Recently I was reading about the French and Indian War in Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Massachusetts was under imminent threat of attack and asked Pennsylvania and New York for help. Franklin set out to get a tax bill through the Pennsylvania Assembly to raise money for an army, but ran straight into a stone wall.
Franklin could not get the bill through because the governor refused to approve it. What puzzled me was the reason given for the governor’s adamant refusal. As old Ben Franklin put it, the governor would not approve the bill unless, “a clause were inserted exempting the proprietary estate from bearing any part of the tax that would be necessary.”
“What the hey is a proprietary estate?” I asked myself.
I didn’t get an answer right then. I was busy reading how Franklin came up with a different way of raising money to defend the colony.
He says: “I then suggested a method of doing the business without the governor, by orders on the trustees of the Loan office, which, by law, the Assembly had the right of drawing. There was, indeed, little or no money at that time in the office, and therefore I propos’d that the orders should be payable in a year, and to bear an interest of five per cent. With these orders I suppos’d the provisions might easily be purchas’d. The Assembly, with very little hesitation, adopted the proposal. The orders were immediately printed, and I was one of the committee directed to sign and dispose of them. The fund for paying them was the interest of all the paper currency then extant in the province upon loan, together with the revenue arising from the excise, which being known to be more than sufficient, they obtain’d instant credit, and were not only receiv’d in payment for the provisions, but many money’d people, who had cash lying by them, vested it in those orders, which they found advantageous, as they bore interest while upon hand, and might on any occasion be used as money; so that they were eagerly all bought up, and in a few weeks none of them were to be seen.”
In other words, the people got together, bought war bonds, and raised the money to fight the war.
It left me with the same question. “What the hey is a proprietary estate?”
Well, I found out, but either you and I were asleep in all those American history classes, or they carefully avoided telling us the “rest of the story.”
Some of the colonies were owned not by the colonists, but by as few as one person. Can you believe that? The whole danged colony! Private property!
They called the owner — or owners — “proprietors.”
Take Pennsylvania: The whole colony was granted to William Penn by Charles II.
Pennsylvania wasn’t the only colony that belonged to someone. So did Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey and Delaware.
What was the purpose of owning a colony?
What else? To make a buck.
What was going on in Pennsylvania when Ben Franklin was trying to raise money to fight the French? The current owners of Pennsylvania — the “proprietors” — were not about to pay taxes of any kind, not even to fight a war to keep their colony safe. Doubt about it? Read what Franklin had to say about it later.
“These public quarrels [over taxes] were all at bottom owing to the proprietaries, our hereditary governors, who, when any expense was to be incurred for the defense of their province, with incredible meanness instructed their deputies to pass no act for levying the necessary taxes, unless their vast estates were in the same act expressly excused; and they had even taken bonds of these deputies to observe such instructions.”
No wonder our forefathers were always yelling about taxes in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War.
To show you what things were like living under the rule of such people, when Franklin, a colonel in the army, was sent to Virginia to discuss wartime plans, the Philadelphia officers all dressed in their uniforms and accompanied him to the edge of town with their swords drawn in his honor.
Guess who “took great offense” at that.
The colonial landlord.
Because “no such honour had been paid him when in the province.”
He must have been kidding!