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Benjamin Franklin: The True Hero of the American Revolution

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed III lately, and while I have fairly complicated feelings about choosing colonial/Revolutionary America as a setting, it’s been a fairly wonderful game so far, with my happy hours devoted to wandering an absolutely beautiful recreation of colonial Boston. Hunting on the American frontier is also a very delightful experience, save the part where you can be mauled by a bear eight times in a row and live, but a wolf jumping on your back takes away a third of your health.

But the entire thing has put a bit of my attention on the American Revolution again, something that I really kind of left behind me since studying about in middle school (save the points where I have to deal with this conservative American idol-worship of their Founding Fathers). And since this is still fresh on my mind, let’s talk about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers for a bit. Now, the issue I kind of want to address specifically (although wary readers will wonder when I’ve even only specifically addressed a single issue) is in the form of a question: “If there was a true American hero amongst the Founding Fathers, who would it be?”

Popular picks are George Washington, the leader of the Continental Army and the first president of the United States; Thomas Jefferson, polymath and the author of the Declaration of Independence (incidentally, I do like Jefferson very much); and James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution.

I, however, disagree (and it pains me to do so, as I honestly would’ve liked to say that Jefferson was the greatest of the Founding Fathers). I believe that this title goes to someone else entirely.

I believe Benjamin Franklin is the greatest American Founding Father.

And I believe he did it by sleeping with lots of women in France.

Jefferson and Madison were brilliant men of their time, and I do consider them to be amongst the most influential of the Founding Fathers. However, their role largely came with molding a system within a relative degree of safety, and their work would’ve largely been meaningless if the Revolution failed. (I’d also argue that neither Jefferson or Hamilton – brilliant as they were – were particularly original or innovative, seeing how both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were documents that borrowed philosophies and concepts very, very heavily from French political thinkers, but that’s another argument for another day. But there’s no shame in doing good work with borrowed materials, unless you’re a conservative American who believes the Founding Fathers were flawless and infallible and borrowed nothing from the French.) Their actions were important, but I’m reluctant to call them “heroes” when others of their number were directly involved in the survival of the newborn American nation.

So this role largely falls upon the shoulders of Franklin and Washington. Which will raise a few eyebrows, because not everyone knows how Franklin was involved in the United States’ national survival, or how he could possibly trump Washington, the leader of the Continental Army (because, as Mao Zedong said, political powers comes out of a barrel of a gun). To understand why Franklin trumps Washington, we have to first dispel certain myths involving Washington, and review the way we look at the American War of Independence.

Washington was chosen to command the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress. This was to say that Washington was at the head of a collection of highly untrained militiamen equipped with outdated hunting rifles and smuggled wares. He was selected because he was pretty much the closest thing the Patriots had to a military officer…which wasn’t saying much. He was a militia officer of the British colonies whose career included key events such surrendering at Fort Necessity, signing a surrender that also implied he committed the political faux pas of assassinating a surrendering French officer (the common theory is that Washington did not speak French, and the translator assigned to him inadequately explained what Washington was signing), acted as the senior aide to the particularly disastrous Braddock Expedition (that got his superior, General Edward Braddock, killed), and exchanged friendly fire with a fellow British unit in the Forbes Expedition.

None of which is to imply that Washington was a poor soldier or a man of poor character. Indeed, he was considered to be honorable, brave, and gentlemanly, the kind of officer who drilled his soldiers as well as he reasonably could and personally charged into battle himself. The problem, however, was that Washington was a particularly mediocre case of a commander-in-chief who was frankly unsound at strategy. The leader of the Continental Army spent the bulk of the War of Independence leading his untrained and under-equipped troops around the colonies, largely in retreats from one strategic defeat and humiliation to another. One of Washington’s very few most victories that he could safely claim for himself (at least, a victory that could not be attributed to allied help) was probably the Crossing of the Delaware and the subsequent Battle of Trenton, and even those were moves born out of desperation, hampered by blunders that ultimately made the battle to be strategically worthless (because the Battle of Trenton was supposed to be the lead-up attacks on Princeton and New Brunswick, which obviously did not happen). (It’s also worth mentioning that Washington won because his army outnumbered the enemy eight-to-five, and he had three times as many cannons.) But more on Trenton later, because it is important, just not in the way most people think it is.

So, clearly, if the American colonies were restricted to a military victory alone to secure their independence, it wasn’t going to come from Washington. The man was a stop-gap measure put to the task of leading the Continental Army simply because there was no one else more qualified at the time (who was also rich, white, and male). Even if we were to assume that Washington was a very competent commander-in-chief, it would’ve taken a strategist on the level of Hannibal to somehow militarily defeat the trained British forces and their reinforcements across the Atlantic – even assuming this war existed in a vacuum – with a ragtag colonial militia army. And a Hannibal Washington most certainly was not, no matter how much some Americans want to depict him as an Americanized Roman demigod.

Fortunately for the American colonists, they were not restricted to a military victory alone, and the War of Independence did not exist in a vacuum. Enter Benjamin Franklin.

In the grand scheme of things, Franklin occupied a post that certainly did not sound particularly heroic: Ambassador to France. But contrary to a rather undeserved reputation that the country has as a nation ready to surrender at a drop of the hat, France was a nation rich in military tradition, embroiled in a particularly nasty rivalry with Britain. This lends some context to Franklin’s post, as the American Revolution was largely preceded by the Seven Years’ War, a broad series of conflicts around the globe (that includes French and Indian War, which is probably the only thing American students are familiar with when it comes to the Seven Years’ War) that honestly should’ve been called World War I. The Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, but that didn’t eliminate animosity towards Britain by 1776. Franklin’s job was effectively to convince the French to commit their considerably (and exponentially more powerful, especially when compared to the colonists) military power to aid the American cause. Actually, if you think about it, that was probably what the entire American War of Independence was about: Getting enough foreign aid to distracted the hilariously powerful British army from pounding the hilariously unimpressive Continental Army. Because if a conventional unilateral military victory wasn’t going to happen – and you could be sure it wasn’t going to happen under Washington’s watch – then the next best thing was to find friends to help. That was Franklin’s job.

The French didn’t need encouragement in taking a leak in Britain’s tea, of course, but fighting a war or supporting a foreign rebellion was an expensive venture, and Franklin had the unenviable task of convincing France that the colonial rebellion was not a doomed effort. This was difficult, largely because – until the Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton – the Continental Army did a very good job at being humiliatingly defeated from one battle to the next. And, strictly speaking, the Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton were cases of “won the battle, but lost the war”. Sure, the idea of a surprise attack launched by a larger colonial force against British-aligned Hessian forces sounds impressive, but Americans kind of like to gloss over the fact that the victory was largely strategically worthless. The Americans won at Trenton, yes, but they couldn’t use it as a springboard to attack Princeton and New Brunswick as they had hoped, and they couldn’t defend the position against British reinforcements either. Washington immediately retreated back across the river into Pennsylvania with only some supplies and prisoners to show for their efforts.

This isn’t to underplay the non-strategic effects that the victory at Trenton played. For starters, it bolstered the confidence of the Continental Congress. By late 1776, the Americans had very little reason to be optimistic given the steady stream of defeats, and the Continental Congress was just about ready to surrender to British forces had Washington been defeated at Trenton. The victory did help public relations, and showed the colonists that a ragtag militia could – under the right circumstances (the “right circumstances” seemingly being outnumbering the enemy eight-to-five and outgunning them threefold) – defeat a professional military force. Of course, strategically, this changed very little; the British still held the advantage, their reinforcements were only an Atlantic away, and the American war effort was still largely doomed.

Except Franklin managed to convince the French – through excellent diplomacy and sleeping with French women, because the French have historically tended to be more egalitarian than the Anglo-Saxons, so their leaders actually listen to their women – that the strategic defeat at Trenton was a victory, and that the colonial resistance wasn’t a doomed effort, and if France could just commit some military aid, then they could all take a leak in British tea.

France is probably the most important reason why the United States exists as an independent country today. French soldiers were pivotal in training American militiamen into something resembling professional soldiers. France warships were pivotal in the British surrender at Yorktown that brought the end of the American War of Independence. The French navy was pivotal in discouraging Britain from sending more armies to North America to crush the Continental Army. And France aggression was pivotal in keeping British attention focused on Europe instead of North America; King George III may have been unwilling to recognize the new American state as a sovereign nation even after the British surrender at Yorktown, but even he admitted he was too preoccupied with European troubles – caused largely by France – to care much about the American colonies anymore, which largely guaranteed the new nation’s survival.

This potentially recolors the way we look at the American War of Independence. The fact is that while it is romantic to portray the war as a colonists-versus-Britain thing, in truth, it was really more of a Britain-versus-France thing with colonial independence as a happy side effect for the Americans. Strategically, the American colonies were like Vichy France in World War II, an otherwise mundane entity used by one warring party to mess with another warring party. Certainly, the American War of Independence was important to the colonists who got to found their own country, but it’s important to note that the colonies were largely only France’s pawn to antagonize the British, and that the United States really only exists because France deigned to do so. At Franklin’s encouragement.

Long story short, the Americans won the war because of France. And France helped because of Benjamin Franklin. Who slept with their women and fostered greater diplomatic relations because of it.

And this is why George Washington only appears on a one dollar bill, and why Benjamin Franklin appears on the one hundred dollar bill.

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