Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A City Saved

Benjamin Franklin: City Slicker
The self-styled country mouse was in truth America’s first great urbanist.

Franklin in the late 1770s, elegant and sophisticated.
anne-rosalie bocquet filleul/The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY
Franklin in the late 1770s, elegant and sophisticated

I’m tired of this dirty old city,” sang country-music great Merle Haggard, probably referring to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, southern anchor of the San Joaquin Valley:

Entirely too much work and never enough play.
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks.
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.
Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana . . .

Merle’s singing an old American tune here. From the Founders to Thoreau to modern Farm Aid concerts, Americans have been of two minds about the city and the country. For some, the city means progress, prosperity, and the development of mind and culture, and the country means the opposite. For others, the country means virtue, tradition, and freedom, and the city means the opposite.

Benjamin Franklin was reported to have said, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that his fellow Founders must “all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Hang together the Founders did. But they didn’t do so forever, and, after independence and a workable constitution, they soon divided (the vast complexities duly noted) on the issue of city versus country. On the one hand were the Federalist proponents of banks, commerce, manufactures, and cities; on the other, the Democratic-Republican proponents of Jefferson’s agrarian ideals.

Franklin didn’t live to see this division play out, but it’s my guess that he would have sided with the city, albeit with subtle reservations. Franklin is often referred to as “the first American.” That’s true enough. But you might go further, and say that Franklin was also America’s first city slicker.

Read the rest of the Essay at:

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