Benjamin Franklin's role in the withdrawal of Quakers from Pennsylvania politics

Benjamin Franklin is often held up as a hero of American colonial era, and often conflated with Quakers because of his presence in largely-Quaker Philadelphia. The Franklin Institute, for example, includes the question, “Was Benjamin Franklin a Quaker?” among its FAQs. The answer, of course, is no. The confusion can be explained in part not only by his geographical location but by his frequent support of some Quaker ideas and principles. History is always a matter of interpretation, and some historians view Franklin as basically a pragmatist in this regard, trying to accommodate both the radical pacifism of the Quakers and the radical war supporters in the colony. In the journal Pennsylvania History Jacquelyn Miller concludes her review of Franklin’s perspective on Quakers with the observation that “When Quakers acted according to Franklin's own principles, he could....” Part of this unkindness had to do with Franklin’s feeling that Quakers had a tendency to be hypocritical about their peace testimony. As Murray Rothbard demonstrates in his large historical volume Conceived in Liberty, however, Franklin himself played a key role in this behavior. The excerpt below is from the chapter entitled, “The Emergence of Benjamin Franklin (pp. 562-570).” As you will no doubt gather, Rothbard is no fan of Franklin and does not hold back in either his critique of Franklin generally or Franklin’s role in bringing about the withdrawal of Friends from active political life in Pennsylvania:

At this point there entered the scene a man whose historical reputation is perhaps the most inflated of the entire colonial period in America: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, a printer from Philadelphia, a writer, inventor, and clerk of the Assembly, decided to circumvent the Assembly’s refusal to establish a militia by creating one himself. He began his campaign by publishing a pamphlet, Plain Truth (1747), which proved highly influential in whipping up war hysteria. He painted the menace and horrors of armed invasion in lurid colors, and demagogically appealed to the supposed fighting qualities of each ethic group in the colony. Alarmist rumors were spread of a supposed enemy attack in the spring of 1748. In the midst of this fervid atmosphere, Franklin launched a voluntary militia “association,” which quickly gained over 10,000 adherents in the colony. The men formed themselves into companies and regiments and elected their own officers. Franklin then used a lottery to finance his private army, and used the funds to purchase cannons.

While voluntarily financed, Franklin’s association was not truly private, for Franklin worked hand in hand with the delighted proprietary administration. Reverend Mr. Peters wrote to Thomas Penn that the association movement was in the interests of the proprietary and would be a means of escaping from Quaker control of the province…

Franklin displayed his cunning in the affair by having a fast day proclaimed in honor of the association, in order to bring the clergy and God in on the side of the scheme. As Franklin himself boasted in his autobiography: “Calling in the aid of religion, I proposed to them (the Governor and Council) the proclaiming a fast to…implore the blessing of heaven on our undertaking…This gave the clergy of the different sects an opportunity of influencing their congregation to join in the association, and it will probably have been general among all but Quakers if the peace had not soon intervened.”

Indeed, peace “intervened,” and disproved all the nonsensical claims and fears perpetrated by Franklin and the ruling war party. The Quakers emerged from the war more honored and entrenched than ever; they needed to retain only their unity and principle to continue the peace policy. As we shall soon see, however, this proved impossible, and a good part of the responsibility for the collapse of Quaker peace principles belongs to Benjamin Franklin…

Franklin was able to develop a lucrative printing business at so young an age largely by keeping an eye to the main chance – that is, through an ability to win a favored place at the public trough by gaining the patronage of older and influential men. Hardly had Franklin launched his business when he was able to snag several highly profitable plums of government privilege. The first and most important was his securing of the vital public printing business…

The second coup centered on paper money. In 1729, the question arose whether or not Pennsylvania should print another large issue of paper money. Franklin, spurred by the lucrative prize of the contract for printing the new money, wrote an anonymous pamphlet (A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency) that trumpeted the cause of paper money, and played an important role in driving the scheme through the Assembly…

Franklin’s first meddling in public affairs set the model for what was to follow. The police force of Philadelphia was financed by a uniform tax of six shillings a year on each householder; the bulk of the duties of the force were undertaken by householders themselves, serving unpaid, in lieu of tax payment. Franklin decided that it would be better to hire a full-time police bureaucracy and to pay for it by a proportional tax on property…

Despite the fact that peace had hardly yet broken out, Great Britain was getting ready to strike a mortal blow at the French empire. It began to attack French territory in the Ohio Valley in 1754, and in 1756 the war was made official and generalized into the Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French and Indian War. Once again Quaker Pennsylvania was faced with a crucial decision on support of a war – a more important decision since the scale of the new war was far greater…

Into this situation shrewd Benjamin Franklin now stepped and took a hand. Franklin saw that Quaker devotion to pacifist principle was now largely pro forma, and saw also that he could take leadership of the Quaker party in the Assembly by leading it into a constitutional and political fight against the proprietary. In particular, he could desert the proprietary party on the issue of tax exemption for the proprietors’ lands – an issue that became very important as heavy taxes had to be levied for military affairs. By leading a fight by the Quaker Assembly on this issue, Franklin was to become a popular hero while at the same time indirectly but effectively scuttling Quaker opposition to the war effort…

As Morris shrewdly wrote at the end of 1755: “Franklin has views that they [the Quakers] know nothing of…the truth, I believe, is that he is courting them in order to distress you [the proprietary], and, at the same time, leading them into measures that will in the end deprive them of any share in the administration.”

At the end of the year, Franklin reintroduced a war-fund bill, of 60,000 pounds, to be issued in paper money and redeemed in property taxes, with no exemption for Penn’s property. A group of principled Quakers rallied to protest the measure as “inconsistent with peaceable testimony,” but they could muster only seven dissenting votes against passage in the Assembly…

The Quaker Assembly not only assented supinely to a huge military program, but also was induced to agree for the first time to an official governmental militia for Pennsylvania. The militia bill was introduced by Franklin at the end of 1755. Franklin won Quaker support by proclaiming the voluntarism of the militia…The Quakers, however, seemed to have forgotten that their principle was to oppose any governmental militia, any coercive body imposed by the state…
Thus, in less than a year’s time, Benjamin Franklin had succeeded in radically transforming the politics and policies of the Quaker party and of the Assembly…The pure Quakers, devoted to the principle of peace and individualism, had been isolated and routed…

With the bulk of their constituency and even their fellow Quakers swept into a war position, they decided in the summer of 1756 to abandon the effort and resign…

Franklin was overjoyed at the resignation of the “stiff rump” of the Quakers, his “conquest” of Quaker principle being now complete. Moreover, four more Quakers resigned in the fall, many others refused to be candidates, and others refused to vote. Yearly and monthly Quaker meetings urged resignation upon all Quaker officials. The sect had become politically demoralized; many members felt it easier to evade the entire issue and passively permit non-Quakers to pursue the war effort. The result was that Benjamin Franklin was left in complete control of the Pennsylvania Assembly, the remaining Quakers now being thoroughly committed to the war effort and to Franklin’s leadership.

This post originally appeared on Quaker Libertarians.

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Comment by William F Rushby on 3rd mo. 1, 2020 at 11:58am

The contemporary unprogrammed Friends are heavily politicized.  And this preoccupation with political agendas makes it difficult for them to understand the mid-18th C era of Quaker history in which political involvement was the source of much conflict among American Friends.  By that time many American Friends were only nominally committed to their religious faith.  In *For the Reputation of Truth: Politics, Religion and Conflict Among the Pennsylvania Quakers, 1750-1800*, Richard Bauman examines the dynamics of the Quaker withdrawal from "secular"  politics.

I read the book many years ago and, because I am living out of cardboard boxes right now,  neither have access to it nor to my collection of journals where reviews of it appeared.  Bauman characterized the mid-1800s as a time of revival and discord among Pennsylvanian Friends.  Cleavages among Friends came to a head then.  He described the nominal Friends as "politicos" who practiced Quakerism-"light".  The serious religiously-involved Friends were intent on ridding their faith community of "politicos" by reasserting the Discipline and renewing Quaker spiritual life.  As I recall, many of the politicos reacted by becoming Episcopalians!  Most of them would likely have aligned themselves politically with Benjamin Franklin's outlook.

Some of you have read Bauman's book more recently than I have and can correct me where my recollections are faulty!!

Comment by Keith Saylor on 3rd mo. 2, 2020 at 10:28am

Thank you Matt, I appreciate this effort.

Comment by Matt on 3rd mo. 2, 2020 at 3:34pm

I will have to check out Bauman's book - thank you for the reference, William!

Thanks also for the kind words, Keith!

Comment by William F Rushby on 3rd mo. 2, 2020 at 3:59pm

Here is a complete reference:

Bauman, Richard, *For the Reputation of Truth: Politics, Religion and Conflict Among the Pennsylvania Quakers, 1750-1800* The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1st edition (June 1, 1971)


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