Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Burning Question

The three great and easily-remembered historical years that every Englishman knows are...

1) 1066.  The Norman Conquest.  Harold catches an arrow in the eye.

2) 1666. Great Fire of London.  2/3 of London burnt to the ground.

3) 1966.  England wins the World Cup.

Great Fire of London, 1666

It is number 2 above, the Great Fire, that interests me right now.  The fire was started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner of Pudding lane on September 2nd during the reign of Charles II.  It soon spread west throughout the city.  The fire cleared the way for Christopher Wren's great works including the magnificent St. Paul's cathedral.

Clearly the English monarchy was not particularly effective at preventing the spread of urban fires,  nor did the monarchy have any particular love for the city of London.  Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the matter...

"The relationship between the City and the Crown was very tense. During the Civil War, 1642–1651, the City of London had been a stronghold of Republicanism, and the wealthy and economically dynamic capital still had the potential to be a threat to Charles II, as had been demonstrated by several Republican uprisings in London in the early 1660s. The City magistrates were of the generation that had fought in the Civil War, and could remember how Charles I's grab for absolute power had led to that national trauma."

Was Charles II complicit in allowing his political enemies to burn to the ground or merely neglectful..?

Now let's fast forward forty years to 1706.  Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 in Boston Massachusetts, a crown colony.  He would grow up to become one of the founding fathers of the United States of America.  He became a writer, scientist, inventor, publisher, entrepreneur, ambassador and statesman.  He would become one of the archetypal Americans who now graces the $100 bill.  He was the only founding father who signed all four documents which created the USA--the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the US constitution and the treaty of peace with England.  I also regard Franklin as a founding member of the conservative movement as well.

Benjamin Franklin House, London
He lived for many years in London (1723-1726, 1757-1763, and 1765-1775) and, in fact, his house on Craven street in London is the only one still standing that Franklin actually lived in.  You can make a visit to see it near Charing Cross...

Franklin had many friends in England which made his separation from the mother country all the more traumatic.  His only son, William Franklin, became the Tory governor of New Jersey and was forever estranged from his father due to  the American Revolution.

If you really want to understand why the USA is different from Europe you must understand Benjamin Franklin. Allow me please to quote at length from Walter Isaacson's excellent biography, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life...

"The essence of Franklin is that he was a civic-minded man.  He cared more about public behaviour than inner piety, and he was more interested in building the City of Man than the City of God.  The maxim he had proclaimed on his first trip back from London--'Man is a sociable being'--was reflected not only in his personal collegiality, but also in is belief than benevolence was the binding virtue of society.  As Poor Richard put it, 'He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone.'

Great Franklin Biography
This gregarious outlook would lead him, as a twenty-something printer during the 1730s to use his `Junto to launch a variety of community organisations, including a lending library, fire brigde, and night watchmen corps, and later a hospital, militia and college.  'The good men may do separately, ' he wrote, 'is small compared with what they may do collectively."

Franklin picked up his penchant for forming do-good associations from Cotton Mather and others, but his organisational fervour and galvanising personality made him the most influential force in instilling this as an enduring part of American life.  'Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations,' Tocqueville famously marvelled.  'Hospitals, prisons and schools take shape this way.'

Tocqueville came to the conclusion that there was an inherent struggle in America between two opposing impulses: the spirit of rugged individualism versus the conflicting spirit of community and association building.  Franklin would have disagreed.  A fundamental aspect of Franklin's life, and of American society he helped to create was that individualism and communitarianism, so seemingly contradictory were interwoven (my italics).  The frontier attracted barn-raising pioneers who were ruggedly individualistic as well as fiercely supportive of their community.  Franklin was the epitome of this admixture of self-reliance and civic involvement, and what he exemplified became part of the American character...

Using the name Pennsylvanus, he wrote a description of the 'brave men' who volunteer to fight fires, and  suggested that those who didn't join them should help bear the expense of ladders, buckets and pumps.  A year later...he proposed the formation of a fire company...Philadelphia had a lot of spirited volunteers, he noted, but they lacked 'order and method."  They should therefore consider following the example of Boston, he said, and organise into fire-fighting clubs with specific duties.  Always a stickler for specifics, Franklin helpfully enumerated these duties in great detail: there should be wardens, who carry 'a red staff of five feet,' as well as axmen and hook men and other specialties.

'This was much spoken of as a useful piece,' Franklin recalled in his autobiography, so he set about organising the Union Fire cCompany, which was incorporated in 1736.  He was fastidious in detailing its rules and the fines that would be levied for infractions.  This being a Franklin scheme, it included a social component as well; they met for dinner once a month 'for a social evening together discussing and communication such ideas as occurred to us on the subject of fires.'  So many people wanted to join that, like the Junto, it spawned sister fire companies around town.

Franklin remained actively involved in the Union Fire Company for years.  In 1743, the Gazette carried a little notice: 'Lost at the late fire on Water street, two leather buckets, marked B. Franklin & Co.  whoever brings them to the printer hereof shall be satisfied for their trouble.'  Fifty years later, when he returned from Paris after the Revolution, he would gather the four remaining members of the company, along with their buckets, for meetings."


As a longtime resident of the city of London, Franklin was, of course fully aware of the catastrophe of the fire of London and the abject failure of the English monarchy to prevent it (there is indeed some conjecture that Charles II welcomed the fire which affected his Republican opponents).  Franklin's words and action set forth an alternate template for civic behaviour. In the face of social ills (fire, disease, ignorance, etc.) the American would seize the opportunity to band together with like-minded individuals to work for their collective eradication.  Citizens would sleep in their houses free from fear of a fiery conflagration engulfing their homes.

36 Craven Street, London

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Union Fire Company...

"The Union Fire Company was an association for mutual assistance. Each member agreed to furnish, at his own expense (italics mine!), six leather buckets and two stout linen bags, each marked with his name and the name of the company, which he was to bring to every fire. The buckets were for carrying water to extinguish the flames, and the bags were to receive and hold property which was in danger, to save it from risk of theft. The members pledged themselves to repair to any place in danger upon an alarm of fire with their apparatus. Some were to superintend the use of the water, others were to stand at the doors of houses in danger, and to protect the property from theft. On an alarm of fire at night it was agreed that lights should be placed in the windows of houses of members near the fire 'in order to prevent confusion, and to enable their friends to give them more speedy and effectual assistance'"

Moreover, he invented the famous Franklin stove which became a safe source of heat for the colonists.

The individual is not, therefore, the enemy of the collective in some kind of alternate Randian universe, but rather the individual is the engine of altruism that benefits his fellow man.

The monarchical principle in many European nations encouraged faith in the charity and wisdom of the monarch to provide for their citizens.  Thus we have the "Royal Charity" model of social reform.  Over time, this evolved in Europe from the wisdom of the King to the collective wisdom of the worthies in Parliament or the European Union (e.g. socialism). Citizens of a Republic, on the other hand, believe that individuals can and will band together to form voluntary collectives that will address the most pressing social ills of their day.

Franklin would be proud!

The United States today, following the example of Franklin, is one of the most generous nations on the planet.  The Guardian, a very left-wing publication in the UK,  recently reported that the USA was tied for 5th place (with Switzerland) in terms of global generosity ahead of the the UK and most others nations...

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