Ben Franklin on Police

I’ve heard it claimed recently that the idea of a professional police force was a foreign one to the founding generation. While I wonder whether our founders would approve of the militarization of modern police forces, the concept of modern policing was not unknown to them. From the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

I began now to turn my thoughts a little to public affairs, beginning, however, with small matters. The city watch was one of the first things that I conceiv’d to want regulation. It was managed by the constables of the respective wards in turn; the constable warned a number of housekeepers to attend him for the night. Those who chose never to attend paid him six shillings a year to be excus’d, which was suppos’d to be for hiring substitutes, but was, in reality, much more than was necessary for that purpose, and made the constableship a place of profit; and the constable, for a little drink, often got such ragamuffins about him as a watch, that respectable housekeepers did not choose to mix with. Walking the rounds, too, was often neglected, and most of the nights spent in tippling. I thereupon wrote a paper to be read in Junto, representing these irregularities, but insisting more particularly on the inequality of this six-shilling tax of the constables, respecting the circumstances of those who paid it, since a poor widow housekeeper, all whose property to be guarded by the watch did not perhaps exceed the value of fifty pounds, paid as much as the wealthiest merchant, who had thousands of pounds’ worth of goods in his stores.

On the whole, I proposed as a more effectual watch, the hiring of proper men to serve constantly in that business; and as a more equitable way of supporting the charge the levying a tax that should be proportion’d to the property. This idea, being approv’d by the Junto, was communicated to the other clubs, but as arising in each of them; and though the plan was not immediately carried into execution, yet, by preparing the minds of people for the change, it paved the way for the law obtained a few years after, when the members of our clubs were grown into more influence.

What’s even more interesting in here is Franklin’s notion that the fact that the rich paid the same as the poor, rather than taking on more of the burden, would seem to be an endorsement of the ideas that are used to justify a progressive tax system. Ben Franklin is only a single founder, but as a lot, they tended to be more pragmatic, and a lot less ideologically strict than many ideologues today give them credit for.

11 thoughts on “Ben Franklin on Police”

  1. I don’t argue the need for a county Sheriff or local Constable. I have a problem with having 800,000 heavily militarized LEOs in this country. That is overkill. It seems to me that their job is no longer to protect and serve but to generate revenue for their municipalities.

    I would trust the police a lot more if they were fewer in number.

  2. “would seem to be an endorsement of the ideas that are used to justify a progressive tax system.”

    No it’s not. It’s an argument for a proportional tax, which could just as easily be used to argue against a progressive tax as it is against the regressive tax here.

    1. Exactly.

      This is only an argument in favor of converting the fee from a fixed AMOUNT to a RATE – and a flawed one at that.

      The fee was not intended to buy protection for a person’s assets – it was in lieu of the TIME & EFFORT that should have been exerted by that person in providing policing services.

      While an elderly widow’s TIME may have been less valuable than that of an able-bodied young man, any value of their respective assets was not the reason for the fee.

      While converting to a rate has the effect of forcing more of the policing cost burden on to the wealthier members of the citizenry, the quote doesn’t even MENTION making the rate variable, and applying higher rates to the more wealthy – the hallmarks of the “progressive tax system”.

  3. Whatever Ben Franklin had to say about tax policy in Pennsylvania sheds no light whatsoever on what he might have favored at the federal level. These were two very clearly seperate issues at that time. ( I’m assuming the above passage predates the federal government, but the point still stands.)

    And I remember being taught in grade school that Ben Franklin was first to introduce the idea of a civilian police force, along with fire departments, public libraries, etc…

    1. Yup. He didn’t propose that they pay different percentages, only that they pay the same amount relative to the amount of property they own; basically, exactly how most property taxes work today (and he was talking about a property tax, not an income tax).

  4. Read what the founders had to say about “select militias” in Stephen Halbrook’s That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right for a broader survey of what the Founders would think of our modern law enforcement agencies.

    Hint: for them that term had connotations as severe as e.g. Communism and socialism have to us today. Or so I remember, I read the book when it came out in the mid-80s. It’s very good.

  5. For what it’s worth, Franklin was one of the most pro-government founders. The “ideologues” of today can trace their intellectual heritage to Gadsden, Samuel Adams, Jefferson, and Henry.

    1. Jefferson wasn’t quite the anarchist he’s been made out to be, either. He was against central authority more than anything else. There are more than a few mentions of government-funded welfare programs and public education in Notes on the State of Virginia.

  6. You know we are winning when the front line of gun-control has moved to fighting a rearguard defense of gun bans on college campuses.

  7. Well now, don’t I feel stupid! Posted my comment to the wrong post. D’oh!

    I blame my unfamiliarity with the website’s new layout. I doubt that I am the first to make this mistake.

  8. Big cities (and even some large towns) in colonial America had night watches. Most cities with large slave populations had slave patrols that were similar in nature, and checked the slaves’ passes to make sure that they had permission to be away from home. There are similar slave patrols in rural areas as well.

    At least according to the standard works on the development of police departments, only in the 1830s and later do professional police departments on a regular and consistent basis develop out of these watches. This account suggests that what Franklin brought into existence was a paid night watch, not replaced with a regular day patrol until 1833. This account indicates a regular paid police force in Philly from 1789 onward–suggesting that the standard accounts on this may be wrong.

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