Thursday, May 14, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, II.V

Mr. Poor Richard, what do you mean when you say that America sought to create a virtue system by contrasting its theory of continuity based on creative responses to contingency to the traditionalism and customary continuity of its monarchic, English forebear?

It is certainly an oversimplification to suggest that the American political crisis was simply a revolutionary inveighing of the despotic activity of King George III. The detested Stamp Act, for example, was introduced and ratified by George Grenville and the Whig coalition of 1763, and the leaders of what would become the American revolutionary movement knew this. The King, in so far as the colonialists understood him to be embodiment of a dysfunctional political system, was held in contempt for being neither able to adequately control his newly received empire (after the Peace of Paris), nor able to stave the corrupting of the political system by interests inimical to notions of English liberty and right, to the colonialists in America claiming that liberty and those rights, and in the end even to himself and his empire. “The heart,” as Pocock puts it, “of the American problem for Britain was less the maintenance of imperial control than the preservation of essentially English institutions which the claims of empire were calling in question.” Cf. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, 1760–1815. (London 1960), 182-85; Pocock, “Political thought in the English-speaking Atlantic, 1760-1790, Part 1: The imperial crisis,” The Varieties of British political thought, 1500-1800, ed. J.G.A. Pocock (Cambridge 1993), 278; Pocock, “Political thought in the English-speaking Atlantic, 1760-1790, Part 2: Empire, revolution and the end of early modernity,” Ibid., 283-317; and Franklin’s note in the Autobiography (Part I, written 1771), excerpted from an editorial in the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 9, 1729: “by the Dictates of Reason there should be a mutual Dependence between the Governor and the Governed, and that to make any Governour independent of his People, would be dangerous, and destructive of their Liberties, and the ready Way to establish Tyranny… Their happy Mother Country will perhaps observe with Pleasure, that tho’ her gallant Cocks and matchless Dogs abate their native Fire and Intrepidity when transported to a Foreign Clime (as the common Notion is) yet her S O N S in the remotest Part of the Earth, and even to the third and fourth Descent, still retain that ardent Spirit of Liberty, and that undaunted Courage in the Defence of it, which has in every Age so gloriously distinguished B R I T O N S and E N G L I S H M E N from all the Rest of Mankind.” Autobiography, 50-51. In revolutionary rhetoric, in other words, the king became an easily contemptible symbol of a dysfunctional political system although the true menace had always been the dysfunctional political system, which the kingship represented.

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