What the Fourth of July Means to Me
by Ben Franklin
From The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, compiled and edited by Mark Skousen (Regnery, 2006).
“He stole the lightning from the heavens, and the scepter from tyrants
When I read in all the papers of the extravagant rejoices every Fourth of July, the day on which we signed the declaration of independence, thereby hazarding our lives and fortunes, I am convinced of the universal satisfaction of the people with the revolution and its grand principles.
The important ends of civil government are the personal securities of life and liberty. I am a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country, and the least encroachment of those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil. The revolution has been the work of many able and brave men, wherein it is sufficient honor for me if I am allowed a small share.
A Miracle in Human Affairs
The manner in which the whole of this business was conducted was such a miracle in human affairs, that if I had not been in the midst of it, and seen all the movements, I could not have comprehended how it was effected. I had no doubt of our finally succeeding in this war by the blessing of God. This is the greatest revolution the world has ever seen.
I have lived a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men! If it had not been for the justice of our cause, and the consequent interposition of Providence in which we had faith, we must have been ruined. If I had ever before been an atheist, I should now have been convinced of the being and government of a Deity. It is He who abases the proud and favors the humble! May we never forget his goodness to us, and may our future conduct manifest our gratitude.
It is a singular thing in the history of mankind that a great people have had the opportunity of forming a government for themselves. We are making experiment in politics. In these sentiments, I agree to the Constitution of the United States, with all its faults, if they are such. From when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. It therefore astonishes me to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does.
America Has a Great Destiny
America will, with God’s blessing, become a great and happy country. This country affords a good climate, fine wholesome air, plenty of provisions, good laws, just and cheap government, with all the civil and religious liberties that reasonable men can wish for. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed.
I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to have been born two or three centuries hence, for inventions of improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be procured. I mention one reason for such a wish, which is that if the art of physic [medicine] shall be improved in proportion with other arts, we may then be able to avoid diseases, and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis.
Beware of Party Politics
There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men, ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money….And of what kind of men will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, thro’ all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will trust themselves to this government and be their rules…I am apprehensive, therefore, perhaps too apprehensive, that the government of these states may in future times end in a monarchy, and a king will the sooner be set over us.
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. But America is too enlightened to be enslaved.
The Rattlesnake as America’s Symbol
During the War for Independence, I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines that there was painted a rattlesnake, with this modest motto under it, “Don’t tread on me.” It occurred to me that the rattlesnake might therefore be chosen to represent America. Having frequently seen the rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished. I recollect that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders; she is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarrelling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth. But their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.
The rattlesnake is solitary and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increases with her age, “her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.”
The Mischief of War
When will men be convinced that even successful wars do at length become misfortunes to those who unjustly commence them, and who triumphed blindly in their success, not seeing all its consequences. There is so little good gained, and so much mischief done generally by wars that I wish the imprudence of undertaking them was more evident to princes. For in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace. What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility! What an extension of agriculture…what rivers rendered navigable….what bridges, aqueducts, new roads, and other public works, edifices and improvements rendering England a complete paradise. But millions were spent in the great war doing mischief and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed useful labor!
The system of America is to have commerce with every nation and war with none.
Our cause is the cause of all mankind. God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all nations of the earth so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say, this is my country!
Mark “Be Free” Skousen
for The Daily Reckoning
Editor’s Note: We thank Dr. Skousen for his insights into Franklin’s fascinating life and writings. The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, compiled and edited by Dr. Mark Skousen, is published by Regnery and now available at the link below. It isn’t often that you get a chance to buy a first edition of a book written by a founding father for only $18.45. It won’t last long. Buy it today!