Franklin (1751):

the number of purely white people in the world is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal body of white people on the face of the earth.

Today most people would consider all of these named European groups "white" (and Swedes along with other Nordics whitest of all).

So why would Franklin have considered only the English and Saxons white and all (or nearly all) other Europeans "swarthy"?

Two depictions on the internet of Franklin's above description:

enter image description here

enter image description here

  • 2
    Race has little to do with skin color and much with social constructs. The Wikipedia page will get you started; even today the lines of "whiteness" are drawn differently according to the Americans, the British, and the French.
    – SPavel
    Commented Jul 7 at 3:01
  • @SPavel Actually, in the spirits of people speaking about race, it has a lot to do with physical traits and/or ethnic appartenance that are supposedly linked to cultural behaviours Commented Jul 7 at 8:27
  • 2
    I suspect Ben is being fooled by the difference between urban and rural exposure to sun. In the 18th century, right up into the early 19th century, most of modern Germany is very rural, with the exceptions nearly all being the old Hanseatic League cities of northern - ie Saxon - Germany. Commented Jul 7 at 11:40
  • @SPavel: I used the "race" tag only because there was no "skin-color" tag (which I'll now use instead). In my question, I otherwise made no reference whatsoever to "race". My question is purely about why Franklin might have perceived most Europeans to be "tawny" (Merriam-Webster: "a brownish-orange to light brown color") as distinct from the English and Saxons who were instead "white".
    – user103496
    Commented Jul 8 at 1:42
  • @user103496 please edit comments into the question. Comments are barn cats; deleted when perceived inconvenient. Every additional comment decreases the probability of a satisfactory answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 8 at 2:12

1 Answer 1


I don't think there can be an answer any more objective than, "that's just how he felt." These terms today are acknowledged to be social concepts of personal identity, rather than something with any kind of scientific grounding.

However one suspects that his choice of Englishmen, Scotsmen, and North Germans is far too close to the ethnic makeup of his native Philadelphia for coincidence. If you find the inclusion of Germans (and nobody else on the continent) a bit odd today, note that 100k Germans had immigrated to Pennsylvania prior to independence. At the time this was written about ⅓ of the population of Philadelphia was German. So when he was describing "white people", it very much looks like he was just describing the vast majority of the population of his native Philadelphia in an inclusive way.

I know that today this looks rather ... limited ... on a world map. Note that in the USA the concept of "whiteness" has a history of expanding to include more and more immigrant groups (while some groups, like natives and Africans are always definitionally excluded). One theory is that the whole concept of "white" being the American default will break down if the amount of people (and property) covered is allowed to get too small.

Coined by racial sociologist Daniel J. Gil De Lamadrid, white inflation theory emphasizes the role white inflation, or the gradual increase in ethnicities considered white, plays in maintaining whiteness as property. It argues that when an ethnic group transitions from non-white to quasi-white, the boundary between racial dominants and subordinates blurs, threatening the contrast value of whiteness as property. To preserve the value of racialized property, inflationary pressure pushes quasi-whites into whiteness.

White inflation works to maintain the property interest in whiteness by ensuring that the boundary between racial dominants and racial subordinates does not blur.

Now I don't know about all of that. I really haven't studied the research on Whiteness as much as the topic deserves.* However, it does seem like Franklin in particular didn't consider Germans to be "other". In 1732 a young Franklin even published the first German-language newspaper.

So it doesn't seem weird at all for a mid 40's Franklin to be viewing Englishmen, Scotsmen, and North Germans as "us" and everyone else as "them".

* - I guess I should warn the curious reader here that the entire concept of studying the history of whiteness and the social forces behind it (also known as Critical Race Theory) is enough to get one thrown out of some American political circles as an apostate. In many places in the USA, its actually illegal to teach. This is forbidden knowledge.

  • The inclusion of "North German" is no surprise at all, given that they are the "Angles" and "Saxons" in "Anglo-Saxon."
    – SPavel
    Commented Jul 9 at 18:32
  • @SPavel - That makes sense. Technically, largely Saxons and Frisians today, but they didn't have Linguistics developed enough to be used as a racial scalpel like that back then. Still, the fact that this inclusion was sufficient and necessary to allow him to consider the vast majority of his hometown as "white" seems awfully convenient.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 10 at 0:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.