Benjamin Franklin on the “superstructure” of Good Government (1736)

Benjamin Franklin

Given Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-1790) technical bent as an inventor and scientist it is not surprising that he would compare government to the construction of a building, nor that he would have great faith in the people’s ability to construct a sound political edifice:

Government is aptly compared to architecture; if the superstructure is too heavy for the foundation the building totters, though assisted by outward props of art. But leaving it to everybody to mould the similitude according to his particular fancy, I shall only observe that the people have made the most considerable part of the legislature in every free state; which has been more or less so in proportion to the share they have had in the administration of affairs. The English constitution is fixed on the strongest basis; we choose whomsoever we please for our representatives, and thus we have all the advantages of a democracy without any of its inconveniences.

Given Franklin’s interest in science and inventing it is not surprising that the young Franklin would liken the government to a building whose utility depended on how well it had been constructed. He was able to publish his views in the journal he began publishing 1729, The Pennsylvania Gazette. In two short articles he wrote in April 1736 he outlined such a “constructionist” interpretation of “Good Government” in which he argued that if the “superstructure” of the government is too heavy (presumably because it had too many public servants in its employ and thus imposed heavy taxes to fund them) then it would weaken the foundation of the building and perhaps lead to its ultimate collapse. As a democrat he was convinced that only the people were wise enough to choose legislators who would ensure that the political superstructure was in proportion to the strength of the country’s foundation. Furthermore, he was convinced that only the British had discovered this principle of sound government, which had of course been passed on to their American colonial cousins, and that the French were too “enslaved” by their own despotic government to understand this. It is intriguing to ask whether this notion of political “superstucture” influenced Karl Marx in his thinking.