Monday, December 24, 2012

The More Things Change: Ben Franklin's Fiscal Cliff

(Just a note about pages I've read lately from Walter Isaacson's book BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Simon and Schuster paperback, 2004).)

Either raise taxes on the wealthiest individuals or face drastic cuts to defense of homeland under attack:  we've been here before, in 1750s Pennsylvania, known to Middle School US History teachers (and a few dozen others) as the era of the French-and-Indian War, Ground Zero. 

The so-called Proprietors, descendants of William Penn and others named in the colony's original charter, were wealthy and privileged by birth.   When Ben Franklin proposed formation of a militia and proposed a self-tax to supply British forces coming to assist the colony in its defense, the Proprietors balked, and the Governor supported them. 

Franklin got the Assembly to set up a militia -- strictly voluntary, to appease the pacifist Quakers in Assembly.  To those who objected to fighting on behalf of Quakers who remained home, Franklin wrote, "That is to say you won't pump [water from a sinking] ship, because it will save the rats as well as yourself" (170). 

Eventually, the Proprietors agreed to a one-time voluntary grant, leaving their tax-exempt privileges untouched.

Franklin had no more success getting support from other colonies that shared interests in the western lands, as each colony's assembly was jealous of its own power.   It was in this context, not the later Revolutionary War, that Franklin printed the first political cartoon in North America, the segmented snake over the motto, "Join or Die."

One of Walter Isaacson's themes in this life of Franklin is the idea that liberty is a communal interest, not just an individualist's privilege.  

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