If the findings of a 2004 Pew survey are any indication, older and younger audiences alike turn to late night comedians as a source of political news.
Whether anyone leaves such programs better informed may be a matter for conjecture, but one thing is certain. The use of satire in political commentary is anything but new.
Anything but new but highly, effective. In the 4th century BC the Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes lampooned the Athenian general Cleon as an unprincipled and warmongering demagogue. The playwright’s work was in no small measure a reason for the sentence of death, against the Great Socrates.
Seventeen centuries later the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri had the soothsayers and fortune tellers of his time walking through the inferno of purgatory with their heads screwed on backwards, rendering them no longer able to see what lay ahead.
On this day in 1773 the poison pen of one Benjamin Franklin skewered Great Britain’s King George III…writing as the King of Prussia, no less.
At the height of the revolution, public opinion remained essentially split in thirds with one part for independence, one for remaining and a third that didn’t care that much, either way.
The seven years war of 1754 was a world war for global supremacy between Britain and France with major ramifications, for the Spanish Empire. Britain’s North American colonies experienced the conflict as the fourth French and Indian war, pitting France and a coalition of first nations against Britain and her own following of native American allies.
“When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”George Carlin
For British policymakers it all seemed quite reasonable to impose the costs of this “protection”, on King George III’s North American subjects. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767 and the Tea Act of 1773 were all measures enacted to extract ever greater taxes, from the American colonists.
The colonists themselves took a dim view of all of it and threw the tea off the boat, that December. Literally.
Political satire was nothing new to Benjamin Franklin. The teenage Franklin’s anonymously written Silence Dogood letters skewered the brahmins of Boston and generated proposals of marriage to a widow, who did not exist. The young Franklin’s ‘outing’ as the author earned him a beating from his older brother the publisher and a one-way trip out of Boston to Philadelphia, where an older Franklin was destined to enter the pages of history.
Benjamin Franklin was a man of words whose contributions to the coming revolution were the equal to that man of action, George Washington. In 1773 Franklin sat down to lampoon 100 years of American grievance against Great Britain writing as Frederick II, King of Prussia.
The choice was inspired. A growing power on the continent, Frederick “The Great” had recently seized large chunks of Poland and Silesia, claiming both to be rightfully his going back to the time, of the Teutonic knights. The treaty of Paris ending the seven years war settled territorial issues from Canada to the French sugar plantations of the Caribbean but left Britain’s ‘ally’ Prussia, out of the bargain. Suffering losses of some 260,000 men Frederick II was left to negotiate peace terms, on his own.
For these reasons Franklin’s hoax carried with it, a ring of authenticity. Published this day in 1773, An Edict from the King of Prussia made claims on Britain herself, in the name of the Prussian King:
“We have long wondered here at the Supineness of the English Nation, under the Prussian Impositions upon its Trade entering our Port…”
The edict went back to the 5th century Germanic brothers Hengist and Horsa who led the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th century invasions of the British Isles and the 6th century Cerdicus, first of the Kings of Saxon Wessex who reigned from 519 to 534 AD:
“Whereas it is well known to all the World, that the first German Settlements made in the Island of Britain, were by Colonies of People, Subjects to our renowned Ducal Ancestors, and drawn from their Dominions, under the Conduct of Hengist, Horsa, Hella, Uffa, Cerdicus, Ida, and others…”Fictitious “edict” from the King of Prussia
In 1,546 words the King’s edict went on to enunciate in “claims both antient (ancient) and modern”, Prussian rights to the lands, peoples, commerce and above all taxes of Great Britain, in the name of the Prussian state.
Back in England many swallowed the ruse whole as a bald pretext for war, with her former ally. The more perspicacious among them may have noticed a remarkable similarity between the Prussian King’s grievances, and those of the American colonies.
No matter. Insensate obstinacy doth dwell where humor and reason, fear to tread. Or something like that. The following year the “Liberty and Union” banner unfurled above the town green in Taunton Massachusetts, that first distinctly American flag as yet symbolizing a desire for greater autonomy and continued union, as loyal British subjects.
The “Intolerable Acts” also happened in 1774, that series of punitive measures passed by the parliament to punish the American colonies, in the wake of the Boston Tea Party.
There would as yet be olive branches and frantic supplications on both sides of the Atlantic, but to no avail. The “Shot heard ’round the World” lay such a short time in the future to make it known to all that the path, was now set.