Friday, 23 October 2015

Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, Part VIII: Epithets

          Even greater insight into the specific nature of Franklin’s views on the behaviour of British authorities towards the Thirteen Colonies can be found in step five of Rules. Therein Franklin, once again in the guise of offering advice, gave comment as to the quality of the governors that had been appointed to oversee the various colonies. The particular passage I'm thinking of is located at the end of the paragraph, and will be excerpted here in full because it is quite honestly too delicious to attempt to dismember. To his theoretical British ministers Franklin wrote,

If you can find Prodigals whoa have ruined their Fortunes, broken Gamesters or Stock-Jobbers, these may do well as Governors; for they will be rapacious, and provoke the People by their Extortions. Wrangling Proctors and pettyfogging Lawyers too are not amiss, for they will be for ever disputing and quarrelling with their little Parliaments, if withal they should be ignorant, wrong-headed and insolent, so much the better.

There is a great deal to unpack in this statement, and consequently a great deal to be learned about Franklin’s particular state of mind in 1773. To begin, let’s look at the terms he used to describe the ideal candidates for colonial governorship.

          To call someone a prodigal in the late-18th century was to accuse them of being a spendthrift – wastefully, even destructively, extravagant far beyond their means – while the term gamester was generally used to describe an inveterate gambler. In the Anglo-American context both terms were connected to the persona of the rake, a term applied to a type of mainly aristocratic womaniser, drunkard, gambler, and profligate that emerged during the Restoration Era (1660-1688) in Britain. Partly a reaction to the end of the morally rigid era of Puritan dominance that followed the English Civil War, the rake stereotype was so popular during its time that it developed into a stock figure in Restoration Era theatrical comedy. Following the Glorious Revolution, however, the subtext of the rake personality became far more squalid. From rugged manliness and comic non-conformity, the rake degenerated over the course of the 18th century into a figure more likely associated with excessive debt and imprisonment, venereal disease, morally unacceptable behaviour, and even insanity.

          In a gesture common of this more censorious view of rakishness, the famous artist and printer William Hogarth (1697-1764) synthesized these various reprehensible associations into a series of eight painting entitles A Rake’s Progress that were subsequently engraved and published in 1735. Known for his visual criticisms of drunkenness, licentiousness, and aristocratic manners, Hogarth portrayed in this particular series the rise and fall of the reckless son of a wealthy merchant who spends his father’s money with abandon and ends up committed to a mad house. Having been raised in an environment dominated by the dictates of Puritan social morality, and having spent a good number of his adult years in Britain, it would not seem unreasonable to conjecture that Franklin was perhaps familiar with Hogarth’s work and sympathetic to the artist’s aims. Even if this were not the case, it would still seem fair to conclude that Franklin was at least of a similar frame of mind to Hogarth and other 18th-century cultural commentators who sought to censor and cultivate public morality through their work. Much of Franklin’s satire was in this exact vein, and it would likewise seem fair to describe him and Hogarth as contemporaries in substance if not in means.

          Unlike Franklin’s use in Rules of rakish terminology to describe the various governors of the Thirteen Colonies, his use of the term “Stock-Jobber” as an insult came from a slightly different social context. Without going into great detail as to the inner workings of sophisticated global financial systems, which I am frankly not qualified to dispense, a stockjobber was a person or organization that acted as what is known as a “market maker” within stock exchanges. Their function was to act as a direct agent for the purchase and sale of stocks by a broker on behalf of their client. Though this in no longer necessarily the case, every stock that was bought and sold on the London Stock Exchange in the 1770s passed through a “jobber’s book” as part of everyday transactions. While there is nothing inherently nefarious about this particular financial office, Franklin’s use of the title in a derogative mode aligns him fairly clearly with the strain of contemporary political thought that disdained banking, debt, and the various other kinds of sophisticated financial machinery that had in many ways come to dominate 18th-century Britain. To believe that “Stock-Jobber” was an insult was to conceivably consider that the very concept of a stock exchange was immoral, wasteful, or corrupt.

          This was, in truth, an opinion shared by a fair number of Franklin’s revolutionary compatriots – perennially-indebted Jefferson in particular turned a jaundiced eye towards banking, debt trading, and related financial enterprises – and stemmed in part from the aforementioned conflict between the Country Party Whigs and their Court Party opponents. Whereas the latter championed the economic growth facilitated by the availability of credit and the creation of a national debt that followed the founding of the Bank of England in 1694, the former decried the avarice and corruption which they believed commercial and state banking had helped make endemic to the British political system. Unlike a trade – farming, say, or small scale manufacturing – trading stocks or trafficking in loans generated wealth based on the market value of a commodity rather than its inherent value (the price it could fetch on a given day, rather than its “actual” worth). This idea, that wealth could be generated by “playing the market” rather than by an application of efforts or patience, came to be identified with the term “speculation.” Because such financial enterprises were also easily manipulated and tended only to benefit the most socially advantaged groups in a given society, the mounting size and sophistication of the British economy in the 18th-century nurtured its fair share of ideological opposition. Members of the Country Party identified the Bank of England in particular and the credit it offered as the keystone of contemporary ministerial corruption and government patronage, and so they became identified with calls for economic simplicity and transparency. As Franklin and his fellow revolutionaries considered themselves the philosophical heirs to the Country Whig tradition, so too they inherited that group’s antipathy for the complex and often opaque financial status quo of Georgian Britain.

          The final pair of disdainful descriptors Franklin offered in step five of his satirical Rules, unlike those that preceded them, appear to have been more a reflection of his personal taste than of the broader cultural trends or political associations he was party to. Whereas a rake or a stockjobber might well have been considered an object of ill-repute in late-18th century North America, particularly among the social class Franklin originated from and the intellectual class he later joined, Proctors and lawyers were not generally ill thought of. Yet Franklin identified a wrangling member of the former profession and a pettifogging (needlessly obsessed with minor details) member of the latter as ideal candidates for the colonial governorships which his fellow colonists had come to associate with ineptitude, callousness, greed, and corruption. The exact reasons for this are not immediately obvious, though a few basic facts suggest themselves. Franklin was himself not a member of the legal profession, for one. Many of his fellow revolutionaries were, including John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Jay. But Benjamin Franklin was a printer and editorialist by trade and a scientist and inventor by inclination. This might possibly be taken as indication of his dislike for the law, or at least his disinterest. That law was also customarily the domain of the wealthy and powerful, those most likely to find themselves targets of his satire, was perhaps further reason for Franklin to look upon the profession with some degree of derision. A man of humble origins, studying the law was likely not an option he could possibly have pursued as a youth, and so in spite of his later social prominence its practitioners would ever remain his social betters.

          Then again, perhaps the distrust of legal professionals Franklin displayed in Rules stemmed from the immediate circumstances confronting him in 1773. In his era as in ours, the study of law was commonly seen as an avenue to power. Many of the ministers and members of Parliament who were seen in America as the source of the breach between the colonies and the Crown were accordingly lawyers themselves, and brought their legalistic, nay pettifogging, outlook to bear on the creation of tax and commerce policies intended to drain the colonies of any and all valuable resources. Without being able to say so for certain, it seems at the very least possible that this contributed in some way to Franklin’s apparent contempt for members of the legal profession. This is, again, a theory on my part. Perhaps Franklin simply meant what he said. Perhaps he didn't intend to offer insult to all lawyers, among whom he counted many friends, but simply wished to identify the perceived deficiency of the governors usually sent to oversee the various colonies with a particular kind of pedantic, minutiae-obsessed, obstinate legal practitioner. In so doing he must have counted on the fact that his audience would know what he was referring to, and so it strikes me as rather amusing that as long ago as the 1770s stereotypes concerning lawyers were evidently as prevalent as they are today. More amusing yet is the fact that, again, so many of Franklin’s later allies and partners during the Revolution, in Congress as well as during the drafting of the United States Constitution, were lawyers of some type or another. One wonders, or at least I do, whether any of them ever raised an eyebrow at the ease to which their compatriot seemed willing to resort to slights at the expense of their chosen profession.

          In point of fact, Franklin’s law-slinging associates were not the only ones he perhaps inadvertently slighted in the particular passage of Rules just now under examination. In addition to calling into question the worth of legal professionals, to the potential chagrin of collaborators like John Adams (not that he ever needed much of a reason to be offended) or Alexander Hamilton, Franklin feasibly also cast doubt on the quality of men like Thomas Jefferson, and fellow Pennsylvania Robert Morris. Jefferson, like most Southern men of his class, spent a goodly portion of his life attempting to acquire the accoutrements of a “gentlemanly” lifestyle. Items of frequent purchase included clothing, works of art, fine wines, and books. This acquisitive side of Jefferson frequently led him to spend money his simply didn't have, and left him deeply in debt at the time of his passing in 1826. Could he not be considered, in terms of his spending habits at least, a prodigal? Robert Morris was one of the wealthiest men in North America at the dawn of the Revolution, and was appointed Superintendent of Finance by the Continental Congress in recognition of his unequalled financial acumen. He was also one of America’s most notorious, and least successful, land speculators. By the manner in which Morris overextended his finances, attempted to make us of his government connections for personal gain, and was ultimately ruined for it, could he not be considered some species of broken Gamester of Stock-Jobber? Even George Washington, a man renowned for his probity, wisdom, and keen judgement, played the market via his duties and connections as a surveyor of western lands. Did this not qualify him for a measure of Franklin’s ire?

          In all it would seem that Benjamin Franklin’s own closest allies and collaborators were not free of the sins he would have damned the governor’s assigned by distant London for committing. Was this hypocrisy? Ignorance? Or did he simply apply a different standard of behaviour to those who occupied the halls of power from that which touched upon everyone else?  The answers to these queries will doubtless turn out to be terribly unsatisfying, as is so often the case. I do, however, believe they will at least be near the truth.

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