Friday, May 15, 2009

Catechism on American Wealth: How it Works and Why to Read Ben Franklin, IX

Mr. Poor Richard, please go on.

The heart of the political crisis as Franklin received it seems to have been a perception that Britons on the opposite side of the Atlantic were not interested in creatively including the Britons on the Franklin’s side of the Atlantic in a shared futurity, but rather in keeping the American Britons perpetually in the present, to the unfair advantage of a futurity whose center and sole concern would always be the weal of those citizens in and near the metropolis, London.

As the events leading to the revolution in America escalated, Franklin repeatedly tried to promote the re-conceptualization of the colonies as included in and compartmental to English governance. The Crown, and the Parliamentary support system surrounding it, however, were making no effort to respond to the newly acquired contingency of vast Empire, and instead were relying the legitimation of their institutional structure upon dimensions of customary continuity and refutations of a shared, possibly different kind of futurity with the Britons in America.

Franklin saw the injustice of the Tax Act, for example, as an issue of improper exercise of power by one people over another when the two were supposed to be a united people. He anonymously published the following queries in The London Chronicle, August 16-18, 1768:

"QUERIES recommended to the Consideration of those Gentlemen who are for vigorous Measures with the Americans. 1. Have the Colonists refused to answer any reasonable requisitions made to their Assemblies by the Mother Country? 2. If they have not refused to grant reasonable aids in the way, which they think consistent with liberty, why must they be stripped of their property without their own consent, and in a way, which they think inconsistent with liberty? 3. What is it for a people to be enslaved and tributary, if this be not, viz. To be forced to give up their property at the arbitrary pleasure of persons, to whose authority they have not submitted themselves, nor chosen for the purpose of imposing taxes upon them? Wherein consisted the impropriety of King Charles’s demanding ship-money by his sole authority, but in its being an exercise of power by the King, which the people had not given the King? Have the people of America, as the people of Britain, by sending Representatives, consented to a power in the British Parliament to tax them? 4. Has not the British Parliament, by repealing the stamp act, acknowledged that they judged it improper? Is there any difference between the stamp act, and the act obliging the Americans to pay whatever we please, for articles which they cannot do without, as glass and paper? Is there any difference as to justice between our treatment of the Colonists, and the tyranny of the Carthaginians over their conquered Sardinians, when they obliged them to take all their corn from them, and at whatever price they pleased to set upon it? 5. If that be true, which is commonly said, viz. That the Mother Country gains two millions a year by the Colonies, would it not have been wiser to have gone on quietly in the happy way we were in, till our gains by those rising and flourishing countries should amount to three, four, or five millions a year, than by these new-fashioned vigorous measures to kill the goose which lays the golden eggs? Would it not have been better policy, instead of taxing our Colonists, to have done whatever we could to enrich them, and encourage them to take off our articles of luxury, on which we may put our own price, and thus draw them into paying us a voluntary tax; than deluge them in blood, thin their countries, empoverish and distress them, interrupt their commerce, force them on bankruptcy, by which our merchants must be ruined, or tempt them to emigrations, or alliances with our enemies? 6. The late war could not have been carried on without America, nor without Scotland? Have we treated America and Scotland in such a manner as is likely in future wars to encourage their zeal for the common cause? Or is England alone to be the Drawcansir of the world, and to bully not only her enemies, but her friends? 7. Are not the subjects of Britain concerned to check a ministry, who, by this rage of heaping taxes on taxes, are only drawing into their own hands more and more wealth and power, while they are hurting the commercial interest of the empire in general, at the same time that, amidst profound peace, the national debt and burden on the public continue undiminished?"

Americans, if truly within the British Empire, expected all rights and responsibilities to a political system that would account for them as equally invested political members. And the decisions made in London after the Peace of Paris seemed to be dispossessing Britons in America from their status as lawful Britons.

Franklin opposed the Stamp Act, but when it passed he reconciled himself to living with it. Only later, after seeing his countrymen incensed with the Acts, did he oppose it more vociferously than before, along with the 1764 Colonial Currency Act, which prohibited the colonials from paying debts to England in colonial currency, which had depreciated, and additionally from issuing more paper money.

Franklin made another attempt to conjoin the futures of Britons in England and those in America by proposing a paper currency printed in England by act of Parliament, backed by mortgage loan security, which would unite the peoples under a single money that would bear six percent interest for ten years, thus together amortizing the English national debt in terms fair to all. According to Franklin it was deemed too radical by the representatives of the Crown. But it seems that it was less a refutation of the radicalism of the idea and more that the English government was simply exhibiting a total indifference to the idea of a united monetary system or any kind of shared future with the Americans.

By 1774, he was sardonically writing to Lord North that, if the particular concerns of the colonies were not to be addressed, the English government might as well enslave and either work or sell the unruly Americans to prevent secession and procure the necessary funds to pay the national debt. North was said by Jefferson to have “betrayed an absolute indifference to the occurrence of a rupture.”

That same year Franklin assigned Joseph Galloway the task of drafting a constitution, which would detail the rights and duties Americans had as English citizens, including representation in Parliament, similar to a plan for union which Franklin had drafted in 1754 for Governor Shirley, in which:

“the people of great Britain and people of the colonies could lear[n] to consider themselves, not as belonging to different communities with different interests, but to one community with one interest, which I imagine would contribute to strengthen the whole, and greatly lessen the danger of future separations.” In the same letter Franklin asserted that there should be no difference in benefits for a smith or a hatter in old England or new—and furthermore, considering that the commercialists in America were contributing so much to the growth of the general English weal, they “ought rather to expect some preference.”

In a more radical formulation of similar logic, Franklin—following the demographic conclusions of his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” published in 1755—envisioned a future in which the population of Britons in America would exceed that of Britons in Britain to such a degree that the seat of the empire would have to be relocated across the Atlantic.

In contrast to an institutional structure of continuity, as provided by the British government to legitimate its immemorial, customary rule, Franklin was operating according to the factors of contingency and the changing dimensions of the actual political state of things. And, to motivate activity in the present, he was implementing the possibility of a new shared futurity, which the institutionalization of continuity—the Crown and its supporting subsidiaries—could not follow because it had to guarantee itself that as things had always been so they must always be and there was therefore no possibility for futurity in America at all.

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