Benjamin Franklin’s battle against water pollution

Benjamin Franklin portrait, 1759

Benjamin Franklin / portrait by Benjamin Wilson, 1759

Some time ago I came across a web page that claimed Benjamin Franklin as America’s first environmentalist. To begin with, Franklin petitioned the local government in 1739 to forbid tanneries to dump their wastes into the Delaware River. Unfortunately, the author provided no links or reading list so I could learn more.

I did find another article that also claimed Franklin as America’s first environmentalist. It apparently started out as a undergraduate honors paper and has ample links to sources.

It didn’t help me much, though. The author’s only source for the 1739 petition was the first article I had read. Several other websites briefly repeated the same information, without either elaboration or citation of a source. No one until now, it seems, has published anything to the web based on library research

From my own research, it appears that calling Franklin America’s first environmentalist is inaccurate. On the other hand, the 1739 petition was but Franklin’s first act in his long-running battle with the tanneries.

Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia

Of American’s major cities at the time, Philadelphia was the newest, but fastest growing. Boston and New York, both decades earlier, had gone through the process of paving streets and sidewalks, expelling tanneries and similar businesses from the city center, and other aspects of growing from a settlement to a town to a city.

The reason I say that Franklin can’t be considered America’s first environmentalist is that these two cities had faced the same issues decades earlier. Both the tanneries and their opponents must have argued on similar grounds. There aren’t many ways to frame the issues.

New York and Boston may not have had environmental advocates with Franklin’s breadth of vision for urban development or understanding of science, but their struggle with urban polluters must have followed similar observations about foul smells, tainted water, poor health, etc.

Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1723, spent some time in London, and then returned in 1727. He was a printer by trade. He settled in an area called the Dock, bounded by Market Street to the North, the Delaware River to the East, Seventh Street or so to the west, and South Street to the south. A creek ran through the area and into the river.

Benjamin Franklin's neighborhood

Detail of a 1762 map in McMahon’s article, p. 169

The year of Franklin’s return coincides with the onset of a period of rapid expansion. Philadelphia became the fastest growing city in the colonies, passing Boston in population by 1760.

Zoning regulations didn’t yet exist anywhere. People set up their homes and plied their trade nearby. And so the Dock area combined residences, light industry (such as bakeries, barrel makers, and Franklin’s own print shop), and larger industries like slaughterhouses and tanneries. - Green products. Great prices.

If William Penn had deliberately set out to design a maximally dysfunctional and ineffective government, he could not have done any better. As founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania, he was essentially its owner. At his death, his sons became the proprietors. They also moved back to London and converted from their father’s Quaker religion to the church of England.

. According to the charter, the colony was governed by a governor appointed by the proprietors and a 26-member Assembly, which was drawn from Philadelphia and three surrounding counties.

The Quakers made up a majority of the population in those areas, although not the city itself. So of course they dominated the Assembly. By the time the wave of immigration subsided after 1759, five more counties had been formed in the colony, but the Assembly added only 10 new seats to represent them.

Penn also set up a self-perpetuating Common Council to run the city. Since it was not an elected body, it had no particular responsibility toward the citizens. It could act however it wanted without restraint, but it had no particular incentive to act at all.

At the colony level, no legislation could be enacted without agreement between the Assembly and the proprietors, Penn’s sons, who all converted to the Anglican church. The Assembly dealt with the governor, who had firm instructions from the proprietors and therefore little freedom to compromise or make deals.

Since government was basically inert, people had to act on their own to deal with minor local problems. As a local printer, Franklin had the ideal platform for initiating and supporting voluntary associations to work on particular problems.

As much for the sake of his business as anything else, Franklin served for more than 10 years as clerk of the Assembly. It was not a voting position and had no inherent influence. Franklin attended every meeting, required to record every motion that was made.

It was a great way to gather news for his Pennsylvania Gazette. In turn, the paper was a great outlet for Franklin to express his opinions on the issues of the day. If his official position gave him no particular influence, the Gazette did.

By 1748, the Common Council had elected him as a member. It elevated him to alderman three years later. He also became a voting member of the Assembly in 1751 and served in that capacity for 13 years.

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Benjamin Franklin’s water war

Philadelphia in 1761

Panorama of Philadelphia, from London Magazine, October 1761

In April 1739, residents in Franklin’s neighborhood petitioned the Assembly to remove the tanneries from the city. The petition declared them a nuisance, probably on account of the industrial wastes that fouled Dock Creek.

It is not known if Franklin himself signed it, but he wrote a passionate article for his Gazette. It implied a link between polluted water and disease. Dr. Thomas Bond, a member of the Council and Philadelphia’s leading physician, explicitly claimed a link and recommended filling in the creek.

The tanners, of course, made their own passionate defense of their rights as businessmen, with the editorial encouragement of Franklin’s chief rival. Nothing came of the petition at that time.

In 1741 and again in 1747, outbreaks of yellow fever devastated the city. Today, we know that polluted water does not cause yellow fever, but it was a prime suspect in colonial times.

In December 1747, the Council appointed an ad hoc committee of three of its members and three non-members, including Franklin, to explore how to restore the Dock. By that time, Franklin had designed his stove and had started his study of electricity. That expertise is reflected in the committee’s detailed engineering proposals.

The committee went beyond its charge to deal with riverfront issues and made a plan to restore the Dock as far as Third Street. Its recommendations included common sewers, varied docking facilities reserved for different functions, and regular dredging. The committee also made proposals for how to pay for the project.

It was this work that led to Franklin’s election to the Council. Unfortunately, the project appeared too ambitious, meaning of course, too costly. It never made it past the proposal stage.

Between 1756 and 1762, Franklin was in London as agent for the Assembly. Shortly before his return, the Assembly passed a massive public works law to pave and clean streets, alleys, and sidewalks; expand storm water drainage; provide for removing sweepings, ash, manure, and other refuse from the city, and institute an appropriate tax and fee schedule to fund everything.

Franklin promptly joined committees that, among other things, worked to extend that act to cover manufacturing and industrial waste disposal as well as household wastes.

He also worked on another supplement aimed at cleaning and maintaining the Dock and restoring its usefulness. Instead, by 1765, work had begun to cover over the Dock, as had been proposed decades earlier.

A comprehensive act of 1769 replaced the 1762 act and incorporated all of the recommendations for urban services and technology that had been proposed in the intervening years. Franklin’s work and the reputation he had gained in both science and municipal administration were important elements of that success.

Franklin’s part in the 1739 petition drive, therefore, was only the beginning of a political struggle that occupied his attention for much of three decades. It is not his only work that touched either on the environment or urban administration.

This post is already longer than I intended. I have only outlined Franklin’s role in this one issue. It has important implications for 21st century environmentalism. I’ll have to point them out in a later post.

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Edmund S. Morgan. Benjamin Franklin.  (Yale University Press, 2002)
A. Michal McMahon. ‘Small Matters’: Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, and the ‘Progress of Cities’ Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography 116 (April 1992): 157-82


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