Ben Franklin’s Parable of the Ship

When the Quakers of Pennsylvania were slow to organize a militia for the defense of the colony, about 1747, with the French and Indian War looming, Ben Franklin wrote a pamphlet called “Plain Truth,” and quickly raised and organized 10,000 into companies. Chosen a colonel, Franklin declined suggesting Mr Lawrence as one more capable. Franklin is like Jefferson in lacking generalship, despite great political abilities.

The Quakers of Pennsylvania are responsible for the introduction of the opinions now held regarding slavery and the equality of women and a few other points, including pacifism. Because of their teaching against all war, it was difficult to raise revenue for defense before the need arose, and the practical necessity became obvious. A hypocrisy developed, where money for example could be appropriated for “grain” but not gunpowder, in an attempt to avoid the contraction or horns of the dilemma. In Franklin’s discussion, an attempt is made to distinguish between defense and offensive war, with some Quakers allowing defense despite pacifism. In his Autobiography, Franklin relates a story told by James Logan of when a ship carrying William Penn was thought besieged by pirates, and prepared defense:

He came …Their captain prepared for defense, but told William Penn and his company to of Quakers that he did not expect their assistance and they might retire into the cabin, which they did, except James Logan, who chose to stay upon deck and was quartered to a gun. The supposed enemy proved a friend, so there was no fighting. But when the secretary went down to communicate the intelligence, William Penn rebuked him severely for staying upon the deck and undertaking to assist in the defending the vessel contrary to the principles of Friends, especially as it had not been required by the captain. This reproof being before all the company, piqued the secretary, who answered, “I being thy servant, why did thee not order me to come down? But thee was willing enough that I should stay and help to fight the ship when thee thought there was danger.”

I once attempted to be a pacifist and conscientious objector looking to the Quaker principles, and to the saying of Jesus, “If my kingdom were of this world, I would fight.” The theoretical objection was not so much to dying as to killing, and that upon command, even in the days of Mi Lai. But it is not as Christians that we fight in defensive war, but as citizens. The example of Socrates shows the truth of the necessity of defense and therefore citizenship- and now what must be called statizenship and nationship. The Christian teaching regarding arms is difficult, but begins from where the people, the tax collectors, and then the soldiers ask John the Baptist, preparing for the coming of the Messiah, “What then shall we do.” John the Baptist tells the soldiers. “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). In the just defense of the others, the saying might well apply that the greatest love is shown when one gives their life for their friends.

Franklin, though, next discusses the modesty of the sect called “Dunkers,” and the answer of Michael Welfare to the question of why they did not publish the articles of their beliefs and rules of their practice. He answered that some thoughts once esteemed truths may turn out t

  • *Humility is a good example of the sense in which lists of named virtues to be sought or practiced, is artificial. One does not attain humility by seeing that it is praised and imitating the appearances of the humble, but by knowing those higher things before which we are small. Humility and all the virtues will be a mean, but as Socrates says of courage, it depends upon knowing what kinds of things are to be feared, not to mention when and in what ways. Ethical virtue and the mean depend upon theoretical virtue.

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