History’s Blotter: Ben Franklin on How to Improve the Nightwatch
In 1788, Benjamin Franklin, statesman, inventor, businessman, and founding father, was in his eighties and looking back on his long life.
The previous year he had represented Pennsylvania, along with several other delegates, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and helped to create the founding document that still guides the nation. His mind naturally turned to one of the first times his thoughts had touched on the concept of “public affairs.” It was in 1737, when he wrote a recommendation on the city watch of Philadelphia.
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 warn’d 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 as a Watch, that reputable Housekeepers did not chuse to mix with. Walking the rounds too was often neglected, and most of the Night spent in Tippling.
Mr. Franklin’s solution to the problem—hiring “proper men” for a full-time Watch and paying for them with a tax on homeowners proportional to their wealth—might not seem particularly innovative today, but it was a major change for the time. According to his memoirs, Franklin’s plan was not approved immediately, but it prepared “the Minds of the People for the Change” and was essentially implemented in 1745.
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