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Ben Franklin

Trading Rattlesnakes for Felons (A Proposal from Ben Franklin)


Benjamin Franklin is well known as one of the most personable of America's Founding Fathers. Most people are aware that in addition to his role as statesman, he produced such sundry publications as "Poor Richard's Almanac." But many people today may not be aware that Franklin was in fact a very accomplished satirist who published a range of lauded essays and letters throughout his life aimed at social and political targets far and wide. In 1730, when he was only in his 20s, he published a satirical account of "A Witch Trial at Mt. Holly" in the Pennsylvania Gazette; this satire news article, meant to lampoon pervasive fears of witchcraft in the colonies, was reprinted as fact the following year in the British Gentleman's Magazine. The 1747 "Speech of Polly Baker" published in the London General Advertiser lambastes the legal profession with an increasingly earthy touch. And his 1783 "Letter to the Royal Academy" skewers the scientific community with a positively Rabelaisian discourse on flatulence.

The excerpts from the essay below, originally printed in 1751 in response to the British procedure of dumping dangerous criminals in the colonies despite all colonial efforts to stem the practice, is an example of Franklin's scathing wit: it is dripping with irony and deadpan sarcasm. Much of Franklin's satirical writing may be less accessible to readers today because he varied his approach considerably depending on his target audience. The resulting protean style, combined with the challenges of deciphering 18th century social and political nuances necessary to appreciate his satire, make him a hard writer to read. This is a shame, because Benjamin Franklin is one of the great early American satirists, and it would help our understanding of the Founding Fathers significantly if we only appreciated that at least some of them had a sense of humor.

Excerpts from "Rattle-Snakes for Felons", by "Americanus" aka Benjamin Franklin, published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1751

To the Printers of the Gazette.

By a Passage in one of your late Papers, I understand that the Government at home will not suffer our mistaken Assemblies to make any Law for preventing or discouraging the Importation of Convicts from Great Britain, for this kind Reason, `That such Laws are against the Publick Utility, as they tend to prevent the IMPROVEMENT and WELL PEOPLING of the Colonies.'

Such a tender parental Concern in our Mother Country for the Welfare of her Children, calls aloud for the highest Returns of Gratitude and Duty. This every one must be sensible of: But 'tis said, that in our present Circumstances it is absolutely impossible for us to make such as are adequate to the Favour. I own it; but nevertheless let us do our Endeavour. 'Tis something to show a grateful Disposition.

In some of the uninhabited Parts of these Provinces, there are Numbers of these venomous Reptiles we call RATTLE-SNAKES; Felons-convict from the Beginning of the World: These, whenever we meet with them, we put to Death, by Virtue of an old Law, Thou shalt bruise his Head. But as this is a sanguinary Law, and may seem too cruel; and as however mischievous those Creatures are with us, they may possibly change their Natures, if they were to change the Climate; I would humbly propose, that this general Sentence of Death be changed for Transportation.

In the Spring of the Year, when they first creep out of their Holes, they are feeble, heavy, slow, and easily taken; and if a small Bounty were allow'd per Head, some Thousands might be collected annually, and transported to Britain. There I would propose to have them carefully distributed in St. James's Park, in the Spring-Gardens and other Places of Pleasure about London; in the Gardens of all the Nobility and Gentry throughout the Nation; but particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged.

...It has been said, that these Thieves and Villains introduc'd among us, spoil the Morals of Youth in the Neighbourhoods that entertain them, and perpetrate many horrid Crimes: But let not private Interests obstruct publick Utility. Our Mother knows what is best for us. What is a little Housebreaking, Shoplifting, or Highway Robbing; what is a Son now and then corrupted and hang'd, a Daughter debauch'd and pox'd, a Wife stabb'd, a Husband's Throat cut, or a Child's Brains beat out with an Axe, compar'd with this `IMPROVEMENT and WELL PEOPLING of the Colonies!'

...I would only add, That this Exporting of Felons to the Colonies, may be consider'd as a Trade, as well as in the Light of a Favour. Now all Commerce implies Returns: Justice requires them: There can be no Trade without them. And Rattle-Snakes seem the most suitable Returns for the Human Serpents sent by our Mother Country. In this, however, as in every other branch of trade, she will have the Advantage of us. She will reap equal Benefits without equal Risk of the Inconveniencies and Dangers. For the Rattle-Snake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the Convict does not.

(The full text of this essay, along with many other essays by Franklin, can be found online in the National Archives.)