Compassion and Human Progress

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared on 6 January 1941, that  “…we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms – freedom of speech and expression …. freedom of every person to worship God in his own way …. freedom from want …. freedom from fear…”

As to “freedom from want,” Roosevelt specified that people expect to see the “enjoyment . . . of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”

The United Nations adopted this idea of the right to a decent living standard in its founding charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Universal progress had only become a realistic goal due to spectacular advances in industrial power over the previous two centuries. Before then, for thousands of years, most people were desperately poor, illiterate, brutally overworked, and helpless to explain or prevent horrors of society and nature.

A rapid elevation of human powers began suddenly in Britain in the 1760s. This process of change was carried forward in the United States in the 1800s. This industrial transformation created vast new wealth, with a new power to solve poverty and disease. It made each worker more productive, more valuable, with a potential for higher wages. How these powers were used, how people were treated, depended on political strategy.

Studying that Industrial Revolution, identifying the achievements of the principal revolutionaries involved and knowing their philosophy and intentions, may help guide us in solving today’s grave problems, in the optimistic spirit of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. 

Franklin’s Birmingham Circle

In my research, I have identified Benjamin Franklin’s central role in this great advancement, in Britain as well as in the USA.

That American scientist and statesman resided in England for almost two decades as a colonial political representative. Franklin had a circle of peculiarly talented friends, centered in Birmingham, a group which has become known to history as the Lunar Society. It was actually a partnership on projects meant to modernize Britain and improve man’s condition.

Franklin came to Birmingham in 1758. He did electrical, steam and other science experiments with Matthew Boulton, a small manufacturer, and they began pulling together a set of progress-minded friends.

Some of them became world famous:

  • Boulton himself, and his partner James Watt, for developing the steam engine
  • Josiah Wedgewood for his beautiful pottery, and as an activist against black slavery
  • Erasmus Darwin, as an anti-slavery crusader, a botanical scientist, and a pioneer inquirer into the history of life on Earth
  • Joseph Priestley, as a political and religious reformer, later as the discoverer of the entire chemical cycle of life, photosynthesis and the gas exchange between plants and animals
  • John Wilkinson, the great pioneer of England’s iron-making and machine tools

Two Great Projects

Looking more deeply into their accomplishments, we will see Franklin as a mentor and guide. And we will contrast these compassionate Englishmen with the imperial British East India Company, which looted and crushed peoples deemed inferior.

The first initiative of this Franklin circle began just after his arrival. Boulton’s friends, the brothers John and Thomas Gilbert, convinced their employer, the young Duke of Bridgewater, to build an innovative canal. It ran from inside the Duke’s coal mine, out the side of a hill and ten miles across the countryside to the small town of Manchester. The canal furnished cheap coal for homes and workshops. People quickly moved there for well-paying jobs – and the world’s first industrial city appeared almost overnight.

The Bridgewater Canal was completed in 1761. Soon afterward, Wedgwood and the Lunar Society combined to organize the building of canals from Manchester across England: to Liverpool, to Hull on the other coast, down to London, and over to Bristol. Thus began Britain’s vast canal network, delivering cheap goods to consumers and cheap raw materials to manufacturers, making all new industries possible. The availability of coal to every community stopped the stripping down of trees for use as fuel, saving England from ecological disaster.

Franklin simultaneously started the group on another world-shaping project. He introduced to Boulton his science collaborator from America, William Small, who immediately became Boulton’s industrial manager. They built the country’s greatest factory, the Soho works, as the site for developing the world’s first practical steam engine. They brought in Scottish inventor James Watt, and Small coaxed his work to success. Franklin, as science adviser, wrote a famous 1766 letter to Boulton emphasizing the recycling of smoke for the complete combustion of fuel.

The new engine did not really work until John Wilkinson used his tool for boring out cannons to form a perfect cylinder, from which steam and pressure would not leak. The engine then powered Wilkinson’s metal forges, Wedgwood’s pottery works, and subsequently the world’s industries.

Revolutionary Discoveries

A passion for Reason, in nature and man, inspired the group’s science research.

In his book Zoonomia, Erasmus Darwin wrote of improvement as an attribute of created living things. His explanation of the rise of new species was perhaps more in accord with the advanced idea of self-development (with DNA, etc.) than was the spin that his grandson, Charles Darwin, put on the subject under the influence of the imperial philosophy, “survival of the fittest.”

Benjamin Franklin counseled Joseph Priestley that his interest in science might aid mankind more than his protests against political and religious oppression. It was then that Priestley plunged ahead as a world-leading researcher. His first work, a history of electrical science, remained a standard reference for 100 years, and he commenced electrical experiments with Wedgwood and Darwin.

The Empire vs. the Republic

The outbreak of the American Revolution forced Franklin to leave England. He then shaped the strategies to acquire allies and funds for the independence struggle. The Lunar Society quietly aided the production of arms in France to aid the Americans.

When the shooting war against America was seen to be a lost cause, the London faction associated with the East India Company reshaped British governance around a new aggressive focus: the rising industrial power must be denied to all other countries. Cheap goods made by cheap labor would be exported to undercut foreign production, under the “free trade” dogma, while Britain’s trade regulations and high tariffs protected its own manufactures. This imperial philosophy set the tone for the deliberate degradation of conditions for Britain’s working population.

After the Revolution, Franklin became the governor of Pennsylvania and acted as the host for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Senior American leaders, meeting at Franklin’s home, approved a nationalist economic program to overcome imperial policy and jump-start industry. This program was distributed as a pamphlet to all convention delegates. The Franklin circle then composed the main points of the U.S. Constitution, creating a government empowered to implement their development policy. 

Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, put forward this founding economic policy, but Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed it, and fought against America ever getting its own manufacturing capability. In the years following the Revolution, Jefferson had abandoned his earlier anti-slavery stance and had thrown in his political fortunes with the plantation slaveholders who were aligned with British imperial “free trade.” U.S. industrialization would doom the slaveholders’ power, and they blocked it for a whole generation.

In the 1820s, Franklin’s philosophic heirs overcame the plantation lords and returned to the founding program. They built great canals and developed coal and iron. Army engineers designed America’s first railroads. The Civil War finally freed the U.S. from slavery and from the imperial system, allowing startling economic progress, electricity, petroleum and mass production – all initiatives with the same progressive intention as with the Lunar Society. The U.S. aided other nations to modernize; Americans organized the first railroads in Germany and Russia.

Must the Poor be Crushed to Save the Earth?

Centuries of slave trading and imperialism have left Africa the world’s center of desperate poverty. Moreover, deindustrialization has deprived millions of Americans and Britons of their previous decent living standards. Why not take inspiration from our heritage of Progress? Should we not join China, Russia, and India in the global construction of truly modern industry and infrastructure?

Against such a proposal, it is objected that the rise of industry has poisoned the Earth and has led to potentially catastrophic Climate Change. It is recommended that coal and petroleum be withdrawn as fuels, substituting passive energy sources such as solar power and windmills.

Consider that half a billion Africans have no access to electricity, and that to save a hundred million of their children from starvation will require economic development based on many hundreds of gigawatts of new electric power. Passive energy sources could supply only a negligible fraction of this requirement. Africans might suspect that Western environmental activists are not fully committed to their welfare.

Consider also that American workers fear their precarious livelihoods will be destroyed by banning coal and petroleum fuels. Disgruntled citizens are suspicious about the intentions and good faith of the Establishment in this matter.

For a way out of this dilemma, we may be instructed by looking at a part of our history that makes us ashamed, rather than proud: the treatment of the indigenous tribes, the Native Americans. The best U.S. leaders sought to protect these tribes, and to aid their assimilation. But promises and solemn treaties were repeatedly broken; the natives were driven from their land and herded onto impoverished reservations.

In hindsight, we should have offered the hand of friendship to those human brothers we were asking to join our civilization. They should have been given the resources and opportunities needed to thrive in our new society. The American West was never fully developed for modern industry and jobs, and was shaped economically by financial concerns in resource extraction.

The challenge of our generation is to recover the compassion our forefathers showed when they fought for universal progress. We must show the Africans, and the threatened Western workers, the good faith that was lacking when the American Indians were decimated.

While coal and petroleum are very gradually withdrawn as fuels, nuclear fission electric power plants can be built now, providing the serious levels of intense energy needed to modernize Africa and Western infrastructure alike. We can recycle the nuclear waste as fuel — the “reprocessing” that U.S. President John F. Kennedy proposed for his worldwide nuclear power program. We can go on to the virtually unlimited power of nuclear fusion, which leaves no nuclear waste.

This is my challenge to those who are truly concerned for the future of the human race: don’t the lives of the poor matter? Is it just possible, that an optimistic outlook for universal progress might be successfully revived, and our future secured?

About the author: Anton Chaitkin

Historian and investigative journalist Anton Chaitkin is the author of hundreds of “scoops” on economic and political history, and has written a large body of startlingly original, published articles. These cause one to ask, “Why didn’t I learn this in school?”

Chaitkin was History Editor for Executive Intelligence Review from 1995 to 2015.

For 40 years, he has made ground-breaking discoveries about the lives and intentions of those who fought for man’s improvement, and of their imperial opponents. His most recent book is Who We Are: America’s fight for Universal Progress, from Franklin to Kennedy (Volume 1, 1750s to 1850s) available from Amazon, as Kindle e-book and from all good booksellers.

Anton Chaitkin, author of ‘Who We Are: America’s Fight for Universal Progress, from Franklin to Kennedy (Volume 1, 1750s to 1850s)’ and an Honorary Fellow of The Lunar Society, presents his thoughts on the role of Benjamin Franklin with the founders of The Lunar Society. In this article, which follows his presentation to Lunar Society members and guests in February 2021, he says that “studying that Industrial Revolution, identifying the achievements of the principal revolutionaries involved and knowing their philosophy and intentions, may help guide us in solving today’s grave problems”.