Today in history, January 17, 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born. Referred to many as “The First American,” Franklin was famous at home and abroad. He’s considered one of the foremost polymaths in history, and was a leading writer, scientist, inventor, publisher, statesman, publisher, philosopher, and much more.
Below, you’ll find a series of some of his best quotes on power, government, taxation – and more.
Franklin accomplished a great deal in many fields, despite the fact that had just two years of formal education. He became wealthy even though he had just one Dutch dollar and about 20 pence in copper when he arrived in Philadelphia at age 17. Because of this, Benjamin Franklin represents to many the American ideal – self-educated, self-reliant.
In 1754, he helped draft the Albany Plan of Union, an early blueprint for a federation of the American Colonies. In 1775, he drafted and submitted to the Second Continental Congress the first proposal for an “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.”
The following year, he was part of the Committee of Five, responsible for drafting and presenting to Congress a Declaration of Independence. As the Franklin Institute notes, he served primarily as an editor and offered some minor changes.
Among other important roles, Franklin was a diplomat who helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, officially ending the War for Independence. He also served as president of the first abolition society in the U.S.
Benjamin Franklin played an important role at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. There, he consistently stood up for the rights of every day people because he disliked “every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.”
But despite his support for the Constitution, he issued a stark warning – that it would “end in despotism.”
Franklin was certainly a supporter of the British Empire – but with a caveat – a single, consolidated power over the entire empire would guarantee its ruin.
When making observations in 1769-70 about the dispute between the Colonies and Great Britain, he summed up a precursor to the American view of federalism, writing that “Supreme power and authority must not, cannot, reside equally everywhere throughout an empire.”
He followed this, noting that a line in the sand dividing responsibilities based on the level of government was the only “proper” way to approach things:
“The British state is only the Island of Great Britain; the British legislature are undoubtedly the only proper judges of what concerns the welfare of that state; but the Irish legislature are the proper judges of what concerns the Irish state, and the American legislature of what concerns the American states respectively.”
As a student of history, Franklin understood what would happen to any empire that ignored these essential principles Here, from a 1781 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette:
“Empires, by Pride & Folly & Extravagance, ruin themselves like Individuals.”
One of the primary areas where Franklin disagreed with other Framers of the Constitution was about the executive branch. He warned that “The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
Although we don’t live under an hereditary monarch today, modern presidents actually wield far more power in many areas than the monarchs of Franklin’s time.
While many are familiar with his warning of “A Republic,if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin’s warning on the last day of the Philadelphia Convention – September 17, 1787 – might be the most prescient:
“I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
Franklin understood that in any system, people with power would always seek to expand their power. Earlier in the Convention, he noted:
“As all history informs us, there has been in every state and kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing and governed.”
Generally, he pointed out, the “ruling power” would win the day – through “constantly increasing” taxes:
“The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partizans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure.”
Today, inflation may represent the most insidious of taxes, because it’s generally hidden from the public through the central bank’s printing press. And that’s just how Franklin described it as well:
“The Depreciation of the American Paper is solely owing to the excessive Quantities.”
“The general Effect of the Depreciation among the Inhabitants of the States, has been this, that it has operated as a gradual Tax upon them. Their Business has been done and paid for by the Paper Money, and every Man has paid his Share of this Tax according to the Time he retain’d any of the Money in his Hands, and to the Depreciation within that Time. Thus it has proved a Tax on Money”
Of course, tyrants will get away with this as long as the people let them. Writing to Jane Mecom in 1773, he said “there is Truth in the Old Saying That if you make yourself a Sheep, the Wolves will eat you.”
Just over two years after the end of the Philadelphia Convention, Franklin fired off a letter to his friend, Jean-Baptiste Le Roy with this timeless gem:
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
He passed away just 5 months later on April 17, 1790.
Just hours after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 – a committee was appointed to design a seal for the United States. Although he wasn’t the original author of the phrase, the motto Benjamin Franklin recommended summed up the spirit of the American Revolution – a spirit that needs to be revived:
“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
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