Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One

“That the Possibility of this Separation may always exist, take special Care the Provinces are never incorporated with the Mother Country, that they do not enjoy the same common Rights, the same Privileges in Commerce, and that they are governed by severer Laws.”

Summary Overview

The American colonies were infuriated by the British government’s passage of the Tea Act in 1773, which forced American colonists to buy taxed tea only from the British East India Company. Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical essay in opposition to the imposition of the tax, through which he hoped to change the minds of the members of Parliament. By the time he wrote this, Franklin was well known, having been in the British Isles for a substantial period of time. It was his hope that political reconciliation between Great Britain and British colonies in North America could take place. The thrust of the essay is that if having a “great empire” is too much trouble, any government that followed his instructions would be rid of the excessive work of maintaining a colonial foothold in North America. Franklin’s implication is that if things do not change, the colonies will break away from Great Britain.

Defining Moment

British colonies had existed continuously in North America since 1607. Initially, they were totally economically dependent upon Great Britain, the “Mother Country” mentioned in Franklin’s essay. However, the colonies rapidly developed to a level of relative self-sufficiency. The colonists believed that this should have given them the same rights as the people in Great Britain. However, this did not happen. British politicians were faced with the need to juggle the demands of many different colonies, thinking it only proper to make laws balancing the needs of one area at the expense of another while benefiting Britain. The Tea Act was one such law.

The Americans were supposed to have been buying tea only from British companies, tea that had already been taxed in London. However, by the 1770s, almost two-thirds of the tea arriving in American ports was untaxed, from cheaper, non-British sources. One result was an excess of tea in Britain, as a previous law required all tea from the Indian colonies to be shipped to London. The Tea Act would have put greater restrictions upon purchasing non-British tea, while allowing direct shipping from South Asia to America. This would have reduced shipping costs, but special higher taxes were to be collected on tea shipped directly to America. When this law was passed in May of 1773, the colonies rejected the implied right of the British government to levy special taxes on American commerce. Many different pleas were presented to government officials to change the law. Four months after the Tea Act was enacted, Franklin wrote this essay for the British public and members of Parliament. He hoped this biting satire might alert everyone to the strength of the problems this law was creating in America, with the result that it would be repealed. Franklin’s enumeration of steps to diminish an empire, such as keeping provinces separate, taking away provincial rights, and governing provinces more severely, express his contemporary colonists’ view of what was happening in their relationship with Great Britain. For American leaders, political separation was being considered as a real possibility by 1773.

Author Biography

Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Josiah and Abiah Franklin on January 17, 1706. Growing up a younger child in a large family, Franklin had a relatively limited formal education. He joined a family business at age ten and worked there for several years, including five years as a printer. As a youth, he came to the conclusion that it was important for people be involved in the larger community. Although he did not act on this principle himself until he moved to Philadelphia, the seventeen years he lived in Boston gave him a strong foundation for what followed.

Franklin’s ability to influence people in writing quickly came to the forefront in Philadelphia. As a teenager, he obtained the backing of the governor to travel to London and purchase printing equipment for a new newspaper. Although he did not accomplish his goals, due to not getting the promised funds, he opened a printing shop with a partner after returning to Philadelphia in 1728. Franklin then began publishing his own work in his Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin’s writings were widely read. During this time he and Deborah Read achieved common-law marriage status. They had two children in addition to Franklin’s first son from a previous relationship.

With the printing business becoming very successful, Franklin became more inclined to spend his time on political, scientific, and community-related matters. He sold his print shop and moved on to other pursuits. During the 1740s and 1750s, Franklin undertook many of his most famous scientific experiments and established many community organizations. In 1754, he led the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress, and while there he proposed a plan of union for the colonies. In 1757 and 1764, he returned to London as the representative of Pennsylvania colonists locked in disputes with the Penn family. However, while he was there the second time, the Stamp Act was passed in 1765 and Franklin ended up acting as a representative for all the colonies in getting it repealed. He was still in Great Britain in 1773 when the Tea Act was passed, and as with the Stamp Act, he tried to have it repealed. However, this time he was unsuccessful. Shortly after writing this essay, he returned to America and then participated in the Continental Congress. During the Revolutionary War he was the American ambassador to France and later served as one of the negotiators who drew up the peace treaty with Great Britain. In 1785, he returned to Pennsylvania and served in the state government, including three years as governor. He died on April 17, 1790.

Document Analysis

Benjamin Franklin had a keen understanding of American sentiment as regarded the political developments of his time. In addition, having lived in Great Britain for a number of years, he also saw the perceptions that the British had of America. Thus, he thought it would be helpful to try to communicate what was happening in America to the British leaders and the general public. From his time as a publisher, he knew that humorous essays were more widely read than dry political tracts, especially if the writer wanted to expand his reading audience to those with opposing points of view. Using the format of lessons in a textbook, Franklin offers up what he claims are the opposite of the lessons which might have been learned in a classical education. Composed as general lessons, Franklin’s writings do not mention either America or Great Britain directly. This gave him more latitude to be critical of the British government without facing criminal charges. However, it was clear to all that Franklin’s satire was veiled criticism directed toward the British officials, illustrating the dangers created by the Tea Act. Franklin seems to have hoped that through his essay the British might develop the sensitivity necessary to avoid further colonial conflict in the future.

Formal education in the eighteenth century was based on classical studies, in which ancient philosophers, Greek and Latin language, the arts, and biblical studies formed the foundation of Western culture. Thus when Franklin opens his essay he portrays himself as the complete opposite of “an ancient Sage,” setting the stage for his satiric presentation. Those who were wise in antiquity knew how to build up or construct things, but Franklin says the “modern Simpleton” knows how to tear down. This is the “Science” that Franklin will share with others. He uses the term “Science” because of his fame as a scientist throughout Great Britain; he had even received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Franklin concludes the introduction to his essay with a paragraph outlining his intended audience. Again, he depicts the modern as being the total opposite of the ancient. The “ancient Sage . . . tho’ he could not fiddle” had the time to create a “great City of a little one.” The ministers of Franklin’s day had to govern a large part of the world, and the colonies “from their very Greatness” were becoming troublesome.” This, Franklin asserts, is difficult for the British ministers because “the Multiplicity of their Affairs leaves no Time for fiddling.” Thus, Franklin communicates that he has composed this teaching text in order to help the ministers in the British government reach their true goal of having more leisure time and fewer responsibilities.

Franklin begins his piece with a cake analogy, reminding the readers that provinces some distance from the political center are most easily removed from the empire. Franklin then clearly states the central points of his argument. He lists the grievances the American settlers have against the British, from the American point of view. Not all of these grievances are new, but they are being accentuated by the Tea Act and the British government’s reaction to American protests.

Many in the colonies had expectations of a close relationship with Britain. At the beginning of the colonial era, England and Scotland had united politically and shared parliamentary representation. For some in America, this built up the expectation of a similar political union with representation in the government. Franklin wryly advocates that the colonies should never be “incorporated” politically if the mother country wants to be rid of them. If they had been a part of the British political process, he implies, the colonists’ main complaint about taxation without representation would not have been valid. This point is reinforced later in section II by Franklin’s note that all the things the Americans dislike have been enacted “without allowing them any Share in the Choice of the Legislators.”

The second point Franklin emphasizes in this opening section of the essay has to do with the colonists’ expectation that they would have “the same common Rights” as people still residing in the British Isles. Even though the British had never had a formal written constitution up to that time, basic rights had evolved for people at all levels of British society. A codification of many of the basic rights had been passed by Parliament in the 1688 Bill of Rights. By comparing some of the specific complaints listed later in this essay with the provisions of the English Bill of Rights, it can be seen that the violation of some of these provisions, which had become so important to the British, were at the heart of the colonists’ complaints.

The third point, which is at the center of the colonial contention, is summarized in Franklin’s phrase “the same Privileges in Commerce.” As with other complaints the Americans had, this was not a unique problem for the American colonies. The issue of tea came about because the British government had mandated that tea grown in the South Asian colonies had to be sold in London. The restrictions on tea, combined with previous ones on molasses and some other goods, raised concerns for the colonists. Also, the new law gave the tea companies permission to select which merchants could purchase their tea, raising the possibility of a tea monopoly within the colonies. All of these things, taken together, caused concerns for the colonists. They had assumed that they had the right of free trade, but they saw this right disappearing.

The strength of Franklin’s presentation skills can be seen in the closing sentence of section II. Franklin compares the political leaders in Britain to bakers making gingerbread. One way to make differently sized pieces was to cut partway through the dough before baking it, so that it could be easily snapped apart after baking. Comparing Great Britain’s colonial management to the work of gingerbread bakers, Franklin suggests that the British leaders should at least partially cut the strength of their ties to the American colonies if they wish to break them off completely.

The third section begins with what is essentially a true statement, although it is not totally correct. Franklin asserts that the “remote Provinces” have been settled and developed “at the sole Expence of the Settlers or their Ancestors.” It is true that the individuals, especially the early settlers, who first came to North America had risked a great deal and had survived without extensive support from Britain. They had worked out agreements with American Indians and they had developed the natural resources necessary to survive. But many of the later groups of settlers had worked with the British government to establish and fund colonies. Some of the colonies, such as Virginia, were established as a money-making effort by wealthy Englishmen, while others, such as Plymouth Colony, did not have sufficient funds for establishing the colony and had to take out loans from capitalists seeking profit from the venture. Thus Franklin is exaggerating somewhat in his assertion that everything allowing the colonial effort to succeed was at the “sole Expence of the Settlers.” However, the essence of what he says is correct in that the American colonial effort was not originally based on funding from England, nor did the English send troops to areas prior to settlement to clear the way for the settlers.

Franklin continues with the satiric comment that if the colonists think they should get any rewards for joining militias to fight wars for the Mother Country, they should be put in their place. In section VIII, Franklin refers to the role the colonies might play in a war. He states that it is better, in terms of losing friendship, to demand men and money from the colonies, than to allow them to join voluntarily in providing resources for the effort. (This refers back to issues from the French and Indian War.) He continues to argue against cooperation by noting that any trade opportunities the colonies have created should count for nothing. Basically, he satirically argues, regarding any good the colonists have done for the Mother Country, the political leaders should “forget it all.” If the political leanings of the colonists are on the liberal side, then the leaders should “contrive to punish” them. The political and philosophical references at the close of the third section refer to the liberal or radical wing of the British political spectrum. All of these groups advocated changes from the status quo. Prior to the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers were sometimes referred to as American Whigs, in opposition to the Tories, those who remained loyal to the crown.

Sections IV through VII deal with how the British government should be represented in the colonies if British leaders want to lose their colonial hold on North America. The issues raised in section IV are familiar to most twenty-first-century US citizens because of the Third Amendment in our Bill of Rights, which prohibits the stationing of soldiers in private homes against the will of the inhabitants. Franklin suggests that the British government should assume the colonists are “inclined to revolt” and respond by stationing numerous soldiers in the colonies. To do it more effectively, the government should “Quarter Troops among them,” which means that the troops should be placed on private property or in individual colonists’ homes. Franklin warns his readers that just as in cases of domestic violence the victim turns against the abuser, so the abused colonists will seek remedy against the Mother Country. Continuing this theme of mistreating the colonists, Franklin states that if the government appoints governors and judges who pay attention to the needs of the people and try to do things that are helpful to the colonists, the colonists will interpret this to mean that the government representing the monarch “wishes the Welfare of his Subjects.”

Moving forward to the thematic area of taxation, Franklin mentions the crisis caused by the Tea Act and the preceding crisis caused by the Stamp Act. For those government ministers who desire to rid themselves of the colonies, Franklin advocates a high level of taxes. He writes that although the colonists are busy creating a totally new infrastructure, this is to be ignored. Just a decade earlier, William Pitt had estimated the income from this trade to be at least two million pounds a year for British merchants. All of this, Franklin says, should count for nothing for British leaders wanting to be free of the colonies. The level of taxation mentioned was not the real level, in this case. However, Franklin’s reference to “Declarations importing that your Power of taxing them has no Limits” would have been clear to his readers. When the British repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed a companion bill in which Parliament explicitly gave itself this right of unlimited taxation on the colonies. The concluding phrase, “the happiest Consequences,” is Franklin‘s code for the separation of the colonies from the Mother Country.

Franklin continues on the issue of taxation in sections XI and XII. Here, he reflects upon the experiences many people throughout history have had with tax collectors. Since antiquity, many systems of taxation allowed the individuals collecting the taxes to keep part of the revenue, or to have a standard of living well above the average person in that region. Here Franklin states that a good way to cause discontent is to continue to allow these types of actions. Also, if any tax collector or judge tries to work out equitable arrangements with the people, he should be fired and replaced by more ruthless people. Any appeals should be totally at the expense of the taxpayer. In addition, taxes should be collected but then not used to help defend or support that colony. Franklin says that these types of policies are good for causing taxpayers to become “weary of [their] Government.”

As regards foreign affairs, Franklin continues to urge the government to ignore anything other countries might do to assist the colonies to gain their independence. After all, Franklin argues, “you all mean the same Thing;” he is sarcastically suggesting that all the major European powers must be trying to reduce the number of tiresome colonies which demanded their administrative attention. Continuing in section XVIII, Franklin reminds the government to ignore anything the colonists have done to help the British military forces against foreign enemies. Weapons should be confiscated, Franklin writes, so that “your Enemies may more easily invade them.” As regards British troops sent from the homeland to the colonies, Franklin suggests that they be housed in cities and not on the borders. Thus, rather than the soldiers keeping the colonists safe from foreign attack, “the Troops may be protected by the Inhabitants.” According to Franklin, this will “produce and strengthen an Opinion among [the colonists], that you are no longer fit to govern them.”

In the last section of Franklin’s instructions for destroying a great colonial empire, he advocates allowing “the General of your Army in the Provinces” to do anything he desires. Since the general has all the military power, he should be able to override even the decisions of the royal governors, whether they are constitutional or not. Franklin argues that the general might unilaterally declare the colony independent from the Mother Country, as had been done elsewhere in the past. If the people join the general, then the British government will truly be free from all “the Trouble of governing them.” He concludes the text with the abbreviation QED, which was often used at the end of mathematical, scientific, or philosophical arguments to show the successful completion of a point.

Essential Themes

Seeking to influence members of the British Parliament to repeal the Tea Act, Franklin sought to demonstrate the logical outcome of the policies they had put in place. Not wanting to be arrested for libel, or even treason, Franklin uses satire in his writing to depict the displeasure of the colonists. He does this by stating that he assumes the colonies are “troublesome to govern” and therefore that the government’s ministers want to “get rid of them.” He also never identifies the “Mother Country” as Great Britain. The instructions that Franklin gives them to make certain this happens are in reality a list of the grievances the colonists have against the British. The short-term outcome of this attempt was failure. Parliament did not repeal the Tea Act, sparking colonial rebellion in the Boston Tea Party some months later. Franklin lost his appointment as Deputy Postmaster for the colonies.

From a longer-term perspective, this short satirical piece clearly demonstrates Franklin’s understanding of the situation in America, even though he had been in Europe for almost a decade. While his other qualities and connections were more important, his ability to write about American concerns may have led to his being selected for work on the Declaration of Independence. He was also seen as one who understood much of the European mindset and was selected to represent his American contemporaries in France. Finally, the list of grievances which were outlined in this document were reflected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in that these documents made it clear what was and what was not going to be allowed under the new system of government.

While Franklin was not as militarily inclined as some of the other Founding Fathers, his essay points to his understanding that, when grievances accumulate, there comes a point when a dramatic break is necessary. His forceful criticism of the British leaders in this work seems to indicate that this point had then been reached, in his opinion. In his negotiations with the British, toward the end of the Revolutionary War, the strength of what he describes in this essay seems to have remained in his mind, given how adamant he was about American demands.


  • Drexler, Kenneth, et al. “Finding Franklin: A Resource Guide.” Virtual Services: Digital Reference Section. Library of Congress, Feb. 2006. Web. 30 July 2012
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon, 2004. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Brands, H. W. The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Anchor, 2002. Print.
  • Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760–1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly 1995. Print.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2010. Print.
  • Franklin, Benjamin, and Paul M. Zall. Franklin on Franklin. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2000. Print.