White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
TO BEGIN THE WORLD ANEW
Benjamin Franklin’s American Breed
The Demographics of Mediocrity
Can it be a Crime (in the Nature of Things I mean) to add to the Number of the King’s Subjects, in a new Country that really wants People?
—Benjamin Franklin, “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker” (1747)
Like every educated Englishman, Benjamin Franklin was obsessed with idleness. In his Poor Richard’s Almanack of 1741, he offered familiar advice that echoed the talk of Hakluyt, Winthrop, and Byrd: “Up sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” There was utterly nothing new in his pitch for hard work as the way to wealth.1
By the 1740s and 1750s, Franklin was well positioned to contribute to the ongoing debate on class and American colonization. Born to a modest tradesman, he had established himself as a successful printer, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette since 1729. His first in a series of profitable annual almanacs rolled off the presses three years later. As a public wit, he had mastered the art of ventriloquism on the page, mimicking colonial characters. The teenage Franklin had pretended to be a mature Boston widow in his “Silence Dogood” letters; Dingo, an African slave, was another of his personae. Poor Richard Saunders, the figure featured in his almanacs, was the cuckold tradesman whose pert proverbs never matched his whining over the daily struggle to make ends meet. So successful was Franklin in expanding his printing business, taking on partners, and honing his literary disguises that he retired from day-to-day management of all commercial concerns in 1748.2
Freed from work, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751, and remained active in promoting civic enterprise. He helped to found a hospital and a young men’s academy in Philadelphia. During the same decade, his electrical experiments made a strong impression in Europe. He was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London. Honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and the College of William and Mary quickly followed. Appointed deputy postmaster general, he introduced reforms for improving communication among the colonies. At the Albany Congress in 1754, he proposed an intercolonial governing body aimed at shoring up military defenses and promoting western expansion. Though approved at the Albany Congress, the plan of union was never ratified by the colonies.3
As the colonies’ leading man of science, Franklin popularized the latest theories. Of primary interest here are his efforts to apply scientific knowledge to that most perplexing of all subjects: the creation of classes. It was an article of faith in eighteenth-century British thought that civilized societies usually formed out of the fundamental human need for security to ensure survival, but the same societies were gradually corrupted by a preoccupation with luxuries, which resulted in decadence. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire stood behind such theorizing; what Franklin did was to shift the focus to human biology. Underneath all human endeavors were gut-level animal instincts—and foremost for Franklin was the push and pull of pain and pleasure. Too much pleasure produced a decadent society; too much pain led to tyranny and oppression. Somewhere in between was a happy medium, a society that channeled humanity’s better animal instincts.4
Did North America offer the environment to achieve this happy medium? Franklin thought so. Its unique environment could strip away the unnatural conditions of the Old World system. The vast continent would give Americans a demographic advantage in breeding quickly and more fruitfully than their English counterparts. Freed from congested cities, as well as the swelling numbers of unemployed and impoverished, Americans would escape the extremes of great wealth and grinding poverty. Instead of a frantic competition over resources, the majority would be perfectly content to occupy a middling stage, what he called a “happy mediocrity.”
The industrious ant, another favorite insect of the English, provided Franklin with the evidence he needed. In 1748, as he watched one ant lead a procession of his fellows along a string to a molasses pot hanging from the ceiling, he discovered that ants communicated with each other. His curiosity about animal behavior grew, and two years later he tried an experiment with pigeons. Arranging pairs of the birds in a box, he noted that they reproduced quickly but never permitted the box to get overcrowded. The birds engaged in natural selection, the “old and strong driving out the young and weak, and obliging them to seek new habitations.” As he added more boxes, the pigeons filled them, reproducing in response to the available space and food.5
Ants and pigeons. Communal creatures could be easily compared to people. Reducing all human action to the overriding impulse to seek pleasure and avoid pain, the utilitarian Franklin was convinced that the driving forces of social development had little to do with religion or morality. If men and women were at their core animals, then they were instinctively driven to eat, procreate, and move. The last of these qualities, what Franklin called the feeling of “uneasy in rest,” came from the apparent similarity he found between animal and human migration. People displayed the desire to roam, to move forward, and to improve their state. Unsettled land sparked the instinct to migrate, as did limited resources encourage emigration—little different from the lives of the young pigeons who were forced to seek out new habitations. Franklin’s notion of “uneasy in rest” echoed Richard Hakluyt the younger, who had claimed all Englishmen to be “stirrers abroad,” a people who were searchers of new places and seekers of new avenues of wealth.6
In “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751), one of his most important treatises, Franklin predicted that Americans would double in population in twenty years. Idleness would be bred out of the English constitution. Large families encouraged parents to be industrious. Children would be put to work, imitating their parents, and spurred on by the will to survive. Class formation would occur, but it would be in a state of flux and adjustment, as people spread outward and filled the available territory.7
People needed incentives to produce more children. Franklin reminded his readers in “Observations” that in the Roman Empire, fruitful women had been rewarded for the number of offspring they produced. Slave women were rewarded with their liberty, while freeborn widows with large broods earned property rights and the autonomy ordinarily reserved for freeborn men. His point was that great empires needed large populations (strength came in numbers) in order to people and settle new territories. The incentives that America offered were of a different kind than elsewhere: an abundance of land and the liberty to marry young.8
The purest expression of Franklin’s reproductive philosophy came in his 1747 satire “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker.” Appearing before a judge, Polly was found guilty of having borne an illegitimate child for the fifth time. Speaking in her own defense, Miss Baker described herself as an industrious woman: “I have brought Five fine Children into the World, at the Risque of my Life; I have maintain’d them well by my own Industry, without burthening the Township.” Her self-confidence was bolstered by the knowledge of her patriotic service. She had added to the “Number of the King’s Subjects, in a new Country that really wants People.” She should be praised, not punished, was the message.
Baker’s plight was not of her own doing. She wanted to be married; she wanted to display the “Industry, Frugality, Fertility, and Skill in Oeconomy, appertaining to a good Wife’s Character.” Was it her fault that bachelors abounded? she pleaded. How could her action be considered sinful when one gazed on the “admirable workmanship” of God in creating her beautiful children? Had she not fulfilled her higher duty, “the first and great Command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, Encrease and Multiply?” As Franklin saw it, God and nature were on the side of Miss Baker, and foolish laws and outdated church sanctions on the other. To make his point, he added a humorous coda: the judge who heard her speech was convinced and he married her himself the next day.9
Franklin’s offbeat story touched on all the points that he was trying to prove by demographic calculations and point-by-point reasoning in his “Observations.” The two essays should be read side by side. Nor was it an accident that he named his character Baker, a sly reference to the womb as an oven, a popular jest among English writers at the time. For Franklin, a man of both science and commerce, reproductive labor was work and should be valued as such. By adding to the “numbers of the King’s subjects,” reproductive labor was an imperial asset.
It also made sense for Franklin to target bachelors in his tale. In the American colonies and in England, the unmarried man of means was a scandalous figure. He was ridiculed as a hermaphrodite, as half man, half woman; his prescribed punishment, as one New York newspaper demanded, should be to have half of his beard shaved from his face to indicate his diminished manliness. Others felt he should lose his inheritance. In the same way that land could be left fallow, human fertility could be wasted. Having no children, wasting their seed, bachelors indulged in the worst kind of reproductive idleness.10
On the other hand, bastards added to the population and increased the wealth of the empire. Franklin’s own circumstances reinforced his view. His son William (later royal governor of New Jersey) was a bastard. William, too, fathered a bastard son, William Temple Franklin, and Temple, as he was known, added two known illegitimate children to the family tree. Bastards were a Franklin family tradition.11
Like John Locke, Franklin was certain that healthy children were the “riches of every country.” Yet his promotion of natural increase in the 1750s had more to do with colonial politics than strictly scientific curiosity. More than anywhere else, he asserted unambiguously, fit and fertile children were the special assets of British North America. In “Observations,” he sought to convince British policy makers that the Caribbean islands should not be the preferred colonial model. Franklin deplored the racial imbalance in the West Indies, which kept the population of laboring whites at artificially low numbers. Slaveowners, who didn’t perform their own labor, suffered from physical defects: they were “enfeebled, and therefore not so generally prolific.” In short, he concluded that slavery made Englishmen idle and impotent.12
Franklin also believed that slavery taught children the wrong lessons: “White Children become proud, disgusted with Labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.” His words here echoed what William Byrd had written about poor whites in Virginia. Byrd admitted to the Georgia trustees in 1726 that poor white laboring men learned to despise labor, and would rather steal than work in the fields. Franklin changed the above equation: slavery corrupted all white men, rich and poor alike.
On a larger scale than Oglethorpe, Franklin was fashioning a free-labor zone for the northern colonies. The magic elixir to achieve his idealized British America was, in a word, breeding. In his imagination, a continental expanse populated by fertile settlers would create a more stable society. Children would replace indentured servants and slaves as laborers, mirroring the system of labor that Oglethorpe had tried but failed to permanently institute in Georgia.
Franklin expanded his theory amid global war and shifting boundaries on the North American continent. By 1760, he was writing in support of Britain’s claim to Canada, eager to add that large territory to the empire after the British victory over France in the Seven Years’ War. British colonists would fill up the land, and the majority would remain a “middling population” happily engaged in agriculture. Unlike the structurally imbalanced sugar islands, North America’s desirable “mediocrity of fortunes” would lead the growing population to rely heavily on the consumption of British-made goods. This was a win-win situation for British merchants and American colonists, because population growth would at the same time augment commerce and manufacturing back in England. Not afraid of hyperbole, Franklin offered a warning to Parliament if it tried to hem in the colonial population. By refusing to add Canada, the highest legislative authority would be no better than a cruel midwife stifling the birth of every third or fourth child in North America.13
Franklin’s theory of breeding would remain a staple of American exceptionalism for centuries to come. He provided three irresistible arguments. First, he promised that class stability accompanied western migration. Second, he reasoned that the dispersal of people would reduce class conflict and encourage a wider distribution of wealth among the population. Third, what he called a “mediocrity of fortunes” was his belief in the growth of a middle-range class condition. His farming families were not poor or self-sufficient, but engaged in some form of commercial farming, producing enough to support their families and purchase British goods.14
The most startling feature of his theory was that the class contentment he described could be achieved through natural means, or, to put it more bluntly, by letting nature take its course. The British Empire, with its well-trained ground forces and powerful navy, secured the territory. From that moment forward, the unoccupied land was the lure for settlers much like the molasses pot for the ants. In a land of opportunity, procreating came more naturally, as families felt happy and secure. Rigid class distinctions and the hoarding of resources were less likely to take place. The compression of classes persisted as long as new land was acquired in which people could spread and settle. Industry, frugality, and fertility were the natural outgrowth of a happy mediocrity.
• • •
How realistic was Franklin’s theory? And to what degree was his argument based on wishful thinking rather than a reasonable explanation for human behavior? To begin with, eighteenth-century American colonists—like twenty-first-century Americans—were not anything like ants or pigeons. Human nature does not follow some mechanistic model of predictable reactions to pain and pleasure. And Franklin’s omnipotent and guiding hand of nature was never left unmediated by other, equally powerful forces of politics and culture. Were people really mice in a maze? Or was colonization, migration, and peopling more messy and less certain than his grand theory promised?
Franklin’s own experiences belied his optimism as to the ease with which colonists moved from one place to another. As a teenager, he had run away from Boston to Philadelphia, cutting short the full term of an apprenticeship he had been contracted to serve with his elder brother. A fugitive and vagrant, he was part of the large class of servants on the lam. His movement, like so many others, was haphazard, less methodical than the ants he studied. William Moraley, who arrived in Philadelphia in the same decade as young Franklin and wrote a memoir about his experiences, may have said it best when he described himself as a “Tennis-ball of fortune,” bouncing from one new master to the next. Despite his literary skills, training as a law clerk and watchmaker, the un-Franklinesque Moraley seemed to migrate in circles and never up the social ladder. There was no guarantee that restlessness ensured social mobility.15
Poverty was increasingly common as the eighteenth century wore on. Philadelphia had its economic slumps, brutally cold winter weather, and shortages of wood that caused the poor nearly to freeze to death. In 1784, one man who was part of the working poor in the city wrote to the local newspaper that he had six children, and though he “strove in all his power,” he could not support them. Hard work by itself was not the magic balm of economic self-sufficiency, nor was Franklin correct that big families were always a boon. He was even wrong about his tabulations on American birthrates. Infant mortality in Philadelphia was surprisingly high, and comparable to English rates, proving that Franklin’s prediction of a healthy and happy population was more rhetorical than it was demographic fact.16
The quintessential self-made man was not self-made. The very idea is ludicrous given the inescapable network of patron-client relationships that defined the world of Philadelphia. To cushion his rise, Franklin relied on influential patrons, who provided contacts and loans that enabled him to acquire the capital he needed to set up his print shop and invest in costly equipment.
For Franklin to obtain patronage and navigate contending political factions was a tricky enterprise. Pennsylvania’s class structure had some unusual quirks. At the top were the proprietors, members of William Penn’s family, who owned vast tracts of land and collected quitrents. Next came the wealthy Quaker landowners and merchants, bound together by family and religious ties. In the eighteenth century, the Society of Friends disowned any member who married outside the sect, which inflicted real economic hardship by depriving the expelled of important commercial resources, loans, and land sales.17
Franklin was neither a Quaker nor a quasi Quaker (finding some special appeal in their religious principles), but he did develop strong personal relationships with several cosmopolitan and highly educated Friends in Philadelphia and in England. He relied on Quaker patrons, especially in the early days of his business. Like another one of his sponsors, the lawyer Alexander Hamilton, a non-Quaker leader of the Quaker Party (and no relation to the later politician), he initially sided with the Friends in local and imperial politics, except that he broke ranks when it came to an orthodox stand on pacifism. His friends were liberal Friends, who were not exclusive about who should wield influence within the political faction of the Quaker Party. That was how Hamilton rose to power in Pennsylvania and saw to Franklin’s appointment as clerk of the Assembly, which in turn led to his official entrance onto the local political stage.18
The Friends did not rule uncontested. There was a rising non-Quaker elite faction, with ties to both the proprietors and the Anglican Church. Their political influence derived from strong commercial ties with England and to the essential Scottish countinghouses. Their power was enhanced upon the purchase of thousands of acres of the most lucrative tracts of real estate, which was made possible because the land office was overseen by the powerful proprietors. They became known as the Proprietary Party—a rival group to the wealthy Quakers. Though Franklin began his rise by becoming a master tradesman and a printer, he could not ignore the colonial merchants of either party. Merchants dealt in world markets; they were wholesalers, a distinctly different class from shopkeepers or tradesmen like Franklin, and many were extremely wealthy. Sound paper money helped with overseas trade, and Franklin’s contract from the Assembly to print money drew him closer to the commercial elite.19
Class status was still based on family name in Pennsylvania, for the top tier was dominated by the Penn, Pemberton, and Logan families—the proprietors and Quaker elites. Below them was a growing transatlantic merchant class that set itself apart by engaging in a conspicuous display of wealth. These families owned slaves and servants, and silver tea sets; they wore rich fabrics, had grand homes, and drove carriages. At the time Franklin retired from his printing operations in 1748, he was in the top tenth percentile in wealth, owning a horse and chaise and having invested in a large tract of land. Even among the plain Quakers, known for their simple dress, carriages were a status symbol. In 1774, in a city of fifteen thousand, only eighty-four Philadelphians owned a carriage.20
Class was about more than wealth and family name; it was conveyed through appearances and reputation. Franklin understood this. The first portrait of him, painted in 1746, did not show him in his leather apron setting print type; nor was he pushing a wheelbarrow along the street, as he described himself—a dutiful tradesman—in his Autobiography. He was wearing a respectable wig and a fine ruffled shirt, and assumed all the airs of the “Better Sort.”21
If material appearances defined the proprietors and wealthy classes as the “Better Sort,” then the same rule applied at the other end of the social spectrum among the “Meaner Sort.” A legal distinction existed between the free and the unfree, the latter including not only slaves but also indentured servants, convict laborers, and apprentices. As dependents, they were all classified as mean, servile, and ill-bred. Thousands of unfree laborers flooded Philadelphia, so that as early as 1730, Franklin was complaining about “vagrants and idle persons” entering the colony. He wrote these words after having escaped impoverished circumstances not many years before. He had arrived in Philadelphia in 1723 as a runaway, meanly dressed in filthy, wet clothing.22
For better or worse, the word “sorts” was meaningful. It loosely referred to different grades of commercial goods. Buttons and tobacco were classified in “sorts.” A 1733 advertisement in a New York newspaper offered “fans made and sold of richer and meaner sort.” Unlike the idiom of breeding stocks, which measured value through family bloodlines, commercial sorts placed more emphasis on outward appearance, as in the separation of quality goods from cheaper ones. As a commercial people, the British were inclined to think of their social classes along the same lines. When a newspaper referred to people of the “meanest quality,” it could as easily have been an appraisal of the texture of cloth, meaning something that was coarse, unfinished, composed of baser materials, and cheaply made.23
In general, meanness meant poverty and a disagreeable dependence, whether in the form of a reliance upon charity or forced labor in a workhouse. Philadelphia, Boston, and New York all had almshouses. But meanness also attached to the condition of servitude, and was embodied in submissiveness. There was a stigma assigned to those of the lower classes, because they allowed themselves to be looked down upon, despised, and abused. The meaner sort was thought to possess a rude appearance, dull mind, and unrefined manners, and to indulge in vulgar speech. Meanness was filth and lowliness, yet another variation of the enduring class of waste people.24
Franklin was not sympathetic to the plight of the poor. His design for the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751 was intended to assist the industrious poor, primarily men with physical injuries. The permanent class of impoverished were not welcome; they were simply shooed over to the almshouse. He felt the English were too charitable, an opinion he based on observing German settlers in his own colony, who worked with greater diligence because they came from a country that offered its poor little in the way of relief. When he talked about the poor, he sounded like William Byrd. In complaining about British mobs of the poor that raided the corn wagons in 1766, he charged that England was becoming “another Lubberland.”25
Most men wanted a “life of ease,” Franklin concluded, and “freedom from care and labor.” Sloth was in itself a form of pleasure. This was why he contended that the only solution to poverty was some kind of coercive system to make the indigent work: “I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” The poor’s instinct of being “uneasy in rest” had been impaired; so what they needed was a jolt (of electricity?) to work again.26
Here we see the double meaning inherent in Franklin’s theory of forced migration. In his projected model of emigration, a continental expanse populated by fertile settlers would allow people to escape the onus of working for others. Parents and children would work for themselves, stripping away a culture of subservience that was part and parcel of being of the meaner sort. But with newfound liberty, their fate rested on the most impersonal of forces: survival of the fittest. The harsh environment of the frontier forced settlers either to work hard or perish. Only the more frugal, fertile, and industrious would succeed, while the slothful and incompetent would have to keep moving or die.
If Franklin valued the middling sort on the frontier, he was already their champion before he wrote “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.” The “middling people” of Pennsylvania were, he had written, the “Tradesmen, Shopkeepers, and Farmers.” He had no desire to eliminate the “Better Sort,” of course, but he rejected the idea that if some were “better,” everyone else was automatically “the meaner Sort, i.e., the Mob, or the Rabble.”
In a pamphlet of 1747, “Plain Truth,” he demonstrated that the middle had a crucial role to play for the colony. That year Delaware was invaded by an irregular French and Spanish force. Franklin wrote to warn his fellow Philadelphians, especially the Quakers, that the same fate awaited them unless they organized a voluntary militia. He called for a “militia of FREEMEN,” by which he meant men of the better and middling sorts, working together to defend their property and their colony.27
To rally support for his militia plan, he cast the dangers of a foreign invasion in terms of class warfare. Who, he posed, could be expected to lead the attack on a civilized people? It would be those “licentious Privateers,” the dregs of society: “Negroes, Mulattoes, and others of the vilest and most abandoned of Mankind.” He insisted that no indentured servants would be allowed to join the army of freemen. Besides advocating for defense of the colony, what was Franklin up to? Simple. He was redrawing class lines, bringing industrious middling men up the social ladder and refortifying the line that separated the middling from the meaner sort.28
Franklin proved that he had little faith in human nature. From his early days in Pennsylvania, he had fulminated against the intractable poor. In 1731, he wrote a piece in the Pennsylvania Gazette about the “scandalous Collection” of slaves, drunks, and low white servants who gathered at the outdoor fairs. As he gazed on his fellow Philadelphians, he accepted the cynical view of humanity that virtue was a rare and malleable trait. In his Autobiography, he told a story of how he gave up vegetarianism as a young man after he saw the belly of a fish cut open and all the little fish fall out. This story was a class parable, the lesson being that the big fish (or powerful elites) devoured weaker men. Franklin was not a disciple of the “Sermon on the Mount,” but believed instead that the poor were neither less greedy nor naturally humble compared to those above. If the little fish in his world were allowed to rise, they would be just as rapacious.29
If inventive, Franklin was a man of his time, expressing a natural discomfort with unrestrained social mobility. For most Americans of the eighteenth century, it was assumed impossible for a servant to shed his lowly origins; the meaner sort, as one newspaper insisted, could never “wash out the stain of servility.” There were fears that the meaner sort were treading too close on the heels of those above them.30
Franklin certainly never endorsed social mobility as we think of it today, despite his own experience. To be accurate, he fantasized that the continent would flatten out classes, but it was clear that this condition was contingent upon keeping poor people in perpetual motion. Franklin’s militia plan expressed a conservative impulse. Giving the accomplished middling sort a feeling of public respect and a sense of civic duty would yield them the solid contentment of happy mediocrity. Contentment might actually reduce the desire of more ambitious men to rise up the social ladder too quickly or recklessly.
Franklin understood that maintaining class differences had its own appeal. In the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper he edited, an article was published in 1741 that exposed why people preferred having a class hierarchy to having none. Hierarchy was easily maintained when the majority felt there was someone below them. “How many,” the author asked, “even of the better sort,” would choose to be “Slaves to those above them, provided they might exercise an arbitrary and Tyrannical Rule over all below them?” There was something desirable, perhaps even pleasurable, to use Franklin’s utilitarian axiom, in the feeling of lording over subordinate classes. To alter that measure of satisfaction required a drastic rewiring of the eighteenth-century mind. Again, for Franklin, the solution lay in a radical process of spreading people so far apart and in such sparsely settled territory that they would forget who was once above or below them. But did it make sense that the rich would sacrifice their class advantage and not hire laborers or bring along slaves as they headed west? Or was his theory premised on the belief that only the poor would seek out new habitations?31
Franklin knew the frontier he was theorizing was an imaginary place. But it served his purposes. As a political argument, he offered a strong defense for British North America as the demographic stronghold of the empire. Here were the breeders of British subjects, and a fast-growing pool of consumers of manufacturing goods. His demographic science also concealed the deep contempt he felt for the poor. The coercive forces of nature were more palatable than the workhouse or almshouse. As late as 1780, he warned his grandson that society divided people into “two Sorts of People,” those who “live comfortably in Good Houses” and those who “are poor and dirty and ragged and vicious and live in miserable Cabins and garrets,” and “if they are idle, they must go without or starve.” While the foregoing assessment of an uncensored Franklin was harsh, it reminds us of the prevailing sentiment: the poor were expendable. On the frontier, too, in “miserable Cabins,” poverty and hopelessness abounded.32
Franklin knew about white Indians, the English who were taken captive as children and never really readjusted after returning to English settlements. A wealthy young man, a former Indian captive whom Franklin claimed to know, gave up his estate, taking nothing but a gun and coat when he made his way back to the wilderness. With this parable, Franklin acknowledged that freedom from care, and laziness, would always be a temptation for some. Relying on his demographic figures, the law of averages, nevertheless made the occasional outlier less of a worry.33
Franklin was not blind to the fact that North America’s frontier settlers would not be composed solely of the finest British stock. He was quick to call those who inhabited the Pennsylvania backcountry the “refuse” of America. But at the same time, he hoped that the forces of nature would carry the day, that the demands of survival would weed out the slothful, and that the better breeders would supplant the waste people. That was his wish, at least.34
• • •
Franklin’s theory had traction because it was built upon the prevalent English thinking of his time. He was less an innovator than he was an ingenious popularizer. His fame was such that his ideas about demographic expansion found fertile ground as the American Revolution arrived, when the iconic propagandist Thomas Paine presented a variation of Franklin’s American breed to a receptive audience. Like Franklin, Paine imagined a people forged from unique conditions of its land and resources. The American breed was endowed with an instinctive, youthful, and forward-directed spirit.
Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (1776) is heralded for having captured the spirit of the Revolution, replete with a potent language of natural rights and an economic justification for independence. For Paine, the unique character of America’s empowered white inhabitants, supported by the unquestioned majesty of an extensive continent, was evidence of the irresistible sway of nature’s law. He emphasized free trade and America’s potential as a commercial empire. He celebrated the power of a burgeoning continent over the reach of distant kings, as he employed the rhetorical device of unnatural breeding to disavow monarchy. He forecast that independence would end the waste and idleness that prevailed under the colonial regime.
Paine is actually an odd choice for modern Americans to celebrate as a Revolutionary symbol. He was an Englishman born and bred; better put, an Englishman in exile. When Common Sense was published in January 1776, he had been in Philadelphia for little more than year. He had arrived with a letter of introduction from Franklin, which landed him a job editing the Pennsylvania Magazine; or American Monthly Museum, a venture committed to everything American, despite its unmistakable London design and English editor. Adding to the irony of the situation, he had been an exciseman in England, and tax collectors did not fare well in the protests leading up to the Revolution. Though his pamphlet did not sell the 150,000 copies he claimed, it did win over George Washington, and it did reach audiences in New England, New York, Baltimore, and Charleston. Like his sponsor Franklin, Paine was fascinated by facts and figures, the stuff of political arithmetic and useful knowledge, yet at the same time he was not above quoting Aesop’s fables. His pamphlet spoke a familiar language, a distinctly British language of commerce, employing a simple and direct style capable of reaching readers beyond the educated elite.35
Paine’s writing is equally as revealing for what he does and doesn’t say about class. He would not tackle the monopoly of land and wealth until 1797, after watching the French Revolution unfold, when he declared in Agrarian Justice that everyone had an equal and divine right to the ownership of the earth. In Common Sense, he pushed class, poverty, and other social divisions aside. Though he acknowledged the “distinctions of rich, of poor,” he directly dismissed the “harsh ill-sounding names” that exacerbated class conflict. In two breezy paragraphs, he coupled the distinctions of class and sexual difference as phenomena beyond present political concern. They were differences derived from nature, effects that had come about by accident. They simply were. Class disparities did not rise to the level of justifying revolution.36
Paine’s sleight of hand in concealing class reflected his preference for talking about breeds. His overarching argument was that European-descended Americans were a new race in the making, one specially bred for free trade instead of the state machinery of imperial conquest. His critique of the British political economy was centered on the enormous debts it incurred through expensive military adventures, which he blamed on the frivolous ambitions of English royalty. Over time, kings and queens had become wasteful heads of state, in and of themselves a social liability.37
He accused the monarchy of “engrossing the commons,” that is, destroying the representative nature of the House of Commons, the one branch that embodied the will of the rising merchant class in England. The American colonies, meanwhile, were being “drained” of their collective manpower and wealth, merely to underwrite new overseas wars. Independence would allow America to “begin the world over again,” Paine declared dramatically. The new nation would signal a new world order. Unburdened by constant debt and a large military, it would be a vibrant continental power erected on the ideals of free trade and global commerce.38
As a promoter on the order of the Hakluyts, Paine conceived of America as an experimental society through which to adjust, or recalibrate, the very meaning of empire. Like past commentators, he extolled the natural resources of America: timber, tar, iron, and hemp. Corn and other agricultural goods would give America a leading role in feeding Europe. North America’s major cash crop, tobacco, was starkly missing from his discussion—he used grain-producing Pennsylvania as his model, not Virginia.39
Most important, he insisted that independence would benefit both America and the British nation. Free trade (as he imagined it) did not discriminate; it knew no bounds. He even assured his American readers that English merchants would be on their side, wanting to protect and advance trade with America rather than plunge the government of Great Britain into another costly war. He was right about some merchants, but dead wrong about the war.40
It was Paine’s theory of human nature that led him to emphasize commercial alliances over class divisions. His mantra was: commerce was natural, monarchy was unnatural. In many of his writings, he argued that commerce emerged from mutual affections and shared survival impulses, while monarchy rested on plunder and overawing the “vulgar” masses. Ultimately, kings benefited no one but themselves. “Your dependence upon the crown is no advantage,” he told his readers in another essay, “but rather an injury to the people of Britain, as it increases the power and influence of the King. They benefited only by trade, and this they have after you are independent of the crown.” In this way, Paine saw commerce as the balm that smoothed over class differences and united the interests of British and American merchants alike.41
Paine knew that class tensions existed. He understood that revolutions stirred up resentments. In Common Sense, he adopted an ominous tone at a key point in his argument, warning readers that the time was ripe to declare independence and form a stable government. Or else. In the current state of things, “the mind of the multitude is left at random,” he wrote, and “the property of no man is secure.” Therefore, if the leadership class did not seize hold of the narrative, the broad appeal to political independence would be supplanted by an incendiary call for social leveling. Landless mobs were waiting in the wings if colonial leaders failed to act. For Paine, “common sense” meant preserving the basic structure of the class order, and preventing the whole from descending into a mob mentality and eventual anarchy.42
An effective system of commerce needed a stable class system, but what it didn’t need was dull-witted kings running the show. The practice of “exalting one man so greatly above the rest” was contrary to common sense and nature. Not only were the “ignorant and unfit” routinely elevated to kings, so were ennobled infants, as yet lacking reason. A “king worn out by age and infirmity” could not be legitimately removed from power. Here was nature out of control, deformed, perverted. Paine mocked the idea that English royalty were “some new species,” a “race of men” worthy of infallible stature. History did not justify any claim that the “present race of kings” had honorable (let alone divine) origins. William the Conqueror was a “French Bastard,” an invader with his “armed Banditti,” a “usurper,” a “ruffian,” Paine scoffed.43
In the course of desacralizing the British monarchy as an effete if not defunct breed, Paine repeated what other enlightened critics had already said. Recall that Paine had only been in America for thirteen months in January 1776, when the first edition of Common Sense was published, and he had not yet traveled outside of Philadelphia. His knowledge of America was based mostly on newspapers and books, the squibs and scraps he collected from the storehouse of public knowledge in circulation in England and America. Paine asked Franklin (who was still in England as war approached) for a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Earth and Animated Nature (1774). Goldsmith, Franklin, and Paine all embraced the popular science of natural history, which divided the continents into distinct breeds or races of people.44
On this basis, Paine pursued two powerful arguments about breeding. One highlighted the notion that Britain’s monarchy was rooted in antiquated thinking and political superstition. The other aimed to prove that Americans were a distinct people, a lineage based not on superstition but on science. The widely regarded theories of Linnaeus (1707–78) and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–88), which influenced Goldsmith’s treatise, divided the world into varieties and races shaped by the environment unique to each major continent. The Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, better known to history as Linnaeus, organized all of plant and animal life, and divided Homo sapiens, the word he coined for humans, into four varieties. The European type he said was sanguine, brawny, acute, and inventive; the American Indian he deemed choleric and obstinate, yet free; the Asian was melancholic and greedy; and the African was crafty, indolent, and negligent. This grand (and ethnocentric) taxonomy served Paine’s purpose in justifying the American Revolution. To “begin the world over again,” Americans of English and European descent had to be a new race in the making—perhaps a better one—as they laid claim to North America.45
In Paine’s simple formulation, breeding was either conditioned by nature or it was corrupted through superstition. The first possibility allowed a people’s fullest potential to be unleashed, while the latter only reduced their ability to grow and improve themselves. Again, he was not alone in equating monarchy with bad breeding. Paine echoed another of Franklin’s friends, the Unitarian cleric and scientist Joseph Priestley, who argued in 1774 that British subjects were comparable to the “livestock on a farm,” being passively transferred from “one worn out royal line to another.” Even more telling, a newspaper article published in both London and Philadelphia in 1774 pointed out that the worship of kings was “absurd and unnatural” and defied “common sense.” This unnamed writer sarcastically contended that “simpering Lords” in England would worship a goose if it had been endowed with all the royal trappings. The line that would have caught Paine’s eye was this: that kings were “made to propagate, to supply the state with an hereditary succession of the breed.”46
But there was nothing sacred about a royal breed. Blind allegiance to what enlightened critics had reduced to a barnyard custom exposed how an intelligent, civilized people might lose their grip on reality. The natural order was greatly out of alignment: British kings were exalted above everyone else for no logical reason. Americans had a unique opportunity to break free from the relics of the past and to set a true course for a better future, one unburdened by the deadweight of kings and queens.
It was this antiauthoritarian idea that made Paine’s pamphlet most radical. If kings could be seen as “ignorant and unfit,” then why not royal governors, Quaker proprietors, or the “Better Sort” riding in their carriages? If monarchy was not what it was supposed to represent, other customary forms of power could be questioned too. Class appearances might be similarly seen as mere smoke and mirrors. This is why Paine was careful to downplay the distinction between the rich and the poor. He wanted his American readers to focus on distant kings, not local grandees. He wanted them to break with the Crown, not to disturb the class order.
For like reasons, he turned a blind eye to slavery. Paine’s America was above all else an “asylum” for future-directed Europeans. No one else need apply. He argued against the inherited notion that America was a dumping ground for lesser humans. It was only a sanctuary for able, hardworking men and women. This overly sanguine portrait cleaned up class and ignored what was unpleasant to look at. Indentured servitude and convict labor were still very much in evidence as the Revolution neared, and slavery was a fact of life. Philadelphia had a slave auction outside the London Coffee House, at the center of town on Front and Market Streets, which was directly across from Paine’s lodgings. In Common Sense, the propagandist mentioned “Negroes” and “Indians” solely to discredit them for being mindless pawns of the British, when they were incited to harass and kill white Americans and to undermine the worthy cause of independence. The English military had “stirred up Indians and Negroes to destroy us.” Us against them. Civilized America was being pitted against the barbarous hordes set upon them by the “hellish” power of London.47
Paine’s purpose was to remind his readers of America’s greatness, drawing on the visual comparison of the continent in its size and separation from the tiny island that ruled it. “In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet,” he declared, magnifying Newtonian optics. The existing scheme did nothing but “reverse the common order of nature.” England belonged to Europe, he contended, and America belonged to none but herself. Canadians would demand their freedom too, because according to Paine’s taxonomic portrait they were more American than English. They were as much the offspring of the North American continent as their forward-looking southern siblings, endowed with the same traits and ambitions.48
As he conjured an embryonic people, Paine gave consideration to one more element that impinges on our study of class. He was thoroughly convinced that independence would eliminate idleness. Like Franklin, he projected a new continental order in which poverty was diminished. “Our present numbers are so happily proportioned to our wants,” he wrote, “that no man need be idle.” There were enough men to raise an army and engage in trade: enough, in other words, for self-sufficiency. The land would only continue to be wasted if “lavished by a king on his worthless dependents.” (Here, Paine did take a swipe at the old Pennsylvania proprietors.) With room to grow, the infant nation would reach new heights by displaying a manly, youthful spirit of commerce that Londoners once possessed but had since lost. The Revolution would end petty quarrels between colonies that had been nurtured in a culture of imperial dependence. Only through independence could America achieve its natural potential for commercial growth.49
For a long time, Great Britain “engrossed us,” Paine explained, proud to be part of his adopted home, his American asylum. The government in London and the Crown were controlling land and resources of the North American continent for selfish purposes. But now the United Colonies were awake to a new reality: the British monopoly had run its course. Anything less than complete independence would be “like wasting an estate on a suit at law, to regulate the trespasses of a tenant, whose lease is just expiring.” Wasting an estate. Britain’s lease was up.50
In advocating for an American breed bent on productivity and expansion, Paine’s richly evocative language of waste, idleness, breeding, and engrossing of land fed excitable minds. Knowing his impressionable audience, he compared the coming Revolution to Noah and the great flood: it would give birth to a “race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe,” their “portion of freedom” to be passed on to future generations. Population would grow and flourish as long as Americans filled the continent and harvested its resources for export. Paine’s economic heroes were overseas merchants, commercial farmers, shipbuilders, inventors, and property-owning and property-protecting Americans—but decidedly not the landless poor.51
“Britain and America are now distinct empires,” declared Paine in 1776. Six years later, as the war was coming to an end, he would still be defending the distinct American breed. “We see with other eyes,” he wrote, “we hear with other ears, and think with other thoughts than those formerly used.”52
To his credit, Paine held nothing back in poking holes in the dogma of hereditary monarchy. But with his broad swipes at royalty, he obscured other forms of injustice. He too loosely clothed the language of class in the garb of continental races and commercial impulses. Indians and slaves are marginalized in his grand vision of a new world order. Neither did he allow the ignoble waste people to make any appearance in Common Sense; the vast numbers of convict laborers, servants, apprentices, working poor, and families living in miserable wilderness cabins are all absent from his prose.
For Paine, the crucial issue for Americans in 1776 was not whether but how soon a new and independent regime would advance toward its destiny as first among nations. He assumed that the mighty forces of commerce and continental expansion would eliminate idleness and correct imbalances. There was nothing wrong with cultivating Anglo-American commercial instincts and sustaining peaceful transnational trade alliances with Great Britain. But in other areas, Paine hoped that the British way of seeing and hearing would disappear from America. He presumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that class would take care of itself.