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Benjamin Franklin

Drawn into Politics

A Scientist and Leader

Trouble at Home

Summary

Franklin's adventure with the militia was only the beginning of his long and powerful political career. On October 4, 1748, he was elected to the town council of Philadelphia. The next year he was appointed a justice of the peace (responsible for enforcing the laws). In May 1751, he was elected to the Pennsylvania assembly. He had been a clerk in the assembly since 1736, and was familiar with how it worked. As a result, he quickly rose to power and influence. On August 10, 1753, he was appointed as a deputy postmaster general of North America.

By the early 1750s, Pennsylvania's frontier was in trouble again. The colonists had pushed the Indians from their land, sometimes killing them in the process. As white settlers pushed further west, the Indians started to fight back more forcefully. They did so with the help of French soldiers, who supplied guns. Franklin believed that in order for the colonies to effectively protect their frontiers, they needed to unite. On May 4, 1754, Franklin published an essay arguing for unification. With the essay he published a drawing showing a snake cut into pieces. The caption under the picture read "JOIN OR DIE." This, probably America's first political cartoon in a newspaper, later became an important symbol of the United States. In the summer, Franklin attended a meeting of the colonies called by the British government to work out a common defense for the frontier. At the meeting, Franklin proposed a plan for the colonies to unite; on July 10, after a week of debate, the meeting voted to approve his plan. Unfortunately, the governments of the colonies rejected the plan their own representatives had created. Though the Albany Plan of Union, as it was called, never came into being, it introduced the idea of a continental union to many people and would later be a model for the Articles of Confederation.

By 1755, Britain was at war with France over America. The frontier was again in danger. Franklin organized another militia and this time took charge. In January of 1756 he led 500 soldiers to the frontier and built a fort before being called back to Philadelphia for an important meeting. While he was away, his troops elected him colonel, but before he could return, the Board of Trade (the branch of the British government responsible for the colonies) disbanded the militia, fearing that it was too democratic. Long before Franklin became a revolutionary, he was already scaring the British.

In 1757, representing the Pennsylvania assembly, Franklin sailed to England. His assignment was to convince the British government to allow the Pennsylvania assembly to tax the colony's "proprietors." These people, many of whom lived in Britain, owned large amounts of land in Pennsylvania. They had inherited the land from William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and had little interest in helping the people actually living in the colony. When Franklin met the king's minister to present Pennsylvania's case, he realized that almost no one, from the king to the average Londoner, understood very much about life in America. Frustrated, Franklin began writing essays and pamphlets describing Americans and defending their complaints against the British government. In 1760, after a series of meetings and arguments, Franklin finally won. The British allowed Pennsylvania to tax the proprietors.

Commentary

One of the most remarkable things about Franklin was his sense of being an American. Born and raised as a Boston Puritan, he probably grew up feeling that the New World was somehow different–and morally superior–to the Old. Yet most of his contemporaries, especially Bostonians, identified themselves with their colony first and Britain second. They rarely, if at all, thought of themselves as American. By the time of the Revolutionary War, however, many colonists believed in the idea of a united, indivisible America.

In the time between Franklin's birth and his death, Americans experienced a dramatic change in their sense of who they were. Franklin was ahead of the curve: he came to see himself as an American earlier than almost anyone else. Through his writings and his actions–especially the pioneering Albany Plan of Union–he introduced the idea of a uniquely American identity to many of his contemporaries. Historians today often credit Franklin with being the first to express this unique identity. Today we take it for granted that people from Louisiana, Idaho, and Vermont are all Americans. During the 1750s, though, the idea of a single American identity–let alone a politically unified country–was radically new. In this sense, Franklin was a patriot long before there was even a country for which to feel patriotism.

Franklin's experience in Britain strengthened his sense of being an American. Though he dressed simply and told jokes, he was a worldly and sophisticated person. He knew the most brilliant men of the time, people like Adam Smith and Voltaire. Yet, while in Britain, Franklin realized how little most British people, even British leaders, understood or respected Americans. He saw that Britain governed the American colonies poorly because they did not know anything about the colonies. Most of them had never been to America or even talked to an American.

Franklin had been critical of Britain for a long time, writing essays such as "Rattlesnakes for Felons" and "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc." (both in 1751). In the first, he lambasted the British government for sending convicted felons to America, sarcastically suggesting that Americans send rattlesnakes in return. In the second, he criticized the Acts of Navigation, which restricted American trade to benefit British merchants. As a politician in the early 1750s, and an ambassador of sorts beginning it the late 1750s, he consistently and persuasively argued for American interests and American values. He had begun as a civic do-gooder in Philadelphia and was quickly becoming America's most important patriot.

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