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Remembering Ben Franklin’s forgotten essay on America’s population boom
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Remembering Ben Franklin’s forgotten essay on America’s population boom

The political context for his work of genius is interestingly relevant: ‘Observations’ was perhaps America’s first immigration restrictionist pamphlet.

On this July 4 weekend, it’s worth remembering one of the earliest points at which an American made a vital contribution to world intellectual discourse by pointing out the value of the American experience and how it was opening new perspectives.

Twenty-one years before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin published a short essay, first drafted in 1751, titled “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” on what his work as a postmaster had taught him about population growth in the American colonies.

‘Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?’

Franklin had already been making a name for himself in Europe as a physicist by synthesizing knowledge of electricity into a coherent whole (for example, naming the positive and negative charges). The year before, he’d become a world hero by publishing for free (he could have sought patent license fees) his design for an improved pointed lightning rod, a sizeable boon to humanity that much reduced how often churches, sailing ships, and other noble structures burned down.

So by 1755, Europe’s thinkers were ready to pay attention to the American's new essay. Franklin estimated that just from natural increase alone (births minus deaths, not counting immigration), the American colonies were doubling in population every 20 or 25 years. This came as a shock to Old World thinkers who tended to assume that from generation to generation, humanity naturally declined in perfection and vitality, like a Xerox copy of an old Xerox copy, from the golden age to the silver age to our current age of brass.

In contrast, Franklin suggested the main reason for slow growth in Europe was because it was close to full. In emptier America, however, cheap land and high wages meant that more Americans could afford to marry at younger ages, thus having more children.

Over the next century, this empirical finding and simple explication would have a huge impact on later European theorists such as Thomas Malthus, who took the concept of the “struggle for existence” from Franklin, and Charles Darwin, who in turn took this concept from Malthus.

Malthus' 1798 adaptation of this theory has a deserved reputation for gloom. From his vantage point in rapidly industrializing England, Malthus ascertained that rampant population growth would eventually hit a ceiling, thanks to famine, disease, and war.

It’s worth noting that Franklin’s original insight was far more optimistic. In effect, Franklin was saying that America didn’t have to worry about any such ceiling — not yet, at least.

The political context for Franklin's work of genius is interestingly relevant: “Observations” was perhaps America's first immigration restrictionist pamphlet. As a prominent member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin sought to weaken the influence of the Proprietary Party, which defended the political and property rights of the Penn family as hereditary proprietors of the colony. The Proprietary Party was pro-immigration. The party particularly favored the importation of German Pietists.

Franklin was wary of such diversity:

And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Franklin argued there was little need for this early Great Replacement because Americans were fertile enough. And why hasten the day of the Malthusian ceiling?

These “Aliens,” however, had one quality that trumped all of Franklin’s worries about assimilation: They tended to vote for the Proprietary Party.

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Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer's new anthology, “Noticing,” is available from Passage Publishing and Amazon. His new Substack is at SteveSailer.net.