Thursday, December 13, 2012

"On the Death of Benjamin Franklin: Doria DeBartolo, A Closer Look into the Progression Toward America's Current Value System

Doria DeBartolo
Professor Teresa Coronado
English 226
9 December 2012
On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin: A Closer Look into the Progression Toward America’s Current Values System
            An endless amount of insight can be found within historical texts.  Non-fiction is direct in presenting information, whereas fictional pieces offer a fertile playground for analysis that can be used to uncover historical facts that an author may or may not have intended to share. From a story or poem we can extract information about the time in which a piece was written such as common religious practices, cultural identity, and possibly the origin of ideas that are widespread today.  This adds a unique layer to a close reading, and with the knowledge obtained through these historical readings we gain the power to better analyze our present, and possibly make some better educated predictions about our future. We see an example of a short but informative historical text within Phillip Freneau’s On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. In his poem, Freneau reveals the early beginnings of a small but significant piece of what we may or may not know as America’s present value system. 
            Freneau was born in New York City in 1752.  He found great value in his education and went on to attend Princeton University in New Jersey in the late 1760’s.  He was only nineteen years old when he graduated in 1771.  Just a few years later, the country immersed itself in The American Revolutionary War to fight for independence from Great Britatin, and Freneau served his duty as a soldier and privateer.  During the Revolution, he was captured as a prisoner of war.  Before the Revolution ended around 1783, he wrote one of his first well known poems entitled the British Prison Ship in 1781.  In his poem he revealed his hardships and feelings towards his experience as a prisoner on a British ship.  Freneau worked hard and soon became known as the first American Journalist.  He worked as a well-known and popular propagandist and satirist for the American Revolution as well as the Jeffersonian Democracy. He also edited several papers including the partisan National Gazette for Jefferson in Philadelphia from 1791-1793. Freneau had an insurmountable passion for his beliefs, and although he was extremely influential and popular among the citizens of the United States he never really gained much of a profit from his writing. (Phillip 1)
            Lewis Leary from the University of North Carolina agrees that Freneau is undoubtedly recognized as the "Poet of the American Revolution” (156).  However, he disagrees with the opinion of some who also refer to him as one of the “Father[s] of American Poetry” (Leary 156).  Some of his other poems include: The Wild Honeysuckle, The Indian Burying Ground, and Eutaw Spring, which all contributed greatly to his fame as one of America’s earliest and most important lyrics poets (Phillip 1).
            Freneau had a strong set of beliefs that he fought very hard for.  He was aware of his enormous talent to sway opinions through his unique writing style. The best tool that he had was his use of satires to capture the attention of his readers through sarcasm and irony. His popularity shows that many people agreed with his rather fresh stand point, and his beliefs reflected strongly on the general culture and values of the nation as a whole during these years. The late 1700’s were a time in which this country had gained the independence that had been long sought after.  Once this independence was achieved, the nation could finally begin to put more of a focus on its development as a separate country. People were just beginning to formulate their ideas of what it was they believed this country stood for, and they were also starting to foster a new set of ideals.
            Freneau’s poem On the Death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin was written in 1790 in the midst of the metamorphoses that was occurring in the United States.  This was a time when the nation experienced a relief from the stresses of war.  Many people suddenly had more time to develop new and exciting ideals and values that would one day grow to represent the American culture that we are so familiar with today. Freneau wrote this poem shortly after Benjamin Franklin’s death.  In it, he expresses his own personal mourning of such a great man, as well as the feelings of the American people toward the great loss.  Through his words, he briefly highlights the significance of Franklin’s accomplishments, as well as how he contributed to the representation of our country.  In line four of his poem Freneau says that Franklin “demands the tribute of our tears”.   He recognized that not everyone in the country may have found such value in Franklin, so he finds it necessary to stress his importance and demand a tribute to be paid to such an important figure.
            We also see a glimpse of Freneau’s  pride in his country’s triumph over England.  He says:
When monarchs tumble to the ground,   
Successors easily are found:   
But, matchless Franklin! what a few   
Can hope to rival such as you,   
Who seized from kings their sceptered pride
And turned the lightning darts aside (Freneau 13-18).
Here, we see that he sees no worth in a King and Queen and believes that they can be easily replaced due to their lack of unique talent and ability used to represent and lead a country.  He then goes on to express the immense value that a man such as Franklin has, and that he is indeed a man that cannot replaced.  In the final lines of the poem he claims that Franklin has stolen a sense of pride from the monarchs that they can never again achieve. Freneau and the rest of the country had a sense of pride that rested within public figures such as Franklin.  Many of them were once forced to allow their patriotism to reside within Kings and Queens that served no unique purpose to their country.  These Americans now seized the opportunity to express what they believed to be true and well deserved pride, and praise people who deserved to be praised.
            Franklin was indeed an extraordinary man who contributed hugely to our nation.  He devoted his life to enriching the lives of Americans through scientific studies that led to the discovery of the principle of conservation of charge, inventions such as the bifocal lense, and the founding of many organizations such as the American Philosophical Society.  Of course, he also had a significant hand in the separation of the United States and Great Britain.  Franklin’s brilliance and importance cannot be argued against.  However, it is wildly apparent within the words of this poem that the source of pride in this country was directly focused on the strength of the individual; it had nothing to do with the strength and beauty of our nation as a team.  In lines 9 through 12 the poem reads:
            So long accustomed to your aid,       
The world laments your exit made;           
So long befriended by your art,         
Philosopher, ’tis hard to part!— (Freneau 9-12).
In these first three lines we see the repeated use of the singular reference to one source of aid to America in the word “your”.  In the final line, Freneau pays tribute to one single “Philosopher” rather than a group of philosophers who worked to change the face of our country.  His partially unintentional use of singular nouns suggests a preference of the individual rather than a team.  This preference was widely accepted by the nation at the time, and this acceptance can be noted through Freneau’s significant popularity and influence on the people. 
            It is evident in this poem that the culture in the United States during the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s was beginning to place a blinding spotlight on the individual, and relied heavily upon these great thinkers, explorers, inventors, and leaders to be the heart of our nation.  When the apparent knowledge and culture of this emerging time in our nation’s history is obtained and considered, many of the ideas, culture, and values in particular that we as a country carry with us today become more apparent.  We even see this same idea being taught to our children in schools to this day.  We more often than not reward individual children for their singular work rather than supporting and advocating more group work. If students are academically gifted, we place them  in separate more advanced groups to work on their own.  Would it not be more beneficial to keep these students together with those who may be at a slight learning disadvantage?  They can then work together and learn from each other, and in turn bring bodies to a closer level of equality, and ultimately make them stronger socially and academically as a whole.
            If we have a better understanding of our beginnings, then we increase our ability to make the appropriate adjustments to better ourselves as a nation.  Once we realize and understand that the origin of these particular values is only a direct result of an impulsive leap of a nation from ideals that were once forced upon them.  During and after the American Revolution people wanted to move as far away as possible from the structure of a monarchy.  However, they had also never before seen a structure that was based on the equal work of a team.  Subsequently, they successfully had moved away from Kings and Queens serving as representation, but they did not progress from the idea of the individual.  Freneau’s poem helps us recognize a set a values that were not very well thought out.  Once we recognize this, we can work towards making more beneficial adjustments to our value system and ultimately help gear our country toward the happiness and success that everyone seeks to achieve individually, but rather accomplish this together.

                                                                         Work cited
Freneau, Phillip. “On the Death of Benjamin Franklin”.  American Poetry 1918. Early Americas
            Digital Archive. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.
Leary, Lewis. "The Dream Visions Of Philip Freneau." Early American Literature 11.2 (1976):
            156. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.
"Philip Freneau." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2011): 1. Academic Search  
            Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

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