Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Benjamin Franklin on Indians



In one of his Essays Benjamin Franklin offered same considerations regarding the Indians which are well worthy of remembrance, and of special application to those of Canada . He points out that the Indian men, when young, were hunters and warriors ; when old, counselors ; that all their government was by the counsel or advice of the sages; that there was no force, there were no prisons, and no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment. Hence they generally studied oratory, the best speaker having the most influence. The Indian women tilled the ground, dressed the food, nursed and brought up the children, and preserved and handed down to posterity the memory of public transactions. These employments of men and women were accounted natural and honourable. Having few artificial wants they had abundance of leisure for improvement in conversation. Our labourious manner of life, compared with theirs, they esteemed slavish and base, and the learning on which we value ourselves they regarded as frivolous and useless.


An instance of this occurred at the Treaty of Lancaster, in Pennsylvania , in 1744, between the government of Virginia and the Six Nations. After the principal business was settled the Commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians in a speech that there was at Williamsburg a college, with a fund for educating Indian youth, and that if the chiefs of the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their sons 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. It has always been 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 they show it respect by taking time to consider it, as being an important matter. They therefore deferred their answer till the day following, when their speaker began by expressing a deep sense of the kindness of the Virginia government in making them the offer:


"For we know," said 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 convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal, and we thank you heartily. 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. We are not, however, 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 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 ."

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Source : J. Castell HOPKINS, Canada. An Encyclopaedia of the Country, Vol. 1, Toronto, The Linscott Publishing Company, 1898, 540p., p. 240.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College