Benjamin Franklin called my ancestors “Palatine boors.” It was nothing personal, of course, since he was worried about all the German-speaking peoples settling in the British colonies along the eastern seaboard, especially Pennsylvania. In 1683, about five miles west of Philadelphia, a special enclave, Germantown, was set up for them, but they were spreading farther afield.
Franklin expressed his dismay in a document, Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, written in 1751, published in 1755. According to Catherine Drinker Bowen’s book on Franklin, his comments cost him re-election to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. A lot of those “boors,” meaning both clods and “boers,” farmers, came from the Rhineland, an area also called the Palatinate.
For Franklin, it was a question of assimilation: All those German-speaking immigrants showed no signs of wanting to fit in and adopt British culture and learn the English language. He had reason for concern. Long into the twentieth century, descendants of those late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Germans and Swiss were still eating their ancestral foods and speaking their ancestral southern dialect of German, what is commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch.
During the American Revolution, the Heisey family and other German-speaking Pennsylvanians sat out the whole conflict, either from religious pacifism or because, as the story goes in our family, we thought it was all a dumb idea. If a bunch of Englisch down by Philadelphia wanted to shoot each other, that was their affair. Besides, those early Germanic immigrants had taken an oath of loyalty to one of the three King Georges, who were, after all, German.
After the mid-summer of 1776, with independence declared from the Crown and each former colony now being reconstituted as a state, men in Pennsylvania were required to serve in the Commonwealth’s militia. According to records published in an old series of volumes called Pennsylvania Archives, my ancestors were among many German-speakers to be fined for refusing to report for militia muster.
So, Franklin had further cause not to look kindly upon all those German settlers. All the same, he and they had something deeper in common: Franklin and those Palatine boors were Christians, reared in various Protestant denominations. Franklin came from a Presbyterian family, but as he rose higher in British society, even pulling strings whilst in London to get his son named Royal Governor of New Jersey, he aligned with the Anglican church. Anglicanism’s preferential tolerance for compromise had ample room for Franklin’s idiosyncratic relationship with Christianity.
For his experiments with electricity, Franklin read the works of French scholars in that field, men at least nominally Catholic. (One, a deacon, experimented with electricity on a mile-round circle of two hundred monks; Franklin merely had his son standing nearby as lightning crackled around his kite and key.) When, after the break with Great Britain, Franklin served as ambassador to the kingdom of France from the new republic of the United States, he interacted with men and women who were Catholic. As a businessman, he learned early on to do his best to respect others and to get along with everyone he met.
Although Franklin’s formal education was limited, he determined to keep his mind active. Every Sunday he dedicated to study, reading widely in secular and religious subjects. From his reading of the Bible and the ancient classics, he meditated on what it means to live a good life. To guide his own conduct, he drew up a list of thirteen virtues, based in part on the four cardinal virtues of antiquity and the three theological virtues of Christianity. Those stolid Pennsylvania Dutchmen, most likely scarcely having heard of the Enlightenment, would have nodded their approval, albeit grudgingly, considering the source.
- Temperance: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
- Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
- Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., Waste nothing.
- Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes, or habitation.
- Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Commentary on Franklin’s laconic list would be superfluous, indeed, fatuous, but one more personal note may be added. In school in the 1970s, we studied Franklin’s delineation of thirteen virtues, and, along with Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” it had an enduring influence on some of us, at least. Even without Kipling’s great poem, were someone to be brought up like Franklin, barely within hailing distance of Catholic faith formation, Franklin’s crib sheet of virtues, alongside his Bible and his classics, would not be a bad basis for developing good character, what in a monastic context is called “ongoing conversion of life.”
Benjamin Franklin was not the only Great Man in history to look askance at my Swiss-German ancestors. Some eighteen hundred years earlier, in 58 B. C., Julius Caesar encountered a group of them, Helvetians as they were then, migrating from here to there, as Swiss people rarely do, and for Caesar, it was all too much, really a spanner in the works for his plans for military conquest. So, he hacked them all to death.
Of course, living by the sword often has one dying by the sword, and fourteen years later, Caesar got what was coming to him. Franklin, for all his frustration with the likes of my ancestors, strove to be affable and urbane and tried his best to live amicably with everyone, and for his funeral at Christ Church, an old brick Episcopal church in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of local residents thronged the streets. Whether any Heiseys were in that vast mourning crowd is not recorded.