A fragment of marble from Mount Pentelicus
[being a small sum of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books]
Nevertheless, at the end of some days, the weight of such matters does add up. Or perhaps I’m just getting too old for it. Finally alone, and at home, I found myself considering my situation in the larger context. It is too easy to see things subjectively. I was not at the center of this wheel, after all. I was simply at an edge and thus getting more contact.
It was some comfort to me to remember that when Benjamin Franklin was my age, he became a revolutionary. Not overnight, mind you, but in one afternoon.
Certainly he had entertained thoughts of American independence, but not as the sort of government it would soon become. ‘Independence’ was more a relative thing at the time. The meaning of the word was ambiguous and used to mask many permutations of what was, at the bottom line, a subjugation to Crown and Parliament.
Franklin was then the Postmaster General for the colonies, a position which he had taken for the good of his fellow Americans but also out of personal frustration and practical self interest. He was a man who liked to write and his correspondence included many of the leading figures in the blossoming fields of Natural Science, Natural Philosophy, and the rest of beadledom, or whatever that petty bureaucracy of the moment was called. He was a businessman with business to conduct. And he was an agent, (think if you will, of an all-purpose sales rep for a multinational corporation), or soon to be one, for the colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But in 1854, when he was granted the position of Postmaster by the King’s council, he could not send a letter to any of his many friends in England, or they to him, without a significant chance that it would be lost. Worse, at the time, this postal service was not only conducted badly, but at a financial loss. No one else was interested in the headache or the probable damage it would likely cause to any reputation for competency.
Postal services had always been run at a deficit, as they are again today. But by 1774, the year that Benjamin Franklin became a revolutionary, his innovations in this service were adding three thousand pounds a year to the King’s coffers and, allowing for the weather and a safe crossing of the Atlantic, service was dependable. It was better still on the new ‘post roads’ Franklin developed that crucially connected all the colonies from Savannah to Portsmouth. But, as of that later year, and by his own admission, to achieve the many ends he had pursued as a true renaissance man, he had spent as much of his life in England as in America. Perhaps more. Rabble-rousers like Samuel Adams even saw Franklin as a pony for the British interest and not a trusted ally in those difficult times.
It was by that later year, when British troops had occupied Boston, and most recently, 600 pounds of East India tea had been cold-brewed in Boston Harbor by James Swan and his friends in lieu of paying the tax, that the New York Assembly, the Virginia House of Burgesses, and the Massachusetts legislature had all been dissolved by Parliamentary edict. The quartering act, made necessary to shelter the very troops sent to New York and Boston to quell unrest, was being resisted. On January 11, 1774, with the news of the ‘Boston Tea Party’ still fresh in London ears, Franklin, the representative of several of the colonies, was summoned to appear before the Privy Council. According the great historian, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Franklin first assumed that this demand was addressed to him as the official agent and concerned a five month-old petition to Parliament from the Massachusetts legislature for the removal of Thomas Hutchison as Governor along with his henchman and lieutenant Governor, Andrew Oliver.
Instead, what Franklin faced in those council chambers (they were still colorfully referred to as the ‘Cock Pit,’ after the designation of a previous use of the land they stood upon) was a charge of treason. This indictment was for the probable cause of theft in the matter of ten letters sent by Governor Hutchinson to his own agent in London, which had gone missing and turned up instead in the hands of Samuel Adams back in Boston, and from there had been widely distributed and reprinted in both England and America. The letters described Hutchinson’s and Oliver’s complete disdain for the Massachusetts legislature as well as for the citizens of the colony, and called for the establishment of a new elite council of landowners to rule the affairs of state. For Franklin then, this assembly in the Cock Pit was not a hearing, but a star chamber.
Through an ordeal of many hours, the 68 year old Franklin, dressed in his brown corduroy suit—then cunningly called Manchester velvet and made of a collarless long-coat, vest, and trousers buckled below the knee—remained standing in the dock, one elbow on a rail with a hand to his forehead, unmoving. He kept his coat buttoned against the drafts. His gray hair fell long at his ears. His very passivity must have further inflamed his tormentors, all of them well acquainted with his critical nature and satirical jousts. And after he had heard himself repeatedly described in that august chamber as a despicable scoundrel, unworthy of trust, a traitor, a thief, and lacking in all virtue, he finally left his inquisitors, and then England too, and went to war.
That was my context, was it not? My pretext? My text! One might as well chose the most elevating example for one’s actions. But to what purpose? What exactly was to be my to be cause? I am not qualified to speak for anyone else but myself, and often fail at that.
Josiah Ober has written a good book about how it was revolution itself that brought the Athenian people onto the main stage of history. This was a simple enough statement to make, but it stopped me by its emphasis—or at least the emphasis I took from it. The very act of revolution itself was the key.
And while we are at it then, let us consider Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy and thus a father to us all, dead and white though he was. His moment was in 507 BC, you understand. Really, just a while back. About two thousand and five hundred years ago. A mere 84 generations. I emphasize this for those maven who want to think of their world as it is today as the only way it has ever been.
It was Harmodius and Aristogeiton who made the revolution possible by killing the Peisistratid tyrant Hipparchus, though they were both then put to death for their trouble. Whoever they were, whatever sorts of fellows they had been, is lost to us now. They are merely names—like any of the many who fell at Bunker Hill. But it was Cleisthenes who, recalled from exile and given the tyrant’s power in turn, fulfilled what promise there was in this dictatorship by first establishing a democracy in the Athenian state. Not for any ideal, you understand. For practical reasons. The ancient system they had was failing. For inspiration, he could have looked to the everyday practices of the landowning hoplite farmers who organized themselves willingly into a citizens army in time of war—not unlike the farmers of Acton and Sudbury and thirty other towns who gathered at Lexington and Concord. But for a time Cleisthenes must have been something of a tyrant himself, for he set about his task by deposing those four clans who had ruled Athens through family partisanship since pre-history and established rule instead by individual citizenship in the 139 ‘demes,’ those geographic areas that were much like counties dividing ancient peninsula of Attica. Instead of the age-old patronage, the new government positions under Cleisthenes were filled by a more random ‘sortition.’ The city council, the Boule, was increased in size, as were the courts of law, known as Dikasteria, and both were first required to have representation from each and every tribe. All of it, just a matter of history now, you see. Of no other importance than that it was to change everything that followed, and all the rest of history that we now know.
Cleisthenes disappears from history soon after his accomplishment, and what is known to us was written down by his enemies, but I have studied what little is said about the man by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, with the thought that I might one day go to Greece and write something set in that place and time. For having altered history so dramatically, Cleisthenes deserves more attention. A novel, at least.
None of that matters to most of you, perhaps. To some it will be dismissed out of hand because the Greeks also kept slaves in thrall. To others it is unimportant because women did not share in this division of power. But as a fellow human being, I am much impressed that one individual was capable of such a change of heart. If this had not been done, and just then, the great Athenian victory at Marathon and the heroic stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae would not have occurred, or have mattered very little in the scheme of things, for the Persians would have ruled, and our Western culture would have ended there. Right then and there. Likely, Socrates would never have been born, much less become a philosopher, nor Plato, or Aristotle. More likely than not, women would still be treated here today as they are yet to this day in much of the Middle East, and there would be slavery in America, as there still is in the Muslim world, as well as China and India, very much as it was two thousand five hundred and twenty-three years ago.
Where do I stand in that tradition? What part do I play?