Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor…
In my research, I have learned that Franklin opposed being cruel to the indigenous people of America, the Indians. He sought to deal with them in fairness versus deception and cruelty.
INDIANS, Discord Often the Fault of Whites. During the course of a long life in which I have made observations on public affairs, it has appeared to me that almost every war between the Indians and whites has been occasioned by some injustice of the latter toward the former. It is indeed extremely imprudent in us to quarrel with them for their lands, as they are generally willing to sell, and sell such good bargains; and war with them is so mischievous to us, in unsettling frequently a great part of our frontier and reducing the inhabitants to poverty and distress, and is besides so expensive, that is much cheaper, as well as more honest, to buy their lands than to take them by force.
INDIANS, Friendly Indians Massacred by Renegade Whites. In December, we had two insurrections of the back inhabitants of our province, by whom twenty poor Indians were murdered that had, from the first settlement of the province, lived among us, under the protection of our government. This gave me a good deal of employment; for, as the rioters threatened farther mischief, and their actions seemed to be approved by an increasing party, I wrote a pamphlet entitled “A Narrative, etc. “(which I think I sent to you) to strengthen the hand of our weak government, by rendering the proceedings of the rioters unpopular and odious. This had good effect; and afterwards, when a great body of them with arms marched towards the capital, in defiance of the government, with an avowed resolution to put to death 140 Indian converts then under its protection, I formed an association at the Governor’s request for his and their defense…
Despite his efforts to treat them fairly he, as best as I can tell from his writings on the Indians, Benjamin Franklin never saw them as partakers of his great vision of America. He saw them as part of a separate existence in a vast America that would allow them to lead their way of life apart from the life he envisioned for Europeans. He said in one letter that “every attempt to civilize our American Indians” had met with “little success.”
In the same letter, he bemoans the fact that the Indians didn’t desire to assimilate into the culture of the colonists:
“They… see the advantages that arts, sciences, and compact societies procure us. They are not deficient in understanding; and yet they have never shown any inclination to change their manner of life for ours or to learn any of our arts. When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our customs, yet, if he goes to see his relatives, and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.
Perhaps it was because he didn’t see the possibility of the two cultures ever coexisting on the same land that he had a separate vision of America for the Indians. I found it ironic and humorous that even though Franklin considered British-American culture far superior to Indian culture, that he observed that “whites,” who were forcibly exposed to Indian culture, preferred it to their own:
And that this is not natural to them as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons, of either sex, have been taken prisoners by the Indians, and lived awhile with them, though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and the pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first opportunity of escaping into the woods, from whence there is no redeeming them.
Franklin’s vision appeared to be an America that was so vast that the Indians could continue to move elsewhere as they sold their lands to accommodate a growing number of European immigrants. It was a vision of an America in which European immigrants could become landowners and procure posterity for themselves and their children. In this vision, the Indians would always be happy to sell their lands cheaply, uproot, and live elsewhere. It sounds simplistic and even cynical, but this was the view of one of our Founding Fathers, and history would show was a view held by America’s leaders for generations to come.
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