Sunday, October 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 173: Benjamin Franklin, “It is impossible we should think of Submission” (#131)

Benjamin Franklin, "'It is impossible we should think of Submission'" (1776) from The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence:

Did I ever tell you that, when I was young, I wanted to fall in love with and marry a girl with the last name Franklin so that I could take her last name and be Benjamin Franklin? I'm not sure how much weight you should put on that--it was probably around the same time that I answered "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "Tyrannosaurus Rex." To which, today, I would add, "Duh."

And this letter nicely captures a lot of what I love about Franklin, that pragmatic son-of-a-bitch. It could only be bettered if he dropped in a line or two about his scientific interests and innovations. In this letter, Franklin explains to his friend, Lord Howe, why he thinks Britain has screwed the pooch with how they've treated the American colonies.

See, Franklin had met Howe through his sister while in London. (In fact, Franklin and Caroline Howe became friendly over chess, which seems like another reason to like Franklin: he's not going to be intimidated or turned off by a smart woman.) And Howe was sent over to make peace with the Americans, but since Britain didn't recognize the Continental Congress, he addressed a letter to Franklin. This day's entry is Franklin's response, which hits all the right notes:

  • Thanks for the "pardon" but no thanks;
  • So nice to offer a "pardon" to us when you're the ones who royally messed up our amity by burning our towns, bringing in mercenaries, etc.;
  • And if we did allow you to "pardon" us, how could you ever respect us?;
  • Now, you could do the right thing, by rebuilding our towns and otherwise making amends for how you messed up--but we both know that's not going to happen because Britain is too (a) warlike, (b) proud, (c) commercial, (d) ambitious, and (e) deficient in wisdom;
  • Have you learned nothing from the Crusades?;
  • Of course, no one is going to take my predictions seriously until I'm proven correct by history--as usual!;
  • The British Empire is like a China vase that is less valuable when broken but impossible to put together;
  • Hey, I tried to be nice and make peace but your guys didn't want it!;
  • We're still cool, though, right?;
  • And fighting a war for money is dumb and immoral and also just bad business--you'll always spend as much or more than you gain in profit;
  • History will have to judge us;
  • And since your job isn't going to work, you might as well just quit now and go home.
I almost wish I still taught composition and rhetoric just to diagram how Franklin does this: how he moves from accusatory to triumphant to pragmatic; how he uses metaphor and hints at history, both past and future; and how he sees fit to give advice to Howe and maintain some semblance of warmth and friendship.

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