Johnson-Civil Rights Act

The Woke Surgeon: Benjamin Franklin and Lyndon Baines Johnson on the True Meaning of Civil Rights

With great thanks to Ruth and Alfred Blumrosen (the authors of Slave Nation, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2005) for this juxtaposition of quotes 176 years apart, from the unlikely sources of Franklin and Johnson, pursuing the same dream for America, that of colorblind freedom and equality for every American under the rule of law. We recall that Franklin during his long life ran the gamut from slave owner and occasional slave trader (through his printshop in Philadelphia) to ardent abolitionist (fulfilling the promise he made before the Revolution to John Fothergill, his personal physician, and David Barclay, one of the most heavily invested private sources for funding the Revolution) in the five final years of his life.

Independence Hall

The Woke Surgeon: Benjamin Franklin’s Speech to Closing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, September 17, 1787

Rather than verbiage from a mortal blogger, it is worthwhile to hear the entire closing speech of Franklin to the Constitutional Convention, calling for a unanimous signing of the document by all the delegates in attendance that morning (he wouldn’t get it, but he would get unanimous states’ approval, with various individual delegates deferring their imprimaturs on the document). The words were all Franklin, but James Wilson would read it in Franklin’s stead, Franklin claiming generalized exhaustion and hesitancy of speech. During the Convention, Franklin had been present non-stop for the four summer months, serving as the voice of gravitas, enlightenment (courtesy of Hume, Smith, and Lord Kames of Scotland), and compromise, and at least twice saving us from having two United States, north and south.

Declaration of Independence

The Woke Surgeon: Dr. Franklin in the wake of the Scottish Enlightenment

Dr. Franklin would be back in London at the outset of 1772, with a renewed zeal for the American colonies and their future, and a far greater clarity of purpose. He turned 67 on January 17, but now seemed twenty years younger, rejuvenated in his interest in the Club of Honest Whigs, and particularly in his relationship with Fothergill, Pownall, and Barclay. If a Revolution is what it would take to free Pennsylvania from the proprietors, then a Revolution it would be. Now able to articulate to the two Quakers, Fothergill and Barclay, the economic ruin that the British ministry under Hillsborough was wreaking on both Great Britain and her American colonies, Franklin made revolution appear more abstract and more appropriate. Franklin now spoke not of Locke’s “life, liberty, and property”, but rather Adam Smith’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ultimately and improbably, Smith would find himself quoted for eternity in the Declaration of Independence four years later.

Scottish Enlightenment

The Woke Surgeon: Benjamin Franklin returns to Scotland in 1771

By the time Dr. Benjamin Franklin (now twice “doctored” with a bookend honorary degree from Oxford in 1762 to go with his honorary degree from St. Andrews in 1759, as we learned) returned to Scotland in 1771, much had changed. Franklin, in frequent discussion with Thomas Pownall and other Whigs in London, had come to realize that his concept of Pennsylvania as an independent nation was fraught, and with Pownall’s encouragement he had broadened his outlook to include all the colonies from Georgia to Massachusetts.