After having spent six weeks hemming and hawing about satire, reconciliation, and (for some reason or another) English legal history, I suppose now it’s only fitting and proper that the focus of this blog turn finally towards why it was in 1773 Benjamin Franklin had his dander up to such a degree as to pen the satirical essay presently under consideration. This, I’ll grant, might seem unnecessary to some. The causes of the American Revolution, the myriad grievances nurtured by the American colonists against their British oppressors, have been recorded and studied at length these last two centuries and change. What more might an examination of the particular ills recalled in Franklin’s Rules possibly reveal about the how and why of colonial discontent? Their taxes were heavy? Their governors’ were corrupt and callous? They felt themselves distrusted, abused, and neglected? As I do believe the saying goes, “please to inform me of something of which I am not already in a state of awareness.”
Yet, though Rules indeed speaks to each of the grievances so named above, and indeed to several others one might consider almost stereotypical of the writings of the Revolutionary era, a closer examination of the same is by no means a fruitless exercise. The American Revolution, as I'm sure I've argued previously, is one of those socio-historical subjects that loom so large in popular culture as to breed a sense of casual familiarity among the general population. Everybody knows about the Revolution. Everybody knows the British lost, and everybody knows it was about taxes, or whatever. It is, on the one hand, heartening that an event so firmly rooted in the intellectual and cultural context of the 18th century continues to enjoy such widespread recognition and claims at understanding here at the beginning of the 21st. On the other hand it is troubling, if to no one else but those with whom I share a particular sickness, just how much this thin veneer of popular understanding tends to obscure. As I offered at the end of my very first series of posts, very much is said in modern popular media about the Revolution and the Founders by people who clearly possess only the barest knowledge of either.
I in no way mean to aim any accusations to this effect at my small and inexplicably dedicated band of readers. That you come back week after week, in spite of the sheer magnitude of things you could be filling your time with, is indication enough of your desire to cultivate more than a surface understanding of the Founding Fathers, their times, and their legacy. Only, it occurred to me when I began to pen this very post that much of what Franklin complained of in Rules is completely in keeping with what is commonly known of the Revolution and its causes. If this was a thought that so easily occurred to me it could not have been wholly original, and therefore I felt it behooved me to address the same and speak to any doubts that might be forming in the minds of those who deign to cast their eyes upon my provincial scribblings. In essence the question that occurred to me, and you will forgive if I am putting words where they do not belong, is, what can studying documents written by the Founders tell us about the why and wherefore of the Revolution that isn't already very well known?
A great deal, as it turns out, if not always in the most obvious way. The Founding Fathers, as I'm sure you've picked up by now, where a diverse group. Between them they possessed a goodly number of different cultural, intellectual, religious, and occupational experiences and their myriad outlooks on the same set of events is part of what makes them such a compelling group. In short they did not think or feel exactly the same way about nearly anything, and so studying their lives, careers, and literary outputs becomes an exercise in both scholarly research and psychological profiling. They may have all been on “the same side,” worked toward the same basic set of goals, but they each had their personal reasons, their own thoughts, and observations on the events in which their partook. Benjamin Franklin was as ardent a supporter of the Patriot cause as one is likely to find, and the reasons for his support where widely shared among his noble compatriots. Yet, as many during his lifetime would likely have agreed, there was only one Ben Franklin. The lens through which he viewed the world was his and his alone. By attempting to understand this, and by trying our utmost to pierce the veil of time that separate his and our perspectives, it becomes possible to gain insight into a facet of human history most usually obscured by the fog of “common knowledge.” In this way we are able to understand the past with the complexity appropriate to any enterprise in which human beings are the prime movers.
But I digress, as seems to be my custom.
Returning to the text at hand, there would seem to be in Franklin’s Rules a general list of grievances one could compile unambiguously aimed at the Thirteen Colonies’ British colonial administrators. These offences include the quartering of troops among the colonial population, the incompetence of the various colonial governors, the meeting of petitions with delay, expense, rejection, and humiliation, the continued imposition of theoretically limitless taxation, the miscarriage of justice by undercutting the authority of colonial courts, the dispatching of overpaid and unsympathetic tax-collectors, the widespread rewarding of ministerial corruption and avarice, the abuse and diminishment of colonial legislatures, and the pitiless enforcement of commerce laws intended to enrich the motherland at the expense of the colonies. Combined these seem a damning indictment of British authority in colonial America, if not a wholly original one. The value of these complaints, rather than in the aggregate, lies in the specific phrasing Franklin deployed in each case. Yes, Franklin complained about taxation and the Navigation Acts. What American, in 1773, didn't feel at least slightly aggrieved by these measures? But how did he complain? What did he emphasize and what did he elide?
In spite of seeming just now to have argued against the idea, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that in certain cases these questions are answered fairly easily, and that some of Franklin’s complaints were very much in keeping with the consensus of the colonial opposition of the day. His characterization of the manner in which British authorities treated American petitioners for redress, for example, has a common ring with the offences Thomas Jefferson later attributed to George III and his government in the Declaration of Independence. Just as that latter document accused the Crown of meeting “repeated petitions” for compensation as the result of some heavy-handed policy or other with “repeated injury,” so Franklin’s Rules advised its ministerial audience to, “Let the Parliaments flout [the colonists’] claims, reject their Petitions, refuse even to suffer the reading of them, and treat the Petitioners with the utmost Contempt.” Both Franklin and Jefferson, it seemed, perceived the rough treatment colonial supplicants received at the hands of British authorities with much the same sentiment. Furthermore, because said Declaration was subsequently reviewed and ratified by the assembled members of the Continental Congress it would seem fair to say that the attitudes expressed therein represented the views of the majority of that first class of Founders in 1776. Thus any similarities between the views expressed by the Declaration of Independence and those found in Franklin’s Rules can logically be taken to indicate agreement between Franklin himself and the majority of the American revolutionary mainstream as of the late 1770s.
This argument is strongly supported by a further comparative examination of the Declaration of Independence and Franklin’s Rules. As the latter complained of the excessive taxation levied upon the residents of colonial American, to the point of seeking to convince the colonists that, “Under such a Government they have nothing they can call their own,” so the former very simply accused George III of, “Imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” As Franklin sardonically recommended the formation of, “A Board of Officers to superintend the Collection [of taxes], composed of the most indiscreet, ill-bred and insolent you can find,” who would collect “large Salaries out of the extorted Revenue,” and live in “open grating Luxury,” Jefferson somewhat more soberly declared that the king had, “erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” Franklin perhaps expressed himself in somewhat more jocular or emotional language, but the core understanding from which he argued in much of Rules seems very much in line with the position later adopted by the aforesaid Congress.
The similarities extend beyond taxation and into more subtle realms as well. One particularly to be noted, in part because I do believe it so subtle as to likely slip the notice of modern audiences, concerns the manner by which judicial officials in the colonies were to be paid. As Franklin pointed out in Rules, in a tone of displeasure disguised as cheerful recommendation, because judges in the colonies were appointed to serve at the pleasure of the monarch it followed that they should receive their salaries from that same source. The Declaration of Independence confirmed the existence of this practice when it stated that George III had, “made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” Said Declaration has no more to say on the matter, and so the significance of this passage might today seem somewhat opaque. Granted, the appointment of judges to serve in the colonies by a monarch many thousands of miles distant, who are in turn responsible only to said monarch, seems clearly enough a violation of the right of a free people to receive the equitable and unbiased administration of justice. The relevance of how these judges were to be paid, however, is perhaps somewhat less clear. Or rather, it would be had not Franklin provided the answer already. If officers of the colonial courts had been paid out of revenues collected and distributed by the colonies themselves, he warned his theoretical ministerial audience, such, “Judges may be thereby influenced to treat the People kindly, and to do them Justice.” Franklin’s fellow colonists, it seemed, would have gladly taken on the added expense of employing judges or other court officers themselves if it meant they could expect justice in the colonies to be administered in a more responsive and less arbitrary fashion. In spite of this elaboration, however fascinating, the fact remains that the core concept Franklin sought to illuminate was very much in keeping with what the majority of the Founders would later endorse in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Franklin may have been somewhat more verbose, more freewheeling in his mode of expression, but at least some of the sentiments he expressed were not comparatively all that novel.
Others, however, were; in full or in part. Take, for instance, the quartering of troops, connected in the republican political tradition to the threat represented by a standing army. Franklin opined in step four of Rules that such a measure would in fact cause the trouble it hoped to prevent. Housing soldiers among the colonial population, he argued, “Who by their Insolence may provoke the rising of Mobs, and by their Bullets and Bayonets suppress them […] may in time convert your Suspicions into Realities.” While this passage does indicate Franklin’s displeasure with the prospect of the colonies playing host to British regulars, a far from uncommon sentiment at the time, his specific reasoning would seem to have been anything but. As aforementioned, Franklin was still a reconciliationist as of 1773. When he wrote his satirical Rules he had yet to abandon hope that Britain and the Thirteen Colonies might settle their differences and move towards a prosperous shared future. Accordingly Franklin’s dismay at the housing of soldiers among the colonial population, though shared by some of his less sanguine colleagues (as the text of the Declaration of Independence attests), was colored by his generally optimistic outlook. Rather than decry the presence of armed soldiers in the colonies in and of itself, which many did, Franklin phrased his complaint as a something more like a warning, caution, or remonstrance. It was not a tone of outrage he adopted, but a tone of scolding. British authorities had been suspicious of colonial intentions, he acknowledged, and by their overreaction fostered greater discontent than they had hoped to allay. Again, by attempting to explain to a British audience exactly how British actions had contributed to the crisis then unfolding Franklin engaged in an exercise that was both cathartic and substantive. At the same time that he helped vent his fellow colonists’ general frustrations, he perhaps also hoped to cajole the appropriate authorities in Britain into rectifying the policies that had given rise to said frustrations.