What would Ben Franklin do?
Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, will mark Benjamin Franklin’s birthday anniversary, 315 years ago. Last week’s insurrection at the Capitol reminded me of Franklin’s actions in January 1764, when he led a delegation to meet armed insurgents marching to Philadelphia. The so-called Paxton Boys were on their way from the frontier to the colonial capital to air their grievances and seize the Conestoga Indians there under the protection of the colonial government. The frontiersmen were angry and ready to commit violence because they felt ignored by the leaders in the capital city.
The previous month, a group of Paxton Boys had murdered peaceful Conestoga men, women, and children whom they suspected (without evidence) of encouraging enemy Indian attacks on white families. In keeping with the politics of the time, there was no question of prosecuting the white men who had killed native residents. But the Paxton Boys wanted more natives killed and were threatening violence against their white protectors as well.
Franklin and the official delegation assured the insurgents that the government would read their letter of complaint and would respond. The rebels were satisfied. A few miles outside Philadelphia, they turned around and went home.
What a shame that on Jan. 5 we didn’t have modern leaders willing to calm things down in advance of the next day’s mob action. No, instead we had people of bad faith encouraging the crowd in their misguided ideas about a stolen election. And the next day, a day that will live in infamy, we had a president who worked the crowd into a frenzy. He said “We’re going to the Capitol, I’ll be there with you.”
But of course Trump didn’t go with them. He didn’t even Tweet for several hours. No, he was watching the carnage from the safety of his TV room in the White House and apparently was cheering them on. He may have even withheld authorization for the National Guard to go to the assistance of the Capitol Police. Only belatedly did Trump tell the rioters to go home in peace, while simultaneously extolling them as patriots he loved.
After the Constitutional Convention of 1783, when asked what form this new government would take, Benjamin Franklin famously responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He clarified later that, although he was confident the first President would be good, “Nobody knows what sort may come afterward. The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
On Jan. 6, 2021, Congress, defended by the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police who came to their aid, beat back an attempt to destroy our republic and ensured that our democratic republic would continue. No monarchy for now. I sincerely hope Franklin’s spirit of maintaining the peace will prevail on his birthday and in the following days, both before and after the inauguration of Joe Biden as our 46th president.
Alison Hirsch of Williamsport has a doctorate in history.