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.