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Jennings on Franklin

Updated on May 15, 2011

Before the Revolution

My mother-in-law gave me Francis Jennings' Benjamin Franklin, Politician: The Mask and the Man several Christamases ago. Somehow, it got buried under a lot of other books I just had to read, only to find daylight recently when I was writing about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. Having found it, I decided to read it in full now, before it disappeared again. In life you have to make the most of opportunities when they appear; this is called wisdom.

Jennings is not concerned with Benjamin Franklin the scientist or revolutionary leader, but with the businessman and politician of pre-revolutionary Philadelphia, specifically of Philadelphia during the French-Indian War. We find Franklin at this time taking a stand against Penn and his partisans in the colony, in alliance, though not in agreement, with the Quakers. Jennings does not obscure or excuse Franklin's faults--his penchant for turning personal quarrels into comprehensive antipathies, as towards the Germans and pacifist Quakers, and his willingness to let theoretical relationships to suffice in addressing human problems, as with the Indians. Jennings describes Franklin in terms of both his great ambition and his guiding principles, so that the complexity of the man stands forth without bewildering the reader.

The genius of Jennings portrait, however, does not lie in his address of Benjamin Franklin himself, but in his ability to localize Franklin within Pennsylvania. Jennings has a detailed knowledge of colonial Pennsylvania, especially of the Quaker and Native American populations, and he uses this knowledge gained in previous studies to reveal the specific traps, pitfalls, and factions at work in Franklin's time, and the ways in which he cooperated and opposed them, often to his personal profit.

Franklin did not like Quaker pacificism; he was an imperialist concerned with expanding the colony and the English realm. As to the Indians, he objected to pacific dealings with them as well, writing 'I do not believe we shall ever have a firm Peace with the Indians till we have well drubb'd them', although he was more suspicious of the Iroquois, in whom England placed great faith, than the Delaware. Franklin thought of Indians as a Quaker issue, a body of relationships in which the Quakers played a prominent role and which they had, at least in Pennsylvania, made their exclusive province. Indeed, in Pennsylvania the Quakers guided, insofar as they were able, Indian affairs to negotiated, fair settlements with the Native peoples, and looked for causes for Indian actions in the relationships between settlers and Indians which could be remedied by just dealings. Where troubles arose, they looked for unjust acts, and often found them. In the French-Indian War they found that dishonest dealings by the Penn family had destroyed the peace of the eastern Delaware and sought to repair the rift.

The Quakers formed a powerful social force in Pennsylvania, supported by German settlers with similar pacifist inclinations and those, like Catholics, drawn to the state for its practice of religious tolerance. The Penn family, however, was an interest separate from the Quakers, a faction all its own, supported by a patronage system made possible by the family's power, greater, according to Jennings, than that of an English duke, as proprietor of the colony. In Pennsylvania, a proprietary colony, the Penns owned all the land, and disposed of it to their personal profit. The Penn family acted through governors who were able to take the oath of office that they, as Quakers, could not.

The French-Indian War broke out in the midst of a contest between the Proprietary interest and the Assembly, dominated by Quakers but not exclusively expressing Quaker opinion; the opposition to the Penns was more widely distributed than that. It is the machinations of the Penns and their allies, the responses of the Quakers, and the growth of a non-Quaker opposition to the Penns, primarily voiced by Franklin, that forms the core of Jennings book, and it is a fascinating story. It is a story that could only be told by one who was aware of the local situation in the colony, and by one aware of the ways in which documents of the time were manipulated to tell the desired story, not the true one, just as documents are subject to manipulation today.

After reading this book, I am actively seeking out Mr. Jennings other histories and the money to buy them. That is the greatest praise I can give any historian or author, the praise of pursuing their works beyond the first impression.


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