Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Sigh For The Eighteenth Century

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was dispatched by Congress to serve as a diplomat in Europe. A major part of his diplomatic mission was to negotiate and conclude treaties of friendship and commerce with as many European nations as possible. Jefferson wrote out a draft treaty and spent several years trying to persuade the great powers of the Old World to sign on. To Jefferson's disappointment, few paid much attention. Only Prussia, then ruled by Frederick the Great, eventually signed the treaty.

I have always been especially intrigued by Article 23 of the treaty Jefferson wrote.

If war should arise between the two contracting parties, the merchants of either country, then residing in the other, shall be allowed to remain nine months to collect their debts and settle their affairs, and may depart freely, carrying offs all their effects, without molestation or hindrance. And all women and children, scholars of every faculty, cultivators of the earth, artisans, manufacturers and fishermen, unarmed and inhabiting unfortified towns, villages, or places, and in general all others whose occupations are for the common subsistence and benefit of mankind, shall be allowed to continue their respective employments and shall not be molested in their persons, nor shall their houses be burnt or otherwise destroyed, nor shall their fields wasted by the armed forces of the enemy into whose power, by the events of war, they may happen to fall; but if anything is necessary to be taken from them for the use of such armed force, the same shall be paid for it at a reasonable price.

When Benjamin Franklin was serving as Minister to France during the Revolutionary War, he was responsible for coordinating the activities of American privateers who were preying on British merchant ships. In the midst of all his myriad duties, Franklin took the time to instruct them what to do in the event that they encountered the ships of the legendary explorer James Cook, who had sailed from England on his third voyage of exploration in the South Pacific some time earlier. Here is what Franklin wrote:

A ship having been fitted out from England before the commencement of this war, to make discoveries of new countries in unknown seas, under the conduct of that most celebrated navigator, Captain Cook; an undertaking truly laudable in itself, as the increase of geographical knowledge facilitates the communication between distant nations, in the exchange of useful products and manufactures, and the extension of arts, whereby the common enjoyments of human life are multiplied and augmented, and science of other kinds increased to the benefit of mankind in general; this is, therefore, most earnestly to recommend to every one of you, that, in case the said ship, which is now expected to be soon in the European seas on her return, should happen to fall into your hands, you would not consider her as an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England, by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America, but that you would treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, affording them, as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power, which they may happen to stand in need of.

Just reading these words fills me with a sense of wonder. Jefferson and Franklin were both pragmatic and realistic politicians, well-versed in the shenanigans and dirty tricks by which men achieve their political objectives. Yet they possessed a vision and a sense of optimism that was the hallmark of their century and which is utterly absent in our own age.

One wonders what Jefferson and Franklin would have thought had they witnessed the total warfare of the last century. What would they have thought of unrestricted submarine warfare and mass use of chemical weapons, and massacres of entire populations during the First World War? What would they have thought of the area bombing of enemy cities and intentional slaughter of civilian populations in the Second World War? What would they have thought of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent construction of nuclear arsenals so large they could have destroyed human civilization many times over?

Our own age has its share of wonders, not least in the realms of science and medicine. Yet we have also lost more than we'd probably care to admit. Jefferson and Franklin imagined that we could use the power to human reason to form society into something close to utopia. At the very least, we could make the world far better than it is. That was the dream of the Enlightenment. Yet after the world wars, after the Holocaust, after the creation of nuclear weapons, it's easy to see why the Enlightenment has been so thoroughly discredited.

But despair is never useful. If Jefferson and Franklin could speak to us across the centuries, they would surely remind us that it's always within our power to make our world into what we truly want it to be. We have but to summon up the will to act.

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