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Philosopher as Savage

The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and Fashionable Wants, the sight of so many rich wallowing in Superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distressed for Want, the Insolence of Office . . . and restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them [Indians] with what we call civil Society.


Benjamin Franklin, marginalia in Matthew
Wheelock, Reflections, Moral and Political
on Great Britain and Her Colonies
, 1770

When the news that the war with France had been won reached Philadelphia, church bells and ceremonial cannon called the people into the streets for the customary celebration. The city, now the second largest in the British Empire with 20,000 people, was entering its golden age as the commercial and political center of the Atlantic Seaboard. Now, history seemed to promise it a role as gem of an entire continent, or at least that small part of it settled by Europeans and their descendants.

          Benjamin Franklin, fifty-seven years old and four decades a Philadelphian, was by 1763 unquestionably the city's first citizen. Because of his diplomacy with the Iroquois, which helped procure the victory his compatriots now celebrated, Franklin had gone to London to represent the colony at the Royal Court. His wit and wisdom, his talent for diplomacy and municipal organization, his business talents and his scientific achievements -- all had earned for Franklin a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He was at the peak of an enormously diverse and productive professional life.

          Not long after the last bell chime of celebration had died away, however, was there new trouble on the frontier, and new problems for Franklin, who never lost the empathy for the Indians he had acquired first by publishing treaty accounts, then by taking part in treaty councils. Following the eviction of the French, the Iroquois and their allies had lost their leverage as a balance of power. The British now had them surrounded, at least in theory. Hundreds, then thousands, of immigrants, most of them Scotch-Irish, were moving through the passes of the Appalachians, into the Ohio country, taking what seemed to them the just spoils of war. This wasn't, however, French territory. Even by the Crown's law, it still belonged to the Iroquois and their allies. As the illegal migration continued, the covenant chain rusted badly.

          British officials, who always kept a hawk's eye on the expense accounts of their Indian agents, cut gift gifting drastically, even for items (such as lead) on which many Indians had grown dependent. Rumors ran through the Indian country that the Great Father across the water was going to kill all the beaver, starve the Indians, and make slaves of them. The younger warriors of many nations became restless, ready to address the problem, even if it cost them their lives. Canassatego, Hendrick, and Weiser, three among many who had maintained the alliance, were dead. In the Grand Council at Onondaga, the sachems argued and the confederacy quivered. In the West, Pontiac fashioned his own alliance and went to war against the squatters.

          When the news reached the Pennsylvania frontier that Indians were laying a track of blood through the Ohio Valley, a hunger for revenge arose among the new settlers. They organized vigilante groups and declared virtual secession from the Quaker capital. There the assembly, without an army, was doing all it could in a nonviolent way, to restrain the pellmell rush across the mountains until land could be acquired by treaty. Without loyalty to or even knowledge of the old understandings, the new settlers would neither wait for diplomacy nor be bound by decrees.

          On December 14, 1763, fifty-seven vigilantes from Paxton and Donegal, two frontier towns, rode into Conestoga Manor, an Indian settlement, and killed six of twenty Indians living there. Two weeks later, more than 200 "Paxton Men" (as they were now called) invaded Lancaster, where the remaining fourteen Conestoga Indians had been placed in a workhouse for their own protection. Smashing in the workhouse door as the outnumbered local militia looked on, the Paxton Men killed the rest of the Conestoga band, leaving the bodies in a heap within sight of the places where the Anglo-Iroquois alliance had been cemented less than two decades before.

          The day before that massacre, Governor William Penn had relayed to the Pennsylvania assembly reports that the Paxton Men's next target would be Philadelphia itself, where they planned to slaughter 140 Indians at Province Island. The governor, citing "attacks on government," asked General Gage to delegate British troops to his Colonial command. Penn also wrote hastily to William Johnson, begging him to break the news of the massacres to the Grand Council at Onondaga "by the properest method."

          Franklin responded to the massacres with the most enraged piece of penmanship ever to come off his press -- A Narrative of the Late Massacres in Lancaster County of a Number of Indians, Friends of this Province, by Persons Unknown. The essay, published in late January 1764, displayed a degree of entirely humorless anger that Franklin rarely used in his writings:

But the Wickedness cannot be Covered, the Guilt will lie on the Whole Land, till Justice is done on the Murderers. THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT WILL CRY TO HEAVEN FOR VENGEANCE!

Franklin began his essay by noting that the Conestogas, a dying remnant of the Iroquois confederacy, had been surrounded by frontier settlements, and had dwindled to twenty people, "viz. 7 Men, 5 Women and 8 Children, Boys and Girls, living in Friendship with their White Neighbors, who love them for their peaceable inoffensive Behavior."

          Listing most of the victims by name, Franklin wrote that many had adopted the names of "such English persons as they particularly esteem." He provided capsule biographies to show just how inoffensive the Indians had been: "Betty, a harmless old woman and her son, Peter, a likely young Lad."

          As Franklin reconstructed the story, the Paxton Men had gathered in the night, surrounding the village at Conestoga Manor, then riding into it at daybreak, "firing upon, stabbing and hatcheting to death" the three men, two women, and one young boy they found. The other fourteen Indians were visiting white neighbors at the time, some to sell brooms and baskets they had made, others to socialize. After killing the six Indians, the vigilantes "scalped and otherwise horribly mangled," them, then burned the village to the ground before riding off in several directions to foil detection.

          Two weeks later, when the scene was repeated at the Lancaster workhouse, the Indians, according to Franklin's account, "fell to their Knees, protesting their Love of the English . . . and in this Posture they all received the Hatchet. Men, Women, little Children -- were every one inhumanely murdered -- in cold Blood!" While some Indians might be "rum debauched and trader corrupted," wrote Franklin, the victims of this massacre were innocent of any crime against the English.

          At considerable length, Franklin went on to reflect on the qualities of savagery and civility, using the massacres to illustrate his point: that no race had a monopoly on virtue. To Franklin, the Paxton Men had behaved like "Christian White Savages." He cried out to a just God to punish those who carried the Bible in one hand and the hatchet in the other: "O ye unhappy Perpetrators of this Horrid Wickedness!"

          On February 4, a few days after Franklin's broadside hit the streets, the assembly heard more reports that several hundred vigilantes were assembling at Lancaster to march on Philadelphia, and Province Island, to slaughter the Indians encamped there. Governor Penn, recalling Franklin's talent at raising a volunteer militia, hurried to the sage's three-story brick house on Market Street at midnight. Breathlessly climbing the stairs, a retinue of aides in tow, he humbly asked Franklin's help in organizing an armed force to meet the assault from the frontier. To Franklin, the moment was delicious, for eight years before Penn had been instrumental in getting British authorities to order the abolition of Franklin's volunteer militia.

          During two days of frenzied activity, Franklin's house became the military headquarters of the province. An impromptu militia of Quakers was raised and armed, and Franklin traveled westward to the frontier with a delegation to face down the frontier insurgents. As Franklin later explained in a letter to Lord Kames, the Scottish philosopher:

I wrote a pamphlet entitled A Narrative &c (which I think I sent you) to strengthen the hands of our weak Government, by rendering the proceedings of the rioters unpopular and odious. This had a good effect, and afterwards when a great Body of them with Arms march'd towards the Capital in defiance of the Government, with an avowed resolution to put to death 140 Indian converts under its protection, I form'd an Association at the Governor's request. . . . Near 1,000 of the Citizens accordingly took arms; Governor Penn made my house for some time his Head Quarters, and did everything by my Advice.

          While his timely mobilization may have saved the 140 Indians' lives, the sage's actions drained his political capital among whites, especially on the frontier.

          Such actions "made myself many enemies among the populace," Franklin wrote. What Franklin called "the whole weight of the proprietary interest" joined against him to "get me out of the Assembly, which was accordingly effected in the last election. . . ." Franklin was sent off to England during early November 1764, "being accompanied to the Ship, 16 miles, by a Cavalcade of three Hundred of my friends, who filled our sails with their good Wishes." A month later, Franklin began work as Pennsylvania's agent to the Crown.

          The rest of the decade was a time of instability on the frontier. Franklin was in frequent correspondence with his son, William Franklin, and with William Johnson, who kept the elder Franklin posted on problems they encountered with squatters. Johnson wrote to Franklin July 10, 1766: "I daily dread a Rupture with the Indians occasioned by the Licentious Conduct of the frontier Inhabitants who continue to Rob and Murder them." William wrote to his father three days later: "There have been lately several Murders of Indians in the different Provinces. Those committed in this Province will be duly enquired into, and the Murderers executed, as soon as found guilty. They are all apprehended and secured in Gaol."

          For the rest of his life, shuttling between America, England, and France on various diplomatic assignments, Franklin continued to develop his philosophy with abundant references to the Indian societies he had observed so closely during his days as envoy to the Six Nations. Franklin's combination of indigenous American thought and European heritage earned him the title among his contemporaries as America's first philosopher. In Europe, he was sometimes called "the philosopher as savage."[1]

          "Franklin could not help but admire the proud, simple life of America's native inhabitants," wrote Conner in Poor Richard's Politicks (1965). "There was a noble quality in the stories . . . which he told of their hospitality and tolerance, of their oratory and pride." Franklin, said Conner, saw in Indians' conduct "a living symbol of simplicity and 'happy mediocrity . . .' exemplifying essential aspects of the Virtuous Order." Depiction of this "healthful, primitive morality could be instructive for transplanted Englishmen, still doting on 'foreign Geegaws'; 'happiness,' Franklin wrote, 'is more generally and equally diffused among savages than in our civilized societies.'"

          "Happy mediocrity" meant striking a compromise between the overcivilization of Europe, with its distinctions between rich and poor and consequent corruption, and the egalitarian, democratic societies of the Indians that formed a counterpoint to European monarchy. The Virtuous Order would combine both, borrowing from Europe arts, sciences, and mechanical skills, taking from the Indians aspects of the natural society that Franklin and others believed to be a window on the pasts of other cultures, including those from which the colonists had come. There is in the writings of Franklin, as well as those of Jefferson, a sense of using the Indian example to recapture natural rights that Europeans had lost under monarchy. The European experience was not to be reconstructed on American soil. Instead, Franklin (as well as Jefferson) sought to erect an amalgam, a combination of indigenous American Indian practices and the cultural heritage that the new Americans had carried from Europe. In discussing the new culture, Franklin and others drew from experience with native Americans, which was more extensive than that of the European natural rights philosophers. The American Indians' theory and practice affected Franklin's observations on the need for appreciation of diverse cultures and religions, public opinion as the basis for a polity, the nature of liberty and happiness, and the social role of property. American Indians also appear frequently in some of Franklin's scientific writings. At a time much less specialized than the twentieth century, Franklin and his associates (such as Colden and Jefferson) did not think it odd to cross from philosophy to natural science to practical politics.

           Franklin's writings on American Indians were remarkably free of ethnocentricism, although he often used words such as "savages," which carry more prejudicial connotations in the twentieth century than in his time. Franklin's cultural relativism was perhaps one of the purest expressions of Enlightenment assumptions that stressed racial equality and the universality of moral sense among peoples. Systematic racism was not called into service until a rapidly expanding frontier demanded that enemies be dehumanized during the rapid, historically inevitable westward movement of the nineteenth century. Franklin's respect for cultural diversity did not reappear widely as an assumption in Euro-American thought until Franz Boas and others revived it around the end of the nineteenth century. Franklin's writings on Indians express the fascination of the Enlightenment with nature, the natural origins of man and society, and natural (or human) rights. They are likewise imbued with a search (which amounted at times almost to a ransacking of the past) for alternatives to monarchy as a form of government, and to orthodox state-recognized churches as a form of worship.

          Franklin's sense of cultural relativism often led him to see events from an Indian perspective, as when he advocated Colonial union and regulation of the Indian trade at the behest of the Iroquois. His relativism was expressed clearly in the opening lines of an essay, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," which may have been written as early as the 1750s (following Franklin's first extensive personal contact with Indians) but was not published until 1784.

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs. . . . Perhaps, if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude, as to be without any Rules of Politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some Remains of Rudeness.

          In this essay, Franklin also observed that "education" must be measured against cultural practices and needs:

Having few artificial Wants, they [Indians] have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless.

Franklin illustrated this point by recounting an exchange between the commissioners of Virginia and the Iroquois at the 1744 Lancaster treaty council. The account of the treaty, written by Conrad Weiser, reported that the Virginia commissioners asked the Iroquois to send a few of their young men to a college in Williamsburg (probably William and Mary) where "they would be well provided for, and instructed in the Learning of the White People." The Iroquois took the matter under advisement for a day (to be polite, Franklin indicated) and answered the Virginia commissioners July 4, the same day that Canassatego advised the colonists to form a union. Canassatego answered for the Iroquois a few minutes after his advice regarding the union:

We must let you know that we love our Children too well to send them so great a Way, and the Indians are not inclined to give their Children Learning. We allow it to be good, and thank you for your Invitation; but our customs differing from yours, you will be so good as to excuse us.

Franklin's essay was taken almost exactly from the 1744 treaty account published by his Philadelphia press during that year; in the essay, Franklin related that Canassatego told the commissioners that his people had had experience with such proposals before. "Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces," the sachem said. "They were instructed in all your Sciences, but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger. . . ." The young men educated in Euro-American schools were "good for nothing," Canassatego asserted. In Franklin's account, Canassatego not only turned down the commissioner's offer with polite firmness, but made a counter-offer himself: "If the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them."

          Franklin's "Remarks Concerning the Savages" shows an appreciation of the Indian councils, which he had written were superior in some ways to the British Parliament. "Having frequent Occasion to hold public Councils, they have acquired great Order and Decency in conducting them. . . . The women . . . are the Records of the Council . . . who take exact notice of what passes and imprint it in their Memories, to communicate it to their Children." Franklin also showed appreciation of the sharpness of memory fostered by reliance on oral communication: "They preserve traditions of Stipulations in Treaties 100 Years back; which, when we compare with our writings, we always find exact." When a speaker at an Indian council (the reference was probably to the Iroquois) had completed his remarks, he was given a few minutes to recollect his thoughts, and to add anything that might have been forgotten. "To interrupt another, even in common Conversation, is reckon'd highly indecent. How different this is to the conduct of a polite British House of Commons, where scarce a day passes without some Confusion, that makes the Speaker hoarse in calling to Order." Indian customs in conversation were reflected in Poor Richard for 1753, the year of Franklin's first diplomatic assignment, to negotiate the Carlisle Treaty: "A pair of good Ears will drain dry a Thousand Tongues." Franklin also compared this Indian custom favorably with "the Mode of Conversation of many polite Companies of Europe, where, if you do not deliver your Sentence with great Rapidity, you are cut off in the middle of it by the impatient Loquacity of those you converse with, and never suffer'd to finish it!" Some white missionaries had been confused by Indians who listened to their sermons patiently, and then refused to believe them, Franklin wrote.

          To Franklin, the order and decorum of Indian councils were important to them because their government relied on public opinion: "All their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment." Indian leaders study oratory, and the best speaker had the most influence, Franklin observed. In words that would be echoed by Jefferson, Franklin used the Indian model as an exemplar of government with a minimum of governance. This sort of democracy was governed not by fiat, but by public opinion and consensus-creating custom:

All of the Indians of North America not under the dominion of the Spaniards are in that natural state, being restrained by no laws, having no Courts, or Ministers of Justice, no Suits, no Prisons, no Governors vested with any Legal Authority. The Persuasion of Men distinguished by Reputation of Wisdom is the only means by which others are govern'd or rather led -- and the State of the Indians was probably the first State of all Nations.

          Franklin also compared the Indians' offers of free lodging and food for visitors to the customs of Euro-Americans. The Iroquois kept guest houses for travelers. This custom was contrasted by Franklin with Indians' treatment in white towns. He recounted a conversation between Conrad Weiser and Canassatego, who were close friends. In that conversation, Canassatego said to Weiser:

If a white Man, in travelling thro' our country, enters one of our cabins, we treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him Meat and Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return. But, if I go to a white man's house in Albany, and ask for Victuals and Drink, they say "Where is your Money?" And if I have none, they say, "Get out, you Indian Dog!"

          Franklin was also given to affecting Indian speech patterns in some of his writings, another indication that his respect for diverse cultures enhanced his understanding of the Indians with whom he often associated. In 1787, he described the American political system in distinctly Iroquoian terms to an unnamed Indian correspondent:

I am sorry that the Great Council Fire of our Nation is not now burning, so that you cannot do your business there. In a few months, the coals will be rak'd out of the ashes and will again be kindled. Our wise men will then take the complaints . . . of your Nation into consideration and take the proper Measures for giving you Satisfaction.

Franklin was also fond of calling on the Great Spirit when he could do so in appreciative company.

          Religious self-righteousness and pomposity was a favorite target of Franklin's pen, and he often used Indians to illustrate the religious relativism that was basic to his own Deistic faith. Deism, a religion that more than any other was prototypical of the Enlightenment frame of mind, emphasized naturalism, natural man, and rational inquiry, all of which finely complemented Franklin's interests in Indian cultures. Like Colden before him and Jefferson after him, Franklin often used his Deist beliefs to stress the universality of moral sense among peoples, and to break down ethnocentricity. Many of the people who were closest to the Indians during this period were Deists; calling on the Great Spirit was not at all out of character for them.

          According to Alfred O. Aldridge (Benjamin Franklin and Nature's God, 1967), Deism involved belief in the superiority of "natural religion" as opposed to "the hollow formalism of Christianity." Deism formed an ideal complement to the natural rights philosophy that was so important in Enlightenment thought. According to Aldridge, Franklin's early Articles of Belief (1728) showed that, early in his life, many of his religious beliefs resembled those of several American Indians. At that time, Franklin even accepted polytheism. Although he later acknowledged monotheism, Franklin never lost his critical eye toward conventional Christianity. Aldridge found in Franklin's "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America" an abundant satire of religious proselytizing and economic imperialism.

          In his "Remarks Concerning the Savages . . ." Franklin described a Swedish minister who lectured a group of Susquehanah Indians on the story of the creation, including "the Fall of our first parents from eating an Apple, the coming of Christ to repair the Mischief, his Miracles and Suffering &c." The Indians replied that it was, indeed, bad to eat apples, when they could have been made into cider. They then repaid the missionary's storytelling favor by telling him their own creation story. The missionary was aghast at this comparison of Christianity with what he regarded as heathenism and, according to Franklin, replied: "What I delivered to you are Sacred Truths, but what you tell me is mere Fable, Fiction and Falsehood." The Indians, in turn, told the missionary that he was lacking in manners:

My brother [the Indians told the missionary], it seems that your friends have not done you Justice in your Education, that they have not well instructed you in the Rules of Common Civility. You saw that we, who understand and practice those Rules, believ'd all your stories. Why do you refuse to believe ours?

          In the same essay, Franklin commented on the use of religion as a cover for economic exploitation. Again he used Canassatego, in conversations related to Franklin by Weiser. According to Franklin, Canassatego asked Weiser: "Conrad, you have lived long among the white People, and know something of their Customs. I have sometimes been to Albany and noticed that once in Seven Days they shut up their shops and assemble in the Great House; tell me: what is it for?"

          Weiser was said by Franklin to have replied: "They meet there to learn Good Things."

          Canassatego had no doubt that the town merchants were hearing "good things" in the church, but he doubted that all those good things were purely religious. He had recently visited Albany to trade beaver pelts for blankets, knives, powder, rum, and other things. He asked a merchant, Hans Hanson, about trading, and Hanson told the sachem that he couldn't talk business because it was time for the meeting to hear good things in the great house. After the merchants returned from the church, Canassatego found that all of them had fixed the price of beaver at three shillings sixpence a pound. "This made it clear to me, that my suspicion was right; and that whatever they pretended of meeting to learn Good Things, the real purpose was to consult how to cheat Indians in the Price of Beaver," the sachem said, according to Franklin's account.

          In Poor Richard for 1751, Franklin wrote: "To Christians bad rude Indians we prefer/ 'Tis better not to know than knowing err." Unlike Franklin, many English Deists had never seen an Indian, but they, too, often assumed that "the American natives would have a religion akin to Deism -- one based on the commonly observed phenomena of nature and dedicated to the worship of Nature's God," Aldridge wrote. Franklin saw the similarity of his own faith to that of Indians confirmed through personal experience. Deists, like Franklin, who sought to return "to the simplicity of nature" appeared to see things worth emulating in Indian societies.

          Franklin's use of Canassatego, to twit conventional Christianity, was not unique in his time. Satirists on both sides of the Atlantic used the testaments of real or fictitious Indians to deflate the righteousness of clerics; did the Indians not have their own theories of the earth's origin?

          Canassatego also figured importantly in an elaborate hoax intended to ridicule conventional Christianity, which appeared in the London Chronicle in June 1768. The hoax involved a review of a nonexistent book, The Captivity of William Henry. The fake review was not signed, so it is not possible to prove that Franklin wrote it. Whoever did concoct the hoax knew quite a bit about Iroquois society and customs, which made Franklin an obvious candidate. The style of the hoax fits Franklin, but some rather obvious errors point away from Franklin's authorship. For example, William Henry was purportedly taken captive in 1755 when he met Canassatego, who, in point of fact, had died in 1750. Regardless of its authorship, the hoax illustrated the use that was made of Indians as a counterpoint to conventional Christianity at the time. Such publications tended to legitimatize religious pluralism.

          As they sought a middle ground between the corrupting overcivilization of Europe and the simplicity of the state of nature in which they believed that many Indians lived, Franklin and other Deists paid abundant attention to the political organization of the Indians, especially the Iroquois, who were not only the best organized Indian polity with which British Americans had contact, but who were also allied with them. "Franklin had the conception of an original, pre-political state of nature in which men were absolutely free and equal -- a condition he thought admirably illustrated among the American Indians," Eiselen wrote in Franklin's Political Theories (1928). Franklin himself wrote: "Their wants . . . [are] supplied by the spontaneous Productions of Nature" and that they did not at all want to be "civilized."

          This state of nature was eagerly sought by many eighteenth-century Euro-Americans. To understand how many Europeans left their own cultures to live with the Indians is to realize just how permeable the frontier was. To those who remained behind, it was often rumored that those who had gone over to the Indians had been "captured." While some captives were taken, more often the whites took up Indian life without compulsion. As Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson May 9, 1753:

The proneness of human Nature to a life of ease, of freedom from care and labour appear strongly in the heretofore little success that has attended every attempt to civilize our American Indians. . . . They visit us frequently and see the advantages that Arts, Science and compact Society procure us; they are not deficient in natural understanding and yet they have never strewn any inclination to change their manner of life for ours, or to learn any of our Arts.

While Indians did not seem to have much inclination to exchange their culture for the Euro-American, many Euro-Americans appeared more than willing to become Indians at this time:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And that this is not natural [only to Indians], but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Franklin followed with an example. He had heard of a person who had been "reclaimed" from the Indians and returned to a sizable estate. Tired of the care needed to maintain such a style of life, he had turned it over to his younger brother and, taking only a rifle and a matchcoat, "took his way again to the Wilderness." Franklin used this story to illustrate his point that "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." Such societies, wrote Franklin, provided their members with greater opportunities for happiness than European cultures. Continuing, he said:

The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and fashionable Wants, the sight of so many Rich wallowing in superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distress'd for Want, the Insolence of Office . . . the restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them with what we call civil Society.

With so many white people willingly becoming associated with Indian societies, it was not difficult for thoughts and customs practiced behind the frontier to leak back into the colonies.

          Franklin's interest in America's indigenous peoples was not restricted to their social and political systems. Like many European and American scientists of his time, Franklin was interested in tracing the origins of these "natural men" who figure so importantly in the thought of the Enlightenment. Since they were believed to be living in a state that approximated the origins of all peoples, Indians made fascinating objects of scientific study. Franklin, an anthropologist before the discipline had a name, engaged in the collection of Indian grammars, an activity practiced on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth century. By the end of the century, missionaries, natural scientists, and others had produced dozens of grammars in many Indian languages of varying length and accuracy, one indication of the Enlightenment era's intense fascination with the peoples of the New World. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and others collected the grammars and searched for words that might resemble concepts or phrases in English, French, German, Welsh, Yiddish, or other European languages. Many popular theories supposed that various Indian tribes might have descended from the Welsh, or the Jews, or the Celts, and linguistic ties were believed to support those theories.

          As a scientist Franklin also vigorously opposed degeneracy theories, an intellectual export from Europe. These theories were developed to their highest form in France as a reaction to the myth of the "Noble Savage," which flourished in the same nation at the same time. According to the theory of degeneracy, America's climate degraded all life forms that existed there. Plants, animals, Indians, and transplanted Europeans were all said to be subject to this debilitating influence. Franklin thought otherwise. In 1772, he replied to assertions by de Pauw and Count de Buffon, writing to an unnamed French friend: "Les Américains ne le cédent ni en force, ni en courage, ni en d'esprit aux Européens." Franklin had too much personal contact to accept either the conception of the Noble Savage or the degeneracy argument. Unlike the Europeans who argued over land and people most of them had never seen, Franklin knew both well, and this knowledge produced in his writings about America and American Indians a pragmatism that many Europeans lacked.

          "The savage," wrote de Buffon, "is feeble and has small organs of generation. He has neither hair nor beard, and no ardor whatever for his female." To de Buffon, Indians were also "less sensitive, and yet more timid and cowardly . . . [with] no activity of mind." If not forced to move in order to survive, Indians "will rest stupidly . . . lying down for several days." Indians, wrote de Buffon, "look upon their wives . . . only as beasts of burden." The men, in de Buffon's analysis, lacked sexual capacity: "Nature, by refusing him the power of love, has treated him worse and lowered him deeper than any animal."

          To Jefferson, de Buffon -- who had never seen America, nor the Indians he wrote about -- presented a fat and inviting target. Jefferson replied that no correlation existed between sexual ardor and the amount of body hair on a man. "With them it is disgraceful to be hairy on the body. They say it likens them to hogs. They therefore pluck the hair as fast as it appears," Jefferson wrote. He recounted Indians' bravery in war to refute de Buffon's assertion that they were timid and cowardly, and he cited examples of Indian oratory to show that America's natives were not mentally deficient. While Jefferson believed that Indians' sexual equipment and drive was not less than that of whites, he wondered whether constant hunting and the Indians' diet might have diminished those natural gifts. What raised such a question in his mind, Jefferson did not say.

          As with many scientific debates through the ages, the emotional exchanges between Europeans and Americans over the degeneracy theories reflected the political and social conflicts of the age. In the writings of Franklin there seems to be an emerging awareness of a distinctive American habit of mind, a sense that these transplanted Europeans, himself included, were becoming something not inferior to Europeans, but something very different. As the debate over degeneracy theories was taking place, more and more Americans were, like Franklin, coming to conclude that history and dignity demanded the colonies become a separate nation. Franklin more than once rushed to the defense of America and things American. When British publishers derided American cuisine, he hurried into print with a defense of American (Indian) corn, replete with recipes. When French authors peddled fantasies about the wildness of America and the savagery of its native inhabitants, Franklin set up a press in Passy and issued from it essays on the virtues of America and Americans, white and red.

          During the decade after the Stamp Act, Franklin's writings developed into an argument for American distinctiveness, a sense of nationhood in a new land, a sense that an entirely new age was dawning for the Americans who traced their roots to Europe. The new nation would not be European, but American -- combining both heritages to make a specifically different culture. Franklin and his contemporaries, among whom one of the most articulate was Jefferson, were setting out to invent a nation. Before they could have a nation, however, they had to break with Britain, an act that called for an intellectual backdrop for rebellion, and a rationale for revolution.

  1. See: Peter Gay, "Enlightenment Thought and the American Revolution," in John R. Howe, Jr., ed., The Role of Ideology in the American Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 48.

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