|This Week in History
January 17-23, 1706
Ben Franklin Wishes All Nations Well, but Attacks Britain with Cutting Irony
January 17 marks the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin (born 1706), a man who wished all of humanity well, and who backed up that wish by actions which helped ensure humanity's well-being even into the present century. While he helped develop many of the underpinnings of modern life, such as electricity, flight, and steam power, not to mention his crucial role in the founding of the United States of America, Franklin is popularly portrayed as a practical tinkerer whose wisdom is supposedly reflected in the aphorisms of Poor Richard's Almanack.
Actually, a good part of Franklin's genius consisted of being able to see beyond the appearance of things, into the intentions and forms which actually shaped them. One of the ways in which Franklin demonstrated this ability was his use of satire and irony. During Franklin's time, Great Britain heaped one short-sighted policy after another on the American colonies, policies which would also eventually injure Britain herself. Did this mean that the British policy-makers were stupid and crazy? Some of them, perhaps.
But the British oligarchs were also operating within a characteristic worldview which caused them to experience a fear reaction whenever they sensed a spurt of rapid population growth in their colonies. This was not simply a matter of fearing that their colonies would soon outnumber their fiefdom of Britain. It was more basic: the conditions favorable to population growth also engendered a sense of optimism; a dawning realization of the existence of a future of expanding possibilities. That realization meant that men would no longer tolerate being treated as animals.
British policy was founded on the basic tenet that most men were merely animals; some to be treated as wild animals and others as domestic animals. Both Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin dealt with the assumptions made by this policy, and took them to their seemingly outrageous but actually logical conclusions. Franklin had been educated and sponsored by members of Swift's republican network, and his satires, although slightly more genial, were worthy successors to his mentor.
Swift had written "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public." In the midst of the grinding poverty and starvation due to British policy in Ireland, Swift proposed that the children of the poor be slaughtered like animals at the age of one to provide gourmet dishes for the wealthy, and thus they would also provide a possible income for their parents as well as a debt instrument for their landlords if the parents were behind in their rent payments.
Franklin took on the same policy outlook in a satire which he wrote after the British had closed the Port of Boston and the other colonies had sent food to prevent the citizens of Boston from starving. He published it in London's The Public Advertiser on May 21, 1774, under the title "A Method of Humbling Rebellious American Vassals," but it is more familiarly known as "The Sow-Gelders."
In the character of a British "Freeholder," Franklin begins: "Permit me, thro' the Channel of your Paper, to convey to the Premier, by him to be laid before his Mercenaries, our Constituents, my own Opinion, and that of many of my Brethren, Freeholders of this imperial Kingdom, of the most feasible Method of humbling our rebellious Vassals of North America. As we have declared by our Representatives that we are the supreme Lords of their Persons and Property, and their occupying our Territory at such a remote Distance without a proper Controul from us, except at a very great Expence, encourages a mutinous Disposition, and may, if not timely prevented, dispose them in perhaps less than a Century to deny our Authority, slip their Necks out of the Collar, and from being Slaves set up for Masters, more especially when it is considered that they are a robust, hardy People, encourage early Marriages, and their Women being amazingly prolific, they must of consequence in 100 Years be very numerous, and of course be able to set us at Defiance.
"Effectually to prevent which, as we have an undoubted Right to do, it is humbly proposed, and we do hereby give it as Part of our Instructions to our Representatives, that a Bill be brought in and passed, and Orders immediately transmitted to G[enera]l G[ag]e, our Commander in Chief in North America, in consequence of it, that all the Males there be c[a]st[rat]ed. He may make a Progress thro' the several Towns of North America at the Head of five Battalions, which we hear our experienced Generals, who have been consulted, think sufficient to subdue America if they were in open Rebellion; for who can resist the intrepid Sons of Britain, the Terror of France and Spain, and the Conquerors of America in Germany.
"Let a Company of Sow-gelders, consisting of 100 Men, accompany the Army. On their Arrival at any Town or Village, let Orders be given that on the blowing of the Horn all the Males be assembled in the Market Place. If the Corps are Men of Skill and Ability in their Profession, they will make great Dispatch, and retard but very little the Progress of the Army. There may be a Clause in the Bill to be left at the Discretion of the General, whose Powers ought to be very extensive, that the most notorious Offenders, such as Hancock, Adams &c. who have been the Ringleaders in the Rebellion of our Servants, should be shaved quite close.
"But that none of the Offenders may escape in the Town of Boston, let all the Males there suffer the latter Operation, as it will be conformable to the modern Maxim that is now generally adopted by our worthy Constituents, that it is better than ten innocent Persons should suffer than that one guilty should escape. It is true, Blood will be shed, but probably not many Lives lost. Bleeding to a certain Degree is salutary. The English, whose Humanity is celebrated by all the World, but particularly by themselves, do not desire the Death of the Delinquent, but his Reformation.
"The Advantages arising from this Scheme being carried into Execution are obvious. In the Course of fifty Years it is probable we shall not have one rebellious Subject in North America. This will be laying the Axe to the Root of the Tree. In the mean time a considerable Expence may be saved to the Managers of the Opera, and our Nobility and Gentry be entertained at a cheaper Rate by the fine Voices of our own C[a]st[rat]i, and the Specie remain in the Kingdom, which now, to an enormous Amount, is carried every Year to Italy.
"It might likewise be of Service to our Levant Trade, as we could supply the Grand Signor's Seraglio, and the Harams of the Grandees of the Turkish Dominions with Cargos of Eunuchs, as also with handsome Women, for which America is as famous as Circassia. I could enumerate many other Advantages. I shall mention but one: It would effectually put a Stop to the Emigrations from this Country now grown so very fashionable.
"No Doubt you will esteem it expedient that this useful Project shall have an early Insertion, that no Time may be lost in carrying it into Execution.
"I am, Mr. Printer, (for myself, and in Behalf of a Number of independent Freeholders of Great Britain), Your humble Servant, A FREEHOLDER OF OLD SARUM."