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Benjamin Franklin's British Vision
'I disagree with him widely upon another point. I do not think that our ‘blood and treasure has been expended,’ as he intimates, ‘in the cause of the colonies,’ and that we are ‘making conquests for them:’ yet I believe this is too common an error. I do not say they are altogether unconcerned in the event. The inhabitants of them are, in common with the other subjects of Great Britain, anxious for the glory of her crown, the extent of her power and commerce, the welfare and future repose of the whole British people.'
The words above were penned by Benjamin Franklin in the piece The Interest of Great Britain Considered, With Regard to her Colonies, And the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe. The pamphlet was written in 1760 in response to two articles, the Letter addressed to Two Great Men and the Remarks on that letter. Franklin’s reply rejected the view that the Seven Years’ War fought by the British on the American continent had been undertaken solely for the benefit of the colonists. He advocated the accession of Canada to the British Empire and the prosperity that would accrue therefrom. In noting that the inhabitants of the colonies were anxious for the glory of the Crown and the welfare and repose of the whole British people, Franklin clearly expressed an affinity with a kindred British nation that traversed the Atlantic Ocean and embraced the American colonies.
The expansionist sentiments expressed by Franklin in 1760 did not animate him suddenly amid British victories over the French and the likelihood of peace terms favourable to the mother country and the colonies; bountiful dreams had roused his conscience for a while and were vividly expounded in his 1755 pamphlet Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind. In this work, Franklin writes of ‘one million English souls in North-America’ and detected that population levels on the British mainland had not diminished from this advent.
Franklin averred the custom of the colonists for British manufacturers accounted for this. He predicted that the ‘one million English souls’ would double in number every twenty-five years and that in a century there would be more Englishmen in America than in England. Of this profusion of the British diaspora, he wrote beamingly, ‘what an accession of power to the British Empire by sea as well as Land! What increase of trade and navigation!’In reference to a treaty with the French in North America, he declared Britain should be sure ‘to secure room enough, since on the room depends so much the increase of her people’.
Franklin’s demographic projection proved highly accurate into the nineteenth century.His words reflect a love of country and people whose posterity stood to gain from his vision of the future more than what could be profited from the material opportunities of the present.
The success of British kind envisioned by Franklin was met with objections, objections that prompted The Interest of Great Britain Considered with Regard to Her Colonies and the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe. In this work, Franklin pragmatically confronts opposing sentiments. The Remarks voiced the fear that acquiring Canada would be dangerous. With the expulsion of the French, the Americans would expand without bounds and become ‘a numerous, hardy, independent people, possessing a strong country, communicating little or not at all with England,’ and ‘enquiring little about the mother country’.Franklin retorted that through such expansion the ‘British name and nation’ would gain an unprecedented ‘stability and permanency’. He felt that a failure to seize the opportunity to evict the French from North America would prolong an onerous situation for both the British and colonial governments. To leave a vast wilderness thinly peopled would conceal the march of troops. This would allow the French the opportunity to advance and construct forts. These bases would take time to remove. This problem would be forever compounded by Native Americans who ‘delight in war and take pride in murder,’ while not officially subject to the French but still attached to them ‘by the art and indefatigable industry of priests’ and ‘similarity of superstitions’.
To build his case against the Remarks, Franklin references natives massacring planters even in times of full peace between the French and the British while being supplied by the former to do so. He saw that fully prosecuting any advantage over the French would solve the problem.
Leaving the French in Canada and Louisiana would keep a boundary between them and the British colonies stretching 1500 miles. This would place frontiersmen who Franklin deemed of unwholesome character, away from the close reach of government, allowing for frequent injuries to be inflicted by both sides along the border and thus perpetuate an ongoing cycle of resentment from which advantages would forever be sought.
Evicting the French from North America would prevent the frontier from remaining in continual alarm through their influence over the Native Americans, and assuage the British of great expense in maintaining an army to fight the threat.
Franklin pragmatically addressed the British approach to manufacturing in the colonies. He asserted that ‘penal and prohibitory laws’ ‘will not be sufficient to prevent manufactures in a country whose inhabitants surpass the number than can subsist by the husbandry of it. This will be the case in America soon, if our people remain confined within the mountains.’Here Franklin is sounding a warning to Britain. He suggests that without more arable land the colonists could decide to turn to manufacturing when most might instead pursue agrarian livelihoods if permitted to seize more territory. In raising this possibility, Franklin was invoking a genuine British fear that American manufacturers might usurp their dominance in the export of finished products. Such concern was reflected through the Iron Act of 1750, one of the British Trade and Navigation acts. The Iron Act constrained the development of colonial manufacturing in competition with the home industry by restricting the growth of American iron production to the supply of raw metals.
By corollary of Franklin’s point, more land for Americans to develop, coinciding with a burgeoning colonial population, would engender a greater market for British exports. In any case, Franklin saw no reason for Britain to worry too much about growth in American manufacturing, writing in 1755:
in proportion to the increase of the colonies, a vast demand is growing for British manufacturers, a glorious market wholly in the power of Britain, in which foreigners cannot interfere, which will increase in a short time even beyond her power of supplying, though her whole trade should be to her colonies: therefore Britain should not too much restrain manufacturers in her colonies. A wise and good mother will not do it. To distress, is to weaken, and weakening the children, weakens the whole family.
Despite Franklin’s reasoning, the tensions between the expansionist desires of Americans and associated insecurities in Britain persisted. This was expressed through the Proclamation Line of 1763 which prevented settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains and created an Indian reserve.This ruling was not offset by freer trading regulations and restrictive economic acts continued in a climate of heightened tensions that were alleviated only with the American victory over Britain in the war for independence.
Franklin’s enthusiasm for colonial fecundity and economic success was not articulated as part of an undefined dream of plenty. His optimism for the future was situated clearly within a British national matrix which would be constant as America increased in affluence. This aspect of his British vision was evinced through an unease that proceeded from the presence of non-British settlers in Pennsylvania. In Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin observed that admitting incomers into the colony would engender no meaningful population change unless those arriving offered more by way of frugality and industry than the current inhabitants. If incomers possessed this frugality and industry, they would gradually ‘eat out’ the incumbent population. Franklin was clear that this would not be in the best interests of the British descended settlers.
He noticed that many of the incomers did not reflect the best sort Germany had to offer. He referred to the uneducated and low-class farmers. He worried about how they might impact the colony. It is plain from his view of a duality inclusive of industrious and meaner types of migrants, that Franklin saw the potential for both to threaten his British polity. He argues against resorting to immigration to fill vacancies in a country, as such spaces, if laws were good, ‘will soon be filled by natural generation’. He notes a range of emigrations that did not lead to vacancies. His examples include French emigration caused by the expulsion of protestants in the late seventeenth century.
By the middle of the 18th century, the ethnically German Pennsylvanian population had risen to around a third of the whole colony. In a letter to James Parker dated March 20, 1751, Franklin expressed his concerns:
This will in a few years become a German colony: Instead of their learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country. Already the English begin to quit particular neighbourhoods surrounded by Dutch (he meant German), being made uneasy by the disagreeableness of dissonant manners; and in time, numbers will probably quit the province for the same reason. Besides, the Dutch under-live, and are thereby enabled to under-work and under-sell the English, who are thereby extremely incommoded, and consequently disgusted, so that there can be no cordial affection or unity between the two nations. How good subjects they may make, and how faithful to the British interest, is a question worth considering.
Franklin identified three areas likely to strike chords with those familiar with contemporary conversations on immigration, multiculturalism, and demography. Firstly, Franklin felt that the German ascent would usurp the British character of the colony. Given that at the time of writing, Pennsylvania was already around a third German, it would be foolish to dismiss Franklin as a man riven with paranoia or what some might term xenophobia.In his piece Franklin and the Pennsylvania Germans, John B Frantz acknowledges that the size of the German population gave them power at politically decisive times, notably in the 1764 election for the Pennsylvania Assembly.
Secondly, Franklin noted that the influx had made neighbourhoods disagreeable to English people and caused them to relocate. In noting ‘dissonant manners’ Franklin does not aim to heap disdain on the Germans, instead he highlights an absence of cultural congruency between German and English that had an adverse impact on British descended settlers.
Thirdly, he detected that the frugality of the incomers enabled them to undersell the English and thereby imperil English economic wellbeing. This situation leads Franklin to the logical conclusion that ‘no cordial affection or unity’ could be expected to exist between the British settlers and the recent arrivals. Tellingly, Franklin concludes the passage by very strongly indicating that the German arrival was not in the ‘British interest’.His use of this term and his expressed understanding of divergent British and German identities reveal a perception of himself and his fellow colonists as a part of a distinctive British nation.
Franklin in On the Increase of Mankind asked, ‘why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours?’Crucially for Franklin, the use of the term ‘Palatine Boors’ was used by his political opponents to radicalise the Germans against him in the election to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764. Delicate language may have served him better.
What resonates more than anything in reading his words on German immigration is his love for what was his own rather than enmity for what was not. It is not hard to discern that had the incomers been of any of a range of other identities his sentiments would have been the same or very similar. The potential economic impact of new arrivals bothered him, but above all, Franklin was determined to ensure that British America retained its British identity.
Franklin did not seek to prohibit German settlers from holding public office but held that they must speak English if they were to do so.This would obviously aid the cohesiveness of the colony and the functioning of government.
According to Frantz Franklin saw no hope of German assimilation. However, he advocated distributing Germans more widely across British America, and a policy of Anglicisation to give such a process a chance of success. Frantz characterises this as ‘measures against the Germans’, but in reality, Franklin was just trying to maintain the British substance of a British realm governed under a British monarch. Franklin approved educational plans allowing German children to qualify for all the advantages of English subjects. Schools geared towards this end lasted well into the 1760s.
Franklin was someone who thought considerably about the practicalities of assimilating Germans into the body politic, noting that German women were ‘so disagreeable to an English eye, that it would require great portions to induce Englishmen to marry them’.He also felt that German men would not find English women attractive either and stated the ‘value in a wife with them consists much in the work she is able to do’. He reasoned, ‘it would require a round sum with an English wife to make up to a Dutch (German) man the difference in labour and frugality’. Whether or not Franklin’s comments on the desirability of German women to Englishmen, and the relative industriousness of German and English women have stood the test of time, or reflect a situation that was ever the case, proffers its own interesting avenue of historical enquiry.
In 1787, Franklin donated to Franklin College to enhance the learning of German, and English languages. The college was German, and Frantz acknowledges that by this stage any enmity had ended.
One can easily draw parallels between the contemplations of Franklin and discussions in our own public life today.
Franklin supported an expansive and prosperous British American nation inside the British Empire. He saw evicting the French from North America as part of a settlement to conclude the Seven Years’ War, if the opportunity presented itself, as vital to this. To win favour for his stance in 1760, Franklin sought to allay fears in Britain of a decline in domestic manufacturing. He averred that more arable land for the American population would make them less inclined to turn to manufacturing and compete with British manufacturers. In 1755, he wrote that Britain should fear nothing from such a process as a burgeoning American market would be firmly under the control of the British Empire. Franklin was outspoken about German immigration into Pennsylvania. He saw that the duality of both industrious and poorer incomers would threaten the British polity in which he lived. He noted a ‘dissonance’ between German immigration and settlement, its scale, and the British interest. He was keen to maintain the British character of the colony. There are many parallels between the imperatives that Franklin addressed and debates on immigration, multiculturalism, and demography in our own age.
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The absence of page numbers for the pieces cited that were authored by Benjamin Franklin and now located at The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (franklinpapers.org) is due to none being listed in the articles. The works referenced are relatively short should you wish to look for specific references.
Benjamin Franklin, The Interest of Great Britain Considered with Regard to Her Colonies and the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe, 1760 Benjamin Franklin Papers, - The Interest of Great Britain Considered - 9:47a, 2006, Benjamin Franklin Papers, Accessed 30 October 2021
Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1755, Benjamin Franklin Papers, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind - 4:225a, 2006, Benjamin Franklin Papers, Accessed 30 October 2021
William F. Von Valtier, ‘‘An Extravagant Assumption’: The Demographic Numbers behind Benjamin Franklin;s Twenty-Five-Year Doubling Period.’’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 155, no. 2, pp. 158–88, American Philosophical Society, 2011,
Franklin, The Interest of Great Britain Considered with Regard to Her Colonies and the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadeloupe
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. ‘Iron Act’. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Jun. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Iron-Act. Accessed 28 November 2021
Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Proclamation of 1763". Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/event/Proclamation-of-1763. Accessed 28 November 2021.
Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind
Benjamin Franklin, To James Parker, Printed in [Archibald Kennedy], The Importance of Gaining and Preserving the Friendship of the Indians to the British Interest, Considered (New York, 1751), pp. 27-31. (Yale University Library), Benjamin Franklin Papers
John B Frantz, Franklin and the Pennsylvania Germans, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies Vol. 65, No. 1, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies (Winter 1998), pp. 21-34 . Published by Penn State University, 21
Ibid 23, 28
Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind