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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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Given Franklin’s interest in science and inventing it is not surprising that the young Franklin would liken the government to a building whose utility depended on how well it had been constructed. He was able to publish his views in the journal he began publishing 1729, The Pennsylvania Gazette. In two short articles he wrote in April 1736 he outlined such a “constructionist” interpretation of “Good Government” in which he argued that if the “superstructure” of the government is too heavy (presumably because it had too many public servants in its employ and thus imposed heavy taxes to fund them) then it would weaken the foundation of the building and perhaps lead to its ultimate collapse. As a democrat he was convinced that only the people were wise enough to choose legislators who would ensure that the political superstructure was in proportion to the strength of the country’s foundation. Furthermore, he was convinced that only the British had discovered this principle of sound government, which had of course been passed on to their American colonial cousins, and that the French were too “enslaved” by their own despotic government to understand this. It is intriguing to ask whether this notion of political “superstucture” influenced Karl Marx in his thinking.

3 December, 2012

BenFranklinDuplessis250

Benjamin Franklin on the “superstructure” of Good Government (1736)

Read the full quote in context here.

Given Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) technical bent as an inventor and scientist it is not surprising that he would compare government to the construction of a building, nor that he would have great faith in the people’s ability to construct a sound political edifice:

Government is aptly compared to architecture; if the superstructure is too heavy for the foundation the building totters, though assisted by outward props of art. But leaving it to everybody to mould the similitude according to his particular fancy, I shall only observe that the people have made the most considerable part of the legislature in every free state; which has been more or less so in proportion to the share they have had in the administration of affairs. The English constitution is fixed on the strongest basis; we choose whomsoever we please for our representatives, and thus we have all the advantages of a democracy without any of its inconveniences.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

ON GOVERNMENT. NO. I [From the Pennsylvania Gazette, April 1, 1736]

Government is aptly compared to architecture; if the superstructure is too heavy for the foundation the building totters, though assisted by outward props of art. But leaving it to everybody to mould the similitude according to his particular fancy, I shall only observe that the people have made the most considerable part of the legislature in every free state; which has been more or less so in proportion to the share they have had in the administration of affairs. The English constitution is fixed on the strongest basis; we choose whomsoever we please for our representatives, and thus we have all the advantages of a democracy without any of its inconveniences.

Popular governments have not been framed without the wisest reasons. It seemed highly fitting that the conduct of magistrates, created by and for the good of the whole, should be made liable to the inspection and animadversion of the whole. Besides, there could not be a more potent counterpoise to the designs of ambitious men than a multitude that hated and feared ambition. Moreover, the power they possessed, though great collectively, yet, being distributed among a vast number, the share of each individual was too inconsiderable to lay him under any temptations of turning it to a wrong use. Again, a body of people thus circumstanced cannot be supposed to judge amiss on any essential points; for if they decide in favor of themselves, which is extremely natural, their decision is just, inasmuch as whatever contributes to their benefit is a general benefit and advances the real public good. Hence we have an easy solution of the sophism, so often proposed by the abettors of tyranny, who tell us that when differences arise between a prince and his subjects the latter are incapable of being judges of the controversy, for that would be setting up judge and party in the same person.

Some foreigners have had a truer idea of our constitution. We read in the Memoirs of the late Archbishop of Cambray, Fenelon, the celebrated author of Telemachus, a conversation which he had with the Pretender (son of James the Second, of England): “If ever you come to the crown of England,” says the bishop, “you will be a happy prince; with an unlimited power to do good and only restrained from doing evil.” A blunt Briton, perhaps, would have said in plain English: “You ’ll be at liberty to do as much good as you please, but, by G—, you shall do us no hurt.” The bishop sweetened the pill; for such it would appear in its simple form to a mind fraught with notions of arbitrary power and educated among a people who, with the utmost simplicity, boast of their slavery.

[More works by Benjamin Franklin (1796 – 1790) and on The Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution]