Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Treasonous Loyalty: Benjamin Franklin, the Intolerable Acts, and the National Debt by Pearson Moore

He is inventor, diplomat, statesman, author. Skilled in the craft of negotiation, unequalled in the art of courtship and love. If we understand any of the founding fathers, surely we know him—his temperament, his beliefs, his motivations—better than any of the men whose vision, resolve, and oratory united colonists of disparate purpose into a single mind. Yet, in flagrant challenge to our long-held beliefs, the greatest of the architects of rebellion considered himself first of all an Englishman. Deeper, bewildering shocks await as we peer into this man’s life, accomplishments, and failures.

Following through history the cascade of events he set in motion late in the summer of 1774, we are not surprised to hear the shot heard ‘round the world on April 19, 1775, nor see with our own eyes the unanimous declaration he and his congressional colleagues signed a year later, during the hot summer days of July, 1776. Perhaps, though, we are not only surprised, but shocked, to learn that this printer from Philadelphia—this Englishman—was almost single-handedly responsible for a greater number of American deaths and a deeper obligation of debt than any single person prior to the 1980s. In fact, it is specifically because of the engrained Englishness of him that the American Revolution did not end in the spring of 1777, but instead engulfed the new United States, four European countries, and seven North American First Nations in a war that dragged on for eight and a half years, and became the inexorable trajectory that led to the French Revolution six years later, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, and the debt crisis of the early 21st century. It is because Benjamin Franklin embodied an oxymoron—because of his treasonous loyalty—that French, not American English, to this very day is spoken in Montréal, Sherbrooke, and Québec, and the Stars and Stripes flies neither in Vancouver nor in Toronto.

The Englishman

The famous woodcut above does not represent a newly-patriotic Benjamin Franklin calling for united resistance to British overlords during the Revolutionary War, but rather a much younger Franklin’s appeal to fellow Englishmen to gather behind an earlier, but no less urgent, common cause. Franklin’s stirring call to arms was not issued in 1775, nor even in the Stamp Act days of 1765. Franklin created the woodcut in the early spring of 1754 (the version above was embellished by Samuel Kneeland of the Boston Gazette and published in May of that year) not in response to British tyranny, but in reply to French attempts to secure the continent. The tone of Franklin’s oratory and written discourse was strongly in keeping with Kneeland’s sentiment, expressed by the scroll emanating from the snake’s open mouth: Unite and Conquer. Unite against Canada, and conquer the French.

Franklin spoke of Frenchmen as representing a race distinct and inferior from the civilized humanity found only among gentlemen obedient to the British monarch. The French had strange laws and customs, the unnatural and subordinate nature of which was proven by French Canadians’ perverse ability to bring an entire continent of savages to their cause, which Franklin understood to be the removal of English colonies from what was otherwise a continent owned entirely by France. Franklin’s way of looking at the long conflict in the 1750s has carried through to modern times, though we no longer think of the French as members of a distinct “race,” and we are not as likely to refer to Native Americans as “savages.” Nevertheless, our interpretation of the events of that time is distinctly American, as indicated by the name we apply to the conflict. While historians in Europe and Canada know the battles of 1750s North America as The Seven Years’ War, American historians refer to the conflict as “The French and Indian Wars.”

Franklin’s energy and passion in rallying opposition to the French was no sideline in a life otherwise devoted to scientific investigation. His early immersion in science was not the sign of any infatuation with disembodied objectivity, but indication of a deeper sense of social propriety. Political and social intercourse in his mind were paramount to the fullest expression of humanity. He believed in the widest possible expression of arts and sciences, as long as creativity and industry were tempered by the greater call to civility and cohesive society. France, to Franklin, was an impediment both to human freedom and to proper social order.

Social health could only be achieved in a milieu which rewarded those who lived life according to natural laws. English customs were superior to all others in this regard, since rewards were not only possible, but could be expected to accrue to those who led virtuous lives. No such rewards were possible under French custom and law, in Franklin’s mind. In the colonies, and in England, there were gentlemen and commoners. In France, on the other hand, there were peasants and nobles. Franklin had started life a commoner, and in fact, one of the last of seventeen children born to a soap maker, he was not expected to have any impact on society. But Franklin early on recognized the immutable underpinnings of English culture, and applied himself in earnest to the task of rising from the anonymous ranks of common men to become a respected and even revered English gentleman. He knew instinctively that such a rise in social standing would never have been possible had he been born into the highly stratified and stagnant French socio-political system, and he came to despise French custom as destructive of the human spirit. Once a peasant, always a peasant, always under the crushing thumb of hereditary nobility. In the freedom-loving British Empire, on the other hand, social position was a matter of individual initiative.

The French and their corrupt, degrading society engulfed the North American continent. Franklin found this reality stifling, threatening, and entirely unacceptable. To the north of the Great Lakes and west of the Appalachian Mountains, Québec and her Indian allies controlled every river, hill, and valley. Further west and to the south, Louisiana controlled the continent as far inland as it had been explored.

Franklin rose quickly in the political world. Starting as a Philadelphia councilman in 1748, by 1751, largely as a result of his anti-French writings, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He was one of the most ardent supporters of colonial action against the French, and became the most vocal architect and champion of the goals of the Albany Congress in 1754, to which he led Pennsylvania’s delegation. When the Albany Plan of 1754 failed to gain colonial approval, he refused to accept the will of the people, and considered other options. Early in 1756, he rallied Pennsylvania residents and personally raised and supported a militia (“The Associated Regiment of Philadelphia”) to fight the French.

It was in this context that Franklin left for the Motherland in the mid-1760s. He had already been to England a few times to petition for various legal remedies to colonial concerns, but this time he stayed for several years. He became so oblivious to problems back in the colonies that upon passage of the hated Stamp Act, he nominated a friend to serve as administrator of the program in Pennsylvania. His acquiescence to arbitrary British taxation made him a sudden enemy among the common people of his colony. He had to work for several years to convince his fellow colonists that he was not indifferent to the plight of the politically disenfranchised citizens of Pennyslvania. During this period, Franklin’s disposition toward the colonies is not entirely clear. One truth that is easily discerned, though, is Dr. Franklin’s attitude toward England: He loved his new home, and more than anything else, he enjoyed living the life of an English gentleman.

The Intolerable Acts

Depending on the historian one consults, the Stamp Act is considered either the second of the Intolerable Acts (the Sugar Act being the first) or a hated precursor to the truly intolerable legislation passed in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act were Parliament’s response to the uncivilized rabble-rousers who took their orders from Samuel Adams and twenty-eight-year-old Benjamin Rush. Franklin was by this time writing and speaking out against the oppression of the colonies by Parliament, but he was quite clear in his contention that the value of the tea had to be reimbursed. He continued to see himself as a gentlemanly representative of clear thinking and reasoned discourse who might be employed in diplomatic capacities to bridge misunderstandings between Parliament, the Royal Court, and the colonies. He had been serving in such a capacity for the better part of twenty years, having spent nearly half of that time living in England. He must have felt there was no reason he could not continue to serve as valued intermediary, even as Adams and his fellow conspirators began stockpiling arms for what they believed was an inevitable confrontation.
The four acts of Parliament directed squarely at Boston—the epicenter of the American rebellion—are collectively referred to as the Coercive Acts. They are known by this title to historians in both the US and the UK, and there is no question in any accepted history regarding their nature as instruments of political and legal coercion.

The broader appellation of “Intolerable” is applied to these acts, but many historians include in this designation the final parliamentary act of June, 1774: The Quebec Act. When Franklin learned of the act, he did not argue that the British Parliament had simply misunderstood conditions on the North American continent. He did not, as he did in the case of the Boston Tea Party, insist that anyone in Québec who had suffered injustice at colonial hands be reimbursed. Any inclination he might have had toward diplomacy, reconciliation with Britain, or resignation to parliamentary fiat evaporated as soon as he received word of the abominable law.

The Quebec Act granted citizens of the newly-conquered territory (won on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759, and codified into law by the Treaty of Paris, 1763) extraordinary rights not even extended to the English-speaking colonists. The people of Québec were allowed to speak, write, and conduct all business, whether personal, public, or official, in the French language. French Canadians were allowed to retain their Roman Catholic faith and serve in His Majesty’s government. Worst of all, the Act reinstated the French system of laws. With a single act of Parliament, French language, culture, religion, and law were made legal and permanent fixtures within the confines of British North America.

“Intolerable” was probably the only word Franklin could use in polite company to describe his feelings about this bill. French culture meant doing business with and inciting to crime the native savages who stood ready to scalp children, rape women, and kill men. French law meant any legal act that could be considered an affront to civilized Englishmen. Franklin must have wondered if the members of Parliament had all lost their minds. Perhaps if he had grown up in another colony—a colony much closer to England—he might have understood.

The primary architect of the legislation was not a member of Parliament, but the Governor General of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton (made First Baron Dorchester in 1786, despite losing the colonies in the 1775-1783 rebellion). Governor Carleton added his voice to that of the former Governor of Canada, James Murray, in calling for the institution of rights peculiar to French Canada. Carleton was not English, but Irish, having been born in Strabane in 1724. This fact is critical, because it explains Carleton’s passionate drive for Canadian rights. Only thirty years before Carleton’s birth, Britain enacted the Ascendancy Laws, essentially making Roman Catholicism a crime in Ireland and rendering adherents to the Roman faith something less than second-class citizens. Carleton saw first-hand, every day, the demoralizing and violent repercussions emanating from Parliament’s inhumane treatment of his friends, relatives, and fellow Irish countrymen. Though he made no public statements to the effect, he must have been entirely resolved to preventing this type of administrative abuse. As Governor General of Canada, he enjoyed perfect placement for shaping of legislation favorable to the Roman Catholics living under his control. With conditions in and around Boston deteriorating by the week, it must have seemed entirely prudent to Parliament to take any steps necessary to prevent a continent-wide insurrection.

They could not have known that in so doing, they had alienated from their cause their most ardent supporter: Philadelphia’s most famous Englishman, Benjamin Franklin. More English than Thou, Franklin could never accept Parliament’s proclamation that French-speaking thieves, criminals, and drunkards were to be granted social standing equal to his own. His unswerving loyalty to England—or rather, to his understanding of England—caused him to join the cause to throw off the yoke of the motherland. In the summer of 1774, after reading the law Guy Carleton had fashioned and pushed through Parliament, Benjamin Franklin became the most determined foe of all things British. His loyalty led to his treason.

The National Debt

The shots fired at Lexington and Concord (for those of you enamored of my fellow Minnesotan, Michelle Bachman, Lexington and Concord were towns in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire!) must have seemed a blessing to Franklin. As soon as the Continental Congress received the reports, Franklin went into action. He knew Great Britain had virtually inexhaustible resources. The French were non-committal to the patriots’ cause, probably because they realized the situation was essentially hopeless. There was yet one way to even the field of battle: Take every port in North America away from the British. If the British had no port, they could land neither soldiers nor matériel; they would lose the war in a short matter of months.

The goal was not unreasonable. In fact, Franklin realized it was a practical, achievable objective. All the Patriots had to do, he realized, was to control Québec. If they could rally Canadians to the patriot cause, England would have no friendly ports in North America, and the United Colonies would be able to dictate any terms they wished.

It must have seemed a stroke of genius. The Continental Congress commissioned the publication and distribution of thousands of French-language pamphlets throughout the Province of Québec. It was a propaganda drive unparalleled in history, with dozens of French-speaking spies sent north to spread news of the Patriot cause and the tremendous benefits to be enjoyed by those who supported the revolution.

The early results were stunning. Montréal fell without a fight. When General Montgomery entered the city, he was welcomed as a conquering hero, even though his men had fired not a single musket. The pamphlets and spies had done their work very well indeed. There is quite a rich field for storytelling here, as one might imagine. My second novel, Intolerable Loyalty, follows the intrigues of one such spy, sent by Samuel Adams to turn Canada. I hope to publish Intolerable Loyalty later this year.

The spies were not able to sustain their early success. By the time General Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold (his treason was five years in the future) converged on Québec City, resistance was stiff, from both British Regulars and from ordinary French Canadian citizens. Within weeks of the Battle of Québec (December 31, 1775), French Canadians had formed citizen militias to battle the Americans.
The failure was not military in nature. The Patriots could have sent ten times as many soldiers, they could have sent every weapon owned by anyone in the thirteen colonies—they still would have lost. Why?

The problem rested with the architect of the strategy. Benjamin Franklin had demonstrated nothing but contempt for the French, and especially for French Canadians, for more than a quarter of a century. His writings on Canada and the Ohio Territories were widely read, and his views on French language, culture, and law were well understood. When the Patriots invaded, they brought Franklin’s view of French inferiority with them.

Benjamin Franklin made one final, desperate attempt in May, 1776. While his colleagues in the Continental Congress were debating the question of independence, Franklin was in Montréal, sitting across the table from Roman Catholic bishops and leaders of Canadian industry and the French Canadian resistance. His words were eloquent, his manner was charming, but he was perceived as insincere. If Franklin had been able to convince the Canadians of his sincerity, rather than proposing legislation in Congress to ban the French language and then saying weeks later in Montréal how much he adored spoken French, the Patriots might have enjoyed some leverage. As it was, the British had granted rights and privileges not even bestowed upon the English-speaking colonists. “We have no quarrel with His Majesty’s government,” the bishops and business leaders told Franklin. By the end of May, 1776, Canadian militias and British Regulars had chased every Patriot soldier and diplomat out of the province.

The war went on for nearly ten years. It was not cheap. People like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and several of the founding fathers spent the better part of the war traveling around Europe, begging for money to continue the revolution. Massive debt was taken on. Even by the end of the “Second War of Independence” in 1815, the debt from the Revolutionary War had not been paid off. European benefactors eventually received payment in full, but new debt replaced the old. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the country faced a debt so large as to defy payment. If the nation had been a corporation, it would have faced dissolution or bankruptcy. The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed three years after the end of the Civil War, addressed the problem of debt: “The validity of the public debt of the United States... shall not be questioned.” Certainly the Civil War would have put the country into debt, regardless of the length of the Revolutionary War. But if the War of Independence had lasted two years, not eight and a half, the debt would have been miniscule rather than overpowering. The debt, of course, has never been paid down. The legacy of debt we have struggled with for over two hundred years has its origin in the ineffectual diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin.
Thanks to Franklin, French Canadians were never converted to the American cause. Years later, in 1812, Thomas Jefferson committed the same error of judgment that had doomed Franklin’s Canada initiative. The subjugation of Canada, Jefferson wrote in 1812, was “a mere matter of marching.” The United States, ten times larger and possessing military might a hundred times greater than that of Canada, could simply walk in and take the British province. But in 1812, as in 1776, Canada repulsed the invaders. Canadians do not see the world as Americans do, and certainly not as Benjamin Franklin saw the world. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s would never have occurred if French Canada had succumbed to diplomats more sincere than Franklin, because Montréal and Québec would not be part of Canada, they would be English-speaking states in the United States of America.

New Light On Old History

To a student of history, nothing about historical research is boring. Every primary text comes to life in our hands, because we have studied the rich, nuanced, unbelievably complex circumstances of its creation. We are always discovering valid, intriguing ways of shedding new light, new interpretations on worn and accepted ideas.

I hope you found this re-examination of Benjamin Franklin both troubling and challenging. If you found yourself shocked, confused, or angry over these words, I succeeded in my objective, which was to coerce you into thinking new thoughts about some old ideas. In the end, I do not believe Benjamin Franklin was a failure, or the locus of sufferings felt into the 21st century. As with anyone of his time, he enjoyed both successes and failures, and he certainly caused some degree of suffering, personally, socially, and militarily, but such is the legacy of even the most successful and admired of political leaders. Franklin was a leader among leaders, a rare man whose talent in dozens of fields outshines some of the best to have achieved in any one of the areas he mastered. But I see my task as an historian, and especially as a novelist, to look at history with a fresh eye, and to relay that history to you, my readers, with the greatest passion I can bring to my words. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey into the life and times—and passion—of the greatest of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

Pearson Moore
September 13, 2011

Pearson is the author of Cartier’s Ring, an action-adventure historical novel telling the story of first contact from a Native American point of view.

Cartier's Ring, ebook edition: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004VMTS7E/
Cartier's Ring, paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Cartiers-Ring-Canada-Pearson-Moore/dp/1463575777/