Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - Walter Isaacson
Franklin was a man whose curiosity got him into everything; publishing, writing, international affairs, beds of younger woman, politics, warfare, science, inventions. Writing held an incredible amount of power in those days. When Franklin wanted to sway a population, he would simply sit down and write an essay. With the flood of modern information, no single medium seems to hold this kind of power.
From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklins most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were some of his fellow founders, and devoid of the snobbery that later critics would feel toward his own shopkeeping values, he had faith in the wisdom of the common man and felt that a new nation would draw its strength from what he called the middling people.
Instead, the puritans were contemptuous of the old Roman Church’s monastic belief that holiness required withdrawal from worldly economic concerns, and they preached that being industrious was a heavenly as well as earthly imperative. What the literary historian Perry Miller calls the paradox of Puritan materialism and immateriality was not paradoxical to the Puritans. Making money was a way to glorify God.
As a young apprentice, Franklin had read a book extolling vegetarianism. He embraced the diet, but not just for moral and health reasons. His main motive was financial: it enabled him to take the money his brother allotted him for food and save half for books. While his coworkers went off for hearty meals, Franklin ate biscuits and raisins and used the time for study, in which I made the greater progress from that greater clearness of head and quicker apprehension which usually attend temperance in eating and drinking.
From this he drew a wry, perhaps even a bit cynical, lesson that he expressed as a maxim: So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
The general foible of mankind, he told a friend, is in the pursuit of wealth to no end. His goal was to help aspiring tradesmen become more diligent, and thus more able to be useful and virtuous citizens.
People will eventually give you the credit, he noted, if you don’t try to claim it at the time. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid.
He realized that the colonists might have to fend for themselves instead of relying on their British governors, that the powerful elites deserved no deference, and that we the middling people of workers and tradesmen should be the proud sinews of the new land. It also reinforced his core belief that people, and perhaps someday colonies, could accomplish more when they joined together rather than remained separate filaments of flax, when they formed unions rather than stood alone.
Although his findings were of great historical significance, he had yet to put them to practical use. He lamented to Collins on that he was chagrined a little that we have hitherto been able to discover nothing in the way of use to mankind. Indeed, after many revised theories and a couple of painful shocks that knocked him senseless, the only use discovered of electricity, said the man who was always trying to tackle his own pride, was that it may help make a vain man humble.
Out of this arose a vision of America as a nation where people, whatever their birth or social class, could rise (as he did) to wealth and status based on their willingness to be industrious and cultivate their virtues.
Franklins political attitudes, along with his religious and scientific ones, fit together into a rather coherent outlook. But just as he was not a profound religious or scientific theorist no Aquinas or Newton neither was he a profound political philosopher on the order of a Locke or even a Jefferson. His strength as a political thinker, as in other fields, was more practical than abstract.
Also during the crossing, his ship narrowly avoided being wrecked on the Scilly Isles when it sought to evade French privateers in the fog. Franklin described his grateful reaction in a letter home to his wife. Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, he wrote. But as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse.
He liked to be among people with lively minds and simple virtues, and he had an inbred aversion to powerful establishments and idle elites.
The best way to make America prosperous without turning it into a manufacturing center, Franklin said, was to keep Canada and thus assure there was always an abundance of land for the colonists to settle. No man who can have a piece of land of his own, sufficient by his labor to subsist his family in plenty, is poor enough to be a manufacturer and work for a master, he wrote. Hence while there is enough land in America for our people, there can never be manufacturers of any amount or value. An expanding America would thus always provide a market for British goods.
Franklin was able to indulge on Craven Street the many eccentricities he had developed. One of these was taking hour-long air baths early each morning, during which he would open his windows and sit in my chamber without any clothes whatever.
Like many of these new Americans, Franklin chafed at authority, which is why he had run away from his brothers print shop in Boston. He was not awed by established elites, whether they be the Mathers or the Penns or the peers in the House of Lords. He was cheeky in his writings and rebellious in his manner. And he had imbibed the philosophy of the new Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that liberty and tolerance were the foundation for a civil society.
The Name of the Confederacy shall henceforth be The United Colonies of North America, Franklins detailed thirteen articles began. The said United Colonies hereby severally enter into a firm League of Friendship with each other, binding on themselves and their posterity, for their common defense against their enemies, for the security of their liberties and properties, the safety of their persons and families, and their mutual and general welfare.
He was the obvious choice to chair a committee to figure out how to replace the British-run postal system and then become, as he did in July, Americas new postmaster general. The job paid a handsome 1,000 per year, but Franklins patriotism overwhelmed his frugality: he donated the salary to care for wounded soldiers. Men can be as diligent with us from zeal for the public good as with you for thousands per annum, he wrote Priestley. Such is the difference between uncorrupted new states and corrupted old ones. His penchant for nepotism, however, remained intact. Richard Bache became the financial comptroller of the new system.
When he had finished a draft and incorporated some changes from Adams, Jefferson sent it to Franklin on the morning of Friday, June 21. Will Doctor Franklin be so good as to peruse it, he wrote in his cover note, and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate?33 People were much more polite to editors back then.
Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his own hand on what Jefferson referred to as the rough draft of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its Web site.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jeffersons phrase We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: We hold these truths to be self-evident.34 The idea of self-evident truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jeffersons favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklins close friend David Hume. In what became known as Humes fork, the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as London is bigger than Philadelphia) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees; All bachelors are unmarried). By using the word sacred, Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights was an assertion of religion. Franklins edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.
Everything in him announced the simplicity and the innocence of primitive morals, marveled one Parisian, who added the perfect French compliment about his love of silence: He knew how to be impolite without being rude.
They were both very smart, but otherwise they had quite different personalities. Adams was unbending and outspoken and argumentative, Franklin charming and taciturn and flirtatious. Adams was rigid in his personal morality and lifestyle, Franklin famously playful. Adams learned French by poring over grammar books and memorizing a collection of funeral orations; Franklin (who cared little about the grammar) learned the language by lounging on the pillows of his female friends and writing them amusing little tales. Adams felt comfortable confronting people, whereas Franklin preferred to seduce them, and the same was true of the way they dealt with nations.
Franklin was always industrious, and in America he famously believed in also giving the appearance of being industrious. But in France, where the appearance of pleasure was more valued, Franklin knew how to adopt the style. As Claude-Anne Lopez notes, In colonial America it was sinful to look idle, in France it was vulgar to look busy.
Throughout his remaining years in France, and even in letters after his return to America, Franklin would stay emotionally attached to Madame Brillon. Their new arrangement still allowed him such liberties as playing chess with a mutual friend, late into the night, in her bathroom, while she soaked in her tub and watched. But it was, as bathtub chess games go, rather innocent; the tub was covered, as was the style, by a wooden plank. Im afraid that we may have made you very uncomfortable by keeping you so long in the bath, he apologized the next day, adding a wry little promise: Never again will I consent to start a chess game with the neighbor in your bathing room. Can you forgive me this indiscretion?
Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow leather-aprons more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people. Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.
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