A Friday off in D.C.? I knew where I was headed -- straight to the Library of Congress, my very favorite place in all of Washington. If you haven't camped out there yourself, you need to march down to the corner of Independence Avenue and First Street, hit the Madison Building, spend 10 minutes getting a researcher's card, and start racking up mind-blowing experiences.
Name your passion and you can feed it there: the Library of Congress is the ultimate cathedral of knowledge -- absolute nirvana for the intellectually curious. The Jefferson Building is also the most beautiful building in the entire city. The only way to really appreciate the Library's splendor, though, is to roll up your sleeves and use it. (Take a research orientation session to get a great start.)
I took a side excursion today from the potential book project I've been tinkering with for the past two years -- doing a little backfill on my knowledge of the American Revolution thanks to a suggestion from Mr. Evans, one of the many LOC specialists who genuinely enjoys helping library users. Today's treat from the Rare Books room was a work published in 1766 by Allan Ramsay entitled "Thoughts on the origin and nature of government" -- a British perspective on the audacious American backlash against the Stamp Act of 1765.
But that's not the best part.
The book, later owned by Thomas Jefferson, contained heaps of ink from the hand of Benjamin Franklin. I think of him as "Uncle Ben" as he was the most gregarious and eccentric of the Founding Fathers. I realize he was often cold toward his own family, but there's no question I would have been his favorite nephew. And Uncle Ben, like my dear friend John Adams, was known for applying heavy doses of the quill to the books he read. I do the same myself.
I pulled up to a reading table adorned with brass lamps, creaking from an antique wooden chair heightening my anticipation, and went back in time ... sitting right next to Uncle Ben while he personally lambasted what he saw as the wrong-headed thinking of Mr. Ramsay. It was like an 18th Century version of CNN's old "Crossfire". Ramsay's goal: rebuff Colonial opposition to what they see as taxation without representation; Franklin's mission: Digest his arguments, then shoot holes in them.
Tune into the highlights below. Forgive the fact I couldn't make out a few of Franklin's words -- his ink, after all, dried some 241 years ago. And don't forget people of the 1700s wrote and punctuated a little differently than we do today.
Ramsay: Whatever may have given encouragement to such an attack, I am heartily sorry for it: but the attack being now made, it becomes the duty of every man who wishes well to this flourishing empire, the prosperity, the very existence of which depend upon the union of all of its parts under one head, to repel the attack by all the means which law, justice and good sense authorize.
Franklin: If such a union be necessary to Great Britain let her endeavor to obtain it by fair means. It cannot be forced.
Ramsay: (Notes that the underlying principal of the debate is) that all men in their natural state are free and independent: but if we are to judge of the nature of man, as we do of the nature of other existences, by experience, there can be no foundation more unsound. No history of the past, no observation of the present time, can be brought to countenance such a natural state; nor were men ever known to exist in it, except for a few minutes, like fishes out of the water, in great agonies, terror and convulsions.
This principle of equal right to liberty, which can hardly be separated from that of an equal right to property, has never been actually acknowledged by any but the very lowest class of men; who have been easily persuaded to embrace so flattering a doctrine from the mouth of a WAT TYLER or JACK CADE, and in consequence of it, for it leads to nothing else, have cut the throats and seized the goods of their masters.
Franklin: This writer is ignorant that all of the Indians of North America not under the dominion of the Spaniards, are in that natural state, being restricted by no laws, having no courts or ministries of justice, no (unintelligible), no prisons, no governors vested with any legal authority. The persuasion of men distinguish by reputation of wisdom is the only means by which others are governed or (unintelligible). And the state of these Indians was probably the first state of all nations.
Ramsay: The position, however, being established, this farther has been added to it, that all of the rights of government are derived from a voluntary contract, by which each man gives up, as it were into a common flock, a small portion of this natural liberty, in order to form a sovereign power for the protection of the whole, and of every individual. But unfortunately, no such state of independence was ever known to exist, no voluntary contract was ever known to be entered into; so that if the legality of government depend upon it, it follows, that there never existed a legal government in any part of the globe.
Franklin: This is an assertion contrary to fact, as I have shown above, and therefore all the inferences from it are unfounded.
Ramsay: (States that weak people by nature seek the superior to take care of them.)
Franklin: May not equals unite with equals for common purposes?
Ramsay: (States that is the superior who best know how to run governments.)
Franklin: (Using a little sarcasm) That is, he that is strongest may do what he pleases with those that are weaker. A most equitable law of nature indeed.
Franklin: (On a roll as he refutes several of the next Ramsay assertions) Does he expect ever to see rulers incapable of mistakes, even the smallest? ... No wonder these comments were not attended to, as perhaps they never were before heard of. ... All mere quibbling.
Ramsay: (Declares that the consent of the people in England is not required for taxation by their representatives.) ... I have taken a great deal of pains to show that the notion of people consenting to their own taxation is contrary to the nature of government, and unsupported by any fact. I have been at pains to show that the notion of legislative power acting by virtue of representation, is no principle in the British Constitution; and I have finished by showing that the words virtual representation, either mean nothing at all, or mean a great deal more than those who use them would be willing to admit; and yet, after all my pains, my American antagonists are as much out of my reach as before.
Franklin: A most imprudent assertion! How comes it then, that the Commons only, who are chosen by the people, grant money and lay taxes? ... They would once have us Americans satisfied with this notion of virtual representation: But having made them ashamed of it, they now tell us there is no such thing in the British Constitution as representation at all!
Ramsay: One moment they (Colonists) desire no more than what belongs to every British subject; the next they refuse to be taxed like other British subjects, and each colony requires a parliament of its own.
Franklin: A falsity! They were always taxed like British subjects by their own representatives, and are willing to continue to be taxed. ... When an American says he has a right to all the privileges of a British subject, he does not call himself a British subject; he is an American subject of the king. The charters say they shall be entitled to all the privileges of Englishmen as if they had been born within the Realm. But they were and are without the Realm, therefore not British subjects.
Ramsay: (Makes historical reference England hitting Scotland in 1725 with a malt tax, a new tax similar to the Stamp Tax in the Colonies. He writes that Britain sent troops in to stop protests then, too, because force was more effective "than all the eloquence of Cicero or Mansfield.")
Franklin: Would you charge the riots to the acts of all of Scotland, as you do those in Boston to all the Americans? ... Troops have been sent to Boston; but with what effect? They have made the matter worse.
Ramsay: (Attacks the Colonists who pulled down houses, dragged people to the tree of liberty and obliged them to take God to witness to sentiments not their own for fear of being put to death.) These are outrages which none but the most ignorant and distempered imaginations could ever dread from any established government, and yet are committed by those, who, in the very height of their riots, complain of cruel and arbitrary exertions of power in the mild government of Great Britain, under the most just and humane of kings.
Franklin: What is all this to the purpose? Have not the Americans condemned these actions and made good all damages to the sufferers? How wicked it is, then, thus to misrepresent a country, in order to irritate government against it!
Ramsay: I shall therefore conclude with saying that the separation of Great Britain from her American appertinencies would be destructive of the prosperity and liberty of both. If so, it seems to follow that till such time as New England is strong enough to protect Old England, --
Franklin: This protection is mutual and equal in proportion to numbers and wealth, at present.
Ramsay: -- and the (?) of the British empire is transferred from London to Boston, there is an absolute necessity that the right of giving law to America, should continue to be vested in Great Britain. That it is the interest of Great Britain to protect and cherish her American provinces instead of oppressing them, is an undeniable truth; and it is, perhaps, no less true, that some farther attention, and some farther means of communication, are still wanting to that desirable end: but let every true friend to Britain and to all her connections stand forth in defense of her great legislative and uncontrollable power, without which non union, and of course no safety, can be expected. (End of the book.)
Franklin: (Takes the liberty of the last word by writing beneath Ramsay's final paragraph.) This writer is concise, lively, and elegant in his language, but his reasonings are too refined and paradoxical to make impression on the understanding or convince the minds of his readers. And his main fact on which they are founded is a mistake.