Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, "Savages," and Satire

Over the past few years, I've taken a keen interest in history, particularly local history.  I suppose one of my main interests in understanding history is the illumination it sheds on the present.  I am particluarly interested in suppressed history, and stories of struggle and discrimination.

One group of Americans who have, historically, experienced tremendous struggle and dicrimination are Native Americans.  For a detailed account of this, I recommend Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  For a local account, you can read my own brief history of the Tongva tribe.

Many of the discriminatory U.S. policies against Native Americans stemmed from a widespread sense of racial and cultural superiority by whites.  The more I research history, however, the more I discover notable exceptions to national prejudice.  I've written about Native American advocates like writer Helen Hunt Jackson and photographer Edward Curtis.

Today, while reading the Norton Anthology of American Literature, I stumbed upon another, somewhat unlikely, critic of prevalent racism against Native Americans...founding father Benjamin Franklin.   Perhaps the best example of this is his ironically-titled essay, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," which is a subtle and even humorous plea for cultural and racial tolerance.  And he was writing in 1784!

Franklin, a largely self-taught man, read voraciously works of philosophy, and one of his heroes was Socrates.  He seemed to enjoy calling into question prevalent ideas and attitudes, using a Socratic-type questioning, urging people to see things from the other's perspective.  He begins his essay with this thesis, "Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs."  He proceeds to give a number of anecdotes which illustrate the absurdity of thinking Euro-American culture "superior" to Native American culture.

One example he gives involves the Treaty of Lancaster of 1744, between the government of Virginia and the Six Iroquois Nations.  The governmet agents offer to take a dozen Iroquois young men and "educate" them.  To which the Iroquois speaker responds, kindly and thoughtfully:
"We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily.  But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours.  We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither now to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing.  We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them."
Here, Franklin turns cultural and racial superiority on its head, looking at it from the Native American perspective, and showing that neither is better, they are only different.  I doubt the Virginians took the Iroquois speaker up on his offer, however.

Another example Franklin gives is the story of a Swedish minister, who preached a sermon to the chiefs of the Susquehanah people, telling them of "the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded; such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple, the coming of Christ to repair the mischief, His miracles and suffering, etc."  The chiefs listened courteously, as was their custom, and responded like this: "What you have told us is all very good.  It is indeed bad to eat apples.  It is better to make them all into cider.  We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far, to tell us these things which you have heard from your mothers.  In return, I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours," and proceeded to tell the missionary their own creation story, of the sky woman who came down from the clouds to give the people the plants which have sustained them: maize, kidney beans, and tobacco.  The Swedish missionary responded, arrogantly, "What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood."  To which one of the chiefs replied, offended, "My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility.  You saw that we, who understand and practice those rules, believed all your stories; why do you refuse to believe ours?"

Franklin ends his essay with contrasting descriptions of hospitality, as shown by whites and Native Americans.  He describes the hospitality experienced by Conrad Weiser, a government representative who visited the Six Nations.  Weiser called upon his friend Canessatego, who "embraced him, spread furs for him to sit on, placed before him some boiled beans and venison and mixed some rum and water for him to drink."  Canessatego showed his white guest respect and hospitality, which was the custom of his people.  As the two men shared a pipe and began to converse, the old Indian began to discuss his experiences visiting the towns of white people for trading purposes.  He tells the story of one Hans Hansen, who tried to cheat him.  Canessatego concludes his story, and Franklin concludes his essay, like this:
"If a white man, in traveling through our country, enters one of our cabins, we all treat him as I treat you: we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him meat and drink, that he may allay his thirst and hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return.  But, if I go into a white man's house at Albany, and ask for victuals and drink, they say, 'Where is your money?' and if I have none, 'Get out, you Indian dog.'  You see, they have not yet learned these little good things, that we need no meetings [he is speaking of church] to be instructed in, because our mother's taught them to us when we were children, and therefore it is impossible their meetings should be, as they say, for any such purpose or have any such effect; they are only to contrive the cheating of Indians in the price of beaver."
Ultimately, Franklin's essay is ironic.  The term "Savages" is turned on its head, and could just as easily be applied to the white settlers as to the Native Americans.  The essay is a reasoned and concise plea for tolerance, reason, and compassion.  It is refreshing for me to find writings like this which demonstrate that, in every age, there are people who (through reason and compassion) are able to rise above the prejudices of their time.  Even way back in 1784.


  1. where did you find this picture

    1. I am sorry I was not specific the one Ben Franklin at the desk