“Americanus”: On Obstructions in the Thames
Reprinted in Verner W. Crane, ed., Benjamin Franklin’s Letters to the Press 1758–1775 (Chapel Hill, ), pp. 77–8, from The Public Advertiser, August 22, 1766.
In accepting Verner Crane’s tentative attribution of “this pleasing little piece” the present editors cannot do better than to endorse his explanation, wherein he gives more weight “to the signature, and to general impressions of style, than would be justifiable if the stakes were higher. The features which ‘Americanus’ exhibits are recognizably Franklin’s: his fondness for the water, his ironic tone toward lawyers, his improving spirit, his American measure for English natural objects.”
Aug. 22, 1766
I Am an American Gentleman, and as yet not entirely acquainted with the Customs of my dear Mother Country, and therefore apply to the Public for Information what to do as a Redress of a Grievance I lately met with.
Being fond of the Water, I took a Pair of Oars at Westminster Bridge to go to the Temple, thinking to save Ground, but to my great Surprise the Waterman landed me two thirds across the River at the End of what he called a Causeway, and called that landing me at the Temple, taking Sixpence for his Fare. Now, Sir, what vexed me was, that I had near as far to walk to get to the natural Shore as if I had walked all the Way.6 At first I thought of applying to the Benchers of the Temple; but I remember an old Friend of mine, Mr. Gulliver, a great Traveller, told me that the Lawyers of this Country understood nothing else but Law; in other Respects they were of no real Use to Mankind.7 I then thought it my Duty to wait upon the Trinity House, or the City Conservators,8 to know why I was not properly landed according to Agreement, but was advised to apply to the Public.
We Americans have the same Contempt for the Thames as the Inhabitants of Gravesend have for Fleet Ditch,9 and much wonder that as the Thames is so mean a River, any Causeways, Shoals, or accumulated Points should be suffered, as the Preservation of the City entirely depends upon it’s Navigation. I am, Sir, Your humble Servant,
6. Perhaps it is too bad to spoil the fun, but it should be said that the writer was guilty of gross exaggeration here. The Thames takes a right-angle bend between Westminster Bridge and the Temple, and a person walking along the left bank would go about a mile between these points. A boatman rowing in as straight a course as possible between the west end of the bridge and Temple Stairs would cover a distance two or three hundred yards less. If he landed his passenger instead at a causeway projecting two-thirds of the way across the river from the Stairs, the passenger would have to walk about two hundred yards to reach “the natural Shore,” not the mile he would have traversed if he “had walked all the Way.”
7. The passage referred to is in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Part iv, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” Chap. 5, the final paragraph. The second half of this chapter is a vitriolic attack on the English law, the courts, and the legal profession.
8. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House had jurisdiction over lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and other aids to navigation, and over the dumping of ballast, rubbish, ashes, and soil in the Thames. Ancient charters and statutes created the Corporation of the City of London as conservators of the Rivers Thames and Medway, and vested in the lord mayor as “bailiff and conservator” and his “under or deputy water-bailiff” jurisdiction over all encroachments on the river and its banks, including the installation of poles, wharves, causeways, and stairs. P. Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (London, 1800), pp. 301–2, 329–30, 352–5.
9. Gravesend, on the lower Thames, was the chief station for East Indiamen and a major victualling point for other oceangoing ships outward bound from London. The Fleet or Fleet Ditch, a stream arising in Hampstead and Highgate and emptying into the Thames at Blackfriars, had long since become virtually an open sewer, in spite of efforts to protect and develop its lower course for barge traffic. Part was covered over in 1737 and the section between Fleet Street and the Thames was similarly hidden from the public’s eyes and noses in 1765.