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This Week in History
February 8-14, 2016

The 250th Birthday of
"life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" (1766)

By David Shavin

Benjamin Franklin.

February 13th is indeed the 250th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's blunt intervention into the British Parliament, slapping down their imperial Stamp Act (See Addendum).   Franklin made crystal clear that, while the colonists would pay duties on commerce — which were constitutionally within the power of Parliament — they would not be tax-farmed, they would not be beasts of burden, milked when the master felt like doing so. The occasion is certainly worth celebrating on its own merits.

However, a few weeks later, when the British Parliament, in a tactical retreat, revoked the Stamp Act, they simultaneously voted up their "Declaratory Acts". They asserted the complete power over the colonies, including the right to re-impose the Stamp Act. Franklin had recognized the nakedly imperial turn in British policies and attitude toward the colonies. A moral and scientific thinker, as was Franklin, had to figure out why London was pursuing such short-sighted policies. One should read Franklin's blunt testimony before the Parliament — however, his intervention was only a modest token of a much larger command decision he had just taken — to seek out Gottfried Leibniz in Hannover, so as to root out the bestial philosophy of the British Empire. This bold strategic move would give birth to our "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That larger story, all Franklin biographers simply ignore. However, were American citizens to enjoy discovering where they came from, the next 250 years will really be something to celebrate!

 "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

 In February, 1766, Franklin made the bold decision to travel to Hanover, Germany, to meet with the leading proponents of Gottfried Leibniz.[1]  For all of Franklin's life, Leibniz had been the persona non grata of the British Empire. In Hanover, two men, Baron Gerlach von Munchhausen and Erich Raspe, had just dared to publish Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding, his long-suppressed critique of John Locke, the slavish ideologue of the British Empire. In January, 1766, an indignant furor had broken out in London over the cheekiness of Raspe and Munchhausen in allowing the indubitable Locke to be doubted. Ironically, their outrage helped cement Franklin's determination to enlist Leibniz's mind in the mission to cure English society. Franklin suspected that he had encountered a level of evil that could not be ignored, the same type of evil that Leibniz had found in Locke's Essay on Human Understanding.

Leibniz's conception of  felicitas, translated as happiness, admits of several interconnected expositions. Of note here is the "Declaration of Independence" one, the one singularly indicated by its trinitarian alliance with life and liberty. This formulation, little understood or appreciated today, definitely is not a laundry list of three nice things. It definitely is not: life, where the rugged individualist gets to do what he wants to with his life; liberty, where he has the right to keep everyone else out of his face; and happiness, where he gets to pursue whatever happens to make him feel good. Rather, for Leibniz, God's act of creating the world is a marvel, and is itself the model, the exemplar, for man's mission in the world. The necessities of life, that is, what it takes to physically sustain life,[2]  requires the creativity unique to the human species, that is, the free play and invention of the mind. That God graciously created a world where freedom was necessary is the definition of happiness.

Other worlds are certainly conceivable. For example, a world where everybody automatically does what is good, certainly has the virtue of avoiding all evil. However, we discover something about God when we realize that this is not the world that was created. God doesn't choose perfect little playthings in order to entertain himself. Rather, he so loved the world that he made man in his image, capable of shadowing God's creativity.

But perhaps God could have created one where creativity exists, but where it is just one of many pursuits, without a critical role in survival. Neither of these conceivable worlds qualify as a happy world, one where creativity is necessary, and where man has a mission. That is, one where man is made in the image of his Maker, where God loves the world, and where God judged his creation to be good.

The simple fact is that unaltered nature really does have the Malthusian limitation (the so-called carrying capacity). Without creative new ideas — such as, in its time, Franklin's electricity, or today, fusion energy and a plasma-physics-based processing of materials — ideas that transform what is identified as the resource base, mankind will bump up against those limits, as will any other non-Promethean species. In that Malthusian, or imperial, world, the only art of government is that of managing the human herd by regularly culling it of excess population.

There, supposedly, the animal instincts (the freedom) of the beasts run up against the hard realities of the cold, objective world, and a few of the ruling class, with a stiff upper lip, take on the burden of the hard decisions for large-scale depopulation. This is, indeed, a rather dismal science—and certainly not the optimistic (happier) science of Leibniz, Franklin or Alexander Hamilton.

Franklin and Leibniz

Locke's 1689 Essay on Human Understanding propounded a new type of slavery. Instead of the medievalist "you have to do this because you are a serf", Locke offered the apparently reasonable alternative, that everyone had an independent understanding. So far, so good? Unfortunately, for Locke, mind had no sovereignty; it was simply a blank slate (a "tabularasa") upon which the sensual experiences wrote. (In analogy to the more modern euphemism, "friend with privileges", perhaps Locke's human could be described as "animal with privileges".) Locke prepared his magnum opus during  his six-year exile in the Netherlands, and it was published when Locke returned to England in company with William's 1689 invasion (the "Glorious Revolution"), and the installation of William and Mary as rulers.

Propounded and received as the hallmark of the new order, Locke's ideological work, with its enslavement to the senses, was useful to the new "Venetian Party" in Britain. Old-fashioned restraints against sodomy, pederasty, and usury were found to be antiquated. The pretense was that everyone could do their own thing. The reality was a nasty social contract, whereby the little people could have their little sins, but the new ruling class could rule by usury. (This is not to say that the ruling class ignored sodomy and pederasty.) Rule by usury requires tax-farming, including that of the attempted Stamp Act.

After Leibniz succeeded, in the 1701 Act of Succession, in securing the future rule of England for his patroness, Sophie, he naturally assumed the responsibility of dealing with this ideological disease in England.[3] It was then, in 1703/04, that he expended significant effort, using Locke's shortcomings as a device to really address the creative power of the mind — hence, his New Essays on Human Understanding. In an effort of complete good will, Leibniz attempted to adjust radically upwards the strategic abilities of the English. He had informed Locke of his work, in anticipation of an open debate. In November, 1704, as Leibniz's work drew to completion, Locke died. The manuscript was put aside. In 1705, the Venetian Party assigned John de Robethon[4] the job of keeping Sophie's son, the future George I, away from Leibniz. Meanwhile, Sophie arranges for Caroline, the woman intended for her grandson (the future George II), to be educated by Leibniz on the problems of Locke's ideology. Later, Caroline would be the subject of the Leibniz/Clarke controversy, and a vital link to Franklin's hosts in Hannover.

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Newspaper posting of the 1765 Stamp Act.

In 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston. When he was ten years old, and on the occasion of Leibniz's death, the manuscript of the New Essay was placed under lock and key by Sophie's successor, King George I. Leibniz's body was still warm, when Antonio Conti, the Venetian handler at the British court, dashed down to Hanover to dig through Leibniz's papers. The determination, by a royal decree, was made to seize all of them. Leibniz's relatives went to court over this seizure, but their attempts to recover the writings from three King George's were to no avail.

In the intervening years, Franklin would get a version of Leibniz from Cotton Mather's Essays to Do Good[5]; from his studies in the late 1720's with James Logan[6], an attentive reader of Leibniz's Acta Eruditorum; and, in the 1740's, from his own copy of the Leibniz-Clarke Letters. In 1766, Franklin spent ten days in Hannover, studying in Leibniz's library, in discussions with Raspe and Munchhausen. Fifty years after Leibniz's death, his writings were about to launch a revolution. Franklin, now sixty, had fought for the better angel of English society, working as hard on behalf of the republicans of England as with those of the colonies.

But now, he had run into the hard-core ideological devils. He would leave Hanover with the intellectual depth and acumen to look this enemy, and this type of evil, in the face; to know that they didn't create the rules of the world; and to envision and fashion a world without them.

Franklin's hosts were Raspe and Munchhausen. Raspe was the editor of the Leibniz collection. He had been educated in Leibniz's works by Abraham Kaestner. In 1759, Munchhausen had placed Raspe in the Royal Library in Hannover as a clerk. Raspe would borrow Leibniz's manuscripts, take them to Göttingen, and study them with Kaestner. Then, Munchhausen manipulated affairs, at some political risk, to have the New Essays published. Of note, Munchhausen, back in the 1730's, was the choice of Caroline, Leibniz's last royal student, to oversee the creation of her Göttingen University. Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding finally saw the light of day in 1765, the major work in a volume of six pieces.

The January 1766 Freakout Over Leibniz

The London Monthly Review for July-December, 1765, appearing in January, 1766, launched an attack upon Raspe and Kaestner, censuring their work as being a harsh assault upon John Locke. The opening statement of the London Monthly Review wraps Newton in the mantle of true science, and labels defenders of Leibniz as partisans who avoid facts: "Among the various obstacles to the progress of true science, there is none greater than that spirit of party, which absurdly attaches itself to persons and hypotheses in general; instead of abiding by those particular facts and arguments, which may possibly give a just preference to the system they espouse." They explain: "It is certain that Sir Isaac Newton hath demonstrated the vortices of Des Cartes, as they are represented by that philosopher, to be immechanical and visionary..." But if only Newton were better studied, "we should discover no little reason to admire that amazing ingenuity in Des Cartes, which the superior precision and sagacity of Newton hath so greatly obscured. The like may be said of Leibnitz... but, corrected both by Newton and Locke, his glory was in like manner bedimmed by their united and more dazzling lustre."

The way to salvage portions of Leibniz, or his supposed equivalent, Descartes, is to master Newton: "Are we therefore to conclude, that his monads were the fantastical production of a visionary brain? By no means. The monads of Leibnitz have their foundation in nature, as well as the vortices of Des Cartes, and may in time be received, with some modification indeed, into a system of philosophy reconcilable to the mathematical principles of a Newton." Newton's mathematical principles enabled him to put Kepler's gravity on the solid footing of hard balls: "The discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and Gassendi, very naturally suggested the principle of universal attraction, conceived as an effect: but the assumption of solid, inert, impenetrable masses of matter, as primary elements or physical first principles, would have been as exceptionable as anything offered by Des Cartes or Leibnitz, had not the great founder of the Newtonian philosophy confined it solely within the limits of mathematical science."

Further, they argue, it is unjust to suggest that there is an ideological disease dominating the British empire: "Professor Kaestner[7] will please to reflect on the injustice he hath been guilty of, in throwing out that national sarcasm he hath couched under his penitus toto divisos orbe Britannes [Kaestner had quoted from Virgil's Eclogue I, 67, meaning "the Britons, completely separated from all the world"]; as if real philosophers were of any country, or, could refuse to embrace and applaud the truth, wherever and by whomsoever discovered!" Then they offered the reasons that Leibniz suppressed his own manuscript: He "had already two controversies on his hands, the one with the Royal Society, and the other with Dr. Clarke; with which he was too fully engaged, to think of drawing upon himself another with the partizans of Mr. Locke; who would certainly have defended their master, had he been then attacked."   

However, Leibniz's decision not to proceed with publishing was in 1704, when Locke died — years prior to the cited "two controversies" of 1713-16. Indeed, the two staged assaults upon Leibniz by London's "Venetian Party", were because the ideas of the New Essays (and his other works) were threatening, in 1711/12, to turn Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against imperialism. The well-known facts, so respected by the editors, are easily cast aside, when a threat is to be delivered: partisans of Locke will rise to the defense, as was done against Leibniz.

They conclude their message: "... [T]he sentiments of Mr. Locke may be controverted, and even his memory disrespectfully treated with impunity. Mr. Raspe exults on the revolution, which he pretends hath been effected in the philosophical world...[8] in consequence of which the system of Leibnitz hath triumphed, and still triumphs in its turn. This, therefore, he hath judged a favourable opportunity, it seems, for the publication of these essays, in order, no doubt, to compleat the imaginary downfall of Mr. Locke's system. We do not apprehend, however, notwithstanding the sanguine hopes of this Editor, that matters are as yet quite so desperate with the influence and reputation of our late celebrated English philosopher..."

Raspe's sanguine hopes did, indeed, bear fruit in 1776.

From Hannover to Philadelphia

We know that particular article formed a part of Franklin's discussions with Raspe that summer. Franklin solicited a response from Raspe, and assured him that the Monthly Review would publish it. However, they would not lower themselves to publish his response, only deigning to note that they had received Raspe's response and had no intention of getting into a debate about Leibniz and Locke. Franklin was to discover, as Leibniz had earlier, that if one is compelled to address pungent and necessary truths to the British Empire, all pretence to the gentleman's fair play gives way to snarls, threats and worse.

After his ten days in Hanover, Franklin went to Göttingen for discussions with Raspe's teacher, Kaestner — which centered around the development of electricity. When he returned to England, his “Leibniz-style” was in full bloom. An efficient example of Franklin's bolder form of statecraft, post-Hannover, can be seen in his 1771 Introduction to a Plan for Benefitting the New Zealanders:

Britain is now the first Maritime Power in the world, Her Ships are innumberable, capable by their Form, Size, and Strength, of sailing all Seas. ... The Inhabitants of those Countries, our Fellow-Men, have Canoes only; not knowing Iron, they cannot build Ships: They ... cannot therefore come to us. ... From these circumstances, does not some duty seem to arise from us to them? Does not Providence, by these distinguishing Favours, seem to call on us, to do something ourselves for the common Interests of Humanity?

Those who think it their Duty to ask Bread and other Blessings daily from Heaven, should they not think it equally a duty to communicate of those blessings when they have received them; and show their Gratitude to their Great Benefactor, by the only means in their power, promoting the happiness of his other Children? ... [How greatly] may Englishmen deserve such Honour, by communicating the knowledge and use, not of Corn only, but of all the other enjoyments Earth can produce, and which they are now in possession of.

Communiter bona profundere, Deum est. [To shower good things over all, is Divine.]

Many Voyages have been undertaken with views of profit or of plunder, or to gratify resentment; to procure some advantage to ourselves, or do some mischief to others: but a voyage is now proposed, to visit a distant people on the other side of the Globe; not to cheat them, not to rob them, not to seize their lands, or enslave their persons; but merely to do them good, and enable them as far as in our power lies, to live as comfortably as ourselves.

It seems a laudable wish, that all the Nations of the Earth were connected by a knowledge of each other, and a mutual exchange of benefits: But a Commercial Nation particularly should wish for a general Civilization of Mankind, since Trade is always carried on to much greater extent with People who have the Arts and Conveniences of Life, than it can be with naked Savages. We may therefore hope, in this undertaking, to be of some service to our Country, as well as to those poor people, who, however distant from us, are in truth related to us, and whose Interests do, in some degree, concern every one who can say, "Homo sum," &c. ["I am a man."]

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United States Declaration of Independence.This image is a version of the 1823 William Stone facsimile — Stone may well have used a wet pressing process (that removed ink from the original document onto a contact sheet for the purpose of making the engraving).

This was the Franklin who arrived back in Philadelphia for the Congress's deliberations in 1775.[9] In 1776, he was the senior statesman at the head of the committee of five, chosen to pen the Declaration of Independence. Without pretending here to the definitive account as to how the deliberations over the drafting of the Declaration of Independence took place, a couple of points stand out. First, there is no doubt that Jefferson's draft was primarily worked over by John Adams and Franklin.

Next, there is no denying that there had been quite a bit of John Locke in Thomas Jefferson. In 1774, Jefferson's formulation for the Virginia state constitution was explicitly, "life, liberty and property". (Shockingly, of those Americans who think they know the Declaration of Independence, many still think that is exactly what it states — sort of a mass Freudian slip.) It is not hard to locate Locke's parentage. Locke's governmental philosophy had it that men had "to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate"[10] against other men. For Locke, there were three components of property worth fighting other men for; for Jefferson in 1774, "property" became another name for "estate". Clearly, Franklin's 1775/6 Leibnizian intervention was responsible for the change from Jefferson's 1774 formulation, "life, liberty and property" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Less clear, but worth considering, is that an inspection of Jefferson's first draft makes it appear that he wrote the words without grasping the concept. If so, this might suggest that Franklin had briefed Jefferson prior to the first drafting, but Jefferson had not fully digested Franklin's ideas. Jefferson drafted: "...that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they demand as rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..." It was then submitted to John Adams and Franklin. We may infer some of the deliberation that occurred, as we now get a version with less stress upon the natural state of man, more stress upon a robust Creator, and a tighter package of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" organized top-down: "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...". While there is no documentary evidence as to whether it was Adams or Franklin or both who was responsible in the deliberations, Franklin's mark is hard to gainsay.

In Sum

Forming a nation upon an idea should not be taken for granted. The Leibnizian idea, where creativity, that which makes humans in the image of their Creator, is the necessary engine of a society and its economy, is a pretty good idea. The fight for the general welfare by Hamilton, Gouverner Morris, and Franklin D. Roosevelt stems from this. The moment that Benjamin Franklin did not flinch, but made the command decision that he had to immerse himself in the Leibnizian statecraft so despised by the British Empire, is one well worth remembering and commemorating. Happy birthday — or a felicitous birthday — for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"!



[1]. For the full story, see my article, "From Leibniz to Franklin on 'Happiness'", "From Leibniz to Franklin on 'Happiness'"

[2]. That the original phrase was 'the preservation of life', later shortened to "life", would suggest that the discussion was along these lines. Then, the apposition of "liberty" would suggest the part of life that goes beyond securing the necessities of life.

[3]. Leibniz was also concerned with the English colonies in America. With the 1689 "Glorious Revolution" and the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Charter, John Winthrop's 1630 "City upon a Hill" project was jeopardized — as witnessed by such reaction—formations as the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692. A June 6,1693 letter by Leibniz survives, where he assures his correspondent that the Mather's projects still have life. He includes reference to Increase Mather's brief on Boston, and to their fight to codify and enrich Indian languages with translations from the King James Bible. (He cites, in particular, the Algonquin translations of Mather's friend, John Eliot.)

[4]. Robethon was a paid spy for the Duke of Marlborough, a personal secretary to King William, and then, in 1705, the confidential secretary for the future King George I.  See “Leibniz’s Kepler Project” by David Shavin, 2014. (Also, see Jonathan Swift for a few pithy comments on Robethon.).

[5]. Franklin’s  1784 letter to Samuel Mather refers to his visits with both Cotton and Increase Mather, and to the importance of the book, Essays to Do Good, for his development. See Graham Lowry's How the Nation Was Won

[6]. See Phil Valenti's work on James Logan, e.g., at The Leibniz Revolution In America, 1727-1752

[7]. Kaestner had written the introduction Preface to Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding.) His phrase had simply underlined the truism at the time that the all of Europe was using Leibniz's calculus, and only Britain was obstinately depriving itself.

[8]. Kaestner, his colleague, J. S. Bach, Kaestner's student Lessing, and Lessing's collaborator, Moses Mendelssohn had delivered stinging defeats to the assaults upon Leibniz between 1747 and 1755.  See  Bach's Musical Offering and Moses Mendelssohn Philisophical Vignettes (both in Fidelio magazine ).

[9]. Franklin secured for the Congressional deliberations copies of Vattel's Law of Nations. See works by Ed Spannaus and Bob Trout Emmerich Vattel was a student of Leibniz, having defended Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" against British attacks (by Alexander Pope, et al).

[10]. Locke's The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Chapter VII, section 87-89. "Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it."

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An extract from Benjamin Franklin’s testimony to Parliament, 2/13/1766:

Q. Do you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?

A. No, never, unless compelled by force of arms. . . .

Q. Was it an opinion in America before 1763 that the Parliament had no right to lay taxes and duties there?

A. I never heard any objection to the right of laying duties to regulate commerce; but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in Parliament, as we are not represented there. . . .

Q. Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?

A. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one...

Q. How can the commerce be affected?

A. You will find that, if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time...

Q. If the Stamp Act should be repealed, would it induce the assemblies of America to acknowledge the right of Parliament to tax them, and would they erase their resolutions [against the Stamp Act]?

A. No, never.

Q. Is there no means of obliging them to erase those resolutions?

A. None that I know of; they will never do it, unless compelled by force of arms.

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