Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Moderate Man in a Partisan Age

In 1760, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most ardent royalists in the whole British Empire, happier in London than in Philadelphia. But after the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66, things started to change:
For the next four or five years after 1766 Franklin was ambivalent about the nature of England's relation to America. He felt himself caught in a widening gulf, one that he tried desperately to bridge. "Being born and bred in one of the countries, and having lived long and made many agreeable connections of friendship in the other" he could only "wish all prosperity to both." Being unideological in an intensely ideological age made him seem a man apart and out of touch with his times. He talked and wrote and sought to explain each side to the other until he was weary with the effort – especially since he seemed to have no effect in either country, "except that of rendering myself suspected by my impartiality." The English thought him too American, while the Americans thought him too English. Inevitably he was accused of having no fixed principles at all.
Part of the problem, Franklin thought, was the behavior of the press, which published the most inflammatory screeds because those seemed to sell the best:
Scurrilous attacks in the press, he said, were not helping the situation at all. He told his partner David Hall that he agreed wholeheartedly with Hall's decision to avoid printing inflammatory pieces in the Pennsylvania Gazette at the time of the Stamp Act crisis. He would have done the same, even if he had held no crown office. The colonists had to realize that such incendiary writing was only making matters worse. "At the same time that we Americans wish not to be judged of, in the gross by particular papers written by anonymous scribblers and published in the colonies," Franklin wrote to his son in 1767, "it would be well if we could avoid falling into the same mistake in America in judging of ministers here by the libels printed against them." He saw his role as a reporter of the arguments of both sides. He had an obligation to lower the heat and lessen the passions of opinion – "to extenuate matters a little."

Franklin was especially appalled by all the talk of consipracy and hidden designs that existed on both side of the Atlantic. . . .
Eventually of course the gulf between England and America grew so wide that Franklin was unable to straddle it, and he like everyone else was forced to choose sides. He threw in his lot with the American rebels and lent his great reputation and ability to their cause. But he could easily have ended up on the other side, as did his only son, because he could see more clearly than most others that both sides had arguments in their favor, and that intemperate passion was leading people in dangerous directions that all might one day regret.

It's a sobering situation to ponder: a nation once united, but in the end so divided by mutual suspicion and anger that it could not hold together.

Quotations are from Gordon Wood,  The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, pp. 125-126.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Compromise is hard - and even worse, it is boring.

No one wants to watch a heartfelt, respectful mutual discourse based in reason and compassion - they want to watch bitter, violent confrontations based in seething anger and stubbornness.

People don't want to politely applaud at statesmen signing a genuinely constructive law or treaty - they want to hoot and jeer at gladiators spilling blood pointlessly for their amusement, or for the "glory" and "honor" of some arbitrary team or faction.

We don't tell stories about quiet acts of decency and understanding by patient, gentle, caring people - all our heroes are brooding loners with penchants for offhand violence and unshakeable confidence in the absolute moral rectitude of their extant beliefs and preconceptions, who face off in an inevitable struggle against the intrinsically and irredeemably wicked in a world of stark, straightforward, objective "black and white" values that apply universally.

In short, we're still a bunch of barely evolved apes, and it's a miracle we haven't already destroyed ourselves in a rain of nuclear fire.