Monday, June 29, 2020
June 29, 2020: Patriotism’s Contested Histories: Ben and William Franklin
[Later this year, my next book, Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, will be published in Rowman & Littlefield’s American Ways series. So this year’s July 4th series, I wanted to highlight a few of the contested histories of American patriotism that project includes. Leading up to a special weekend post on the book itself!]
On why it makes sense to define a Loyalist as a patriot, and the limits of that perspective.
Perhaps the most controversial claim of my book comes in the first chapter, “The Revolution: Declaring and Constituting a Nation.” As I do in every chapter, I move there through examples from that time period of my four focal types of patriotism—celebratory, mythic, active, and critical—and when I get to the final/critical patriotism section, I start with a few examples of (I have to assume) a surprising community: Loyalists to England (or Tories, in the language of the time). I’ve long argued that it makes sense to see the Revolution first and foremost as an American civil war, and wanted to flesh out that idea further by thinking about how we might see Loyalists as expressing a critical patriotic perspective toward Revolutionary America. I focus on three particular figures: the Maryland landowner James Chalmers, whose 1776 pamphlet Plain Truth offered a Loyalist rebuttal to Paine’s Common Sense; the Mohawk Iroquois warrior and chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), who led Native American and Loyalist Anglo soldiers against colonial forces; and William Franklin, the Royal Governor of New Jersey and Ben Franklin’s illegitimate (but fully acknowledged) son.
William’s story is profoundly specific and individual, not only because of that fraught relationship to one of the Revolution’s most famous figures and leaders, but also and even more intimately because of how affected his relationship with his own son, (William) Temple Franklin. Temple was already apparently closer to his grandfather than his father as of May 5th, 1775, when Ben and Temple arrived in Philadelphia after having spent a good deal of time together in London; the Revolution, and specifically Temple’s role as a diplomat working on the colonies’ behalf, further strained William’s relationships to both his father and his son. But I would say that those personal details also reveal an overarching truth: no Loyalist would risk and damage all that William’s choices did (and that seems to have been the story time and again for Loyalists) if they did not believe that they were acting on behalf of their communities. William was imprisoned for two years due to his Loyalist beliefs, and when he was released he continued those efforts, organizing spies in New York City in opposition to the Revolutionary forces there. The latter actions seem to fall more within the category of treason (aiding a wartime enemy, etc.), but I think it’s impossible to separate them from William’s longstanding commitment to what he saw as the best future for New Jersey and the colonies.
“Colonies” is a key word in that final sentence, though—however we see William’s actions and life, there’s no way to describe him as a patriot to the United States of America. That’s not because the U.S.A. did not exist yet—in fact the Declaration of Independence opens with the frame, “A Declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled,” meaning that as of July 1776 at least the U.S. did exist—but rather because the America in which William believed and for which he fought and sacrificed so much would never have become the full political and national entity comprised by that phrase. Certainly for most of my book, it is the U.S. that is the subject of the patriotisms—critical and otherwise—that I’m analyzing, so I grant that in some important ways the patriotism of Loyalists has to be seen as separate from that overall topic. But as of the Revolutionary era, none of those concepts or communities were quite established yet (much less set in stone), and so I continue to think there’s great value in considering a variety of forms of American patriotism from that period—including the critical patriotism of Loyalists like William Franklin.
Next patriotic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other moments or stories of patriotism you’d highlight?