In the 50 years following the American Revolution, “Positive propaganda extended into hero-worship and fable at the expense of the facts of the event,” says author and American history buff Phillip Goodrich. “The events that didn’t fit into the traditional narrative of the ‘American destiny’ were relegated to the ash heap of time.”
Goodrich has become a well-informed student of those events. In fact, in his book, Somersett: Or Why and How Benjamin Franklin Orchestrated the American Revolution, he suggests that unfair taxation was hardly the sole impetus for the Revolution.
Supported by meticulous research, Goodrich says that Benjamin Franklin, using the freeing of a British slave, James Somersett, as the catalyst, orchestrated a little-known yet elaborate scheme to impassion revolt throughout the colonies against England and in effect spark America’s fight for independence.
In a recent interview, Goodrich elaborated on the premise of his book and his obsession with American history:
Q: Somersett reveals what appears to be a significant story about how the American Revolution came about. How, until now, has this narrative been so obscured?
A: Regrettably, I fear that much of this “story” was deliberately suppressed in the generation following the American Revolution. The book points out that the principals were involved in dismantling the written evidence during the Revolution, but we know that in the 50 years after the Revolution, positive propaganda extended into hero-worship and fable at the expense of the facts of the event. The events that didn’t fit into the traditional narrative of the “American destiny” were relegated to the ash heap of time. It begins with Mason Weems and works radically outward from there.
Q: Do you think people will be stunned to learn about Franklin’s strategy, which seemed an unknown but important catalyst to the Revolution?
A: I’m quite sure there will be many readers surprised and stunned to read of the true motivating event that brought the American southern colonies into Revolution; fortunately for the credibility of Somersett, we have two independent corroborating sources in the past 40 years. Leon Higginbotham and Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen have provided solid support for this thesis in their research. The timing of the ensuing events is simply too tight to be coincidental, and Franklin’s imprimatur dominates each event.
Q: Does the book show a side to Franklin that people generally are not aware of, or does stay true to how people – and history – have perceived him?
A: To the casual reader, this book should unveil a character that America has forgotten, and it is high time they meet him again. For the serious historians, Brands, Isaacson, Morgan, and Larson, just to name a few, this remarkable genius and political talent is most assuredly not a surprise. Franklin had learned intrigue from an early age, had a prodigious memory for names and faces, which served him throughout his long life, and was enough of an hierophant to enchant any audience in his presence.
Q: Where did you develop your passion for American history?
A: I have loved learning the stories of American history since boyhood, as my father and brothers never tired of touring museums, battlefields, historic homes, libraries, and the like. We were all “those guys” who would read every placard in every home and museum, look at every object, ask questions, and pull out the encyclopedia for answers. My dad had a copy of the Encyclopedia Americana in about 20 volumes, which he read cover to cover several times. I have received that blessing or curse of insatiable hunger for knowledge, and, as Astley Paston Cooper so sagely averred 200 years ago, “A day I failed to learn a new fact is a day I considered wasted.” Me too.
Q: You seem to gravitate to some of the lesser-told stories behind the characters during America’s founding years. What other such stories have attracted your interest?
A: I fear that too often when we read historical information, the individual names in articles are too readily pushed aside. By looking at those names, and simply wondering who those people were, and why they were present at that event in that time, we can open a world of hidden information regarding the motivation for a given event.
We know that the preliminary peace between the U.S. and Great Britain at the close of the Revolution was negotiated by Franklin for the U.S., but who served as minister for the British? Richard Oswald. Ninety-nine percent of historians would simply record that name and move along. But wait! Who is Richard Oswald, and why was he selected? That same question can be asked of David Hartley, Junior and Senior, and as I asked about Thomas Pownall two years ago. Just asking about names we don’t recognize can open an entire trove of suppressed and forgotten stories.
Q: What would you hope that readers take away from Somersett?
A: There are so many lessons to the Somersett story: Yes, slavery has been used to motivate slave-owners in the United States for centuries. Yes, it was too easy to fall into the immoral trap of slave ownership to expand one’s business and productivity in a world where slaves were widely available. Yes, much of what was built in the 18th century, physically, economically, and politically, was built on the backs of slave labor. Yes, institutional racism is as old as the American colonies and we are currently entering our fifth century (one of the longest in human history) where it continues as policy in too many locales nationwide. Yes, we have used the bondage of minorities as a justification for political action. And yes, it is long overdue for white America to simply stop talking, take a seat, and listen.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I think we’ve been laboring under an incorrect interpretation of the Reformation and the Renaissance in the 16th century as events that sprang whole cloth out of an intellectually blighted Europe, and have missed the true story behind the story. It is yet another story that needs to be heard.
For more on Goodrich, visit his BookTrib author profile page and read our review of Somersett.