Thanks for last week’s posts, students, on the Declaration of Independence, Venture Smith, and Phyllis Wheatly.
Paulina, Enson and Tenzin make the point that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration is a crucial cornerstone of American democracy that outlines our freedoms and insists on taking action when one’s “life, liberty, or happiness” is at stake. At the same time, as Maria and Christin point out, there is enormous “hypocrisy” of Jefferson (and Wheatly’s owners) participating in the enslavement of humans while at the same time encouraging universal equality.
Remarkably, Wheatly, as Nelson and Mehreen point out, was America’s FIRST published poet, showing “that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual” despite their horrific circumstances. She was also quite gifted at her craft. Brianna notes her use of “Biblical language” in her poetry as well as her strong faith in God (and Patriotism). Mohammed, in turn, quotes the line: “Some view our sable race with scornful eyes” to point out just how ridiculous racism is. For, as Wheatley argues in her poem, “all Christians” are equal under God.
Brian and Sumayah, in turn, remark on the “greatness” of Venture Smith who bought himself (and his family) out of slavery and purchased valuable land on the Connecticut River. A giant of a man, he was certainly “a man of remarkable strength and resolution.” Yet, as Amy points out, Smith must have suffered deeply “a kind of PTSD” having been a slave and “witnessing” the brutal death of his father at such a young age.
This week I want you to examine the life and writings of one of America’s most famous “founding fathers”: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was born to a large, relatively poor family in Boston in the year 1706. His father was a candle-stick maker, who had him apprenticed to his brother’s newspaper office. Young Benjamin was trained as a printer but did not like the way his brother treated him, so he famously escaped first to NYC, then landed in Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, he became the famed publisher of the Philadelphia Gazette newspaper and printed a best-selling book of moral maxims called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” From this work, we get famous lines such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man, healthy, wealthy, and wise”; “Look before You Leap”; “No pains no gains”; and “The Early Bird Gets the Worm.”
Franklin was a product of the Enlightenment, a period that encouraged intellectual freedom, religious tolerance, and rational thought (versus unthinking dogmatism). Enlightenment thinkers trusted in science and progressive ideals to help humans reach their fullest potential. Franklin’s life exhibits this as this short biography shows (PLEASE WATCH).
The American Enlightenment, of course, has a mixed legacy. It did produce such celebrated political documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but it DID NOT eliminate slavery and too many people (women, Native Americans, immigrants, the working-classes) continued to be treated as second-class citizens (or worse).
We see a horrific example of the failure of “enlightened” men to practice what they preached in the original Constitution itself. When determining the number of representatives each state could send to Congress, the framers decided to count the number of “free” people living in each state but only “3/5” of “others” (in other words, slaves did not count as whole people in determining representation in Congress). This is the notorious “3/5 clause” that stayed in the Constitution until slavery was finally ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865.
One of the important framers of the Constitution was Alexander Hamilton, who now has a famed Broadway show based on his life. For all his accomplishments, Hamilton did not share the democratic views of Franklin, who tried to rid America of slavery and tirelessly promoted science and learning for all.
This is not true of Hamilton, even though his Broadway show celebrates his immigrant upbringing and has a multi-ethnic cast (certainly a far stretch from historical reality). The songs from “Hamilton” ARE great though and try to tell a positive message. Please watch the trailer here. Also neat is the video below as the cast of “Hamilton” sings to an admiring young fan on Zoom during the pandemic.
For this week, I ask you to consider Benjamin Franklin as a man of the Enlightenment. Please read the following chapters from his Autobiography (written in 1790).
Chapter II: Beginning Life as a Printer
Chapter III: Arrival in Philadelphia
Chapter IX: Plan for Arriving at Moral Perfection
Chapter XVIII: Scientific Experiments
Please also read Franklin’s Petition to Congress in 1790, requesting an end to Slavery.
Here is the actual petition: Petition
POST ASSIGNMENT: In your post, highlight a section from Franklin’s writings that show his “enlightened” qualities OR comment on another reading/video of your choice. Questions to consider: How did Franklin become so successful? What do we learn about his character and views? How is he different from the Puritans? How does his life compare to Venture Smith? What do you think of his plan for perfection? How does it work out for him? Why is he so interested in scientific experiments? Why is his face on the $100 dollar bill? Post Due: Wed. Oct. 14