[February 7, 2020] The official political relationship between the American Colonies and the British Government in the mid-1700s was not always “gentlemanly,” but it was a time that the expression of sentiments was open and honest. I find that reading the letters and publications can give us an education in wittiness, clarity, and honesty.
Benjamin Franklin’s life and legacy of scientific and political achievement, and his status as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, was no mere accident of faith.1 His ability to write and speak directly to the ideals of freedom, honor and the rule of law made him one of the most respected men of the century. He was also fond of injecting himself into political controversies without reservation. Franklin was also one of the most passionate defenders of the American Colonies.
In early 1775, a British Army Colonel wrote about several sentiments common among the people of Britain. Those sentiments were based on several military incidents where the Colonial soldier and officer had failed to uphold the most basic of honorable service.
“In a late Debate, a certain North British Colonel thought proper to recommend himself to the Court, by grossly abusing the Americans … According to him, Sir, the Americans are unequal to the People of this Country [Britain] in Devotion to Women, and in Courage, and in what, in his Sight seems worse than all, they are religious.”
Franklin’s speech was to counter the unnamed British officer’s comments to Parliament that the British need not fear the colonial rebels because they lack the most elementary civilized abilities. Franklin responded to the three-pronged critique with his wit and acuity. Noting that the colonial population has increased while the British population had declined.
“Sir, let the rapid Increase and Population of America, compared with the Decrease of England and of Scotland, shew which of the two People are most effectually devoted to the Fair Sex.”
As for American courage, Franklin relayed a history of the Seven Years War in which the colonial militia forever saved blundering British regulars from strategic error and cowardice.
“Sir, it happens very unfortunately that the Regulars have impressed the Provincials with a very indifferent Opinion of their Courage. I will tell you why. They saw General Braddock at the Head of a regular Army march with a Thousand Boastings of their Courage and Superiority, and … in a little Time these vain Boasters were totally routed by a very unequal Number of French and Indians, and the Provincials rendered them the unthanked Service of saving them from being cut off to a Man.”
Concerning religion, Franklin had overcome his high-society distaste for the devout and reminded his British readers of some historical note.
“I had almost forgot the Honourable Gentleman’s Charge of their being too religious. Sir, they were such Religionists, that vindicated this Country from the Tyranny of the Stuarts. … Does that sharpen his Resentment against the Americans; who inherit from those Ancestors, not only the same Religion, but the same Love of Liberty and Spirit to defend it?”
It is courteous that Franklin would reflect some of the stereotypes of the men and women of the United States today, as many note how decadent, lazy, and privileged Americans are in their relationships with others. Others yet see an untapped capacity to do good for the world and those who underestimated these Americans, like the British in 1775, came to regret it.2
Benjamin Franklin published his response to the unnamed British officer with a robust defense of the American colonials as “An Imaginary Speech” on this date, February 7, 1775. See the full response at this link here.