Saturday, April 20, 2013

Benjamin Franklin: Grandfather Of His Country

It could be argued that Benjamin Franklin does not need a new label as he has already been called "The First American," which gets at the main point that the idea of uniting the non-Canadian North American British colonies into a United States came from him, apparently as early as 1751, inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations, or tribes, who had banded together to protect themselves against their far more numerous Algonkian neighbors.  However, I shall argue that this new label may serve a useful purpose beyond the older one, which does not need to be displaced by it.  In the meantime, I want to lay the groundwork for this by referring to some more current issues.

I am inspired to this by two recent events.  One is the horrific happenings in Boston, which led to many commentators noting the seminal role of Boston in the American Revolution, which put me in a mind to think about the whole matter of the formation of the US, with this perhaps becoming more of a non-trivial issue now as talk of secession has recently been rearing its head in places such as Texas, where politicians love to vote against aid for natural disaster relief in other parts of the nation, but are quite assertive in demanding that the rest of the nation give them some when some idiot refuses to have his fertilizer plant inspected and it blows up killing lots of people and destroying most of a small town.  Of course this latter tidbit is not surprising from a state that prides itself on having fought for its liberty to own slaves after Mexico banned slavery, something those getting all teary-eyed at the Alamo over Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie rarely mention.

The other is the very insightful recent post by Brad DeLong on the problems of forming nations with particular reference to the current governance problems of the European Union and the prospects for it to move forward to greater unity and possibly better economic management as well, particulary in the fiscal policy sphere, .  He notes two ways that initially separate groups can come together to form a functioning higher union.  One is to have a strong leader of the group that enforces the union.  The other is to come together out of fear of a common enemy.  DeLong argues that the EU is currently lacking on both of these fronts.

For the former he uses the example of the 17th century United Provinces of the Netherlands, of which there were seven.  He notes that their union was quite loose, but strong enough to dominate the seas and be the world's leading financial power, even threatening France as a land power for a significant period of time.  The leader of the provinces was Holland, which constituted 60% of the population.  It could take the others along with it, if not by some immediate threat but by its possessing a "long memory" such that any other province not going along with what Holland wanted would pay for it later.  For the EU the leader was essentially the US in the North American alliance, even though the US was not part of the EU.

For the common enemy, DeLong provided the example of the US itself in the development of its Constitution, with the compromise that allowed for states to have equal power in the Senate being needed to bring along the smallest state, Rhode Island, which was the last state to ratify the Constitution as it was.  The common enemy was Mother Britain, and DeLong suggests that the image of Britain building naval bases in Newport, Rhode Island concentrated the minds of the delegates in Philadelphia, the most senior of whom was Benjamin Franklin.  For the EU, the common enemy was the Soviet Union, with DeLong citing those who claim that Stalin was the real father of the EU, with the US being the leader. 

For the EU the current problem is that with the end of the Cold War the common enemy is gone, and the US has withdrawn.  Furthermore, Germany is not strong enough or willing enough to assume the role of leadership that Holland did in the United Provinces.  He invokes Kindleberger's hegemon  theory of the Great Depression that argued that many problems of the world economy arose due to the unwillingness of the US to assume its natural position of leadership during the interwar period.  DeLong sees the current situation in Europe as unpleasantly parallel.

Which brings me back to his example of the American nation at its formation.  To note the Boston link, part of the fear of Rhode Island had long been of its much larger and somewhat arrogant neighbor, Massachusetts.  Rhode Island had been founded as the first colony to assert religious freedom by Roger Williams in contrast to the theocracy from which he fled that ruled Massachusetts and essentially still did even in the aftermath of the American Revolution (celebrating Christmas was outlawed there by its Puritan leaders until the 1820s).  The original American state was a confederation in which the states were supreme, and Rhode Island felt safer in its independence from Massachusetts.  They were reluctant to give that up at the time of the increased unification associated with adopting the Constitution.

Which brings us to the role of Benjamin Franklin.  So, George Washington gets the title, "Father of his country," and this is certainly deserved both for his role as the commander of the revolutionary army as well as his leadership role at the Constitutional Convention (even if the heavy lifting was done by Madison and Hamilton), with it clear that he would become the first president.  It is largely forgotten that there were numerous presidents prior to Washington, but they all bore the title of President of the Congress and did not have the powers that post-Constitution presidents would have, genuine and distinct executive authority and leadership.

But indeed there was this earlier incarnation of the nation, one run under the Articles of Confederation, whose limits and weaknesses led to the Constitution.  While Franklin's role is captured in that label of "The First American," his role is often forgotten as he becomes subsumed as just one among the Founding Fathers, of whom Washington took the title of "Father."  But Franklin was of an earlier generation, born in 1706 while none of the others were born prior to 1730, and many not prior to 1740.  Furthermore, he was by far the best known of them abroad, indeed the only one of them who had a genuine international reputation prior to the Revolution based upon his genuine scientific achievements.  It was the Revolution itself that made the reputations of the rest, even if some of them, particularly Jefferson, would also come to be known for some of their inventions and intellectual achievements.

In any case, long prior to the Revolution Franklin formulated a plan that would become the model for the Articles of Confederation, even though it was not adopted or acted upon then.  This was the Albany Plan of Union developed in Albany, New York in 1754.  The British government brought delegates together out of the need to defend against a common enemy, the French who still ruled Canada at that time prior to the French and Indian/Seven Years War.  While they were supposed to develop coordination for common defense, Franklin chaired a committee that proposed going much further to a limited political union along lines similar to the later Articles of Confederation in the form of the proposed Albany Plan for Union.  However, the British were not supportive and nothing came of it in action.

The inspiration of this plan was indeed the Iroquois Confederacy, who also practiced democracy, an inspiration for what would become the eventual US system.  Franklin first encountered this in printing the speech of Iroquois leader Canassatego given at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744.  It was in reference to this speech, in which Canassatego invoked the motive of defending against a common enemy for the union of the Iroquois Confederacy, that Franklin first proposed the idea of a union of the colonies in a letter to his printer in 1751, the first known expression of such an idea.  And again, what kept the Iroquois together was the fear of the common enemy, the more numerous Algonkians who surrounded their territories.

So, Franklin was in effect the Father of the original version of the US, while Washington was the Father of its later, constitutional version.  In this regard, it is reasonable to view Franklin as the Grandfather of his country, and not merely one of the Founding Fathers who could be labeled The First American. 

Barkley Rosser


Shag from Brookline said...

Alas, Franklin's inspiration of the Iroquois Confederacy did not prevail in how the Constitutional Convention addressed Indian Nations and some of the shameful events of Manifest Destiny that followed. The treatment of slavery and native Americans under the Constitution reflected white supremacy of that time that continues to have an impact today.

During my 82 years in the Boston area, I enjoyed looking up at Ben Franklin on high in the front yard of Old City Hall on School Street. But why did he really leave Boston? said...

Franklin became an abolitionist in his old age and clearly had a much more enlightened attitude about the Native American Indians, although his use of language was that of his day, not polite in modern eyes, "savages," although he was one of the main promulgators of the theory of the "Noble Savage" when he was Ambassador to France, where this idea took hold and became popular, fitting in with already present views along these lines expressed by Rousseau.

As for why he left Boston, there seem to have been multiple reasons with it probably impossible to say which was more important. He was 17 and apprenticed to an older brother, whose orders and rules he apparently resented, although there were other reasons as well, some possibly including matters involving the opposite sex. He was originally trained as a printer and that was his first occupation in Philadelphia. Despite his many positions to the end of his life he usually signed himself as "B. Franklin, Printer," although not on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

Bruce Webb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Webb said...

1751 and 1754 methinks.

chris said...

Someone did not vet this or proofread it as he should have. said...

Thanks for the vetting, folks. Dates now corrected to what they should be. said...

BTW, I must note that there is a book entitled _Sam Adams: Grandfather of his Country_, although I think that Franklin deserves that title far more than Sam Adams, who was of the generation following Franklin and far later than him in his ideas, even if he was one of the earliest leaders of the revolutionary movement in Boston.

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