Books discussed in this essay:
- Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan
- Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
- The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood
- Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution by David Waldstreicher
While serving as an ambassador in Paris during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin made a point of wearing the simple dress and hairdo of the American "natural," much to the delight of French intellectuals and politicians. In 1779, he wrote to his daughter that her father's face had become as well known in France as the man in the moon, so common were the medallions, pictures, and prints of it sold to an admiring public. It's fair to say that with the Franklin Tercentenary approaching on January 17, Americans are almost as fascinated by Franklin as the French were—and, one might add, just as blind to Franklin's conscious manipulation of his own persona.
Franklin was a self-made man in the real sense that he rose from obscurity to prominence. Born the youngest son of a Boston tallowmaker, he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer. Chafing under James's harsh control, at age 17 he ran away nearly penniless to Philadelphia. There Franklin thrived as a printer, editor, and merchant, launching several newspapers and penning the famous aphorisms of Poor Richard's Almanac. He retired comfortably at 42 to devote himself to his interests in science, invention, and public service: experimenting with electricity, crafting bifocals and the Franklin stove, and founding the first public library, volunteer fire brigade, and other civic endeavors. A loyal British subject, Franklin was slow to enlist in the Revolutionary cause, but by 1776, he had committed himself fully to American independence. Internationally renowned, he served abroad ably as a diplomat, returning home to lend his reputation and political acumen to the crafting of the new U.S. Constitution. He died shortly afterwards, in 1790, at age 84.
The Model American
But Franklin was also self-made in the sense that he fashioned himself into an American icon to be loved (or loathed) by generations to come. He painted the icon in his posthumous Autobiography, which became one of the most read books in America. In it we see Franklin's rise from poverty and anonymity to money and fame. But it's also a story of moral as well as material redemption. Franklin describes himself as a precocious genius whose reading of modern books caused him to fall from his father's morality and religion; he became a hot-headed smart aleck and an all-too-freethinking delinquent. After reflecting on the harms he inflicted on, and suffered from, those close to him, Franklin gave himself a spiritual second chance, came back to God, and departed on his famous project to achieve moral perfection. His aim was to get control of himself in order to serve God by serving his fellow human beings. This was his object lesson for all Americans. Franklin depicts himself in the Autobiography as a morally committed political man (his feats of natural science are almost invisible), who rationally and pragmatically balances all sides of every issue, never loses his cool, and cares always for the common good.
In his own lifetime, there were more than a few respectable men (John Adams for one) who thought Franklin a self-aggrandizing phony, but over time his self-portrait as the self-made man has been revered by American entrepreneurs and schoolmarms—and reviled by the 19th-century Transcendentalists, D.H. Lawrence, and all who despise the bourgeoisie. The former loved Franklin as the model democratic American who with moral discipline and endless hard work comes from nowhere to get ahead and serve his fellow man; the latter hated him as the model Chamber-of-Commerce prig—a materialistic and acquisitive man representing a materialistic and acquisitive society. Whatever people think about America, they take it out on Benjamin Franklin.
One thing is for sure: he made no bones about presenting himself as the quintessential American and moral hero. When he began Part Two of the Autobiography in 1784, Franklin explained his renewed efforts by reprinting two absurdly bombastic letters from friends Abel James and Benjamin Vaughn. Aside from comparing Franklin's story favorably to all of Plutarch's Lives combined, and claiming that its example of self-education, wisdom, and prudence would influence millions, James says he knows of "no character living nor many of them put together, who has so much in his power as thyself to promote a greater spirit of industry and early attention to business, frugality, and temperance with the American youth." Vaughn adds: "All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar and Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature and society."
In three sparkling biographies, Edmund Morgan, Walter Isaacson, and Gordon Wood tell the Franklin story. They very much like their man—like him so much that Adams might say they've been too easily charmed by the atheistic "old conjurer." I think in the end that they have been, although all three bring the mythical Franklin down a peg or two, in order to humanize him and make him a man we can realistically admire. The Franklin of these books is by no means the completely cool and self-controlled political character described in the Autobiography. Each volume describes him as temporarily blinded—whether by resentment and anger, imperialistic ambition, or elitist isolation—to political realities that would otherwise have been easy to see. Nor was he the egalitarian portrayed in the Autobiography: Franklin worked as a printer until he could retire and take up gentlemanly pursuits. He became the folk hero of the middling sorts only in the hagiography that began after his death.
Warts and All
Both Morgan, Yale University's Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, and Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN, think that Franklin lost his head in the elaborate scheme to bring the independently chartered Pennsylvania colony under royal rule, a design Franklin pursued doggedly after 1757 when he left for London as the Pennsylvania Assembly's agent. From the mid-1740s through the French and Indian War, Pennsylvania politics revolved around the funding of defense. The Proprietor, Thomas Penn, and his party of wealthy merchants and Anglicans refused to have proprietary lands taxed. The Quaker party, which dominated the Assembly, opposed the Proprietary party but was reluctant, on principle, to spend for defense. Franklin worried about Pennsylvania's safety from the dangers of Spain and France and, moved by a growing enthusiasm for the British empire, lobbied for more spending and focus on defense. In the course of his efforts, he concluded that both parties were irresponsible and that the only solution was to oust the Proprietors and replace them with direct rule by the Crown.
Franklin developed so profound a dislike for Penn, his supercilious intellectual inferior, that the resulting enmity caused him to misjudge opinion on both sides of the Atlantic—in his own Quaker party in Pennsylvania as well as in the Ministry in London. The same passion led him to bungle the election of 1764, in which he lost his Assembly seat to a candidate backed by a loose alliance of Germans, whom Franklin had insulted as "Palatine Boors"; western-dwelling Scotch and Irish Presbyterians; the Proprietary party; and even some of his own Quaker party compatriots, especially John Dickinson, who worried that much of the proprietary baby (religious liberty and the Assembly's relative independence) might get thrown out with the bath. Since his Quaker party still controlled the Assembly, Franklin was immediately rehired as agent and continued to pursue the royal government scheme, which despite his misguided efforts never bore fruit.
Gordon Wood, a distinguished professor of history at Brown University, doesn't agree with this take on Franklin's unruly side. He argues instead that the scheme, while ultimately a fiasco, was in perfect accord with Franklin's passionate imperialism and monarchism. As the colonial crisis that would become the American Revolution mounted, Franklin articulated an increasingly Tory-like theory of the empire, according to which the King but not Parliament had authority to deal with the colonies. The design to replace proprietary rule failed not because Franklin was blinded by hatred of Penn, argues Wood, but because Franklin was unable to win over Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of the America Department and a hard-liner on colonial affairs. Even so, Franklin's hopes for the empire were rekindled in 1772 when, due to the American's own machinations, Hillsborough was ousted and replaced by the more agreeable Lord Dartmouth.
These hopes were finally dashed for good by Franklin's colossal blunder in the "Hutchinson Affair," in which he tried to blame British hostility to America not on the Ministry's and Parliament's mistakes but on the treachery of Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts. Hutchinson had called for harsh measures against the Americans in private correspondence to the Ministry. Franklin obtained these letters and then leaked them to an outraged American public. As Wood says, the gambit was a "spectacular miscalculation" that stirred up the Massachusetts radicals at home and led to Franklin's public humiliation on the floor of Parliament, earning him a reputation in England as the deceitful éminence grise behind America's insolence and rebellion.
Morgan, Isaacson, and Wood agree that Franklin's elitism, which led him to believe that a few reasonable men could solve any political problem, was another source of his occasional political blindness. This was especially apparent in the Hutchinson Affair, and also in Franklin's misjudgment of colonial opinions and passions during the Stamp Act crisis. His own conciliatory steps in managing that crisis persuaded some in America that he was behind it all in the first place.
When it finally became clear that his efforts at reconciliation could not prevent the inevitable, Franklin threw in his lot on the side of full-blown American independence. (Hence the title of Wood's book, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.) But this was no mere change of plans, according to Wood. Angry at the empire that had let him down and humiliated him, Franklin transferred his affections personally and fervently to the revolutionary cause.
In serving that cause, Franklin found himself in the right circumstances to pull off his most stunning and important achievement: the diplomatic effort that won French support for the Revolution and, years later, acceptable terms for the peace with Britain. All three biographies provide delightful, page-turning accounts of the near-miracle wrought by Franklin in Paris, surrounded by the jealous, meddling and Francophobic Adams, the paranoid Arthur Lee, the sinister hanger-on Ralph Izard, and the bungling John Laurens. Here we see Franklin most in control of his wits, and able, despite the rigors of his assignment, to have the time of his life with his printing, chess, writing, and other divertissements—most notoriously, Madame Helvétius and the ladies of Paris.
Sins of the Past
Franklin's political career was long and varied, and he made enemies strong enough to ensure that his death was greeted in America with surprisingly lukewarm commemorations. In France, Wood recounts, the French National Assembly declared three days of national mourning and "philosophes delivered eulogy after eulogy." By contrast, Vice President Adams, seething with resentment at the man he thought had hogged the Revolution's glory, teamed up with Richard Henry Lee, Ralph Izard, and others in the Senate who, thinking Franklin too radically French, worked to have a proposal for a formal tribute withdrawn before it came to a vote. The American Philosophical Society, which Franklin had co-founded, delayed its public tribute for a year. Even then the speech, delivered by one of his long-time enemies, was flabby and backhandedly insulting.
In Wood's account of Franklin's sad end, there isn't a word about another reason that many in the Senate were in no mood to eulogize him. In the negotiations over the Constitutional Convention's infamous three-fifths compromise on representation and taxation, hammered out in Franklin's house, Franklin had kept his views on slavery quiet and even dissuaded the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (of which he was president) from presenting to the Convention a petition against the slave trade. After brokering this bargain with the devil, Franklin lent his name in 1790 to a much more radical petition to Congress opposing not merely the slave trade but slavery as such. The petition failed, of course, but in the debates Southerners vilified Franklin as a hypocrite: the old goat had turned his back on the compromise he had worked so hard to forge.
Wood describes the petition to Congress as a final chance for Franklin, no longer the "pragmatic tactful conciliator," to be his antislavery self, to poke his finger in the eyes of Southern senators. But in his wonderful book, Runaway America, David Waldstreicher points out the irony not mentioned by Wood: that Franklin had for a long time profited from, temporized with, and apologized for slavery. How do we reconcile Franklin, and hence America, with our original sin?
A professor of history at Temple University, Waldstreicher shows that Franklin's life and career as the "First American" were bound up with the institution of slavery from beginning to end. Runaway America meticulously traces Franklin's own experience as a runaway from an indentured apprenticeship; his later economic dependence on slavery and indentured labor; his slowly changing opinions about the peculiar institution; and his propagandistic deflections of the British taunt that the colonists demanded liberties and rights for themselves while denying them to their slaves. By the early 1760s he had concluded that slavery was bad, but even so, he blamed the evil on the British—as did Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence—as though the Americans were guiltless. When Franklin condemned slavery, avers Waldstreicher, it was for the sake of propagating a self-protective "antislavery American identity that excluded slaves." And indeed, the Autobiography, so central to the Franklin myth, depicts an America of liberty, opportunity, and hard work, without a hint of those who worked hard because they had no liberty at all.
It's no stretch for Waldstreicher to say that Franklin's antislavery reputation was mostly the result of antislavery activists' enlisting his name because they knew that he could not object. Franklin, who always thought liberty a very good thing, came eventually to think slavery a very bad thing for all concerned—slaves, masters, America, the exciting new world promised by science and technology. But one cannot read Franklin, even in his very last writings, without sensing on his part a cool reserve about the matter. Although he thought slavery to be a very bad thing—so bad that he described it to Congress as "an abomination of human nature"—the consummate pragmatist still thought it proper to temporize with the beast.
Waldstreicher tries a bit too hard and on too little evidence, for my taste, to ascribe racist impulses and motives to Franklin. Yet by contemporary standards—especially in a volume on Franklin and slavery—these imputations are impressively few. Franklin tried to expunge the stain of slavery, both for America and for his alter ego in the Autobiography. In my view, Franklin believed slavery was on its way out and at the end of his life he tried to give it a shove. But apparently he thought that both America and the model American would be better off not dwelling on it—as if slavery were a mistake to be regretted and corrected and gotten over, not a sin to be atoned. Atoning for sin, thought Franklin, almost always causes more trouble than it's worth.
The Real Ben Franklin
By displaying Franklin, warts and all, Morgan, Isaacson, and Wood aim to replace the cartoon-like Franklin myths with a real, human hero of liberty and moral and material progress. They boost the heroic Franklin by bringing him down to earth, and they present realistic celebrations of America as the beacon of liberty and progress. We Americans are no angels, but with Franklin as our model we try hard to be on the angels' side. In the end, despite showing us a Franklin who could be bettered by his passions, these authors agree with the Autobiography's picture of a genius who, after weathering a spiritual crisis brought on by his rash skepticism, subordinated his gifts, especially his love of natural philosophy, to public service as the greatest service to God.
But there are plenty of reasons—the hilariously hyperbolic letters of James and Vaughn, for example—to take the Autobiography with a large grain of salt. According to the book's first part, as a young man Franklin lost his faith in divine, particular providence—as evidenced in his metaphysical pamphlet A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, written and published in London in 1725 when he was not yet 20. Franklin soon burned this pamphlet, which denied free will and the existence of virtue and vice, because of its potential "ill tendency." Reflecting on his corruption, Franklin had the moral epiphany that led him back to the straight and narrow and, also, to belief in particular providence. But in Part Two of the Autobiography, written a decade later and at some textual distance from the account of his London escapades, Franklin tells us almost offhandedly that, regarding his religious beliefs, he "never doubted" God's government of the world by "his Providence," nor that "all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter."
This contradiction simply cannot be dismissed as an error on Franklin's part. No normal human being, and certainly not a man like Franklin, could forget so important a spiritual event as having lost and then regained his faith. The contradiction makes the whole story of fall and redemption, one way or another, dubious. In my view, a careful reading of the ironic Autobiography discloses the following: the Hero of Public Service is a myth; Franklin rather did what Franklin liked to do; and he was a serious thinker who, though he wore a leather apron, philosophized not with a hammer but with a joke.
About the most important subjects, Franklin wrote so as to please and instruct those who were firmly attached to conventional views and who might get mad or be corrupted when those views were challenged. To these readers he wrote in order to elevate or moderate, but within the horizon of their conventional views. Then, with his artful bag of rhetorical tricks, he wrote at the same time to those readers with whom he could be frank, who could profit from his much more radical questioning by testing, on their own, the consistency of their commonsense and cherished moral intuitions, opinions, and beliefs. Adams and others noted Franklin's ironic verbal conjuring—and they were right.
Despite its cheery tone and comic defense of useful moral virtue and practical piety, the Autobiography shows that Franklin did experience a personal crisis of faith that set him on the path of thinking. At the end of that path, however, he concluded that our commonsensical concepts of morality—justice, free will, merit and demerit, devotion, virtue and vice, the noble, evil, reward and punishment—make no logical sense, despite the fact that they seem so obvious.
How then to account for Franklin's apparent dedication to public service? My own view is that Franklin was above all else a political elitist and fixer, and something of a cool opportunist—more akin to a big-city boss than to an ideological partisan. For Franklin, the purpose of government is simply, and only, to provide the conditions for individual liberty and happiness—however we might see that happiness—and for such security and prosperity as is possible.
Political ambition almost always reflects the love of justice, and as such is never far removed from anger and indignation. For politically ambitious men there is a limit to permissible raillery; there are some things that cannot be mocked. Careful reading of Franklin's humor, by contrast, reveals that nothing is spared: religion, divine providence, the life of Jesus, Enlightenment rationalism, the great chain of being, philanthropy, the family, sex and love, moral virtue, human and divine justice, our political attachments and obligations, natural rights, Newton's laws, Baconian science, even the Masons, and, above all, the American Revolution.
Franklin did not believe in natural rights, and that's why, although he thought slavery was very bad and hoped to see it gone, he was nevertheless so cool about the matter. Franklin liked politics because it was for him a challenging and delightful aspect of invention and production (little different from his experiments in natural philosophy and technological innovations). It was a part of the grand game of modernity, which promised, above all, new and hitherto unimagined possibilities for human life. But for all his well-deserved reputation as a friend of progress, the philosophical Franklin understood the deep roots of human folly, the limits of enlightenment, the dangers of moral indignation, and the simple fact that life is tough and often deals us cards we don't like and can't do much to change.