Academic journal article Early American Literature

A Generative Populace: Benjamin Franklin's Economic Agendas

Academic journal article Early American Literature

A Generative Populace: Benjamin Franklin's Economic Agendas

Article excerpt

Benjamin Franklin emerges as a point of origin for many different aspects of United States culture; he is rarely missing from debates about the texts and authors that catalyzed the tradition of American letters, and he is also a Founding Father of republican ideology (Davidson 134; Wood 215-17). When it comes to economics, Franklin's fiscal models have been invoked across a spectrum of work on political economy. Karl Marx critiqued T. R. Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population for its "schoolboyish, superficial plagiary" (qtd. in Huzel 20) of Franklin's populationist economic models, among those of others. Max Weber credited Franklin's Autobiography with embodying "the spirit of capitalism," thereby invoking his iconic life narrative as the progenitor of an entirely different set of political economy ideals (9-11). These divergent analyses demonstrate the flexibility of Franklin's economic rhetoric. Although his works recognized the potential of agrarian republicanism, Franklin's economic theories and popular writings also used the limitations of an agricultural economy to push for commercialism in the colonies and early Republic. Franklin quantified labor and valued productive work as contributions to the public good. In writing texts that identified and prescribed virtuous behavior and then transforming the production, sale, and purchase of those texts into a virtuous act, Franklin's belletristic writings and his economic prescriptions worked in tandem to demonstrate how individual labor and American commerce served the common welfare.

Franklin's 1751 populationist tract "Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, &c." provides a quantitative and qualitative examination of the relationship between a growing populace and land availability and use to comment on British economic policy in relation to American economic potential. The populationist hypothesis imagines an ideal ratio where the size of a nation's populace is evenly complemented by the amount of resources it produces, and when these figures are balanced, the polity becomes economically self-sufficient and stable. In "Observations," Franklin adopts and adapts the theories of seventeenth-century British demographers who analyzed census figures alongside data recording land use, resource production, and import trade. Further, these demographers linked the long-term health of a country to its inhabitants and their ability to generate wealth (Carey 46-47). "Observations" exaggerates the potential yield of colonial agricultural production and sets high expectations for America's laboring public, establishing the ideals that became central to Franklin's economic thinking. Populationist theory was a part of the evolution of modern economic theory; Franklin used its emphasis on productive labor and self-sufficiency to make commercialism agreeable to a populace that was primarily committed to agrarian, republican values.

In Franklin's day, the dream that ample land would provide the basis for a thriving society was a powerful force in policy debates and in more literary efforts to imagine America's future. American populationist theory advocated agrarian production at a moment when the English "public mind" was absorbed in its "mixed admiration of and horror at the factory ... [and the] omnipresent problem of the unprofitable poor" (Heilbroner 52). Well before Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, the British radical Jacobins promoted the "utopian dream of settling on a wilderness farm in America ... [and this dream] lent ideological meaning to landed property in America and thereby determined its economic value" (Verhoeven 12). America's vast expanses of "unsettled," cultivatable land appeared as the answer to the resource production and urban crowding problems plaguing England. In recent years, historians who have studied landholdings, agricultural production, shipping demands, and involuntary labor practices have debunked the myth that early America was an economic utopia founded on available land (Matson 27-33). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.