What is the literal and also the figurative meaning of Benjamin Franklin's "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One"?
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was a critical figure in the American Revolution and the founding of the American republic. His “Rules by which a Great Empire may be reduced to a Small One” is a satirical essay published in London in September 11, 1773 at the time when Franklin was serving there as agent for several of the colonies.
While Franklin had tried for decades to steer the conflict between Great Britain and its American colonies toward a peaceful resolution, at the time he wrote this piece he sensed that the growing frustration of the colonists was edging toward open rebellion. That frustration broke into the open just three months following publication of his essay, in the Boston Tea Party incident of December 1773, and armed conflict began sixteen months later at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.
The substance of the essay is a listing of the grievances felt by the colonists at the hands of their British colonial administrators. Though each numbered point is a biting critique of the abuses the colonists literally suffered, Franklin in each case provides a reasonable solution to which the British rulers could resort to avoid a final break with the colonists.
This repeated juxtaposition of well-documented abuse to reasonable solution could be taken as the literal and figurative significance of Franklin's satire. By means of the ruse, Franklin is able to take the moral high ground, portraying his adversaries as not only abusive but foolish for failing to act in their own self-interest.
The format of the essay is that of a geometrical proof, with numbered points ending in the letters Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum, or “as was to be proved”), the same which conclude the proofs of Euclid in his Elements of Geometry. And here is another dig at his high-born British contemporaries, many of whom did not think a colonial even capable of proper speech, no less mastering such works of classical learning.
The specific grievances he enumerates are many of the same that were later cataloged in the Declaration of Independence, the document adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. They include:
• Denial of the same privileges of commerce and application of severer laws to the colonies than to the mother country
• Quartering of troops in the colonists' homes
• Poor administration by the colonial governors combined with corruption and ignorance of the law, for which they receive large pensions and titles
• Levying of novel taxes for the prosecution of war while failing to invest in the needs of the colonies
• Revocation of the right of habeas corpus and denial of the right to trial by jury in cases involving seizure of property
• Use of the Royal Navy to intercept legal coastal trade and pillage farms, while any who resist are tried for high treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered.
It took only a decade from the publication of his essay for Franklin to be proven correct in his warnings. In the Treaty of Paris of 1783 concluding the American Revolution, Great Britain was forced to hand over its largest and richest colonial possession to self-rule. A great empire had been reduced, if not yet to a small one, at least to a considerably lesser size.
In "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One," Benjamin Franklin literally indicates those areas that will make great empires into small ones. Franklin offers advice to the reader concerning the effective ruling of a large territory, from taking care to secure the borders of a great empire to allowing the different parts of the empire a degree of freedom. Franklin addresses his text to a minister who presumably wants to reduce his dominion.
Figuratively speaking, Franklin is also being very tongue-in-cheek in his phraseology. Usually when indicating a list of rules, it would be in the aspiration of some larger goal (i.e. winning a game). Instead, Franklin uses the phrasing to illustrate a goal that is the opposite -- a great empire does not want to fall, or be reduced to a small one.
In another way, Franklin is intimating that these rules are "rules" which apply to the British Empire, particularly in the wake of the American Revolution. Franklin is getting a dig in at the British. Many of the rules to which Franklin refers pertain to the British. Franklin references the arrival of collectors to oversee tax collection, in much the same way that the British sent officials to the colonies to oversee the collection of taxes.
Franklin literally provides a set of rules for a great empire to become a small one, but figuratively his list can be read as much more than that. It uses irony to subtlety bring the British colonies under criticism, and it is very effective in doing so.