J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 06, 2019

“The marvellous intelligence of Franklin”

In the nineteenth century several British historians pointed out that there were good reasons to doubt the story of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” as published in the U.S. of A. in late 1776 and after.

For one thing, there’s ample evidence that John Bradshaw’s body was never taken to Jamaica. Rather, it was interred in Westminster Abbey in 1659 with all the attention due to an important national judge.

What’s more, that wasn’t the last time the English people saw the judge’s body. After Charles II came to power the next year, the corpses of Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell, and Henry Ireton were dug up and ritually beheaded, with their skulls displayed on pikes in London for decades. To be sure, there were persistent conspiracy theories about both Bradshaw and Cromwell being secretly reburied elsewhere, but no hard evidence.

Furthermore, no one ever found the cannon in Jamaica that had reportedly been engraved with “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” and its quotable last line about “Rebellion to tyrants.”

By the late 1800s, therefore, historians had largely adopted the idea that Henry S. Randall published in his biography of Thomas Jefferson: “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was a hoax perpetrated on the historical record by Benjamin Franklin.

The most enthusiastic, even bombastic, presentation of this argument came from Howard Payson Arnold in a book he titled Historic Side-Lights (1899). Arnold was a Boston lawyer who wrote on a number of topics, including the life of one of the Warren family of doctors. The starting point for Historic Side-Lights was the effort to design a seal for the United States, but Arnold followed every little side-path and didn’t trim any of what he found, so the table of contents is a bewildering list of topics.

After many pages Arnold concluded that Franklin created the epitaph and the story around it. Here’s a sample of his argument:
It certainly offers a farther proof of the marvellous intelligence of Franklin and of his clear insight into the future and of his thorough grasp of the situation, that in the face of all this broadside of overpowering testimony he should have presumed to invent and to print that preposterous fable, that barefaced imposition on the credulity of the people, relying solely on the plausible assumptions of a winning style and on the sympathetic temper of his readers, who, as his wisdom led him to foresee, would be only too glad to welcome any tale, however absurd, that agreed with their own hopes and inclinations. The whole scheme reveals the very audacity of genius and of that fertility of resource for which he was noted to the end.
That historical consensus solidified even though Franklin never claimed “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” for himself and no other evidence has surfaced. The Franklin Papers and the Founders Online database now include it as “a Hoax Attributed to Franklin.” Many quotation references credit the crucial line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” to Franklin.

Why do Americans so readily accept the idea of Benjamin Franklin writing a spurious epitaph, circulating it to his political colleagues, and publishing it in a newspaper? As I’ve written before, Franklin serves as our national Trickster. We celebrate other statesmen for their honesty, but we celebrate Franklin for clever hoaxes, from his early “Silence Dogood” letters to his misinformation campaigns during the war.

Thus, in his official History of the Great Seal of the United States (1909), Gaillard Hunt wrote:
That anyone should seize upon the rumors surrounding Bradshaw’s death and make them the basis of a fictitious epitaph is a cause of wonder, until we remember that the author was Benjamin Franklin, whose unique imagination was amused by constructing epitaphs and kindred compositions. His object in this case may easily have been the very effect of inflaming public opinion…
In other words, Franklin was a liar, but he was our liar, lying in a great national cause.

Some authors go further and treat Franklin as too clever to be taken in by other people’s lies. (See, for example, John Macaulay Palmer’s treatment of Franklin and Gen. de Steuben, discussed here.) That assumption gets in the way of a third possible origin of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” besides it being authentic and it being a Franklin hoax: that it was created by someone other than Franklin, and it misled Franklin as much as everyone else.

After all, there’s evidence that the epitaph was circulating before its 14 Dec 1775 appearance in the Pennsylvania Evening Post.

TOMORROW: Earlier shadows.

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