Tag Archives: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s Not-So-Famous Sister

250px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph-Siffred_DuplessisThey called one another “Benny” and “Jenny” throughout their lives in the letters they frequently exchanged. He was the most famous American in the world at the time. She lived a life of obscurity as a woman in colonial America who gave birth to 12 children and made her own soap. Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicles the dichotomy of these two lives in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister and life-long correspondent. The public broadcasting show “Here and Now” offers a substantial selection from the book as well as an interview with Lepore talking about her book. 

“… One of the things that’s great about them is they really span the whole of the 18th century, which is just these epic moments in Western history, certainly in American history,” say Lepore during the interview. “And you can follow, over the course of their lives, everything happens to them. Most of them are things that Franklin is actually doing and responsible for and that Jane is a witness to. So it’s a fantastic story. And it’s traceable the whole way through because Franklin wrote more letters to his sister Jane than he wrote to anyone else. I mean, here’s this man who corresponded with kings, you know? But he remained deeply loyal to this sister, I think, felt singularly responsible for her. So you – it this great, untold story of American letters.”



Filed under Book reviews, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

Congress Decides A Declaration of Independence Is Necessary

The Committee of Five

The Committee of Five

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to appoint a committee that would draft a declaration of independence. Some historians have humorously referred to this group (called the Committee of Five) as “Jefferson and Co.” It is true that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first draft (called the “Rough Draught”) of the Declaration, written with the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (published June 12, 1776), his own drafts of the Preamble to the Virginia Constitution and the essay Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, as well as the need to defend the American cause firmly in mind. However, the other members of the committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – offered invaluable contributions. Both Adams and Franklin revised the original draft, making specific recommendations regarding Jefferson’s wording and content.
Additionally, the entire Committee of Five read and revised this intermediate draft. On June 28, the draft then was submitted to Congress, which revised the text further, including the removal of Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade and the addition as a final paragraph of a resolution passed July 2 declaring independence, before approving the final version.

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O, The Fatal Stamp!

A satirical representation of the 1765 tax stamp widely circulated in the American colonies.

A satirical representation of the 1765 tax stamp widely circulated in the American colonies.

Ten years before anyone drunk or sober seriously discussed independence, Americans in the Thirteen Colonies faced a crisis that helped forge their national identity and began the agonizing process of questioning whether they were truly equal to their British brethren.  During May 1765, the controversy of the Stamp Act Crisis washed across the colonies like no other event before in colonial political and economic life when news of the tax’s passage on March 22 first reached the shores of North America. Frequently overlooked today except by professional historians, the bitter opposition to the Stamp Act prompted what would eventually become hallmarks of the American Revolution: the cry of “no taxation without representation” (if there had been bumper stickers in the 18th century, this would have been the motto of the Revolution); the Sons and Daughters of Liberty (organized political opposition to British policies among all walks of colonial life); and the riots and aggressive protests of Bostonians against the Stamp Tax (a prelude to similar outbursts a decade later that would trigger Lexington and Concord).  The statement that the Stamp Act Crisis lit the fuse that burned toward the powder keg marked “revolution” has merit.

Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a bill that would impose a tax on the American colonies through tax stamps placed on all legal documents, newspapers, commercial documents, and even playing cards. Without the stamps, documents would be invalid and paper products illegal. The logic behind the Stamp Act was impeccable; the politics, deplorable. The cost of the French and Indian Wars to the British taxpayer was £320,000 – roughly equivalent today to a price tag of $266 million. But far worse was the debt the crown incurred during the war, which was one of the most expensive in human history at the time. The British government went into the red to the tune of £130 million, or about $28 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted economy. That is an amount equal to about half of what the United States spent alone to purchase updated fighter planes in 2008, and a large drop in the bucket compared to that year’s Department of Defense budget of about $481 billion. But in 1765 that was more than the British taxpayer had ever spent on national defense, and even though there were tangible benefits to the average British subject in the Mother Country (for example, continued trade with America and a steady stream of commodities and products from the colonies) the fighting had protected Americans who were British subjects. Charles Townshend,

Charles Townshend in a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Charles Townshend in a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

one of the wizards of the account books attempting to develop a comprehensive financial plan for the empire’s defense, asked “… Now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence, till they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?” Between 1763 and 1775, nearly 4 percent of the British national budget was spent on maintaining an army in North America. The general sense in Britain was the American colonists should pay for their own protection, both past and ongoing.

However, there was fierce opposition from the American colonists, a response that left many in Parliament dumbfounded. The politically tone-deaf response of the king’s ministers to this opposition helps explain why the Stamp Act Crisis has been called the match that lit the fuse of the American Revolution. A post-war depression had left Americans strapped for hard cash – in short, they did not have the money to pay the tax. Standing laws such as the Sugar Act and Parliament’s limits on how much pound sterling could circulate in the colonies compounded the money shortage. The use of paper in a literate, commercial society was almost universal, and a tax on such commonly used items was sure to spark protest from every level of colonial society. Playing cards were taxed, so sailors looking to relax in port (often a rowdy bunch to begin with) would pay more for a friendly game of cards. Lawyers, by definition the most contentious and argumentative people in the colonies, had a new reason to pick a fight with the government. Newspaper owners, the makers of opinion, had cause to editorialize bitterly against the Stamp Act. Colonial merchants, who were the lifeblood of the British economic system, had even more excuses to flout the Navigation Acts through smuggling in order to make up profit losses. There even was the suspicion that the king’s ministers and MPs really believed that the Americans simply had too many economic opportunities, civil liberties, universities, and freedom for a part of the realm that should remember its place and submit to its betters. However, the crux of the matter was simple: They had been taxed without their permission. Even colonial opponents of the Stamp Act acknowledge that Parliament had a right to tax the British people, but the colonists had been allowed for almost 100 years to raise taxes through their colonial assemblies, the source of local government in the king’s name. “No taxation without representation” became the outcry of people whose organized opposition challenged the authority of the most powerful nation in the world at the time.

One of the most impressive accomplishments that emerged from this colonial unity was the Stamp Act Congress. In October 1765, nine colonies sent representatives to the city of New York. The political energy and momentum that the 27 delegates represented is nearly unprecedented in colonial American history, eclipsed only by the first and second Continental Congress. Strongly motivated by legitimate fear that the Stamp Act threatened colonial self-rule, the Massachusetts House led the way by calling for a colony-wide meeting to discuss a unified response, which eventually included resolutions defining the colony’s right to raise their own taxes and a petition calling on Parliament to acknowledge that body could not govern the colonies because of the great distance between Great Britain and America. Even the colonies absent from the Stamp Act Congress held assembly members who chafed on restrictions to their participation. The only reason Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia failed to send delegates was the royal governors had refused to call the assemblies into session so they could hold a vote to appoint delegates. Faced with the same dilemma, the assemblies in Delaware and New Jersey ignored their governor’s boycott of the Stamp Act Congress, gathered a few members to meet informally, and voted representatives who were sent to the Congress. New Hampshire sent no delegates, but approved of the Congress’ actions after the fact. No wonder Ceasar Rodney, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate from Delaware, called the Stamp Act Congress “an Assembly of the greatest Ability I ever yet saw.”

Concurrent with this Congress, and rising more rapidly after the submission of petitions from the Stamp Act Congress failed to convince Parliament to rescind the Stamp Act taxes, was the mobilization of the forces of protest. Just as it had led the call for a political solution to the Stamp Act crisis, Massachusetts led the way in organized opposition. Boston was a seaport town loaded with unruly sailors, aggrieved lawyers, struggling merchants, pamphlet and newspaper publishers, and ordinary folk who all had the most

A contemporary portrayal of Boston rioters protesting the Stamp Act.

A contemporary portrayal of Boston rioters protesting the Stamp Act.

to lose through the imposition of the Stamp Act taxes on paper products, and many of these people were brewing a fight in the streets. Groups such as the Loyal Nine, a committee of men drawn from the ranks of the artisans and shopkeepers, began to plan public protests that would coincide with the first day that the act came into effect. This group soon expanded into the Sons of Liberty, a wildly successful protest movement that saw chapters spring up throughout the colonies, although the group is most associated with Boston. The Sons of Liberty raised political agitation to high art, sponsoring actions ranging from petitions calling for the end of the Stamp Act to boycotts of British goods to outright intimidation of British officials and their families. Their tactics included hanging the royal tax collector Andrew Oliver in effigy; destroying the Boston home of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor, by ransacking his residence and then burning it to the ground; and tarring and feathering royal tax collectors, a particularly gruesome form of public humiliation that scalded the naked body of the hapless victim from head to toe with hot tar, then rolled the man in bird feathers. Throughout the career of the Sons of Liberty the organization enjoyed the quiet blessing of the well-to-do and politically active that backed (or participated in) the Stamp Act Congress. In essence, the Sons of Liberty became the enforcement arm of the American cause against Parliament’s taxation of the colonists, exercising extralegal but very effective force on behalf of the aims and goals of the Stamp Act Congress.

Eventually, the protests and petitions had their effects. American boycotts alone drove many British merchants to despair, and they begged members of Parliament to rescind the tax so trade between Great Britain and America would resume. None other than William Pitt the Elder, one of the greatest statesmen in British history, condemned the Stamp Act, reminding his fellow M.P.s America’s true source of wealth to the British Empire was found in trade, not taxes. In 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act with the king’s blessing.

But the Stamp Act Crisis was a prologue to how the colonies would approach the question of independence nearly ten years later. Many colonists kept alive the assertion of their rights that they had claimed during the years 1765-1766, defying the principle stated in the Declaratory Act that Parliament alone had the right to rule them in all cases. The Sons of Liberty remained a viable political organization in the colonies, celebrating the anniversary of the Stamp Act repeal until the beginning of the American Revolution.

Franklin learned the power of American unity during the Stamp Act Crisis.

Franklin learned the power of American unity during the Stamp Act Crisis.

In 1775, the men who once went to a congress called because of the Stamp Act crisis had learned their lesson. Much water in the political and historical sense had passed under the bridge by the time the Second Continental Congress met and then eventually considered and approved a Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, the unity Americans achieved during the Revolution and the years after was hardly unchallenged or undermined by the competing factions inside or outside of Congress. (In fact, the search for “a more perfect union” remains a hallmark of the American experiment to this day.) Finally, perhaps 20 percent of the population never supported the Revolution, remaining loyal to Great Britain. However, the supporters of the Revolution and independence knew that their enemies not only expected chaos and disunity when America declared independence – they planned on capitalizing on it as part of their war-fighting strategy. Once the Continental Congress accepted the idea of a Declaration of Independence, proponents of independence realized that only a unanimous vote of approval would be acceptable. If even one colony rejected the Declaration, it would indicate that the American cause lacked the support of an entire nation and that their hopes were fractured from the very beginning. Nothing less than survival hinged on that unity. As Benjamin Franklin reportedly quipped while signing the Declaration, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”


Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

The Housekeeper Did It

Good news from Philadelphia: A stolen 18th-century bust of Benjamin Franklin was recovered yesterday by the FBI. I wrote about its theft in a previous post. In a caper straight out of a game of Clue, the alleged thief is a housekeeper who reportedly stole the bust from its owner.What the perp was thinking, God only knows. Where do you fence a hot Houdon? The bust is a true likeness as well as a true work of art, so I rejoice in it return.  See the link above for details.

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September 25, 2012 · 8:54 pm

Ben Franklin Declared A Well-Dressed Man

One of Benjamin Franklin’s numerous roles during the American Revolution was his service as an ambassador to France on behalf of the Continental Congress. One of the reasons he advocated independence was his firm (and correct) belief that France would be more inclined to support an independent nation fighting against Great Britain rather injecting itself a rebellion or civil war. Already the only American any sophisticated European would have known, the world-famous Dr. Franklin knew how to dress well. The link above is a story about the Smithsonian acquiring his original silk suit that he wore as part of his diplomatic wardrobe. In addition, there is also mention that a Houdon sculpture of Franklin remains missing after a theft. That is heart-breaking news for me since I am a fan of the sculpture and I have repeatedly seen one of the four versions by the celebrated French sculptor. I hope for the sake of history and art lovers it reappears soon.

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August 31, 2012 · 9:50 pm

“Gentleman” Was More Than A Word On A Restroom Door

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

To some, it might seem naïve or even déclassé to honor the document’s closing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” We are a more secular age, and for many (particularly our opinion makers) patriotism is a suspect idea – many in academe say it smacks of “triumphalism,” an irrational belief in the superiority of the American experience. Much has been said in recent decades regarding the short-comings of the Revolutionary generation; much of it has been enlightening, even brilliant; some of it seems reflective of the anger and cynicism of academics who have in the words of the historian David Hackett Fischer “lost interest in liberty and freedom.” Fischer reminds those who write American history that “to lose touch with liberty and freedom is to condemn themselves to complete irrelevance in American and the world,” an intellectual failure that “severely weakened their own causes and done grave injury to public discourse and civic spirit in the United States.” It is worth remembering that with all their faults, their sometimes faltering steps toward representative democracy, and their contradictions expressed in word and deed, the men and women who trusted in the words of the Declaration of Independence had no idea whether the words it contained would survive to transform their lives in a nation that survived long enough to secure the Declaration’s promises. Some of them risked everything they held dear because of the side they chose. Some of us today might be uncomfortable with traditional admiration for a risky attempt at gaining a nation based on freedom and liberty. The Founders did not have the luxury of hindsight or a long-established nation that would have offered them the privilege to cynically appraise the sincerity of their actions.

In order to secure the claims for the American people promised in the Declaration of Independence, the United States needed to win a war against the greatest imperial power of the times. That imperial power possessed the best-trained equipped army of the time, backed by the best equipped and largest navy in the world. All of this military might was backed by the strongest system of public finance in the world and supported by at least 1/5 of the population of the 13 American colonies. The American Revolution was nothing less than a fight for national survival. Unless the Americans secured through warfare an independent state with the ability to govern themselves under their own authority and under their own laws, the republican philosophy of self-government, political equality, natural rights, and Whig tradition of expanding freedoms summarized in the Declaration would remain what had been in Europe, namely interesting political theory that was much debated, but little practiced. America’s success in this venture hinged on a war fought while facing long odds. We often forget how outlandish the proposition called “The United States of America” appeared in the 1770s to many other Americans and the political class of the 18th-century world. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won; American prisoners of war were often treated with cruelty; American women were often assaulted by British troops; Valley Forge is a by-word in American history for an army that suffered and died. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Gage’s forces sent to Lexington and Concord had orders to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both signers of the Declaration. Internet hagiography regarding the signers and their supposed sufferings abound, but it is a fact signers such as John Hart (a delegate from New Jersey) had his home burnt to the ground in the dead of winter by British forces, killing his children in the flames. Another New Jersey delegate, the Rev. John Witherspoon (then the president of what became Princeton University) had his library purposely destroyed by British soldiers who torched Nassau Hall. He spent most of his income on reconstruction efforts for the college after the war, nearly going broke. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginiawho said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.

Keeping those facts in mind, it is not hard to imagine how the revolutionary generation placed their lives and fortunes at stake. They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 232 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-centuryAmerica had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer,Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document.

Honor meant much to these men, too. They rejoiced in the title “gentleman,” a word that we today simply place on restroom doors. Good name, reputation, and status mattered because these qualities were the basis of their place in society. Honor mattered because they saw life as a public drama where you could be praised or blamed for your actions that were played out in front of the world, and the wrong choice could mark you for life as someone not worthy of the word “gentleman.”  Like any human beings, they had enormous flaws and their lives were often a contradiction of the ideals they followed. Yet, at least they aspired to those ideals, a quality singularly lacking even in recent American presidents, members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, and sports figures. When they signed the Declaration they jeopardized what the world would think of their character, morality, and integrity. However, they considered it the right thing to do, and they often described how to continue doing the right thing to the younger generation that came in their wake. Thomas Jefferson, writing to his nephew Peter Carr, gave him this advice:

When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these, then, your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.

Honor was also very much part of the literary culture of the English language, the mother tongue that the Founders still adored even if they could no longer love the realm that gave them their cultural and intellectual birth. Among the three men most instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – many things bound them together, including a shared love of the works of William Shakespeare. Adams quoted him frequently in his writings and letters to his wife Abigail; Franklin ensured that the Philadelphia lending library had adequate copies of the Bard’s complete works; and Jefferson, a lifelong lover of theater, read Shakespeare’s plays his entire life and kept several editions of his complete works in his library at Monticello.  Perhaps the three men would have agreed that like Henry V in his namesake play, honor was worth the hazard when the cause was right, even if they and their cause stood in the shadow of overwhelming force and long odds.

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

They did not die in 1776, nor did the revolution they helped bring to the world. It was won only through one ofAmerica’s longest wars, fought against the global superpower of the age, based on political theories that up to the time had only enjoyed intellectual debate rather than practical application. Their honor was intact because they kept their promise: They created a nation where ordinary people could govern themselves because they made liberty and freedom their standard; they offered an asylum to the world searching for freedom and opportunity; and they set an example for all humankind that tolled the end of empires and the beginning of nations.

We should honor them.


Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

Spring Forward, Fall Back? Blame It On Benjamin Franklin

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by French artist Joseph-Siffred Duplessis

Daylight Saving Time begins tomorrow at 2 a.m. The annual ritual allows us to enjoy evening sunshine or causes us to miss appointments because of unchanged clocks, depending on your point of view. Like so many innovations, the idea was originally hatched by Benjamin Franklin, super-genius of colonial and revolutionary America and one of the members of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

While in Paris in 1784 as the U.S. ambassador to France, Franklin first developed the notion of daylight saving time. He wrote that he was awakened early and was surprised that the sun was up well before his usual noontime rising. He humorously described how he checked the time of sunrise during the next two days and determined that the sun actually did rise earlier than he thought. Like so many of his ideas, it was born out of Franklin’s whimsy. How many candles could be saved if people awakened earlier?  In order to encourage this cost-cutting plan, he suggested firing cannons in each town square at dawn “to wake the sluggards and open their eyes to their true interest.” Poor Richard was obviously interested in encouraging “early to bed and early to rise” by forcing the French to awaken with a bang.

Author David Prerau has written extensively about Daylight Saving Time in his interesting book Seize the Daylight. It might make great bedtime reading this evening. But, don’t forget to set your clocks correctly. I doubt if Franklin will be outside your house early Sunday morning, ready to fire cannon as a reminder.


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