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Ben Franklin, America’s First Globalist

What can Ben Franklin’s warning to 13 rebellious colonies teach us about global cooperation today?

August 10, 2013

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (Credit: Wikimedia)

When Mr. Franklin and other American patriots signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th in 1776, they were facing a highly uncertain future.

Under those momentous circumstances, it was Mr. Franklin who summed up perfectly the mood of apprehension that accompanied that event: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin’s statement was not an exaggeration. If their revolution failed, the British would have almost certainly hanged the band now known as America’s Founding Fathers for high treason.

However, there was a deeper meaning in Mr. Franklin’s words of wisdom. Even if they succeeded in defeating the British, the signers of the Declaration of Independence still confronted a clear choice: Either to forge a new nation – or let the 13 independent-minded colonies go their separate ways.

Of course, in retrospect it seems that getting together to form the United States of America was the only logical course of action. But back in 1776, it was far from obvious.

Although all 13 colonies were British, they were extremely different in their history, social order and ethnic composition.

A quarter millennium ago

There were the Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Church of England aristocrats in the South. New York was heavily Dutch, while Maine (then part of Massachusetts) contained a large French-speaking population.

Big states had different interests from small ones. The North — foreshadowing a conflict nearly a century later — had different economic and political preoccupations from the rural and agricultural slave-dominated South.

Benjamin Franklin understood the differences between the colonies and the challenges they faced first hand. At the age of 17, he ran away from home in Boston and went to Philadelphia. At that time, those cities were a world apart. They represented different cultures.

In the end, the American colonies chose to bury their differences for the sake of a greater good. They banded together and went on to become the world’s most powerful and influential nation.

However, the alternative would have been dire – as Mr. Franklin correctly pointed out.

Given the hostile world around them — and the vastness of the new continent — the English-speaking colonies might not have survived if each of them had been left to fend for itself.

Globalization junction

If Mr. Franklin were alive today, he would have cause to say the same thing. But he probably would not have been addressing the United States but to the outside world.

Just like the United States in 1776, the world today is at a crucial junction in its history. Globalization has brought nations together, but also produced immense challenges.

Conflicting political, religious – and economic – interests are pulling nations apart. Populations around the globe are in upheaval. Many of them see no advantages in unity.

Yet, the only way to find a solution to modern society’s intractable problems – like environmental degradation, poverty, economic crises, weapons of mass destruction and a large number of others — is for nations of the world to form a new, close-knit community.

Something like a 21st century notion of the United States of the World. Thus, Mr. Franklin’s warning, although addressed some 225 years ago to his countrymen, remains apt today in a global context.

Moreover, today’s Americans should also pay attention to what Mr. Franklin said. In 1776, they chose to hang together. How about today?

The United States – being the superpower that it is – has the unique chance to lead the world on the path toward equitable, sustainable globalization. Alas, thus far, it has failed to take that road.

In fact, George W. Bush had the opposite agenda politically. He was a divider, not a uniter, globally. Barack Obama, his successor, mouthed all the right words, but, stunningly, in practice he often emulated Mr. Bush.

The United States still has the opportunity of building a community of nations, even though it is slipping fast away.

A community of nations is certainly something Mr. Franklin, were he alive today, would advocate. But he isn’t. On his cardinal issue, together or separately – the jury is still out.


Franklin told the 13 colonies: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately."

Now it seems obvious that uniting 13 colonies as one was the only logical course. It wasn't clear then.

All 13 colonies were British but were very different in history, social order and ethnic composition.

The world today is at a junction in its history. Globalization has brought nations together.

Franklin's warning, addressed 225 years ago to his countrymen, remains apt in today's global context.

The only way to solve modern, global problems is for all nations to form a new, close-knit community.

Americans hold their Founding Fathers in high regard and should pay attention to what Franklin said.