Pretty much everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were prime movers and shakers both pre-and post the American revolution and that their work did as much as any human efforts to shape this country. Libraries of books have been published about both of them. Hours of instruction have been spent exploring their lives and writings. What, then, you might ask yourself, as I did myself, does the world need with still more?
Edward J. Larson answers the question in fairly short order, but I’m going to lead here with what I found his most trenchant point, even though it occurs near the end of the book. The matter of Slavery.
The debates about slavery and the constitution are pretty well-known. The argument about the relative influence of large states and small states became intertwined with with how to count slaves. On the one hand, the more people you have in your state, the greater your influence in the house of representatives. On the other hand, if slaves were property and not really people, how could you count them at all? The 3/5 compromise whereby each slave counted as 3/5 of a person for census purposes was the result. Thus was the nation founded on a logically absurd, not to mention inhumane, premise.
Most writers pass this off as a sort condition of the times with little more consequence than knee-britches and cocked hats. That’s always bothered me, and Larson is the first historian I’ve read who takes it head on.
There was a thriving and powerful abolitionist movement in the colonies, not the least of which was based in Franklin’s Pennsylvania. The movement recognized slavery as a hideous wrong, and he was part of the faction who opposed it.
Even though he had some house slaves over the years, he had freed them by the time of the revolution and he had argued eloquently against notions of Negro inferiority. The constitutional debates were filled with vitriolic rhetoric on both sides of the issue. Most memorable for me was the remark Larson quotes by one of our most quoted orators. The same man who called, “Give me liberty or give me death,” when the time came to toss out the Articles of Confederation, yelled to all and sundry
They Will Free Your Niggers!
Such eloquence from a scion of the enlightenment, no?
The final document (this I did not know) forbad even discussing, let alone acting on, the question of slavery until 1808, twenty years after the nation would be established. Thus did these courageous men turn into cowards when confronted with the deepest moral conflict of their time. And dare I say we are still paying the price.
Though urged by close friends to free his slaves, Washington could not bring himself to do so during his life, instead leaving manumission to a time after his wife had died. I might also mention that Jefferson, too, brilliant though he was, couldn’t quite figure out how to let go of his mistress/chattel Sally Hemings or her (his, too, of course) mixed race children. Such a dilemma. Poor guy.
But back to the other 250 pages or so of Franklin and Washington. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the period, and Larson is certainly correct in stating that despite their separate accomplishments, no one has much explored how the relationship between the two men began, developed, and influenced this particular “course of human events.”
That Washington was a surveyor is fairly well-known. That he used his surveying work to get the inside scoop on available land and thus build his freehold far beyond what it would have otherwise been is much less known. At least to me. Nothing wrong with that. In a system of primogeniture, the third son competing with not only two brothers but a couple of half-brothers needed every advantage he could get.
Franklin had it just as bad or worse, trailing in birth behind five older brothers. He was every bit as enterprising as Washington, but chose, as most of us know, to write, print, publish, and invest rather than to join the landed gentry. Or, as Washington did, to join the military.
Both became prominent in their own ways and undoubtedly knew of one another, but their paths ran parallel for decades without significantly touching one another (Franklin being twenty years the senior), finally converging during first continental congress in 1774.
Astoundingly, Franklin was sixty-nine at that time, yet still had the energy to exercise leadership far beyond the capabilities and energy of lesser and younger men.
Washington had built himself a considerable military reputation as a British officer, had married well, and had become a man of property and influence.
How could two men with such disparate skills, separated by a generation of years and constellation of life experiences, work together amid the crises that finally resulted in a group of ragtag colonies defeating the army of the world’s preeminent war machine?
Larson doesn’t make it explicit, but it seems obvious that their different backgrounds and styles complemented one another. Washington, the stalwart soldier, tall, commanding, accustomed to being listened to and obeyed. Franklin, the convivial joiner, intellect, scientist, founder of discussion groups on every conceivable subject. The theorist as well as a practical realist who founded libraries, invented machines and spectacles, and created homespun mottoes to live by.
Washington could command a room simply by walking through the door. Franklin could start a conversation with about anyone on any subject. And do it a at least two languages. Thus a diplomat and a general. The revolution needed both. Witness Washington in full military regalia on the left and Franklin as he appeared, daring to look rather ridiculous in a fur hat that enthralled the French and their romantic image of America when he was ambassador. The revolution needed both. And, though the two men apparently were never really hugs and loving close, they formed a potent team that had as much to do not only with the success of the revolution but in reflecting and even forming the character that became us.