Carla J. Mulford is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University (University Park) and the Founding President of the Society of Early Americanists. This interview is based on her new book, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM: My book originated from an interest in Franklin’s writings on the Haudenosaunees (called the Iroquois or Six Nations, by the settlers). In thinking about Franklin’s ideas about Indians, I was led to ask myself the question: If Franklin’s views about Native peoples shifted across time and became more humanitarian, did a similar shift occur with regard to people of African descent? Contemplating the answer to this question led to an even larger question about Franklin’s views about the British Empire, its expansion into North America, India, and Ireland, and its fostering of a slave trade intended to benefit people back in Britain but leave British Americans unable to pursue “handicraft” (artisan) labor, improve their living standards, and develop their own systems of internal trade in the colonies of North America. To learn more, I studied early modern and early American economy, the histories of the peopling of North America, European imperial political economies, and the history of international legal views on sovereignty. This work dovetailed with my work as a Penn State professor. I began offering courses in literature related to early American environmental and social history and in historical and contemporary writings by Native peoples. The result, nearly twenty years later, is Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire, a book based in twenty years of reading and a decade of writing. Several pieces that didn’t make it into the book have been published as stand-alone arguments.
Franklin began his professional life working to shore up the British Empire in North America by supporting economic measures that would help colonists thrive financially and physically while also supporting the greater British Empire in the Atlantic world. Beginning in the 1750s, Franklin wrote a series of briefs – written in the form of letters to William Shirley, then governor of Massachusetts – articulating a platform of alliance with Britain but allowing for the colonies’ political and financial self-determination, because imperial policies were hampering the colonists’ abilities to build self-supporting enterprises and develop networks for mutual defense against the other European imperial efforts in North America. In the 1760s, as Franklin attempted to negotiate with British ministers about American matters, he was forced to deal with the clear indifference of Britons in England to the life situation of Britons in North America. He developed a legal argument supporting the original sovereignty of colonial Americans, and he finally relinquished any effort to retain an alliance with the Empire. He argued from the 1750s onward that the ends of any empire ought to be in supporting the wellbeing of all its peoples, wherever they happened to be living.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM: Franklin believed in the ideals of freedom embodied in the early modern liberalism he imbibed as a tireless and voracious young reader aspiring to learn more about the British Empire. His experiences as printer, writer, politician, and diplomat taught him that if he really wanted to see the liberal values he admired – values said to have descended as the freedoms articulated in England’s Magna Carta – at work in North America, then the American colonies needed to break from Britain and form their own political, financial, commercial, and labor goals.
JF: Why do we need to read Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM: My book attends to materials that many who study Franklin have given little comprehensive attention to: his readings as a youth (and what he might have learned from them and held onto as ideals); his theories of fiscal, social, and political economy; his concerns about the British Empire in India and Ireland; his changing concerns about Native American and African peoples; and his views on land title and sovereignty. Contrary to many historians who place Franklin’s turn against the British Empire in the mid-1770s, when he was denounced in the Cockpit by Alexander Wedderburn, my book shows that Franklin’s turn against Britain’s imperial system began in the middle 1750s and were articulated in a number of documents from that era onward.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CJM: I believe I have always been fascinated about the impact of past events on present times. I can’t imagine living a life devoid of historical knowledge. How would we know why and how we got to the complicated place where we are, without a roadmap – roadmaps, really – of our past? And how would we understand how fully constructed historical stories have been, without a recognition of “spin culture” in our lives today?
As a student of early American literature, I studied the writings of people whose works were not very well known to the current generation of students, however well known they were in the era in which they were written. I helped to reform the established canon of literature by seeing that students of early materials would have available to them writings by women, Native peoples, Africans and African Americans, and laboring people – those who were not typically written about in the literary histories of the twentieth century.
My work on Franklin extends this trajectory of my interests by exploring understudied writings by a major American author. Among literary scholars, Franklin’s autobiography is often considered his sole piece of important writing. In Franklin studies, I wanted to show that the qualities of writing associated with his autobiography, a late-in-life writing, were available from the very beginning, not just in “literary” materials but in his writings on economics, politics, and society.
JF: What is your next project?
CJM: My next monograph, titled Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy, takes up a line of argument tangential to Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy shows how Franklin attempted to use his scientific fame to influence political policy. Planned as a much shorter and complementary book, this new work embraces several fields, including the history of the circulation of books and manuscripts, the history of science, and the history of eighteenth-century British and French imperial decision-making.
JF: Thanks, Carla!