A Nation Built on Discovery
Human happiness and scientific progress are inseparable. The secret of America is that ours is a Republic based on Science. As Lyndon LaRouche once described this: “Since our national beginnings in such places as the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s mid-seventeenth-century development, until the close of the 1960s, ‘being an American’ signified an exuberant commitment to fostering and enjoying the benefits of scientific and technological progress.”
Prior to the American Revolution, access to science, to technology, to the means by which human progress might be accomplished was denied to the overwhelming majority of mankind. For millennia, under imperial and oligarchical rule, creative freedom was prohibited, and humanity was kept in a state of backwardness, superstition, slavery and serfdom. The creation of the United States was intended to shatter those chains, to give people the right to develop a more productive Future.
Among many of today’s American patriots, there is a pervasive view that the founding of our nation was based on the idea of Freedom. That is undoubtedly true, but the crucial question to ask ourselves should be this: What is the nature of that Freedom? Freedom to do what? To be anarchistic and tear down statues? To financially speculate, loot the economy and ship our industries overseas? To wallow in the degeneracy of Hollywood culture?
Or,—is it a Freedom to Create, to Build, to Increase Mankind’s Power Over Nature, for the Benefit of the Greater Good? What did our founders actually fight for? And what are we fighting for today?
Nowhere is the unity of republican values and scientific leadership more explicit than in the life and personality of Benjamin Franklin. That is the topic of this offering.
Science & Development
Benjamin Franklin was the leading physical scientist of his era. He has sometimes been called a “natural philosopher.” Properly understood, what that term means is that Franklin was concerned with understanding the Nature of Things;—Why does a natural phenomenon behave as it does? What are the underlying principles which govern actions of the biosphere and the universe? All of Franklin’s scientific experiments and writings are driven by a determination to discover the physical principles which govern the behavior he is observing.
During Franklin’s lifetime, the British elite slandered him as an uncultured bumbler, and denigrated his work as not “true science.” The truth is that Franklin’s approach to science and the discoveries he made represented a deadly threat to the mathematical methods of the faker Isaac Newton. Franklin was always operating at the boundaries of scientific knowledge, both experimentally and conceptually.*
At the same time, nothing Franklin did was motivated simply by curiosity. In his 1743 proposal to create the American Philosophical Society, Franklin wrote,
All philosophical experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life.This short declaration captures Franklin’s intention as to both science and economics and the unity of the two.
Franklin’s intention was to make discoveries that would prove useful to mankind. The word “useful” as it was used by Franklin, however, has a different meaning from how it is popularly employed today. By “useful,” Franklin meant that valid scientific discoveries which revealed new universal principles would lead to an increase in human power over nature, creating a more productive society for future generations.
There are two sources on the internet which provide extensive documentation of Franklin’s scientific work: The Complete Works, in Philosophy, Politics, and Morals, and The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Together, these resources contain not only numerous scientific essays, but also dozens of letters to many scientific collaborators, on an astonishing range of subjects. In reading many of the essays, reports and letters, it becomes very clear that the question Franklin continues to ask himself, over a span of decades, is: Will it benefit Mankind? Will it contribute to further Human Progress, to advancing Human Civilization?
A prime example of this concern is to be found in a 1749 letter to his close collaborator Peter Collinson. This letter came at the end of three years of intensive investigation into the properties of electricity. During those three years Franklin had achieved stunning breakthroughs. His work overthrew all existing theories concerning electricity. He postulated that what he called “electrical fire” was a type of invisible fluid, subtle and elastic and distributed everywhere in nature, composed of “subtle” (small) particles which could penetrate even the densest of matter; that its energy could not be destroyed but was always circulating through a process of positive and negative charges. Franklin's single fluid theory became the basis on which all subsequent work in electricity would rest for more than a century. He invented terms as he went along, including battery, charged, grounded and conductor. He demonstrated that electricity could be transmitted through the air, and he reported to Collinson the creation of “what we called an Electrical Battery,” a lead-and-glass arrangement that, once charged, could store electricity for use at will.
These were astonishing discoveries, which created a scientific uproar throughout Europe. But, in spite of this, in his 1749 letter to Collinson, Franklin was unsatisfied and complained that he and his associates were “Chagrined a little that We have hitherto been able to discover Nothing in the Way of Use to Mankind.” Franklin knew that his discoveries as to the nature of electricity would “increase the Power of Man over Matter,” but he had yet to discover the means to apply the discoveries to economic processes.
The understanding that scientific discovery is essential for human progress was established in the American colonies from the beginning. Such an outlook was implicit in the development of the Saugus Iron Works of Massachusetts as early as 1646. In 1721 Cotton Mather, Franklin’s Boston mentor, authored a work, titled The Christian Philosopher: Collection of the Best Discoveries in Nature, the first scientific work published in the American colonies, wherein he investigates a multitude of natural phenomena, all within the context of his charge “To Do Good.” Mather is explicit that by unraveling the mysteries of the physical universe, new powers would be made available to humanity. For Mather, as for Franklin, a truly human society is framed around the individual’s ability to discover the principles governing God’s creation. In so doing, humanity is given new powers to “subdue the earth.”
Later, James Logan, Franklin’s Philadelphia mentor, was not only the leading scientific mind in the generation immediately preceding Franklin and an avowed opponent of Newton, he also developed iron manufacturing and sponsored many other technological projects.
Franklin investigated magnetism, botany, minerals, the gulf stream, heat, light, and many other physical processes,—always for the purpose of unlocking the principles—the secrets—governing these processes, and always with the intention of increasing the productive power of mankind over nature.
The Economics of Development
In 1729, when he was only 23 years old, Benjamin Franklin published his first major work. It was titled A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper-Currency. He begins by saying,
Those who are Lovers of Trade, and delight to see Manufactures encouraged, will be for having a large Addition to our Currency: For they very well know, that People will have little Heart to advance Money in Trade, when what they can get is scarce sufficient to purchase Necessaries, and supply their Families with Provision. Much less will they lay it out in advancing new Manufactures; nor is it possible new Manufactures should turn to any Account, where there is not Money to pay the Workmen, who are discouraged by being paid in Goods, because it is a great Disadvantage to them.
A Plentiful Currency will be so great a Cause of advancing this Province in Trade and Riches, and increasing the Number of its People.
In this work, written in defense of Philadelphia’s right to issue its own colonial currency, independent from control by the Bank of England and the British Crown, Franklin puts forward the kernel of what later would be called the American System of Economics:—that the monetary and credit policy of a nation (or state, or colony) must be tied to achieving an increase in the productive power of society, including an increase in manufacturing and other useful pursuits. This is an economic principle which Franklin never abandoned. More than forty years later, in a piece titled, Remarks and Facts relative to the American Paper-money (1764), Franklin again defends the issuance of paper currency, stating:
GENERAL LEGAL TENDER. The experience of now near half a century in the middle colonies has convinced them of it among themselves; by the great increase of their settlements, numbers, buildings, improvements, agriculture, shipping, and commerce.
From the colony’s earliest days, it had been known that within easy reach there were deposits of iron ore, especially in the upper valley of the Schuylkill, where the red stains were hard to miss in the water and the soil. So William Penn began to reach out to the ironmasters of the English Midlands in the hope that they would invest in his province. By 1710 or so, Quaker merchants from the Delaware were making long trips to the Birmingham area, looking to find heiresses to marry and hoping to do business.
Soon enough, in 1716, the moment came when steel and iron could be made in Pennsylvania. By a creek called Manatawny, fifty miles inland from Philadelphia, a blacksmith from the English Midlands—Thomas Rutter—built a forge and started to turn out iron bars. Two years later, a recent Quaker arrival by the name of Samuel Nutt opened a forge in Chester County.... Rutter and Nutt built blast furnaces, and bought many acres of the timber they required for charcoal.
What Franklin describes here occurred at Durham, Pennsylvania, the site of the ironworks owned by James Logan and his partners. In 1731 a proposal was made to build a canal from Durham to the Delaware River to create a means for easily shipping out the finished iron products. Franklin enthusiastically backed this project, and became an apostle of science and engineering as a way to make America prosperous. Although the canal was never built, it was a visionary foretaste of what would be achieved 80 years later with the Erie Canal.
All through the 1730s, 40s and 50s, first with Logan’s sponsorship and then with Franklin’s, small clusters of technology sprang up in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, essentially in the wilderness. This was the birth of engineering, and with engineering came science.
In his 1729 Modest Enquiry, Franklin had opposed the establishment of a credit Bank, stating that such an institution—at that date and under the conditions which then existed—would soon come under the control of London financiers. But after America’s Declaration of Independence he became a strong supporter of the principle of Public Credit. He worked closely with the Philadelphia banker Robert Morris, supporting Morris’ Bank of North America and defending Morris against his critics. In 1781 he wrote to Morris:
You are sure of being censured by malevolent critics and bug-writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them, and wound your character in nameless pamphlets, thereby resembling those little dirty stinking insects that attack us only in the dark, disturb our repose, molesting and wounding us while our sweat and blood are contributing to their subsistence.
In 1786, the Bank of North America’s charter was revoked by the state government in Pennsylvania. In language that would later be repeated in the attacks against Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, one of the anti-Bank leaders declared, “The accumulation of enormous wealth in the hands of a society who claim perpetual duration will necessarily produce a degree of influence and power which can not be entrusted in the hands of any set of men whatsoever without endangering the public safety.” In the midst of this crisis Franklin broke with many of his friends and Pennsylvania allies and strongly backed a renewal of the Bank’s charter, which was accomplished.
Franklin would not live to witness Hamilton’s creation of a system of National Public Credit, in which the credit of the Republic would be wedded to a principle and a policy of fostering rapid improvements in science, technology and manufacturing, but that Hamiltonian policy flowed directly from Franklin’s life work. Under Hamilton, Franklin’s intention to establish the United States as a nation based on science and progress would become the policy of the nation.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Lyndon LaRouche stepped forward to continue Franklin’s mission. For 70 years, LaRouche defended the truth that creative discovery defines the human identity. LaRouche built a movement—Our Movement—to defeat the modern-day proponents of Malthusianism and oligarchism, and to return America to its founding purpose. Franklin’s purpose. That remains our mission today.
*A forthcoming submission to this series will take up the subject of Franklin’s experiments concerning lightning, as well as his relationship with the anti-Newton scientific circles of Gottfried Leibniz.
- Part I: A Vignette Concerning Benjamin Franklin
- Part II: 1774: Franklin in the Cockpit—Face to Face Against Empire
- Part III: Leadership at a Time of Crisis
- Part IV: Independence
- Part V: Franklin’s Deplorables
- Part VI: Franklin in Paris: December, 1776—July, 1785 The Power of Patriotism