With the Christmas season before us, I thought I’d put a note on here about a limited, ex-libris, edition of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness that the good people at Unseen Histories have arranged. Lots of them have gone already, but I think there are a few left and if you’d like one of them for yourself, or as a present, then do visit this link to find out more.
Out and about
It is now four month since Life, Liberty was published and I am very proud of it. I was thrilled to find out that it made it onto the front cover of The Washington Post in July, along with a brilliant illustration of Franklin, Macaulay, Strahan and the rest of them. It was particularly nice to see that wily old newspaperman, William Strahan, of whom not much has been heard for the past quarter of a millennium, reappearing on a newspaper cover – the format he knew so well. Along with the comprehensive, intriguing review there by Charles Arrowsmith, I also wrote some essays – one for The Atlantic (on Johnson) and one for The New Statesman (on Franklin) – that you might like to explore. I am very grateful to the booksellers at Waterstones who chose it as one of their best history books of the year.
Apart from that I enjoyed trips to festivals in Buxton, Buckingham and Gladstone’s Library. The US remains a bit beyond me at the moment, as far as physical events go, but I was very pleased to be asked to participate in digital events for The National Archives and the New England Historical Association.
The second of these, in particular, was a great one. It was expertly planned by the director Margaret M. Talcott, who arranged for me to be in conversation with the author Richard Cohen. Crossing paths with Cohen, whose excellent books How to Write Like Tolstoy and Making History I picked up as a by-product, was an immense treat. You can watch our conversation in this video below.
During these two events various questions came in on the live feed. I dealt with those that I could but promised that I would catch up with others here in due course. So here, for the interested, is something of an extended question and answer session.
Questions and Answers
The title of your book is familiar, What new information does it contain?
The book stands on a great amount of my own research – much of it made possible by the increasing growth of digital archives. In chapters one and two, for instance, there’s the most comprehensive account yet of Benjamin Franklin’s attempt to print the first American magazine. Thereafter the information about Franklin and Strahan’s friendship, a thread that runs through the book, is original. I liked being able to draw out the significance of Catharine Macaulay’s burst of fame in 1763 (her story was very much bound up with John Wilkes’s) and, in terms of argument, I think I’ve filled in a gap that was suggested years ago by Bernard Bailyn. This is to show the relevance of characters like John Wilkes on the early Patriots.
After Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he asked Franklin to ‘edit’ it, Franklin inserted ‘these rights are self-evident’, what else do you think he changed/left alone?
Jefferson’s ‘original Rough draught’ of the Declaration is one of the most fascinating documents, I would say, in all Western history. In it, as you point out, you can see editorial interventions from Franklin who was perhaps – along with John Adams – Jefferson’s first reader.
Franklin’s suggestion of self-evident’ (it is pretty certain that this is Franklin’s suggestion) has been much discussed. It is a phrase that has the air of a mathematical proof. It frames the document and particularly the claim that ‘all Men are created equal’ in empirical Enlightenment terms. Franklin is arguing that ‘we can see with our own eyes’. ‘We can determine ourselves’. For more on this, and for a revealing ‘slow reading’ of the Declaration, see Danielle Allen’s recent book: Our Declaration.
Franklin is also believed to have made another change, helping amend the line ‘evinces a design to subject them to arbitrary power’ in the draft so that it read ‘evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism’.
Otherwise, for reasons, I outline in the book, he was rather a muted voice in June 1776. There is an old story about him and Jefferson, though, that is both entertaining and instructive, which did not make it into my final manuscript, but which is worth repeating here. It is an anecdote written down by Jefferson himself in later life. The following is excerpted from his papers:
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography. Vol. 8
When the Declaration of Independence was under the consideration of Congress, there were two or three unlucky expressions in it which gave offence to some members. The words ‘Scotch and other foreign auxiliaries’ excited the ire of a gentleman of two of that country. Severe strictures on the conducts of the British king, in negotiating our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some southern gentlemen, whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic. Although the offensive expressions were immediately yielded, these gentlemen continued their depredations on other parts of the instrument. I was sitting by Dr Franklin who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.
‘I have made it a rule,’ said he, ‘whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesion from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money’, with a figure of a hat subjoined; but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the word ‘makes hats’ which show he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats’. ‘Sells hats’ says his next friend! Why nobody will expect you to give them away, what then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.
American evangelicals claim that the US is founded on Christian values. But you said here that the Founding Fathers were the “least religious generation.” Would it be more correct to say that the US is founded on Enlightenment values?
Yes. I think this is right. Thomas Ricks writes a little about the secular origins of America in his First Principles. This is an excellent book that finds connections between the Founders and the Ancient Romans and Greeks. These were a huge influence (and were a strong component of ‘Enlightenment’ thinking). It is also worth remembering that by the mid-eighteenth century the West (problematic term, I know) was coming out of a three century period of religious bickering. People were looking to the future and for something new.
What was the historical context that colonists viewed indigenous tribes as savages.
The word ‘savage’ had an ambivalence in the eighteenth century that we don’t always recognise today. It was derogatory to some extent, but it was also infused with a Romanticism and it was this that Rousseau wrote so memorably about. Anyone who wishes to further their knowledge on this topic could do well by reading The Savage Visit by the Australian historian Kate Fullagar.
Did the founding people consider how these words and concepts would apply to non-white people?
Excellent question. For many: no. The social world of the colonies was highly stratified and commonly it was only those at the top of society who were taken into consideration. I wrote a little about this in the book, using Gordon Wood’s distinction between the ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘ordinary’ classes of people. This was a trouble for Franklin in his mid-career. For those non-White Americans it was equal more applicable. As Frederick Douglass would point out, ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July’. But there is nuance here. The early 1770s were a time of stirrings. People were beginning to question slavery. Some societies were set up. A few polemics against slavers appeared in the newspapers. One, it seems (though some doubt the authorship), was a fiery piece written by Thomas Paine.
Did the common man in Britain have any known opinions about the colonists and their uprising?
It is agreed that there was a high level of ignorance in Britain about the American colonies. In the 1760s Benjamin Franklin had great fun in London writing newspaper articles that claimed outrageous things about American life: that whales leapt over the Niagara Falls and so on. I think a good deal of this ignorance (mixed up with prejudice) continued right up to the time of the Revolution. It is common to find lines in the newspapers like – they are biting the hand that feeds them and so on. Of course there were some supporters of America. Franklin’s friendships with Jonathan Shipley is instructive. Edmund Burke was a friend to the colonists. So was John Wilkes and the Earl of Chatham. From this we can see that there would be many among the ‘common man’ who would have sympathy for the Patriots too.
What is Thomas Paine’s most underrated work?
The American Crisis, perhaps, as it is eclipsed by Common Sense and, later, The Rights of Man. The essays in it did have a powerful effect on morale at a crucial time.
Could you summarize the current status of the American dream, thank you.
As we approach the 250th anniversary of the USA’s founding, it is obvious to everyone that there is much division and rancour in the country. But if we are to use these benchmarks of ‘life’, ‘liberty’ and ‘happiness’, then we can probably arrive at a more reasoned picture. First off, people are living for an average of 77 years (down after Covid but still pretty high). Important values about the freedom of speech and the sacred nature of private property seem mostly to have been upheld. Americans are also pretty happy compared with the rest of the world. According to one recent report the USA nudged up from 16th to 15th in a global happiness index.
Looking in from the outside, I do worry about the lack of a political centre and the degree of fury aroused by the news-as-entertainment culture that now predominates. But then I remember that American politics has always been a raucous thing. To look at the Pennsylvania elections in the early 1760s is to see that today’s polls are mild indeed.
By focussing on a small number of participants, aren’t you in danger of missing the bigger picture?
This can be a danger. But I think there is also a danger in trying to do too much. Whatever you write about, there will always be someone who says: ‘You should put X, Y or Z in too’. But to do this, trying to be totally comprehensive, is to risk sending readers to sleep. My view is that people want to read a story and that, as a writer, it is my responsibility to cut my own path through periods of history. I do this using biographies of characters whose lives are dramatic and instructive. Sometimes you’re on the shoulder of this person or that, watching them in moments of actions. At others you can zoom right out, and explain their place in the wider world.
Find out more about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Britain and the American Dream.