September 22, 1773 An Edict from the King of Prussia

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.

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
Frederick II “The Great, King of Prussia was the longest reigning monarch of the House of Hohenzollern reigning from 1740 until his death in 1786.

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.

April 2, 1722 Silence Dogood

On December 3, James Franklin ran an ad. “If any Person . . . will give a true Account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether Dead or alive, Married or unmarried, in Town or Country, . . . they shall have Thanks for their Pains.”

Franklin BirthplaceThe fifteenth child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was born in a little house on Milk Street, across from the Old South Church, in Boston.

The family moved to a larger house at Union & Hanover Street, when little Ben was six. As the tenth son, Benjamin Franklin was destined to be “tithed” to the church, but Josiah changed his mind after the boy’s first year in Boston Latin School. In light of the small salary, it was too expensive to educate a minister of the church.

He was sent to George Brownell’s English school for writing and arithmetic where he stayed until age ten, when he went to work in his father’s shop making tallow candles and boiling soap. After 1714, “Dr.” Benjamin Franklin’s education came exclusively from the books he picked up along the way.

By twelve the boy was “Hankering to go to sea”, and his father was concerned about his running away. Knowing of the boy’s love of books, the elder Franklin apprenticed his son to the print shop of James Franklin, one of his older sons, where he went to work setting type for books. And reading them.  He would often “borrow” a book at night, returning it “early in the Morning lest it should be miss’d or wanted.”Benjamin Franklin, printer

By 1720, James Franklin began to publish The New England Courant, only the second newspaper to appear in the American colony.

Franklin often published essays and articles written by his friends, a group described as “The Hell-Fire Club”. Benjamin desperately wanted to be one of them, but James seemed to feel that sixteen-year-old little brothers should be seen, and not heard..

Sometime in March 1722, a letter appeared beneath the print shop door. “Sir, It may not be improper in the first Place to inform your Readers, that I intend once a Fortnight to present them, by the Help of this Paper, with a short Epistle, which I presume will add somewhat to their Entertainment”. The letter went on in some detail to describe the life of its author, Mrs. Silence Dogood.

That first letter was published on April 2.  True to her word, Silence Dogood wrote again in two weeks.  And then again, and again.  Once every two weeks, for 28 weeks.  Her letters were delightful, cleverly mocking the manners of Boston “Society”, and freely giving advice, particularly on the way that women should be treated. Nothing was sacred.  One letter suggested that the only thing students learned at Harvard College, was conceit.

dogood_illustrationJames Franklin and his literary friends loved the letters, and published every one. All of Boston was charmed with Silence Dogood’s subtle mockery of the city’s Old School Puritan elite. Proposals of marriage came into the print shop, when the widow Dogood coyly suggested that she would welcome suitors.

James was jailed at one point, for printing “scandalous libel” about Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley.  The younger Franklin ran the shop in his absence, when Mrs. Dogood came to his defense.  Quoting Cato, she proclaimed:  “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.”

And then the letters stopped, much to the dismay of the Courant and its readership. One wrote to the editor, saying the paper had “lost a very valuable Correspondent, and the Public been depriv’d of many profitable Amusements.”

On December 3, James Franklin ran an ad. “If any Person . . . will give a true Account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether Dead or alive, Married or unmarried, in Town or Country, . . . they shall have Thanks for their Pains.” It was only then that his sixteen-year-old brother fessed up.  Benjamin Franklin was the author of the Silence Dogood letters.

benjamin--james-franklin-grangerAll of Boston was amused by the hoax, but not James. He was furious with his little brother, who soon broke the terms of his apprenticeship and fled to Pennsylvania.

And so it was that a future Founding Father of the Republic, the inventor, scientist, writer and philosopher, the statesmen who appears on our $100 bill, came to Philadelphia.  Within a few years Franklin had set up his own print shop, publishing the Philadelphia Gazette as well as his own book bindery, in addition to buying and selling books.

Benjamin Franklin’s efforts are in no small part a reason why literacy standards were higher in Colonial America, than among the landed gentry of 18th century England. Higher even, I believe, than today.

FranklinFranklin’s diplomacy to the Court of Versailles was every bit as important to the success of the Revolution, as the Generalship of the Father of the Republic, George Washington. Signatory to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is arguably Ben Franklin who broke the impasse of the Convention of 1787, paving the way for ratification of the United States Constitution.

By then too old and frail to deliver his own speech, Franklin had someone else read his words to the deadlocked convention.

“On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument”.

As I witness the aftermath of this election year 2016, easily the most divisive of my two-score and eighteen years, I can’t deny the wish that I and my countrymen, too, might doubt a little of our own infallibility.