Posted: February 13, 2003
udging from the wealth of new biographies issuing from American publishing houses these days, the Founding Fathers are enjoying a renaissance. This is a development very much to be applauded. With a pair of new biographies this year, Benjamin Franklin now joins the parade.
During his lifetime, Franklin was, except for George Washington, the most famous American in the world. It's widely accepted that large numbers of Americans supported the proposed Constitution of 1787 principally because they knew that Franklin and Washington endorsed it. Franklin loomed large in the American pantheon for generations thereafter, where he occupied a special place as Poor Richard, man of the people, model Everyman. Perhaps this made him better-loved than other founders, but it also made his reputation unusually vulnerable to the vicissitudes of popular culture—to the point where, in some representations today, he is recognizable as the Founding Father in sunglasses with marijuana leaves imprinted on them.
These new biographies go a long way toward rescuing Franklin from this kind of inanity. Whether or not we label him "The Essential Founding Father," as Srodes does, Franklin played a critical role in the development of American liberty. He spent decades abroad, first in a futile attempt to defend American liberties in London, then in a successful attempt in Paris to secure French support during the War of Independence. French assistance, in money, naval protection, materiel, and finally even troops, was indeed critical to the securing of American nationhood. It required all of Franklin's diplomatic skill to deal simultaneously with the French court and with the often obstreperous and paranoid fellow-commissioners dispatched to Paris by the Continental Congress. Finally, he returned to the United States to play a secondary role in framing the new Constitution, but a primary one in securing its ratification.
Franklin's story makes for excellent biography. His origins were humble but respectable, the 15th child of a Boston tallow-chandler. He loved to read from an early age, and was formed by the writings of Plutarch and Xenophon, as well as Cotton Mather and Daniel Defoe. His reading of the anti-Deist tracts in his father's small library had the effect of making him a "thorough Deist." This, together with his fondness for Socratic disputation, garnered him a bad enough reputation that he felt compelled to leave Boston. Thus he became Franklin of Philadelphia, whose legendary industry and frugality, along with his skill as a writer, allowed him to prosper sufficiently in the printing business that he could retire at age 42.
This was the end of one career, but the beginning of many others. Public service was the creed of Cotton Mather and Daniel Defoe, and Franklin from his youth combined it with his gently biting wit. While a mere printer's apprentice in Boston he invented the persona of Silence Dogood, whose satirical pieces appeared in his brother's newspaper. Her satire had the serious purpose of exposing the moral foibles and hypocrisies of her fellow-citizens, to put them in the way of moral improvement. This task was taken up in later years by the likes of "the Busy-Body," and above all Poor Richard, all of whom used homespun wit to chide Americans to virtue.
Upon his "retirement," Franklin added more conventional forms of public service to his repertoire, entering the colonial legislature, serving as colonial postmaster (where he vastly increased the efficiency of the service), and ultimately emissary to London and Paris. It was in these years also that Franklin conducted the researches into electricity that gained him an international reputation, including membership in the Royal Society and other learned societies in Europe. It is not always appreciated today that despite Franklin's lack of formal training in the field, his work in electricity was pathbreaking and in every way worthy of the honors bestowed upon it. Yet, as both our biographers point out, he regarded this work (and his other scientific pursuits, from researching the nature of the Gulf Stream to developing the efficient and smokeless "Franklin stove") as another form of public service. In this respect, he was the very spirit of modern, technological science: knowledge accumulated for the purpose of improving human comfort and happiness.
These two biographies give us remarkably similar Benjamin Franklins, though Srodes makes a better story of it. Both make Franklin's greatness eminently visible, but scorn the hagiography of earlier biographers. In both, we see Franklin's personal and political failures as well as his triumphs. He was a famously warm and convivial companion, but could also be cold and cutting. He made enemies as well as friends, and might occasionally have been misled by animosity. He spent years combating the heirs of William Penn, proprietors of the Pennsylvania colony, over their exemption from taxation. He tried unsuccessfully to displace them entirely and put the colony under royal stewardship. Was this wise, given the increasingly harsh nature of royal policy? Was it worth the time Franklin expended on it, and the aggravation it created? Similarly, Franklin may have lost touch with American sentiment when he responded with resignation to the Stamp Act and was surprised at the violence of the colonial response. Though it was his job to defend colonial interests in London, he was slower than many back home to see the threats that that evolving colonial policy presented. Being a generation older than most of the revolutionaries, perhaps he was more loath to give up on what he once called "that fine China vase, the British Empire."
Still, Franklin was a quick study. Once he saw the colonial reaction to it, he became instrumental in the repeal of the Stamp Act. Once he saw the bullheadedness of George III and a succession of ministries in London, he took an increasingly stalwart position in favor of American rights—to the point that George III eventually came to see Franklin as the entire motive force behind American recalcitrance. When he finally returned to America in 1775, Franklin was ahead of most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress in seeing independence as the only viable course of action.
The evolution of his views on matters like these leads both our biographers to make a theme of Franklin's personal development. This will perhaps be the temptation of any biographer, and it has its warrant in the case of Franklin, but it leads both our authors to underplay the unchanging core of the man. In his Autobiography, Franklin claims that he came rather early to a set of fundamental moral beliefs that guided him through life. Shifts in his position on the empire, or even on the rights of the colonies, are not real changes if they represent nothing more than applications of the same moral outlook to different circumstances.
Franklin's moral outlook was distinctive in some respects. Unlike many of his fellow-revolutionaries, he resisted seeing right and wrong in terms of rights, particularly rights of man. He was closer to David Hume (whom he knew rather well) in holding that utility or public happiness was the true touchstone of correct policy. Morgan is especially good at bringing out this aspect of Franklin's thinking, and the dilemmas it created for his diplomacy. "Rights" were too abstract, rights rhetoric too combative, and seeing issues as clashes of rights made political compromise difficult if not impossible. Franklin's approach had the contrary virtues, but might have made him initially too willing to compromise on colonial grievances. In the end, he too made use of the revolutionary language of rights, but always, one suspects, with a slight wince.
A similar distance between Franklin and many of his fellow founders was visible in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Franklin, now over 80 years old, played a relatively minor role. His views were generally more populist than his colleagues', and virtually all the positions he explicitly supported were rejected by the convention. Nonetheless, he supported the final document, he said, because none better could be expected, because the precise form of government is less important than how it is administered, and because republics depend more on the spirit of the people in any case than on the outline of their institutions. Abstract notions of government carried less weight with Franklin than the concrete result of good government.
Franklin may well have underestimated the importance of theories of government, but his concern from his earliest days in Boston was the cultivation of the private and social virtues needed to support free government, whatever its form. If he made a distinctive contribution to the fashioning of the American experiment, it was this. Silence Dogood, Poor Richard, and even Franklin's Autobiography are all vehicles for spreading these virtues abroad. His view of the virtues themselves remained essentially constant through his life. Industry and frugality, and other virtues of economic self-reliance, are the best-known. Franklin understood that these must come first for people who begin life with little, and subsequent history has affirmed their importance to the success of free societies. But he was also concerned to cultivate virtues of public service, for a society of individualistic self-reliance needs these fully as much as the economic virtues.
Franklin's view of moral matters was to some degree unconventional. He held that morality is defined by what serves individual and social happiness, and only accepted the discipline of virtues that contributed to those ends. The economic and public-spirited virtues qualified, but Franklin was not shy of repudiating or relaxing others that did not. Thus his famous, loophole-ridden definition of Chastity: "Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness [sic], Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another's Peace or Reputation." John and Abigail Adams were wrong to dismiss Franklin as a "libertine," but he was no Puritan. Though he respected all or nearly all religious opinions, he judged them on their support of social morality. He advocated a theology in which God's plan was little more than the advancement of personal happiness in this life, and service to others. If even God served social utility, what could possibly be above it? Franklin was of the opinion that property was largely a creature of society, and could be regulated and even limited for the general good. He was rebuffed in at least one attempt to place a statement to that effect in the Pennsylvania Constitution. There is some truth to the "countercultural" portrait of Franklin.
If the two biographies before us have a shortcoming, it is their failure to find the nerve of moral thought that makes sense of these diverse positions, and rescues Franklin's consistency over time. Biographers can be forgiven for focusing on the large, world-scale events that give their subject historical weight. Both our authors do a good job of this, and of sketching Franklin's character, within the scope of modestly-sized books. May they give readers the hunger to return to the source, and find additional food for thought in this complex and delightful man.