Ken Burns and the whitewashing of Benjamin Franklin

Ken Burns has a new documentary out about Benjamin Franklin, and it’s not entirely bad – well-paced, beautifully shot, but more than a bit on the bland side thanks to sponsors like Bank of America and Pew Charitable Trust and Burn’s own soft-core patriotism.  (See my review here.)  But the movie raises a point about the Declaration of Independence that’s worth exploring.

Benjamin Franklin: Deluded

It concerns the declaration’s most famous line.  Thomas Jefferson originally rendered it as, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” but Franklin, a master of plain speaking, blue-penciled the last three words and substituted “self-evident” instead.  The result was pithier, more secular, and also more mathematical in that it paved the way for a document constructed much like a Euclidean theorem.  The declaration thus began with a series of axioms to the effect that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and “that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  It then marshaled evidence in the form of a lengthy bill of indictment charging George III with “repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”  Finally, it arrived at a conclusion: since Britain aimed to reduce Americans to slavery and since the colonists had the same right of self-government as everybody else, then it followed that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”

QED, as the math textbooks say.  The declaration “proved” that Americans had a right to go their own way.  But then Burns brings in a Columbia historian named Christopher Brown to zero in on a crucial contradiction:

“To say something is self-evident, to say that it’s common sense, is to say that there’s no other way to think about this, that only an irrational person who’s not using their mind correctly could contend with this thing, which is in fact really contentious.  It’s a classic lawyer’s trick to say, ‘We all agree to this thing.’  Who’s ‘we’?   The ‘we’ is presumptuous.”  (Quote begins at 30:04.)

Brown is right for the simple reason that Euclidean methodology is more paradoxical than it initially appears.  As readers may recall from high school, the purpose of an axiom is to provide a foundation with which to build a larger system of geometry.  Euclid began with just five, including the famous parallel postulate holding that parallel lines never meet.  From there, he went on to demonstrate how they could be used to generate a seemingly endless number of theorems about triangles, squares, rectangles, and so on.  It’s fascinating but problematic: all that system-building comes at a price since once you accept such axioms as your starting point, you essentially rule them off-limits to further inspection.  You can almost hear the wise guy in the back row raising his hand and asking how we know that parallel lines never meet.  To which the teacher can only respond: we just do – end of discussion.  The instructor must close off one avenue of inquiry so others can open up.

This may be what Brown means by “presumptuous.”  When it comes to such “self-evident” axioms, everyone must agree that “there’s no other way to think about this” so that the task of system-building can proceed. 

But imagine if the founders had not been in such a hurry.  Imagine if instead of accepting such axioms as givens, they had opened them up to debate.  Slaves, presumably, would have had something to say about all men being created equal when 20 percent of the population was in chains.  So would Native Americans since it was clear that the first thing the colonists would do upon casting off British rule would be to embark on a hell-for-leather western land grab.  The same goes for the 50 percent of the population that was female.  Did “men” refer to humanity in general or just the half that was male?  It’s a safe bet that women who had previously remained silent on such topics would suddenly have had much to say.  As someone who would enslave some 600 people over the course of his lifetime and father six children by a slave named Sally Hemings, Jefferson would also have had some ’splainin’ to do.

Which is why the founders preferred to toss off a few airy generalities before getting on with the business at hand, which was declaring independence.  Although often described as a forerunner of the French Revolution, the American revolution was in many ways the opposite.  In contrast to the French national assembly in which members raged at one another to boos and cheers from the galleries, the Constitutional Convention, which was held in secret, was a decorous affair in which debate was stilted and constrained.  Delegates didn’t passionately denounce the ancien régime for the simple reason that most didn’t view the ancien régime as entirely bad.  To the contrary, their goal was to turn back the clock to the ancien régime that existed prior to the mid-1760s when London was content to leave the colonies more or less on their own.  Instead of advancing into a brave new world, their goal was to return to the easy-going regime that had existed in the past.

This was a revolution in the pre-modern sense of society revolving in place.  A sense of this restorationist spirit can be gleaned from an interview that a certain Captain Preston, a 91-year-old veteran of the Battle of Concord, gave in 1842.  The exchange went like this:

Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?

Oppressions?  I didn’t feel them.

What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?

I never saw one of those stamps.  I certainly never paid a penny for one of them.

Well, what then about the tea tax?

I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.

Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?

Never heard of ’em.  We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.

Well, then, what was the matter?  And what did you mean in going to the fight?

Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to.  They didn’t mean we should.[1]

Oddly enough, it was the Tories who were in favor of change while the “Old Whigs,” another word for the Patriot party, were opposed.  Eventually, Americans were forced to jettison such conservatism when the 1783 Articles of Confederation proved inadequate and they had no choice but to adopt a new constitution providing for an unprecedented degree of centralization.  But their reluctance was apparent.  While granting some powers to the new government, they specified in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments that all others would be “retained by the people” and that rights not expressly granted to the central authorities would be “reserved to the states.”  The language was foggy, but the underlying sentiment was clear.  While granting certain concessions to the new order, voters did so only under duress.

The contradiction was especially evident with regard to the class question, which is a good deal more complex than simple-minded populists like Staughton Lynd or Charles Beard would have us believe.  The French Revolution, as everyone knows, ended up sending the aristocrats to the guillotine.  But America’s sans-culottes, people like Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty, did not.  Instead of chopping off the heads of the Virginia gentry, the closest thing America had to a native aristocracy, they deferred to people like Madison, Jefferson, and Washington, looked up to them, and wound up granting them more power than they ever enjoyed previously.  For “four score and seven years,” the sans-culottes – who were in fact an incipient bourgeoisie – took a back seat until society finally exploded in 1861.

The same goes for slavery. Instead of abolishing it as the French did in 1794, the Americans strengthened it to the point where it was virtually impregnable.  The three-fifths clause gave southern states as many as 25 extra seats in the House and an equal number of extra votes in the Electoral College.  Equal state representation in the Senate gave them a lock on both federal legislation and the constitutional amending process, a veto northern states couldn’t break no matter how much their population surged due to mass immigration.  Article I, section eight, required the feds to put down slave insurrections, while Article IV, section two, required northerners to return runaway slaves.

This was a change, certainly, since northerners had been under no obligation to return runaways before.  But it was change in defense of a pre-existing condition.  The result was a bizarre hybrid that was not only half slave and half free, but half democratic and half tyrannical, half progressive and half reactionary.  More than two centuries, the situation is essentially unchanged as American pseudo-democracy goes rushing backwards.

Burns ends his film with a description of how Franklin, after taking part in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, capped his career by taking on the presidency of the country’s first major abolitionist organization, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and then presenting Congress with a petition declaring that the blessings of liberty cited in the Preamble “ought rightfully to be administered without distinction of color.”  Needless to say, Congress rejected it out of hand.

Burns presents it as a heroic gesture by one of the greatest men America ever produced.  But considering that Franklin had helped draft a constitution that strengthened slavery, it sounds like the final act of an old man who had deluded himself about the political structure he had just created and was now busily deluding others.


[1] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (New York: New American Library, 1972), vol. 1, p. 284.

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