Book review: ‘Franklin & Washington’ by Edward J. Larson

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Benjamin Franklin was 16 years older than George Washington. They had completely different backgrounds. Yet their unspoken partnership was the cornerstone of the great American experiment.

Franklin was from a working-class background, apprenticed to a printer, and earned his way through hard work and ingenuity.

Washington was of landed gentry and grew up in the slave-holding South. While relatively young, Washington spent time as a wilderness surveyor. Both slavery and western expansion influenced Washington’s thinking. Western expansion was an area where Washington and Franklin agreed. They held opposite beliefs regarding slavery.

The first interaction of the two was to provide security for the western frontier of Virginia and Pennsylvania. France was actively pursuing partnerships with local Indians and claiming the territory. With the assistance of the British, the security was finally achieved in 1763, when the Ohio Country passed from French to British rule. The actual treaty covered more than the Ohio transfer. It was then that Franklin began his foreign diplomacy by going to London on behalf of Pennsylvania’s and Delaware’s commercial interests. Washington was busy expanding Mount Vernon.

The colonies were proud of their independence and jealous of any effort at unification. Franklin had pushed the idea of unification for defense as an effective way to defend the western frontier. His idea had largely been ignored. The thing the colonies could agree on was that they should be treated as British citizens and not British subjects. British citizens were not to be taxed without representation. British subjects, however, were. Defense of the colonies was costly, and Britain believed that the colonies should be taxed to pay for it. Early colonial efforts were to gain the right of British citizenship. Eventually both Franklin and Washington joined those that believed independence from Britain was the right answer.

Washington was chosen as the leader of the Continental Army after it became clear that war was at hand. Due to a constantly underfunded, under-supplied and undermanned army, Washington learned that congress had little if any power under the Articles of Confederation.

Franklin was eventually able to convince France that since Britain was a regular adversary of France, it was in France’s best interest to support the colonies. France’s support is what finally earned the victory.

Ben Franklin was 81 years old at the time of the Constitutional Convention. He had long believed in the need of a unified government for the colonies. He also knew the value of compromise, and his reputation went a long way toward making that possible. Washington was a respected leader, and his presence reduced the fear of developing an executive position. Convention delegates did not want to create another king.

Washington and Franklin were key figures in developing the Constitution that we still adhere to today. A reading of “Franklin & “Washington” is to better understand many aspects of our history, including why a tougher stand wasn’t taken against slavery at that time.

 

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