Felons and Rattlesnakes
Printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette May 9, 1751.
In the eulogy which he delivered before the French Academy of Sciences on Nov. 13, 1790, the Marquis de Condorcet noted that Franklin sometimes made a point in conversation with a fable, tale, or anecdote. “Chargé de demander l’abolition de l’usage insultant d’envoyer les malfaiteurs dans les Colonies, le Ministre lui allégait la nécessité d’en délivrer l’Angleterre. Que diriez-vous, répondit-il, si nous ordonnions l’exportation des serpens à sonnette?”3 Condorcet added in a footnote that he had often heard Franklin recount this witticism, and that some French newspapers had badly garbled it. Paul L. Ford first identified Franklin’s essay in the Gazette as the probable original of this anecdote.4
By a Passage in one of your late Papers,5 I understand that the Government at home will not suffer our mistaken Assemblies to make any Law for preventing or discouraging the Importation of Convicts from Great Britain, for this kind Reason, “That such Laws are against the Publick Utility, as they tend to prevent the Improvement and Well Peopling of the Colonies.”6
Such a tender parental Concern in our Mother Country for the Welfare of her Children, calls aloud for the highest Returns of Gratitude and Duty. This every one must be sensible of: But ’tis said, that in our present Circumstances it is absolutely impossible for us to make such as are adequate to the Favour. I own it; but nevertheless let us do our Endeavour. ’Tis something to show a grateful Disposition.
In some of the uninhabited Parts of these Provinces, there are Numbers of these venomous Reptiles we call Rattle-Snakes; Felons-convict from the Beginning of the World: These, whenever we meet with them, we put to Death, by Virtue of an old Law, Thou shalt bruise his Head. But as this is a sanguinary Law, and may seem too cruel; and as however mischievous those Creatures are with us, they may possibly change their Natures, if they were to change the Climate; I would humbly propose, that this general Sentence of Death be changed for Transportation.
In the Spring of the Year, when they first creep out of their Holes, they are feeble, heavy, slow, and easily taken; and if a small Bounty were allow’d per Head, some Thousands might be collected annually, and transported to Britain. There I would propose to have them carefully distributed in St. James’s Park, in the Spring-Gardens and other Places of Pleasure about London; in the Gardens of all the Nobility and Gentry throughout the Nation; but particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged.
There is no human Scheme so perfect, but some Inconveniencies may be objected to it: Yet when the Conveniencies far exceed, the Scheme is judg’d rational, and fit to be executed. Thus Inconveniencies have been objected to that good and wise Act of Parliament, by virtue of which all the Newgates and Dungeons in Britain are emptied into the Colonies. It has been said, that these Thieves and Villains introduc’d among us, spoil the Morals of Youth in the Neighbourhoods that entertain them, and perpetrate many horrid Crimes: But let not private Interests obstruct publick Utility. Our Mother knows what is best for us. What is a little Housebreaking, Shoplifting, or Highway Robbing; what is a Son now and then corrupted and hang’d, a Daughter debauch’d and pox’d, a Wife stabb’d, a Husband’s Throat cut, or a Child’s Brains beat out with an Axe, compar’d with this “Improvement and WELL PEOPLING of the Colonies!”
Thus it may perhaps be objected to my Scheme, that the Rattle-Snake is a mischievous Creature, and that his changing his Nature with the Clime is a mere Supposition, not yet confirm’d by sufficient Facts. What then? Is not Example more prevalent than Precept? And may not the honest rough British Gentry, by a Familiarity with these Reptiles, learn to creep, and to insinuate, and to slaver, and to wriggle into Place (and perhaps to poison such as stand in their Way) Qualities of no small Advantage to Courtiers! In comparison of which “Improvement and Publick Utility,” what is a Child now and then kill’d by their venomous Bite,—or even a favourite Lap-Dog?
I would only add, That this Exporting of Felons to the Colonies, may be consider’d as a Trade, as well as in the Light of a Favour. Now all Commerce implies Returns: Justice requires them: There can be no Trade without them. And Rattle-Snakes seem the most suitable Returns for the Human Serpents sent us by our Mother Country. In this, however, as in every other Branch of Trade, she will have the Advantage of us. She will reap equal Benefits without equal Risque of the Inconveniencies and Dangers. For the Rattle-Snake gives Warning before he attempts his Mischief; which the Convict does not. I am Yours, &c.
3. Eloge de M. Franklin (Paris, 1791), p. 39.
4. “Franklin and Rattlesnakes,” Nation, LXVII (1898), 165.
5. The Gazette of April 11 contained a horrifying catalogue of murders, arson, robberies, piracy, and manslaughter, mostly by convict servants in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. The accounts conclude:
“When we see our Papers fill’d continually with Accounts of the most audacious Robberies, the most cruel Murders, and infinite other Villainies perpetrated by Convicts transported from Europe, what melancholly, what terrible Reflections must it occasion! What will become of our Posterity!—These are some of thy Favours, Britain! Thou art called our Mother Country; but what good Mother ever sent Thieves and Villains to accompany her Children; to corrupt some with their infectious Vices, and murder the rest? What Father ever endeavour’d to spread the Plague in his Family!—We do not ask Fish, but thou givest us Serpents, and worse than Serpents!—In what can Britain show a more Sovereign Contempt for us, than by emptying their Jails into our Settlements; unless they would likewise empty their Jakes on our Tables?—What must we think of that B-----d, which has advis’d the Repeal of every Law we have hitherto made to prevent this Deluge of Wickedness overwhelming us; and with this cruel Sarcasm, That these Laws were against the Public Utility, for they tended to prevent the Improvement and Well-Peopling of the Colonies!—And what must we think of those Merchants, who for the sake of a little paltry Gain, will be concern’d in importing and disposing of these abominable Cargoes?” Accounts of several of the crimes and the substance of the editorial comment were printed in Gent. Mag., XXI (1751), 279. BF used this quotation, which he may have taken from some account of the colonies or attack on British regulations, in his letter to London Chronicle, May 9, 1759.
6. As early as 1670 Virginia passed a law against the importation of convicts. The British government confirmed the act, and for a time thereafter sympathized with the colonies’ fears and complaints. In 1717, however, Parliament passed an act specifically providing for the transportation of felons to the colonies (4 Geo. I, c. II) and, beginning in 1731, colonial governors were forbidden to pass any acts imposing duties on their importation. Marcus W. Jernegan, Laboring and Dependent Classes in Colonial America, 1607–1783 (Chicago, 1931), pp. 48–9; Leonard W. Labaree, ed., Royal Instructions to Colonial Governors, 1670–1776 (N.Y., 1935), II, 673–5, 754. Pennsylvania had enacted another such law in August 1749, which, it was learned in Philadelphia in January 1751, could not be presented to the Board of Trade lest it endanger all the colony’s acts controlling the importation of felons, and raise, as well, serious constitutional questions. Pa. Col. Recs., V, 404, 499–501.
7. The essay was reprinted in (Hunter’s) Va. Gaz., May 30, 1751.