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Ben Franklin, Environmentalist?


Americans’ have shaped narratives to make the Founding Fathers fit any number of political ideologies since at least the 1830s. It is a national passion to build connections between one’s own political beliefs and what some guys thought 200 years ago. So when I read a piece like Lauren Simenauer claiming that Benjamin Franklin is America’s first environmentalist, I am more interested in the national psychic need for such assertions more than its actual veracity. That said, while Franklin might have use his rational mind to create technologies that use energy more efficiently and improve public health, calling Franklin an environmentalism is a major stretch. I can understand the claim for Jefferson a bit more because he was consciously interested in the American landscape, but I don’t think Franklin ever showed such interests. It’s far more realistic to call Henry David Thoreau the first American environmentalist, with some antecedents like Jefferson, William and John Bartram, John James Audubon, and others. Maybe Franklin. But you have to think consciously about the natural world as such to be an environmentalist and I don’t see any evidence Franklin did so. Moreover, statements like this just don’t make any sense:

Given his commitment to environmental issues and sustainable business practices, it may be prudent to say that Franklin would have opposed some of the House cuts that stand to strip the public of food safety and farming innovation grants. He certainly would have taken no pleasure in the “Drill, Baby, Drill” chants, and not just because he would have found them lacking in wit.

Who knows what Franklin would have thought? We cannot possibly know this and I don’t see much value in trying to figure it out. Because, not surprisingly, the answer is always going to be the exact political opinion of the researcher!

Americans’ obsession with tying everything to the founders is second only to doing the same thing with Christianity for tortured logic in this country.

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