The Revolutionary

This post continues our series on the useful and eminent American National Biography. I’ve been supplying you with brief biographical sketches gleaned right out of said work, and you have been fruitlessly attempting to find the answers on Wikipedia.

Last we exchanged words I put to you this:

As a young man, this Bostonian autodidact saved money for books by flirting with vegetarianism. But having soon made a confounded nuisance of himself, he fled to a place far from anyone who knew him, set up shop, and made a comfortable living. Later, despite repeated attempts to settle in London, he ended up joining the American rebellion at the age of seventy.

And it’s possible that you have since guessed the name of the man, because he has been quoted recently in respect to the ongoing scandal of the American and British intelligence gathering practices. The answer, of course, is Benjamin Franklin, who said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This is now being used to suggest that those who clamor for a military-intelligence-legal complex capable of eradicating every terrorist threat (or perceived threat) to come shouldn’t wonder at the brutal, totalitarian regime they end up with.

The Americans won their revolution largely because it was a very expensive war for the British to fight.

The Americans won their revolution largely because it was a very expensive war for the British to fight.

Franklin, I might point out, said this in 1755 — as a colonial Englishman, not as an American. The historical context was that violent raids were occurring on the western frontier of Pennsylvania, and the people wished to raise money for the defense of the colony. The Penns, having abandoned their father’s Quakerism and returned to a spoiled life in London, were the largest landowners. They flatly refused to be taxed. (It was an example of the mighty operating outside the law and skirting any social obligation.) The local Philadelphia government set itself to pressing the Penns, but this was a dangerous game. The Penns could, if they wished, decide to remove some or all of the colonists’ ability to self-govern. In effect, the Penns had the power to operate as tyrants (or, perhaps more accurately, as powerful shareholders) if they felt it necessary to maintain control. So Franklin was saying that, since the frontiersmen had been armed already and had what they needed for their own defense, they did not wish the city politicians to pursue the matter further — at risk of incurring some legal wrath of the almighty Penns.

"The Colonies Reduced" -- Franklin's political cartoon showing what Britannia would be without her colonies.

“The Colonies Reduced” — Franklin’s political cartoon showing what Britannia would be without her colonies.

The Penns proved to be rather intractable shareholders and within a few years Franklin was in London arguing that Pennsylvania should be taken from them and put under royal administration. I guess his thinking was that the king had an interest in the welfare of the empire, whereas the Penns cared only for themselves. As it turned out, Franklin misread the sentiment in London. Parliament had won a long, hard battle curtailing the power of the king, it wasn’t going to cede any back, and it looked arrogantly down on the backwoods settlers in the colonies. What funny ideas they had about colonialism: as if the colonies were in some way equal to the motherland! Franklin’s limited mission became a sixteen-year sojourn in the heart of the empire and ended with the outbreak of civil war — the American Revolution.

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