Thursday, September 10, 2009

A little frankness from Franklin

Who can we trust to tell us the way it is now?

With the death of one of the founding fathers of American television news, Walter Cronkite, I am reminded of another journalist who not only wrote the news but created it—one of the founding fathers of America, inventor, political activist and philosopher—Benjamin Franklin.

Walter Cronkite was the man who told us the way it was and showed us the world during two tumultuously radical decades in America. Like Cronkite, Benjamin Franklin was a journalist in the most radical time of our history; in fact you could say it was revolutionary!

When only twenty-five newspapers existed in the all thirteen colonies, he helped finance more than a third and owned the most successful. But unlike today, when all major news, no matter what media, is controlled by seven global corporations, Franklin really championed for an honest non-partisan voice. He articulately stated in an article entitled, An Apology for Printers: “Both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public, and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter. Hence printers should serve all without regard on which side they are of the question or dispute.”

In a recent on-line poll, when asked who is now America’s most trusted newscaster, an overwhelming percent voted for television host Jon Stewart. And no wonder—in a world where people are so skeptical; we trust the ironic wit of Jon Stewart and the tongue-in-cheek satire of Stephen Colbert.

Like Stewart, Franklin applied wit and sarcasm to show the underlying truth. And like Colbert, Franklin used different personas to express his views and encouraged the public to examine and question.

In an essay written in 1751 under the persona ‘Americus,’ he sent a satirical message to Britain regarding sending convicts to populate the colonies. He suggested we export rattlesnakes in trade. “Rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent to us by our mother country. However, she will have the advantage of us, for the rattle-snake gives warning before he attempts his mischief; which the convict does not.”

Franklin’s ironic hoax in 1773, An Edict of the King of Prussia, made a mockery of the British tax acts. The proclamation used the same false arguments Britain claimed on the American colonies, “Whereas it is well known to the world, that the first German settlements made in the Island of Britain were by colonies of the people subjects to our renowned ancestors, and they have never been emancipated." It demanded a tax on paper goods, like the Stamp Act and required manufacturing of iron works be halted, as in the Iron Act. There was even a statement that said convicts from Prussia would be sent to England. It caused a horrendous uproar in Parliament—the Prime Minster was ready to march on Munich, as Franklin smiled and said, “How comfortable the shoe, when it is on the other foot?”

As I researched this great polymath for a novel I wrote on pre-revolutionary America, I was captivated by his profound observations. It made me wonder what Franklin would think of America’s current situation.

How would he view our economic troubles? I believe he would be appalled at how in debt we are to other countries. So succinctly in an essay entitled The Nature and Necessity of Paper-Currency in 1729, he stated we should not have a deficit in trade to allow “extraordinary consumption for foreign commodities to profit other counties while our country grows poor.” And what would he say about the first African-American President? First of all yes, Franklin did owned slaves. But three months before he died, he introduced a petition to the first Congress calling for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. I would venture to say, he would commend us for appreciating a man’s abilities instead of his race or religion.

What would Franklin say about taxes? As he famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be certain, except death and taxes.” Are we overtaxed? Here’s what Franklin said in 1758, “Friends, the taxes are indeed very heavy, and if those laid on us by our government were the only ones we had to pay, we might more easily discharge them. But we are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly.”

His opinion on education: “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

And what would this resolute patriot say about our future? On June 28, 1787 as our Constitution was being ratified, Franklin addressed all the delegates: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, because I think a general Government necessary for us, if well administered; but it will only end in despotism as other forms have done before, if the people become corrupt.”

I’m not sure who we can trust to tell us the way it, but I know we can trust the words of Benjamin Franklin. Remember, “The US Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it.”

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