As I mentioned last week the tone of Franklin’s Rules, as with so many of his literary endeavors, is among its most striking qualities. Given how 21st-century popular culture has, to a greater or lesser extent, come to understand the 18th century as an era of courtly manners, powdered wigs, and suffocating formality, it’s both surprising and enlightening to find in the works of men like Franklin a strong, sharp, and highly relatable comedic sensibility. This sense of humour, however, is not all the only element of Rules that could be called striking. Wit and irony may have been the means by which Benjamin Franklin most often chose to communicate with his fellow man, but for him tone were very rarely an end in and of itself. What I mean to say is Franklin was not a comedian whose sole desire was to elicit laughter, but a satirist whose goal was to use humor in order to convey something he felt was very important. With that in mind, I’d like to turn the focus of this series away from the medium by which Franklin communicated and towards the message that was communicated.
In particular, I want to speak for a moment about something that took me by surprise upon first reading Franklin’s Rules. Looking back I can see now why I was caught off guard, and in the spirit of teachable moments I believe that you, my small, dedicated, cult-like following, should be made to benefit from my mistake. You see, when I first read Rules with pen and highlighter at the ready I forgot to keep firmly in mind the vital element of context. I thought of the satiric essay in my hand as simply a piece of political commentary by Benjamin Franklin. This is probably going to seem so pedantic as to give you a nosebleed, but what I should have remembered is that it was a piece of political commentary by Benjamin Franklin written in 1773. I was thinking, as I read, of the social and political radical, the diplomat, the voluptuary; in short of the man that Franklin was, or perhaps was simply perceived as being, at the end of his life. In 1773 Benjamin Franklin was not that man, so I very quickly learned. And so I tell you now, and will expand on in a moment, that one of the more noteworthy elements of Franklin’s Rules which might not seem to square with the popular perception of the man is how sympathetic he seemed to the idea of Britain and the Thirteen Colonies maintaining their accustomed imperial relationship.
Franklin was not a Loyalist I think it fair to say. He was no dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Crown who would have overlooked a great deal of injury dealt by British ministers out of a sense of tradition or an emotional attachment to the political status quo. But he was, in 1773, an apparent supporter of reconciliation. Though he seemed more than willing to decry what he saw as clear violations on Britain’s part of the rights and liberties of his fellow colonists, he had yet to conclude that the breach could not be healed. More than that, he seemed to think that it should have been, that Britain was better off with the colonies and vice versa. Rules, I think, presents a fascinating window into the tension between these two impulses; criticism and preservation. Indeed, it was perhaps because he still believed there was value in the American colonies remaining within the British Empire that Franklin’s critique were so biting. Maybe he believed the relationship was being threatened from within, and sought to root out the cause in terms it would be difficult for those in a position to create positive change to ignore.
Specific examples of Franklin’s particular regard for the imperial relationship between Crown and colonies are fairly numerous within the text of Rules. Admittedly their meaning has to be inferred to a degree because of the overarching ironic delivery, but they and their significance are only thinly veiled. In step three, for example, Franklin made the oblique claim that the establishment of British colonies in North America, though accomplished at the expense of the original colonists, had the end result of greatly strengthening Britain itself. In relation to the Empire such colonies would, as Franklin put it, “Increase her Strength by their growing Numbers ready to join in her Wars, her Commerce by their growing Demand for her Manufactures, or her Naval Power by greater Employment for her Ships and Seamen.” While this may not have been an explicit endorsement for the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, it would seem to at least suggest that Franklin did not regard the role he and his fellow colonists had traditionally played within the larger British Empire with a great deal of bitterness or disdain. If American colonists had been forced into supplying the British military and British markets with manpower and resources it would seem likely that the famously forthright Franklin would not have hesitated to say so. Certainly the relationship between colonies and mother-country had become strained as of the 1760s and 1770s, something which Franklin pointed out in Rules at seemingly every opportunity. Overall Anglo-American history, however, did not seem for him to be a cause for shame or disgust.
That Franklin was, in 1773, generally at ease with the nature of the relationship between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies is further evidenced by an admission at the beginning of step four of his satiric Rules. While again attempting to impart ironic advice to a theoretical group of government ministers Franklin indicated that Americans had traditionally regarded British rule with a degree of understanding and forbearance. Specifically he wrote that American colonists had, “Peaceably […] submitted to your Government, shewn their Affection to your Interest, and patiently borne their Grievances.” Though Franklin’s general intent with Rules was to portray via humorous exaggeration the deficiencies of British rule in America, it should not be overlooked that he appeared to regard his fellow colonists as a generally quiescent group. Indeed, that he described the relationship between Crown and colonies as possessing qualities like peace, affection, and patience indicates a perception on his part of the colonial population as being long-suffering but generally eager to continue their association with Great Britain. Again, had Franklin believed the opposite was true, that his fellow colonists had borne the slings and arrows of arbitrary British rule with justifiable anger, it seems likely he would not have had trouble finding the words to say as much. Consequently, Franklin’s apparently pacific outlook is significant not only because of how his opinion changed within a few short years of Rules’ publication, but also because it seemed to ignore some of the broader themes of Anglo-American history.
As I mentioned at some length in a number of previous posts, the American Revolution was not necessarily the break with established history that it has often been made out to be. Though the Revolution was absolutely a decisive moment in the history of North America, if not the world, it was not the first rebellion by American colonists against their British-appointed governors. Those to which Franklin and his cohorts most directly responded were the various demonstrations that resulted from the imposition of an unprecedented tax regime upon the colonies in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, covering roughly the period from 1765 to 1774. These included the Stamp Act and Townshend Act protests, riots resulting from the events of the Boston Massacre and subsequent trial, and the little-remembered Gaspee Affair during which a British anti-smuggling vessel that ran aground on the Rhode Island coast was seized and burned by a local chapter of the Sons of Liberty. These events were, and are, highly significant to the way events unfolded in the lead-up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775. Yet they too were far from unprecedented. There had been a number of prior revolts during the 17th and 18th centuries that unfolded across the Thirteen Colonies in response to a number of different grievances. These include, but are not limited to, Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), Culpepper’s Rebellion (1677), the Boston Revolt (1689), Leisler’s Rebellion (1689-1691), and the War of the Regulation (1765-1771). Colonial Americans, as I have tried to stress in the past, were generally very conscious of their rights and liberties and did not hesitate to take up arms when they felt them threatened. Consequently the history of the Thirteen Colonies prior to the American Revolution can fairly be characterized by a state of grudging acquiescence to British rule, often giving way to periods of heightened tension, and not infrequently leading to open revolt.
Benjamin Franklin seemed not to perceive this rather raucous aspect of his countrymen’s history, however. Or at least if he did his views in that direction are not to be found in his satiric Rules. There would seem to be several potential reasons for this that I can perceive. It is possible, though we might like to think better of old Ben, that he simply was not aware of the various revolts that dotted the history of the Thirteen Colonies. In fairness, his lifetime happened to more or less coincide with a period of relative peace stretching from the end of the 17th century until the middle of the 18th-century. Putting aside the fact that a number of Franklin’s fellow revolutionaries professed a great deal of reverence for the Whig supporters of the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the English Bill of Rights (1689), it’s conceivable that Franklin’s perception of the Anglo-American relationship as a mainly peaceful one was based more on his own life experience than a detailed study of colonial history. It’s also possible that Franklin was indeed aware of his countrymen’s rebellious history but did not think it relevant to the present discussion. By the time of his birth in 1706 revolts against Crown officials in Virginia (led by, fittingly, Messrs. Bacon and Culpepper), Massachusetts (centred on Boston) and New York (led by a German-American merchant) had flared out, and the Thirteen Colonies were in the midst of a period of relative peace and stability. Consequently, Franklin may have looked back at these earlier rebellions as native to an era in colonial history that had since come to an end; the turbulent 17th-century had given way to the calm and prosperous 18th-century, and whatever problems arose in the latter had little to do with the former. I cannot say whether or not this is what Franklin believed, and I stress that this line of thought represents merely a theory on my part meant to potentially explain the discrepancy between what is known about colonial American history and what Franklin appeared ready to ignore.
That being said, the most likely explanation for Franklin’s characterization of the Anglo-American relationship as generally peaceful and affectionate is that it was rhetorically useful for him to do so. Rules is a satiric essay; humorous, but also expressive of a particular point of view. Franklin probably attempted to portray his fellow colonists as patient, accommodating, and diplomatic because it made them seem put-upon, made Britain’s continued disregard for their liberties seem all the more aggressive, and helped define the American struggle for restitution as a righteous defence rather than a chaotic revolt. Acknowledging that the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies had engaged in numerous prior incidents of disobedience to British rule, at times to the point of taking up arms or overthrowing Crown-appointed governors, would, conversely, not have been of service to Franklin’s general intent. Indeed, within the larger context of historical Anglo-American tensions the demonstrations that characterized the immediate pre-Revolutionary era might have seemed to a British audience like yet another series of emotionally-driven riots by a population that had never had much regard for law and order. If Franklin’s goal with Rules was to call attention to British abuses in order to secure a more equitable footing for reconciliation (and I do believe it was), this would not have been a wise tactic to pursue.
Keeping Franklin’s attention to rhetoric firmly in mind, there are several other occasions in Rules during which the relationship between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies is described positively that bear investigation. Then most obvious, after those noted in steps three and four, occurs in the middle of step nine. Amidst a rather pointed description of the many burdens shouldered by the American colonists on a day-to-day basis, from maintaining their own infrastructure to defending their frontiers, Franklin listed the various ways in which the commercial relationship between Britain and the colonies directly benefited the British people. “Think nothing,” he wrote to his supposed ministerial audience,
Of the Wealth [your] Merchants and your Manufactures acquire by the Colony Commerce; their encreased Ability thereby to pay Taxes at home; their accumulating, in the Price of their Commodities, most of those Taxes, and so levying them from their consuming Customers: All this, and the Employment and Support of thousands of your Poor by the Colonists.
From these words alone it would seem reasonable to conclude that Franklin believed trade between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain had and did contribute greatly to enriching the lives and livelihoods of untold numbers of British citizens. Considering the fact that said colonies traded exclusively (on the record, at least) with Britain, that they were among its main suppliers of raw materials and main consumers of manufactured goods, and that the resultant shipping industry employed thousands on both sides of the Atlantic from shipmasters to dockworkers and everyone in between, this would seem a fair claim. The question that arises, however, is why Franklin felt the need to make this particular point.
Consider: if Franklin had been, like his later compatriots Thomas Paine or Samuel Adams, a believer in the inevitability of American independence, why would he have tried to being to the attention of a British audience all they stood to lose in the event of such a separation? Granted, he made no secret of his displeasure with how the colonies had been lately administered. But if he truly wished to see parent and child part ways, why would he have spoken favorably of the relationship he hoped to do away with to the people best positioned to change things for the better? Why give them the chance? In fact it seems likely that this was exactly was Franklin was attempting to do; give the British ministers responsible for overseeing the colonies a chance to reflect on what their careless policies were endangering and how best to remedy the widening breach between Crown and colonies. Franklin appeared to adopt the same tack in step seventeen of Rules. To that end he wrote,
If you see rival Nations rejoicing at the Prospect of your Disunion with your Provinces, and endeavoring to promote it: If they translate, publish and applaud all the Complaints of your discontented Colonists, at the same Time privately stimulating you to severer Measures; let not that alarm or offend you.
Bearing in mind once again that Franklin’s tone in Rules was intended to be ironic, and that he generally believed the opposite of what he wrote, the purpose of this passage would seem to have been to warn the British public and British officials that a separation from the Thirteen Colonies would be strategically, as well as economically, disastrous. Considering how ardently the Great Powers of the day jockeyed for position with one another, how ready they were to enlist allies in their struggle, and the lengths to which they were historically willing to go to undercut their rivals, this too seems an eminently reasonable observation.
Indeed it was reasonable, if not also serendipitous and rather prophetic. After the American Revolution formally began in mid-1775 and American independence was declared in July, 1776, the French and Spanish were among the first foreign powers the Continental Congress saw fit to reach out to in search of monetary and military support. Longstanding rivals of Great Britain, both were eager to cut off their adversary’s North American trade and extended generous loans, sales of arms, and even dispatched military expeditions to aid their newfound American allies. Benjamin Franklin in particular, as it happened, was instrumental in securing support from the court of Louis XVI of France as well as currying favor with the French public. Taking these facts into account it thus seems the height of irony that Franklin had, not but a few short years prior in 1773, warned a British audience in print of almost exactly what was about to transpire thanks in no small part to his own efforts. Putting aside this amusing coincidence, however, the question arises once again as to why Franklin would have attempted to make the relevant British offenders aware of the events they were helping set in motion by their misguided actions (or inactions).