Environmentalism in 1739

The environmental movement today, much like many other socio-political movements, is focused mainly on the present and future. With that focus, it’s easy to lose sight of how environmentalism, and the environment, came to be where it is now.


This series attempts to give a little more perspective for we environmentalists, who can sometimes regard the world before the industrial revolution as an idyllic place with none of the problems we face in the present day. While it’s true that many historical societies didn’t face some of the potential global warming effects modern people do, there were still plenty of environmental issues that even the most ancient societies faced.

We’ve so far travelled back to a royal anti-coal proclamation in 1306, the reign of an Indian emperor in 250 B.C.E., the Roman Empire, the Japanese Edo period, and the 18th century slaughter of a tribe of environmentalists for defending trees. Today we’re going to make our first visit to the New World and get more acquainted with the environmental work of one of its most famous personalities.

Benjamin Franklin was, without a doubt, one of the greatest Americans to ever live. Born in 1706, he was a true Renaissance man, dabbling in politics, writing, diplomacy, and of course science. This was the time of the Enlightenment, where learning was all the rage and new knowledge seemed to be cropping up all over. Franklin distinguished himself with his work on electricity and with his amazing inventions, including bifocals and the lighting rod, as well as forming the first public library in America.

Obviously, this was a man who took a keen interest in the world around him. It would be foolish to assume someone so observant and scientifically minded would completely ignore any environmental problems that might be present in his homeland. While perhaps not as widely publicized as his inventions or electric exploits, Franklin was one of America’s first and most famous environmentalists.

Even in the 1700s environmentalism was partially a political movement, at least in Franklin’s case. At the heart of many of his environmental work was the concept of “public rights” trumping “private rights”. Let’s look at one example of this to more easily understand the concept in its environmental context.

In 1739, Franklin led a group of his neighbors to petition the Pennsylvania Assembly. The group asked the assembly to use its powers to remove tanneries (leather making factories) and stop waste dumping in Philadelphia’s central commercial districts. Franklin argued that the leather industry and waste dumping were resulting in lowered property values in the area, as well as causing poor smells, disease, and interfering with firefighters. The industries fired back, claiming that their private rights as businesspeople were being attacked, to which Franklin countered that the “public rights” of the people of Philadelphia were being impeded by the environmental problems.

Franklin and his group won their petition, although the dumping did not stop in the face of lax enforcement. Nevertheless, his successful arguments established a useful precedent for the coming centuries. Without is defense of the public right to health and happiness superseding the private right to wealth, who knows what sort of environmental problems companies might cause in the name of “private rights”. This concept of public rights is one of the ideas the fledgling nation of America embraced after the Revolution a few short decades later. Although nobody is suggesting it came exclusively from Franklin’s Philadelphia environmental arguments, his ideas on the matter at least contributed towards the beliefs that still influence America today.

This wasn’t the only instance of Franklin attempting to better the environment in his home of Pennsylvania. He spent the 1760s leading a Philadelphia commission to help regulate waste collection in the city and water pollution levels. The committee undoubtedly helped keep Philadelphia cleaner, although there were still plenty of problems with water. His will helped establish the Philadelphia Water Commission and set up the construction of a pipeline for fresh water into the city as his final environmental bow.

That’s not to say he was merely a Philadelphia environmentalist. On the contrary, he was interested in the environmental health of other countries as well. In the 1780s, Franklin made what we might consider a very environmentally unfriendly recommendation, but at the time was very green. As we mentioned in a previous article, England’s widespread deforestation resulted in a switch to coal becoming the fuel of choice for most of the country. Franklin believed that this had saved what remained of the English forests from the fires of the nation. Seeing this, he urged France and Germany to also take up coal as a heating fuel in order to conserve their forests. While we see coal burning as the problem today, back then it was actually an environmental move.

This was our first discussion of historical environmentalism in the New World, but there’s more to come. Join us next week for the newest installment in our series on the environment throughout history.

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