempts to secure the continent.  The tone of Franklin’s oratory and written discourse was strongly in keeping with Kneeland’s sentiment, expressed by the scroll emanating from the snake’s open mouth:  Unite and Conquer.  Unite against Canada, and conquer the French.

Franklin spoke of Frenchmen as representing a race distinct and inferior from the civilized humanity found only among gentlemen obedient to the British monarch.  The French had strange laws and customs, the unnatural and subordinate nature of which was proven by French Canadians’ perverse ability to bring an entire continent of savages to their cause, which Franklin understood to be the removal of English colonies from what was otherwise a continent owned entirely by France.  Franklin’s way of looking at the long conflict in the 1750s has carried through to modern times, though we no longer think of the French as members of a distinct “race,” and we are not as likely to refer to Native Americans as “savages.”  Nevertheless, our interpretation of the events of that time is distinctly American, as indicated by the name we apply to the conflict.  While historians in Europe and Canada know the battles of 1750s North America as The Seven Years’ War, American historians refer to the conflict as “The French and Indian Wars.”

Franklin’s energy and passion in rallying opposition to the French was no sideline in a life otherwise devoted to scientific investigation.  His early immersion in science was not the sign of any infatuation with disembodied objectivity, but indication of a deeper sense of social propriety.  Political and social intercourse in his mind were paramount to the fullest expression of humanity.  He believed in the widest possible expression of arts and sciences, as long as creativity and industry were tempered by the greater call to civility and cohesive society.  France, to Franklin, was an impediment both to human freedom and to proper social order.

Social health could only be achieved in a milieu which rewarded those who lived life according to natural laws.  English customs were superior to all others in this regard, since rewards were not only possible, but could be expected to accrue to those who led virtuous lives.  No such rewards were possible under French custom and law, in Franklin’s mind.  In the colonies, and in England, there were gentlemen and commoners.  In France, on the other hand, there were peasants and nobles.  Franklin had started life a commoner, and in fact, one of the last of seventeen children born to a soap maker, he was not expected to have any impact on society.  But Franklin early on recognized the immutable underpinnings of English culture, and applied himself in earnest to the task of rising from the anonymous ranks of common men to become a respected and even revered English gentleman.  He knew instinctively that such a rise in social standing would never have been possible had he been born into the highly stratified and stagnant French socio-political system, and he came to despise French custom as destructive of the human spirit.  Once a peasant, always a peasant, always under the crushing thumb of hereditary nobility.  In the freedom-loving British Empire, on the other hand, social position was a matter of individual initiative.

More on Treasonous Loyalty: Benjamin Franklin, the Intolerable Acts, and the National Debt, coming soon.