Monday, November 1, 2010

November 1, 1784 – Benjamin Franklin Named President of Congress Assembled

After great success winning favor in the French Court for the young United States of America and determining a treaty with Sweden without ever having visited the country, Franklin misspoke and ended his ambassadorial career. He had been invited, along with astronomer Bailly, physician Guillotine, and chemist Lavoisier, to participate in a royal commission to investigate the “animal magnetism” of Charles d'Eslon based upon the work of Franz Mesmer. Franklin let slip one of his famous lewd comments, this one directed about the possibility of His Majesty Louis XVI attempting to abscond the science for his romantic pursuits, and his royal favor disappeared. Louis said, “Monsieur, vous êtes de finition,” and Franklin was sent back to America. His work had been finished, however, and Congress welcomed him despite the office of Ambassador to France being eliminated.

Franklin soon found himself in politics at home, hoping to be elected to the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, but instead named as a representative to the Continental Congress since John Dickinson seemed firmly rooted in the position. Soon after arriving in Congress, fellow Pennsylvanian Thomas Mifflin announced his resignation as President effective October 31. Early polls looked to have Virginian Richard Henry Lee elected to fill the role, but he made known that matters at home would not allow him to sit and would only act as signatory on papers forwarded from his secretary. Franklin wrote of being upset by the disinterest in national union and volunteered himself, almost immediately being sworn in as delegates were pleased to have someone take responsibility.

His initial steps were to give the Continental Congress a clout of more than a place for states to bicker. Finding a great ally in young James Madison of Virginia, Franklin was able to navigate the differing delegates’ opinions by working upon bridges Madison had already built while creating the Northwest Territory in 1783, which required ceding lands to Congress from overlapping claims by Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Franklin wanted to do more, but Congress lacked the ability to tax and was already in horrid debt from the war with requests for money from the states met with polite refusal. Though unable to tax, Franklin decided he would find a way for the government to make its money, or as he wrote, “earn our keep.”

After the move to Federal Hall in New York City, Franklin’s first project was the expansion of the United States Postal Service. Working with Postmaster General and fellow Philadelphian Ebenezer Hazard, Franklin devised an elegant system of couriers to transport mail over roads and waterways. He was able to secure legislation ratified by the states that allowed for free travel to any American citizen across state lines, thus stimulating commerce. Impeccable service and payment on stamps kept the Congress afloat, but its debts were still paralyzing. Franklin’s voiced frustration over the lack of money, brought him to the attention of Alexander Hamilton, who had resigned from Congress in 1782 after his own pursuits of a bill to allow Congress to set 5% duties was refused by the states.

Hamilton had recently founded the bank of New York, and he met with Franklin proposing a central bank for the whole of the United States. Franklin confirmed the idea, but others, especially Thomas Jefferson, who had taken up Madison’s position in the Continental Congress, spoke out against the notion of such a move as illegal. Further issues such as the deplorable treaty created by John Jay with the Spanish and reports from George Washington’s tour of the Northwest finding a grave need for American surveying and forts against British, Spanish, and Indian encroachment led Franklin to call for a convention in early 1786 to sort out the many issues of the Articles of Confederation.

While some whispered that Franklin was attempting to create a wholly new constitution, the convention only reinvigorated the Articles and established a new system of strong confederation for the United States. George Washington was convinced to participate to provide commentary on the need for an American army beyond the single regiment that guarded the Northwest Territory. His clout enabled many of the delegates to agree, and Madison worked as a bridge between the vain opinions of Thomas Jefferson (who demanded guarantee of personal rights) and Alexander Hamilton (who demanded a central government who could tax to protect and improve itself).

After months of arguing, the convention assembled a variety of new bills from the Articles revolutionizing the position of federal government. Congress was to have delegates each with the power to propose laws based upon representation of population, but each state was given two final votes to allow for the splitting of opinion while still giving small states a staunch voice. A small, permanent executive office would keep the business of government running while Congress was out of session: maintaining an army in the territories (American defense would still be largely militias) as well as a navy to defend American interests, a national bank (which would settle the debt issues that were causing riots in Massachusetts as well as promote funding for Congress through allocating dues to be paid by states based upon population and defense requirements), and the Postal Service, which would spur heavy investment in canals and roadways into the new territories, to be repaid as turnpikes. A Supreme Court would decide final disagreements between the states, whose laws would be left largely to themselves, Jeffersonian ideals were guaranteed under a Bill of Rights. Further Jefferson/Hamilton compromise came with the moving of the capital to a new location in the South, where Washington suggested along the Potomac, though Franklin convinced him to found Federal City as westward as possible to spur expansion, finally deciding on a point beside Fort Cumberland, MD, where Washington had served in the French and Indian War.

The rewritten Articles proved a solidifying effect on the United States. After smoothing the transition to his successor Washington, Franklin retired from his presidential office and returned to Philadelphia, dying soon after as a national hero. Washington affirmed the military power of the United States and dispatched a successful naval campaign defeating the Barbary pirates. Franklin’s expansionism was well met as the construction of Washington, D.C., prompted canal-building around the Great Falls on the Potomac and opened the Washington Road into Ohio.

After twenty years of growth and varying peace in attempts to sort out the overlapping territorial claims with Spain and Britain, the Napoleonic Wars seemed to threaten spilling over into the United States. Presidents Jefferson and Madison attempted to stave off war with Embargo Acts, but the limitations of federal power over trade stymied their abilities to control American shipping beyond suggestions and curtailing of the navy. British preying on American ships eventually started war in 1811, but after the impressive defeat of British raiders at the Battle of Washington, the stalemate turned to a favorable treaty removing British forces from illegal forts and helping America expand.

Expansionism, however, brought up the question of slavery in the territories. Congress would eventually end the slave trade and ban slavery in northern, then all, territories, but the South was legally protected from “Northern aggression” until unpopularity and economic forces gradually wiped out slavery over the course of the 1870s. Expansionism would run rampant as Manifest Destiny was completed with the end of the frontier in the 1890s, though further colonial expansion into the Philippines, Hawaii, and Caribbean would fall short of expectations. A new boom would come with the economy after the Great War, but the resulting crash from unfounded investments would wipe out the antiquated American banking system and shatter the United States as the underfunded federal government collapsed with the strain. States would fall into groups, “Balkanizing” the nation into seventeen parts following their own social ideals.

In reality, Franklin stayed in Paris until 1785, when his position as ambassador was taken over by Thomas Jefferson. Madison and others would guide the Constitutional Convention of 1787 spurred by Shay’s Rebellion over the debt crisis to create a new government for the United States, establishing a strong sense of federalism that would be affirmed in the bloody Civil War and maintain cohesion during the troubling Great Depression.

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