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This Week in History

September 2-8, 1773:
Benjamin Franklin 'Holds Up a Looking Glass'
To the British Empire

September 2012

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)—philosopher, scientist, inventor, printer, musician, economist, and statesman.

The summer and fall of 1773 were busy months for Benjamin Franklin, who had been representing several of the American colonies in London since the close of the French and Indian War. The East India Company, whose looting policies within the British Empire had driven it not to anticipated wealth, but to bankruptcy, succeeded in forcing Parliament to pass a Tea Act on April 27. The legislation remitted all British duties on tea, but retained the tax on tea exported to America, thus allowing the Company to undersell everyone else. This gave the Company a virtual monopoly, and this monopoly was to be backed by the full legal and military machinery of the Empire.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Assembly had requested that Franklin present a number of petitions to Lord Dartmouth, to be given to George III, in which the colony protested Britain's new policy of paying the salary of Royal Governors and judges from Crown funds. Formerly, the salaries had been paid by the Assembly, thus giving the citizens some control over the government. Town meetings were held throughout Massachusetts to protest, but Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson denounced them as illegal and inspired by that "great director" in London, Benjamin Franklin.

There was no attempt by the British Empire to answer or ameliorate these grievances, and the Virginia House of Burgesses proposed establishing committees of correspondence between the various colonies. In this ferment, Franklin suggested a Continental Congress in a July 7 letter to Thomas Cushing, the Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly.

In an official letter to the Massachusetts Assembly on the same day, Franklin wrote that the discussion of rights "may seem unseasonable in the commencement of actual war," and that therefore "perhaps it would be best and fairest for the colonies, in a general congress now in peace to be assembled, or by means of the correspondence lately proposed, after a full and solemn assertion and declaration of their rights, to engage firmly with each other, that they will never grant aids to the crown in any general war, till those rights are recognized by the King and both Houses of Parliament; communicating at the same time to the crown this their resolution. Such a step I imagine will bring the dispute to a crisis."

It was up to Franklin to present American grievances not only to the rapacious government, but to the British people. He often wrote anonymously for the London papers, and on Sept. 11 he wrote a letter to "The Public Advertiser," signing himself "Q.E.D." The title of his piece was "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One." In it, all the repressive measures which Britain had aimed against America were laid out as 20 helpful rules for those who would like to reduce the size of the Empire. It was a Swiftian satire of great good humor and very sharp darts, and it was very widely read.

Not long after its publication, Franklin wrote to his sister Jane, saying that his strategy for seeking harmony between Britain and America had changed: "I had used all the smooth words I could muster, and I grew tired of meekness when I saw it without effect. Of late therefore I have been saucy."

He explained that in his articles "I have held up a looking-glass in which some ministers may see their ugly faces, and the nation its injustice. Those papers have been much taken notice of. Many are pleased with them, and a few very angry, who I am told will make me feel their resentment, which I must bear as well as I can, and shall bear the better if any public good is done, whatever the consequences to myself.

"In my own private concerns with mankind, I have observed that to kick a little when under imposition has a good effect. A little sturdiness when superiors are much in the wrong sometimes occasions consideration. And there is truth in the old saying, that 'if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you.'"

Franklin's "Rules" began by pretending to be a paper which was "presented privately to a late Minister, when he entered upon his Administration; and now first published." Franklin then stated that, "An ancient Sage valued himself upon this, that tho' he could not fiddle, he knew how to make a great City of a little one. The Science that I, a modern Simpleton, am about to communicate is the very reverse.

"I address myself to all Ministers who have the Management of extensive Dominions, which from their very Greatness are become troublesome to govern, because the Multiplicity of their Affairs leaves no Time for fiddling.

"I. In the first Place, Gentlemen, you are to consider, that a great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges. Turn your Attention therefore first to your remotest Provinces; that as you get rid of them, the next may follow in Order.

"II. That the Possibility of this Separation may always exist, take special Care the Provinces are never incorporated with the Mother Country, that they do not enjoy the same common Rights, the same Privileges in Commerce, and that they are governed by severer Laws, all of your enacting, without allowing them any Share in the Choice of the Legislators. By carefully making and preserving such Distinctions, you will (to keep to my Simile of the Cake) act like a wise Gingerbread Baker, who, to facilitate a Division, cuts his Dough half through in those Places, where, when bak'd, he would have it broken to Pieces.

"III. These remote Provinces have perhaps been acquired, purchas'd, or conquer'd at the sole Expence of the Settlers or their Ancestors, without the Aid of the Mother Country. If this should happen to increase her Strength by their growing Numbers ready to join in her Wars, her Commerce by their growing Demand for her Manufactures, or her Naval Power by greater Employment for her Ships and Seamen, they may probably suppose some Merit in this, and that it entitles them to some Favour; you are therefore to forget it all, or resent it as if they had done you Injury.

"IV. However peaceably your Colonies have submitted to your Government, shewn their Affection to your Interest, and patient borne their Grievances, you are to suppose them always inclined to revolt, and treat them accordingly. Quarter Troops among them, who by their Insolence may provoke the rising of Mobs, and by their Bullets and Bayonets suppress them. By this Means, like the Husband who uses his Wife ill from suspicion, you may in Time convert your Suspicions into Realities.

"V. Remote provinces must have Governors, and Judges, to represent the Royal Person, and execute every where the delegated Parts of his Office and Authority. If you send them wise and good Men for Governors, who study the Interest of the Colonists, and advance their Prosperity, they will think their King wise and good, and that he wishes the welfare of his Subjects. This may attach your Provinces more to his Government. You are therefore to be careful who you recommend for those Offices. —If you can find Prodigals who have ruined their Fortunes, broken Gamesters or Stock-Jobbers, these may do well as Governors; for they will probably be rapacious, and provoke the People by their Extortions.

"VI. To confirm these Impressions, and strike them deeper, whenever the Injured come to the Capital with Complaints of Mal-administration, Oppression, or Injustice, punish such Suitors with long Delay, enormous Expence, and a final Judgment in Favour of the Oppressor. This will have an admirable Effect every Way. The Trouble of future Complaints will be prevented, and Governors and Judges will be encouraged to farther Acts of Oppression and Injustice; and thence the People may become more disaffected, and at length desperate.

"XVI. If you are told of Discontents in your Colonies, never believe that they are general, or that you have given Occasion for them; therefore do not think of applying any Remedy, or of changing any offensive Measure. Redress no Grievance, lest they should be encouraged to demand the Redress of some other Grievance. Suppose all their Complaints to be invented and promoted by a few factious Demagogues, whom if you could catch and hang, all would be quiet. Catch and hang a few of them accordingly; and the Blood of the Martyrs shall work Miracles in favour of your Purpose.

"XVII. If you see rival Nations rejoicing at the Prospect of your Disunion with your Provinces, and endeavouring to promote it: If they translate, publish and applaud all the Complaints of your discontented Colonists, at the same Time privately stimulating you to severer Measures; let not that alarm or offend you. Why should it— Since you all mean the same Thing.

"XIX. Send Armies into their Country under Pretence of protecting the Inhabitants; but instead of garrisoning the Forts on their Frontiers with those Troops, to prevent Incursions, demolish those Forts, and order the Troops into the Heart of the country, that the Savages may be encouraged to attack the Frontiers, and that the Troops may be protected by the inhabitants: This will seem to proceed from your Ill will or your Ignorance, and contribute farther to produce and strengthen an Opinion among them, that you are no longer fit to govern them.

"XX. Lastly, Invest the General of your Army in the Provinces with great and unconstitutional Powers, and free him from the Controul of even your own Civil Governors. Let him have Troops enow under his Command, with all the Fortresses in his Possession; and who knows but (like some provincial Generals in the Roman Empire, and encouraged by the universal Discontent you have produced) he may take it into his Head to set up for himself. If he should, and you have carefully practiced these few excellent Rules of mine, take my Word for it, all the Provinces will immediately join him, and you will that Day (if you have not done it sooner) get rid of the Trouble of governing them, and all the Plagues attending their Commerce and Connection from thenceforth and for ever."


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.