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Benjamin Franklin


Remarks concerning

the Savages of North America



[para. 1] Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs. . . . [irony, characteristic of Franklin and Enlightenment literature]

[2] The Indian Men when young are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counselors; for all their Government is by Counsel of the Sages [wise elders]; there is no Force there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.—

[3] Hence [because they persuade rather than forcing each other] they generally study Oratory [speech-making]; the best Speaker having the most Influence. The Indian Women till the Ground, dress the Food, nurse and bring up the Children, & preserve & hand down to Posterity the Memory of public Transactions.* These Employments of Men and Women are accounted natural & honorable . . . .  [*Franklin plays fairer than most European observers like Thomas Jefferson (1b) by seeing Indian women not merely as drudges but as contributors to Indian society.]

[4] Having few artificial Wants, they [the Indians] have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life compared with theirs, they esteem slavish & base; and the Learning on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous & useless. [Indians perceive a surprising irony: Euro-Americans' dedication to hard work and education apparently reduces quality of life.]

[5] An Instance of this occurred at the Treaty of Lancaster in Pennsylvania, anno 1744, between the Government of Virginia and the Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy]. After the principal Business was settled, the Commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a Speech, that there was at Williamsburg* a College, with a Fund for Educating Indian youth; and that if the Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy] would send down half a dozen of their young Lads to that College, the Government would take Care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the Learning of the White People. [*Williamsburg = capital of colonial Virginia]

[6] It is one of the Indian Rules of Politeness not to answer a public Proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating it as a light matter, and that they show it Respect by taking time to consider it, as of a Matter important.

[7] They therefore deferred their Answer till the Day following; when their Speaker began by expressing their deep Sense of the Kindness of the Virginia Government in making them that Offer,

[7a] for we know, says he, that you highly esteem the kind of Learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinc’d therefore that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal, and we thank you heartily.

[7b] But you who are wise must know, that different Nations have different Conceptions of Things, and you will therefore not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it: Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us they were bad Runners ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters Warriors, or Counselors, they were totally good for nothing.

[7c] We are however not the less obliged by your kind Offer though we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.—   [irony, classic to Franklin and the Enlightenment; note action of reversal]

[8] Having frequent Occasions to hold public Councils, they have acquired great Order and Decency in conducting them. [<potential satirical contrast to Euro-American democracy] The old Men sit in the foremost Ranks, the Warriors in the next, and the Women & Children in the hindmost. The Business of the Women is to take exact Notice of what passes, imprint it in their Memories, for they have no Writing, and communicate it to their Children. They are the Records of the Councils, and they preserve Traditions of the Stipulations in Treaties 100 Years back, which when we compare with our Writings we always find exact. [example of spoken or oral culture using public memory instead of writing; Franklin testifies to such memory’s “exact” reliability, but its evidentiary status in establishing property rights and genealogical records was limited in white courts]

[9] He that would speak rises. The rest observe a profound Silence. When he has finished and sits down; they leave him 5 or 6 Minutes to recollect, that if he has omitted any thing he intended to say, or has anything to add, he may rise again and deliver it. To interrupt another, even in common Conversation, is reckoned highly indecent. How different this is, from the Conduct of a polite British House of Commons where scarce every person without some confusion, that makes the Speaker hoarse in calling to Order and how different from the Mode of Conversation in many polite Companies of Europe, where if you do not deliver your Sentence with great Rapidity, you are cut off in the middle of it by the Impatient Loquacity [talkativeness] of those you converse with, and never suffered to finish it—

[10] The Politeness of the Savages in Conversation is indeed carried to Excess, since it does not permit them to contradict or deny the Truth of what is asserted in their Presence; By this means they indeed avoid Disputes, but then it becomes difficult to know their Minds, or what Impression you make upon them. The Missionaries who have attempted to convert them to Christianity, all complain of this as one of the great difficulties of their Mission: The Indians hear with Patience the Truths of the Gospel explained to them, and give their usual Tokens of Assent & Approbation [approval]: You would think they were convinced. No such Matter. It is mere Civility. [civility = civilized behavior]

[The concluding passages continue using devices of irony, especially reversal or inversion. Does the passage rise to the status of satire?]

[11] A Swedish Minister, having assembled the Chiefs of the Saquehanah [Susquehanna] Indians, made a Sermon to them, acquainting them with the principal historical Facts on which our Religion is founded, such as the Fall of our first Parents by eating an Apple; the Coming of Christ, to repair the Mischief; his Miracles & Suffering, &c. [origin story of Genesis]

[11a] When he had finished, an Indian Orator stood up to thank him. What you have told us, says he, is all very good. It is indeed a bad Thing to eat Apples. It is better to make them all into Cider. We are much obliged by your Kindness in coming so far to tell us these Things which you have heard from your Mothers; in return I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours. [>an origins story to complement the apple story from Genesis>]

[11b]  In the Beginning our Fathers had only the Flesh of Animals to subsist on, and if their Hunting was unsuccessful, they were starving. Two of our young Hunters having killed a Deer, made a Fire in the Woods to broil some Part of it. When they were about to satisfy their Hunger, they beheld a beautiful young Woman descend from the Clouds, and seat herself on that Hill which you see yonder among the blue Mountains. They said to each other, It is a Spirit that perhaps has smelt our broiling Venison [deer meat] & wishes to eat of it: Let us offer some to her. They presented her with the Tongue, She was pleased with the Taste of it, and said, Your Kindness shall be rewarded: Come to this Place after thirteen Moons, and you shall find something that will be of great Benefit in nourishing you and your Children to the latest Generations.

[11c] They did so, and to their Surprise found Plants they had never seen before, but which from that antique time have been instantly cultivated among us to our great Advantage. Where her right Hand had touched the Ground they found Maize; Where her left hand had touched it, they found Kidney Beans, and where her Backside had rested on it, they found Tobacco.— [cf. "three sisters" of corn, beans, and squash in Iroquois Creation Stories 1.8]

[12] The good Missionary, disgusted with this idle Tale, said, What I delivered to you were sacred Truths, but what you tell me is mere Fable, Fiction and Falsehood.

[12a] The Indian offended, replied, My Brother, it seems your Friends have not done you Justice in your Education, they have not well instructed you in the Rules of common Civility [civility = civilized behavior]. You saw that we who understand and practice those Rules, believed all your Stories: Why do you refuse to believe ours? . . . . [irony, classic to Franklin and the Enlightenment]

[13] The same Hospitality esteemed among them as a principal Virtue, is practiced by private Persons, of which Conrad Weiser*, our Interpreter gave me the following Instance. He had been naturalized among [adopted by] the Six Nations [Iroquois Confederacy], & spoke well the Mohock [Mohawk] Language. [*Conrad Weiser: see portrait & information below text]

[14] In going through the Indian Country to carry a Message from our Governor to the Council at Onondaga [Iroquois nation], he called at the Habitation of Canasetego an old Acquaintance, who embraced him, spread Furs for him to sit on, placed before him some boiled Beans & Venison, and mixed some Rum & Water for his Drink. When he was well refreshed, and had lit his Pipe, Canassetego began to converse with him . . . . Conrad, you have lived long among the white People and know something of their Customs. I have been sometimes at Albany, and have observed that once in Seven Days they shut up their Shops, and assemble all in the great House; tell me, what is it for? what do they do there?

[15] They meet there, says Conrad, to hear and learn good Things. I do not doubt says the Indian, that they tell you so: They have told me the same; But I doubt the Truth of what they say, and I will tell you my Reasons.

[16] I was lately to Albany to sell my Skins [animal furs or pelts], & buy Blankets, Knives, Powder, Rum [etc.] You know I used generally to deal with Hans Hanson . . . .I called first upon Hans, & asked him what he would give for Beaver [skins, pelts]. He said he could not give more than four Shillings a Pound; but says he I cannot talk on Business now; this is the Day when we meet together to learn good Things, and I am going to the Meeting. So I thought to my self, since we cannot do any Business to day, I may as well go to the Meeting too; and I went with him.

[17] There stood up a Man in Black, and began to talk to the People very angrily. I did not understand what he said; but perceiving that he looked much at me, and at Hanson, I imagined he was angry at seeing me there, so I went out, sat down near the House, struck Fire and lit my Pipe, waiting till the Meeting should break up. I thought too that the Man had mentioned something of Beaver, & I suspected it might be the Subject of their Making.

[18] So when they came out, I accosted my Merchant [trader], Well, Hans, says I, I hope you have agreed to give more than four Shillings a Pound. No, says he, I cannot give so much; I cannot give more than three shillings & sixpence. I then spoke to several other Dealers, but they all sung the same Song. Three & sixpence, Three & sixpence. This made it clear to me that my Suspicion was right; and that whatever they pretended of meeting to learn Good Things, the real purpose was to consult how to cheat Indians on the Price of Beaver.

[19] Consider but a little, Conrad, and you must be of my Opinion. If they met so often to learn Good Things, they would certainly have learnt some before this time. But they are still ignorant. You know our Practice. If a white Man in traveling through our Country, enters one of our Cabins, we all treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him Meat & Drinks that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger, and spread soft Furs for him to rest & sleep on: We demand nothing in return.

[20] But if I go into a white Man’s House at Albany, and ask for Victuals & Drink, they say, where is your Money? and if I have none; they say, Get out you Indian Dog. You see they have not yet learnt those little Good Things, that we need no Meetings to be instructed in, because our Mothers taught them to us when we were Children: And therefore, it is impossible their Meeting, Should be as they say, for any such purpose, or have any such Effect. They are only to contrive [arrange, manage] the Cheating of Indians in the Price of Beaver.— [irony or satire, classic to Franklin and the Enlightenment]

Possible answers to satire question: (satire term-page + lesson on satire)

Religion is a frequent subject of satire, especially when people who preach religion don't act religious.

Depiction of the "Man in Black" represents but defamiliarizes a familiar figure in Western society or imagination.

Behavior that was familiar and acceptable to the reader is now seen from a different perspective, and becomes less acceptable or open to question, skepticism, or critical thinking.

A potentially larger truth—that religion is not the friend of the Indian but a partner in his exploitation—-is put forward humorously and indirectly.

Franklin's ironical opening remark—"Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs"—-rises from commentary to representation or mimesis.

Portrait of Conrad Weiser, 1696=1760
(see paragraph 13 above)

Born in Germany, Weiser and his family fled religious wars to England and then the colony of Pennsylvania. As a teenager Weister lived with the Mohawk Indians of the Iroquois Confederation. The language skills he gained made him a diplomat and interpreter for the Pennsylvania colony's relations with Native Americans.