Tuesday, June 30, 2009

152. Presenting Benjamin Franklin’s Great Wall in Franklin House

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) has been regarded as the sage transmitter of the Western European tradition to the early American way of life. He has been a great icon of American culture, embodying American ideals and dreams. My research on Benjamin Franklin and China, which as examined Franklin’s endured efforts to draw nourishment from Chinese civilization during the formative age of the United States, has attracted the attention from all over the world. Recently, the New York Times Week in Review featured my studies of Benjamin Franklin, as can be seen through this link.

What was really inspiring was the invitation from the Benjamin Franklin House in London to do a presentation concerning how Franklin incorporated Chinese culture into early Colonial society in America. The said presentation can be seen through this link. Franklin lived in this house for nearly sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and it now serves as a historical relic of the scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor, and Founding Father of the United States.

I was honored to be able to present my work in a place where Benjamin Franklin had once lived and worked. I tried to
express to my audience my belief of how Benjamin Franklin was arguably the greatest American lover of the Great
Wall of China. In 1756, Franklin built his own great wall in order to defend the Pennsylvania colonies in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Later in 1760, Franklin recommended a great wall resembling that of China’s to safeguard the British Colonies in North America against possible outside attacks. Even later in 1776, Franklin counseled the French engineer responsible for the fortifications of George Washington’s revolutionary army
to build a wall for shelter during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) against the English empire. To further illustrate my point, I made this model of the great wall that Franklin built between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, seen below.

I was impressed by so many fascinating questions from the floor. There are three questions that came to most audience mind: Did Franklin really build his great wall? Why did he build his wall? Did Franklin’s great wall really work?

Franklin’s great wall was built in 1756 when he was commander of the defensive force of 500 colonists in Pennsylvania. Franklin had them build a wall, a basic means of protection against the Indians and their French allies. In his letter to Samuel Rhodes, an old friend, in 1756, Franklin described his great wall in detail. I relayed two basic reasons for Franklin’s wall: First, Franklin was concerned with the safety of the colonists. In his pamphlet,
The Interest of Great Britain Considered published in 1760, Franklin had stated: “the security of our planters from the inroads of savages, and the murders committed by them—will not be obtained by such forts, unless they were connected by a wall like that of China, from one end of our settlements to the other.” The second reason was to have fewer people on either sides of his wall being killed. Not only did Franklin want to save the lives on his side of the wall, he wished to end the bloodshed entirely. He wanted to use his wall as a tool of intimidation against the
French and the Indians in the hope that they would end the violence. It was against his nature for Franklin to tolerate violence. He needed a plan that would be accepted by his fellow Quakers but which would also reduce the brutality. Franklin knew very well the situation he faced "Most of the members of the Assembly were Quakers. I had many opportunities to observe them. I saw how uncomfortable they were made by their principle against war…I had cause to believe that our plan to defend the country was agreeable to the Quakers—provided they were not required to take part. I found that a great number of them were clearly in favor of fighting to defend something, though they were against starting a war." (From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin).

But the big question is: did Franklin’s wall really work? The fact that Franklin recommended construction of the great wall twice—once in the French Indian War and another time in the Revolutionary War—suggested to us that his vision of a great wall was functional. In fact, his defensive wall of 1756 formed a huge obstacle for the Indians and their French allies. Based on testimony given by Williams Franklin (1731-1813), son of Benjamin Franklin, the Pennsylvanians were protected well by the wall. According to William Franklin, “the Enemy is not, nor ever was, in the Heart of the Country, having only molested the Frontier Settlements by their Parties.” Under the protection of Franklin’s wall, “the Inhabitants, who at first abandoned their Frontier Settlements, returned generally to their Habitations, and many yet continue, though not without some Danger, to cultivate their
Lands…” (William Franklin to the Printer of The Citizen, 1757)

My answers to the three questions were welcomed by thunderous applause. My audience felt my presentation should be longer. They not only came from local area. A gentleman even told me that he had come all the way from Germany to listen to my lecture in London. I feel that my presentations on Benjamin Franklin and the Great Wall of China have opened new windows for people to view the history and culture he helped to create.

The above essay is adopted from CALA Newsletter, NO. 100, Spring 2009. Thank CALA's generosity.

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