Imagine in two hundred years that the dumbest joke you’ve ever written to amuse yourself and your friends was taken as your most serious thoughts. It’s probably not difficult to imagine, actually, given that the line between irony and sincerity is about as visible as the Emperor’s new clothes. Will the historians of the future believe that men actually wanted to en masse marry Japanese drawings? Probably not. Will people who misappropriate history for fun and politics believe it? Absolutely. Such is the situation of our dear First American and Secular Saint of Advertising and Internet Drama, Benjamin Franklin. There’s enough memes out there that it has codified that Franklin truly believed that the “the wogs begin at Calais”. Germans especially. You’ve probably heard it said that no one hated the “swarthy” Germans more than Benjamin Franklin. You’ve probably heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was very particular about the Europeans he considered to be actually White.
This is a matter that deserves investigation.
Contrary to defensive reactionary sentiments, Founding Father revisionism has always found itself in and out of fashion. From the moment the American identity was solidified, writers have sought to interpret their avatars, often for their own political means. This began with the first factional split between the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians, with the former being so thorough in their initial narrative victory that Hamiltonians had to fight tooth and nail to rehabilitate him and a complete cultural embrace towards him in America would not be accomplished until his renaissance in the 21st century, thanks largely to the work of Ron Chernow. The first decades of Constitutional America saw its first hagiographic biographies of recently deceased Founders trickle out, with Mason Locke Weems giving us the George Washington cherry tree anecdote in 1800 and William Wirt’s hero-worship biography of Patrick Henry in 1817, both biographies written at a time when men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were still alive. America after the Civil War looked both forward and backward to understand itself, as it was in the unique position of having come through a conflict that was perceived to have answered the lingering questions of the Revolution with people who were living in a generational continuity of the Founders, such as the grandson of John Quincy Adams, Henry Adams, who published a popular acclaimed history The History of the United States of America 1801–1817 and also an autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, that catalogued that continuity between the past and toward the future. Into the modern era and closer toward irreverence, D.H. Lawrence took a less than impressed view of Benjamin Franklin in Studies in Classic American Literature, calling him “Old Daddy Franklin” and seeing him as the forerunner of moralistic mechanizing at the core of an America that would grow to wreck Europe. Years before podcasts would accuse Hamilton of being Jewish, Ezra Pound called him “a k*ke. a red headed scotch chew [sic]” as Pound found him to be the enemy of the people due to Pound’s own economic populism that was integral to his worldview.
There is a peculiar tendency among people in our postmodern society to take everything in the past as dead seriously as possible, as though irony, satire, and irreverent comments were first invented in 1963 “between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” It’s not uncommon to see stuffy old history as one long continuous stream of To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be Ye Olde English soliloquies spoken with the gravitas of Laurence Olivier. It’s hard enough for us to relate to our own grandparents, to attempt the same with people centuries ago seems insurmountable. If you take the plunge and dive in however, what’s shocking to anyone who plumbs the depths of our cultural heritage is actually just how relatable our ancestors are, possibly even more so than generations closer to us. Their perspectives and mores may seem increasingly alien, but their ways and sentiments are as human as anything we’ve experienced. This is why the abuse of Benjamin Franklin’s works and writings can become very frustrating, especially when it comes to the ‘swarthy Germans’ comments.
There are two particular instances of Franklin commenting on the Germans that are often quoted out of context to make the case that Franklin had very specific views on Whiteness. The first is Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, a brilliant pamphlet that Franklin wrote in 1751 that made a number of points that people would find very relevant today, such as the phenomenon of cities as fertility-shredders and the importance of the frontier as a population’s bulwark. Central to the pamphlet was the bounty and affordability of land within Britain’s Colonies. At the end of the work, however, is where Franklin makes the oft-quoted and very infamous comments that he made about other European groups. It is reproduced here in total:
“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.
Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”
There is context that is missing to this pamphlet that we should cover before digging deeper into the comments. Franklin was forty-six when he wrote this, deep into his desire to be more integrated into the British Empire. It can be difficult for Americans to conceptualize this, but the idea of being an “American” was an on-going ethnogenetic process in the 18th century (and one that arguably was never fully completed) and for many in what would have simply been called the Colonies, they ever remained British subjects. Benjamin Franklin was from a very different generation of the men who fought the Revolution, and had lived through a full half century of a rather well-kept British Empire before the Seven Years War/French and Indian War, the fallout of which created the political and economic soil for the American Revolution to take place in. This pamphlet was an expression of the chauvinism and imperial patriotism that comes natural to any socially conscious subject of an ascendant empire. Gordon S. Wood in his fascinating biography The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin covers how this pamphlet was a product of Franklin’s Tory tendencies and career-seeking within the British Empire:
“The glorious English empire he envisioned was supposed to be a single community made up only of Englishmen, which is why he interrupted his pamphlet on population growth with an angry outcry against the massive immigration of Germans into Pennsylvania, a development he was not alone in protesting. “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?” Indeed, if he had his way he would exclude all the Germans and black people from the New World. The country, he said, ought to belong to only the English and the Indians, “the lovely White and Red.” But then again, he said, “perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.” To Franklin the rise of the British Empire was the greatest phenomenon of the eighteenth century, and with his ever growing ambition he wanted very much to be part of it. In the same year, 1751, that he wrote his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, he solicited the aid of Peter Collinson and Chief Justice William Allen to lobby on his behalf for the position of postmaster general for North America. His provincial offices were fine, but he had his sights on something bigger than postmaster of a single city.”
It’s amusing that Gordon Wood refers to Franklin soliciting Peter Collinson for aid, as it was to that very same Collinson that Franklin made his other set of comments on Germans that is often invoked to salami-slice White people in a never-ending spiral of fruitless acrimony and pseudo-navel-gazing. The letter that Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson, who was a botanist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, on the topic of Germans in Pennsylvania was written two years after the Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind and the quote that is usually used to damn Franklin is presented like it is here in this pro-immigration ABC News opinion piece from 2013:
“Franklin was deeply worried that immigrants of German ancestry would overwhelm America and change its most basic virtues, possibly bringing an end to the fledgling republic. Many of his arguments regarding this community directly mirror those used in today’s immigration debate against Latinos.
“Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious,” Franklin wrote in 1753.
He said in the same letter that he wasn’t opposed to the immigration of a small number of Germans because they “have their virtues.” Nonetheless, he fretted that the ones who had arrived here were “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation,” and would therefore bring the country down as a whole if they continued to immigrate.”
We owe it to Benjamin Franklin however to publish his comments as is. In his letter to Peter Collinson, Franklin touches on a number of racial issues that are well-worth presenting as they give us the fuller picture of the mind of the man. We must do what many refuse to do, to present the information as is so that people can determine for themselves what is meant by it. Here is the Peter Collinson letter in total and everything he said about the Germans in this letter (all apparent misspellings are sic erat scriptum, reproduced as was):
I have often observed with wonder, that Temper of the poor English Manufacturers and day Labourers which you mention, and acknowledge it to be pretty general. When any of them happen to come here, where Labour is much better paid than in England, their Industry seems to diminish in equal proportion. But it is not so with the German Labourers; They retain the habitual Industry and Frugality they bring with them, and now receiving higher Wages an accumulation arises that makes them all rich.
When I consider, that the English are the Offspring of Germans, that the Climate they live in is much of the same Temperature; when I can see nothing in Nature that should create this Difference, I am apt to suspect it must arise from Institution, and I have sometimes doubted, whether the Laws peculiar to England which compel the Rich to maintain the Poor, have not given the latter, a Dependance that very much lessens the care of providing against the wants of old Age.
I have heard it remarked that the Poor in Protestant Countries on the Continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish Countries, may not the more numerous foundations in the latter for the relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident…
The proneness of human Nature to a life of ease, of freedom from care and labour appears strongly in the little success that has hitherto attended every attempt to civilize our American Indians, in their present way of living, almost all their Wants are supplied by the spontaneous Productions of Nature, with the addition of very little labour, if hunting and fishing may indeed be called labour when Game is so plenty, they visit us frequently, and see the advantages that Arts, Sciences, and compact Society procure us, they are not deficient in natural understanding and yet they have never shewn any Inclination to change their manner of life for ours, or to learn any of our Arts; When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural [to them] merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them…
I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolben says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so these seem to think themselves not free, till they can feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers. Thus they are under no restraint of Ecclesiastical Government; They behave, however, submissively enough at present to the Civil Government which I wish they may continue to do: For I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German, two half German half English, and but two entirely English; They have one German News-paper, and one half German. Advertisments intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German: They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other Colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not [in My Opinion] be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious. The French who watch all advantages, are now [themselves] making a German settlement back of us in the Ilinoes Country, and by means of those Germans they may in time come to an understanding with ours, and indeed in the last war our Germans shewed a general disposition that seems to bode us no good; for when the English who were not Quakers, alarmed by the danger arising from the defenceless state of our Country entered unanimously into an Association within this Government and the lower Countries [Counties] raised armed and Disciplined [near] 10,000 men, the Germans except a very few in proportion to their numbers refused to engage in it, giving out one among another, and even in print, that if they were quiet the French should they take the Country would not molest them; at the same time abusing the Philadelphians for fitting out Privateers against the Enemy; and representing the trouble hazard and Expence of defending the Province, as a greater inconvenience than any that might be expected from a change of Government. Yet I am not for refusing entirely to admit them into our Colonies: all that seems to be necessary is, to distribute them more equally, mix them with the English, establish English Schools where they are now too thick settled, and take some care to prevent the practice lately fallen into by some of the Ship Owners, of sweeping the German Goals to make up the number of their Passengers. I say I am not against the Admission of Germans in general, for they have their Virtues, their industry and frugality is exemplary; They are excellent husbandmen and contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country.”
There’s a lot going on within this letter, but before breaking it down the first thing to notice is that there is no reference to the Germans being “swarthy” or that they are not of the White race. Its absence does not a conclusion make, but it is interesting that no mention of this is made in a private letter where one is more likely to be open about their views—and Franklin was open about a lot here—versus a pamphlet that was first written for his friends and only gradually became a more public piece (with those paragraphs on the “Palatine Boors” later stricken, but we’ll get to that). In fact, in the first quoted paragraph Franklin highlights that German laborers in the Colonies are more industrious than English laborers who have taken these higher wages available for granted. In the second paragraph he explicitly calls the English the offspring of the Germans without even making a distinction toward the Saxons such as he did in Observations, which would appear to settle the notion of how he actually viewed the Germans racially. But we’ll go on. He follows that up with discussing how “Institutions” seem to create the differences in European groups and in the third quoted paragraph he even mentions that the denizens of “Popish” countries are less industrious than the Protestant ones. These are normal talking points of the era and formed the foundation of Max Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Franklin’s racial comments get very interesting in the fourth quoted paragraph, as he talks about American Indians and the fruitlessness of assimilating them into the English ways, as the moment they go back and visit relatives they revert back to their home race and culture, which can be seen as a case for racial essentialism though Franklin’s attitude toward the American Indian was a complicated one. Finally in the fifth quoted paragraph we have the full context of the comments on Germans. These are the bullet points:
The Germans that they are receiving in the Colonies are ignorant and because they don’t speak English they, the English, aren’t able to correct their ways.
They beat their mothers and their ministers can’t control them.
They used to not interfere in local elections, now they do in droves.
They are walling themselves off within their own language such that their children are not learning English, to the point that towns are developing bilingual signatures and a necessity for interpreters.
The French see the issue the German immigrants create and are settling them in the Illinois Country (Ohio Valley) as a potential fifth column. This was not actually true, but a rumor that Franklin had heard. One must remember that this letter was written less than three weeks before the start of the French and Indian/Seven Years War. He follows this up with a comment that Germans have resisted being called up to aid in the defense of the Colonies.
Franklin is not against having Germans in the Colonies, he just wants them equally distributed and mixed into the English population so that they become English.
Germans are industrious, frugal, excellent husbandmen, and “contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country”.
It becomes quickly plain to see why Franklin’s comments are never printed in their full context. These are not the words of a man who actually spends his time charting out which Europeans are and are not White. These are the words of a man who was deeply patriotic as an Englishman at a time when Great Britain, France, and Spain were competing over control of the New World and wanted to see his nation, which he felt deeply integrated with despite the ocean of distance between them, prevail and not hand over the sovereignty and culture of the Colonies to another group, as nice as they could be. Franklin was so adamant and fervent on this that he wrote the following in a letter to Lord Kames in 1760:
“I have long been of Opinion, that the Foundations of the future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire, lie in America; and tho’, like other Foundations, they are low and little seen, they are nevertheless, broad and Strong enough to support the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected. I am therefore by no means for restoring Canada. If we keep it, all the Country from St. Laurence to Missisipi, will in another Century be fill’d with British People; Britain itself will become vastly more populous by the immense Increase of its Commerce; the Atlantic Sea will be cover’d with your Trading Ships; and your naval Power thence continually increasing, will extend your Influence round the whole Globe, and awe the World! If the French remain in Canada, they will continually harass our Colonies by the Indians, impede if not prevent their Growth; your Progress to Greatness will at best be slow, and give room for many Accidents that may for ever prevent it. But I refrain, for I see you begin to think my Notions extravagant, and look upon them as the Ravings of a mad Prophet.”
In examining this, we are now dealing with two separate claims. One is that Franklin did not consider the Germans to be White, the other that Franklin had a low opinion of Germans and their immigration status. The latter is not in dispute but as the context above shows, it becomes quickly apparent there was a nuance and a rationality to Franklin’s views on non-English residents of the Colonies. But let us return to the issue of whether or not he viewed Germans as “swarthy”. For that we will need to look at his larger body of work.
Franklin was a prolific writer in his lifetime. In letters alone he wrote or received over 30,000 letters. When you look at his prose works compared to his letters however, you quickly notice there is a change in his writing tenor, namely he is a very irreverent and satirical writer. Within his personal letters you will find that he is mostly serious with wry comments peppered throughout. Among his prose though you find works such as:
“The Silence Dogood Letters”, where he pretended to be a middle-aged Puritan woman and poked fun at the Puritan culture he grew up in
“The Busy-Body” columns, where Franklin satirized and sought to undermine his employer Samuel Keimer.
Poor Richard’s Almanack, which mixed attempts at useful information with aphorisms and wordplay, giving us irreverent sayings such as “The Greatest Monarch on the proudest Throne, is oblig’d to sit upon his own Arse.”
“The Drinker’s Dictionary”, where Franklin indulges his love of witty wordplay and composes over 200 different ways to describe being drunk, ostensibly for the sake of polite society due to drunkenness being a vice though when one reads it it’s difficult to come away with anything other than Franklin having fun.
“Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress”, where Franklin counsels a friend that if he must take a mistress instead of marrying, then he should take an older woman because they are wise and cannot have children (apparently by older he meant post-menopause) and it would be wrong to deflower a virgin with no intention to marry her. Plus, the older women will be grateful.
Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, a satire written from the perspective of a pseudo-Machiavelli giving advice on how to ruin your own empire. Written in 1773, this work is emblematic of the transition that Franklin was making from a Tory for the British Empire to the Founding Father we know him as today. The work comments on the very real issues of the growing America problem, but in a sarcastic and satirical style, offering “rules” to follow such as to never integrate your colonies into the mother country, always treat the colonial subjects with the deepest amount of disrespect and punishments, and reward colonial officials who line their pockets at the expense of the colonies.
When reading Franklin’s works, it is difficult to make the case that anything he wrote should be taken at face value. Benjamin Franklin was, if anything, America’s most ironic writer of the time period. A shitposter, one might argue. Which brings us now back to how we might properly contextualize his racial remarks on Germans from Observations. When Franklin originally wrote this pamphlet, it was for the benefit of a small circle of friends associated with the American Philosophical Society and only later did it become more widely published (which would create an issue for him that we will also cover). Thus we should see how Franklin describes other Europeans in other writings he made, to see if there is an actual pattern of him describing Europeans as “swarthy” or not White.
In “A Narrative of the Late Massacres”, Franklin addresses the recent violence that had occurred against the American Indians. During his impassioned plea for peace between the two races and an end to the violence, Franklin makes comparisons between the American Indian tribes and Europeans. Franklin asks:
“If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians? It is well known that Indians are of different Tribes, Nations and Languages, as well as the White People. In Europe, if the French, who are White-People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are White People?”
We will recall that in Observations Franklin referred to the French as swarthy and were not counted among the White People. Here however they are. If one reads “A Narrative of the Late Massacres” it becomes apparent how different and more serious the tone is by comparison. This piece of writing is not the only place you will find instances of Franklin explicitly referring to other European groups as White.
In 1766 Benjamin Franklin was examined before the House of Commons on the topic of the Stamp Act and the colonial opposition to it. The following questions were asked of Franklin as to the demographics of the Pennsylvania colony:
 Q. What number of white inhabitants do you think there are in Pennsylvania?
A. I suppose there may be about 160,000.
 Q. What number of them are Quakers?
A. Perhaps a third.
 Q. What number of Germans?
A. Perhaps another third; but I cannot speak with certainty.
Franklin and the British had no issue here with regarding the Germans as White and to be counted among the White demographic. Additionally, if you search through all of the Franklin Papers at the National Archive, which their online database makes very easy, you will find not find that Franklin used the words “tawny” or “swarthy” very often. There are a couple of instances of the American Indians referred to as “tawny” and only one instance outside of Observations where Franklin refers to other Europeans as “swarthy”. In a letter to Mary (Polly) Stevenson Hewson (the daughter of Franklin’s London landlady), he writes of his trip through France in 1767 (emphasis mine):
“The Women we saw at Calais, on the Road, at Bouloigne and in the Inns and Villages, were generally of dark Complexions; but arriving at Abbeville we found a sudden Change, a Multitude both of Women and Men in that Place appearing remarkably fair. Whether this is owing to a small Colony of Spinners, Woolcombers and Weavers, &c. brought hither from Holland with the Woollen Manufacture about 60 Years ago; or to their being less expos’d to the Sun than in other Places, their Business keeping them much within Doors, I know not. Perhaps as in some other Cases, different Causes may club in producing the Effect, but the Effect itself is certain. Never was I in a Place of greater Industry, Wheels and Looms going in every House. As soon as we left Abbeville the Swarthiness return’d. I speak generally, for here are some fair Women at Paris, who I think are not whiten’d by Art. As to Rouge, they don’t pretend to imitate Nature in laying it on. There is no gradual Diminution of the Colour from the full Bloom in the Middle of the Cheek to the faint Tint near the Sides, nor does it show itself differently in different Faces. I have not had the Honour of being at any Lady’s Toylette to see how it is laid on, but I fancy I can tell you how it is or may be done: Cut a Hole of 3 Inches Diameter in a Piece of Paper, place it on the Side of your Face in such a Manner as that the Top of the Hole may be just under your Eye; then with a Brush dipt in the Colour paint Face and Paper together; so when the Paper is taken off there will remain a round Patch of Red exactly the Form of the Hole. This is the Mode, from the Actresses on the Stage upwards thro’ all Ranks of Ladies to the Princesses of the Blood, but it stops there, the Queen not using it, having in the Serenity, Complacence and Benignity that shine so eminently in or rather through her Countenance, sufficient Beauty, tho’ now an old Woman, to do extreamly well without it.”
There is another version of this quote that is difficult to make sense of as it ostensibly comes nearly ten years later in 1776 but is transmitted to us through the troubled authorship of Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, who writes in the Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin:
“The [little journal of Dr. Franklin] contains the following remark. “December 6. On the road yesterday, “(travelling to Nantes), “we met six or seven country women, in company, on horseback and astride: they were all of fair white and red complexions, but one among them was the fairest woman I ever beheld. Most of the men have good complexions, not swarthy like those of the North of France, in which I remember that, except about Abbeville, I saw few fair people.”
What is peculiar about this passage is both how it mirrors the Stevenson letter a decade earlier and how little it is referenced in discussions of Franklin’s racial views, though this is wholly attributed to the poor reception that his grandson received over being the curator of Franklin’s papers. The passage as well is technically not a primary source either. It’s credible in some way as we have the previous letter that made the same sentiments, and that William Temple Franklin had access to his grandfather’s private papers—it was after all through him that The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin saw the light of day—but it is interesting no other usage of the word “swarthy” can be found in a context like this from the treasure trove of primary documents we have of Benjamin Franklin, outside of the letter to Mary Stevenson. It is difficult to know what to make of this as even how these autobiographical works came about and its variations, revisions, suggestions, and problems is a story all unto itself. It does make one pause and wonder though as Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin was the original form of the Autobiography and that remark on ‘swarthy’ northern Frenchmen appears no where else in any version of the later republished Autobiography, and William Temple Franklin was known and criticized for changing and ‘modernizing’ the language and specific words that Benjamin Franklin had chosen to use. We have the letter however and so we can conclude there was one instance where Benjamin Franklin called some Frenchmen swarthy. The amount of work that was required to even dig up this single instance however would appear to be an exception that proves a rule, without getting into the fact that in Franklin’s letter, swarthiness was clearly an expression of complexion and not of race.
It is clear as well how much Franklin regretted his last paragraph of Observations as he omitted it in reproductions whose purpose spoke to a much more serious political issue and required sober critique. In 1760 he wrote “The Interest of Great Britain Considered”, a sequel pamphlet to another pamphlet he wrote called “A Defence of the Americans” while he was a delegate from the Pennsylvania Assembly attempting to negotiate issues of taxation and to hopefully get the Penn family removed from their powerful control of the Pennsylvania colony. In both pamphlets he attempted to explain to the mother country the perspective of the Americans within the Empire and to appeal to what was in the Empire’s best interests. Affixed to the pamphlet to help make his argument was Observations, but this time with the racial comments on other Europeans removed. As the National Archives notes, “[Benjamin Franklin] called it “an Extract” and for this British audience carefully omitted (though with rows of asterisks): paragraph no. 11 on the consequence that might follow if British manufactures rose too high in price because of American demands; the last half of paragraph 23 on the Pa. Germans as “Palatine Boors”; and all of paragraph 24 in favor of “White People” and the exclusion of all “Blacks and Tawneys” from America.” Franklin clearly was concerned about the optics of certain statements.
That controversial paragraph on Germans dogged Franklin for much of his political career and public life. By 1761 he had omitted those remarks from reprints but those who have knives out for you have the longest memories. Ten years after the wide publication of Observations he lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, partially due to these remarks. As Gordon S. Wood writes in The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin:
The campaign for elections to the Pennsylvania Assembly in October 1764 was one of the most scurrilous in American colonial history, and both Franklin and Galloway lost their seats. Franklin was accused of a host of sins— of lechery, of having humble origins, of abandoning the mother of his bastard son, of stealing his ideas of electricity from another electrician, of embezzling colony funds, and of buying his honorary degrees. But what ultimately cost Franklin his seat was the number of Germans who voted against him, angry at his earlier ethnic slur about “Palatine Boors.”
What do we conclude from all of this? The information should speak for itself. It should speak for itself that Franklin was a cheeky and irreverent writer, prone to throwing in asides that amused him and his friends and poked fun at whomever and wherever. It should speak for itself that he never used this type of language anywhere else, outside of a single stray mention of complexion during his European travels. It should speak for itself that he wrote of other Europeans as White. It should speak for itself that Germans were counted as White when recording the population of the Colonies despite concerns for what their immigration might pose. It should speak for itself that Franklin regretted the remark and never once doubled down on it. All of these things should speak for themselves, but things that should be seen as what they are rarely are without the force of will that pushes them to be clear as day.
More now has probably been written on this specific topic here than anywhere else. When one reads historian biographies of Benjamin Franklin, his comments on Germans rarely merit anything more than a few passages above the level of a footnote. If one looks online however at the memes and the polemical pieces that make reference to it and in the service of personal and political agendas, it reveals just how much history can and will be abused and repeated endlessly because it makes a good yarn and a good own on someone. “You have legitimate concerns about demographics and immigration policies? Well then, Mr. Right-Winger, do I have news for you about what your Gods (the Founding Fathers) had to say about Germans. You’re not even really White yourself (even though I pretend not to believe in Race myself).” And so it goes on and on and we never really get anywhere, especially any closer to the truth.
I challenge anyone who wants to repeat the comments Franklin made about Germans to make some kind of political or racial point to do what I have done. Go through the primary documents. Read everything he wrote. Read what historians have to say about him. Even Wood and Isaacson give very little consideration to these remarks outside of it being an expression of his Tory sensibilities and Imperial chauvinism. The political ramifications of his remarks and response to it make it difficult to argue that he considered them anything more than jokes he shared with friends given that he simply didn’t talk this way. I know this may seem like an odd article to write here in the Year of Our Lord Twenty Twenty-Three, surely we didn’t need eight thousand words in defense of Benjamin Franklin, surely something more relevant must be going on, but in the chain of history when everything is documented for the most malicious purposes, when ostensible allies will reproduce what you say out of context in order to work their personal and not-so-hidden agenda, everything we say and joke about becomes an endlessly interpretable open text. People don’t want to accept that this is part and parcel of our postmodern condition, but it’s how it is and the truth has so very few friends and boosters. In an age oversaturated with irony, it ironically takes a lot to make people see jokes as jokes and facts as facts.
Benjamin Franklin thought Germans were White. Simple as. Tell you friends and tell them to stop lying.