Sunday, August 28, 2016

Benjamin Franklin: The Sage of Philadelphia

"…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.

…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.

…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. 

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.  

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, [the] model “Everyman.” …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.

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.

…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."
From: The Winter 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Article by Steven Forde: A review of Benjamin Franklin, by Edmund S. Morgan and Franklin: The Essential Founding Father, by James Srodes

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Statesmanship of George Washington

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a “statesman” as one who is versed in the principles or art of government; and a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.  Washington was all of this, and more. While not as well-educated as Jefferson or Madison, Washington (who did not attend college), in addition to a being an ardent student of farming, was a devoted reader and student of Western political philosophy and history.  At the time of his death, his library consisted of over 900 volumes, which in addition to agricultural books, included such classics as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s Lives, and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. One of his favorite books, however, was not a treatise on agriculture but a play titled Cato by Addison. Washington loved the theatre, and like many other new Americans, appreciated the relevance of the play’s depiction of the Roman statesman Cato’s struggle between virtue and tyranny.  Of course, he read newspapers and the pamphlets of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, of which he ordered copies for all of his troops. And, during the debate over the Constitution, he read the Federalist Papers, as well as many other essays.

He also surrounded himself with, and listened to counsel from, the great thinkers of the Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, his first Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, and John Adams, the first Vice President.  Like President Lincoln’s cabinet, these men proved to be Washington’s “Team of Rivals.”  Washington also considered James Madison a trusted political confidant and corresponded with him often.  When Washington contemplated his retirement from public office (after his first term as President), he relied on Madison to draft his farewell address.[1]

Washington’s education in the principles of self-government were deeply rooted in religion and in his reading of the Bible.  As a prominent historian has stated, “Throughout his public life Washington successfully balanced public religion with religious liberty… [he] invoked the language of the Bible in private and in public his whole life.  It had a strong influence on Washington’s mind, and morals, and speech… [and] as a statesman.”[2]

Washington was especially fond of agrarian biblical metaphors such as “wheat and tares,” turning “swords into ploughshares,” and sitting in peace under a “vine and fig tree.” …Washington adapted those prophetic lines on several occasions as president. In a 1791 letter to Catherine Macaulay Graham, he combined the allusion from Micah with the New Testament verses Matthew 24:6 and Mark 13:7, predicting “wars and rumors of wars.” The “United States enjoys a scene of prosperity and tranquillity under the new government,” he told her, “that could hardly have been hoped for under the old . . . while you, in Europe, are troubled with war and rumors of war, every one here may sit under his own vine and none to molest or make him afraid.”[3] …Upon accepting his commission as commander of the Continental Army, Washington combined classical and biblical elements in his speech to Congress. Washington declared that “I have no lust after power but wish with as much fervency as any Man upon this wide extended Continent, for an opportunity of turning the Sword into a plow share.”[4]

We can see evidence of Washington’s statesmanship at two critical junctures of the American Revolution.  He understood the important difference between civil and military power and always acknowledged and respected from whence his authority came, and who he ultimately served, the people and their representatives.  When his troops were destitute of food, clothing and supplies during the bitterly cold winters at Valley Forge and again at Morristown, General Washington constantly appealed to Congress. He requested, cajoled, and complained, but he never used threats or compulsion.[5]  As French Major General wrote of Washington in 1782, “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and he has obeyed Congress: more need not be said.”[6]  

Then again, in 1783, after the Revolutionary War was finally over and the peace treaty was being negotiated in Paris with Great Britain, disgruntled Officers of the Continental Army privately met in Newburgh, New York on March 15th, to discuss their grievances and to consider a possible revolt, or military coup, against Congress. They were angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to the army regarding salary and pensions. The officers had heard that the American government was going broke and that they might not be compensated at all. Unexpectedly, Washington showed up at their unauthorized meeting.  He was not entirely welcomed by his men, but nevertheless, spoke to them … He pledged to help them obtain amends for their grievances. He encouraged them to “patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings.”

However sincere, his remarks were not very well received by his men. The question of a military overthrow of Congress still hung in the balance.  If Washington decided to join his men, he could march on Philadelphia and become King of America (and such was the history of leaders such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus).  After a long silence, Washington took out a letter from a Congressman explaining the financial difficulties of the government. After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. … His officers stared at him, wondering… Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses. Few of them even knew that he wore glasses, and were surprised.

"Gentlemen," said Washington, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." In that moment, Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were quickly brought to tears, now looking with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word. … After a long silence, his officers voted unanimously to submit to the rule of Congress, thus preserving the rule of law in the fledgling Republic.

On April 30, 1789, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. ‘As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” he wrote James Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.”[7]  As our nation’s first Chief Executive, Presidential historian Stephen F. Knott, has noted that, “Washington shaped many  …aspects of the presidency that we take for granted today. He created the president’s cabinet (and what a cabinet it was); he fulfilled his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” …he established (in concert with James Madison) the precedent that the president alone possessed the power to remove executive branch appointees; and perhaps most importantly, he left a legacy of respect for the new office through his deft blend of accessibility and detachment – Washington’s frequent presidential tours of the nation allowed the people to see their president, although always at a distance. This was not a glad handing president who pandered to the people and tried to win their affection by presenting himself as a “regular guy.” Washington believed that the people wanted to look up to their president, and that a certain amount of awe toward the office, even in a republic, was an attribute that contributed to a respectable government.”[8]

A final observation on Washington’s statesmanship to consider was made by the secretary of a British Diplomat who said that Washington “[possessed] the two great requisites of a statesman, the faculty of concealing his own sentiments and of discovering those of other men.”[9] As John Adams recalled years later, “He possessed the gift of silence.”[10]  And, when it came time for him to step down as leader of the only free nation in the world, he did so humbly, returning “to the plow” at his beloved farm at Mount Vernon.

The day after she heard of Washington’s death, Abigail Adams wrote to her sister:

“No man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and respected. The praise and I may say adulation which followed his administration for several years, never made him forget that he was a man, subject to the weakness and frailty attached to human nature. He never grew giddy, but ever maintained a modest diffidence of his own talents, and if that was an error, it was of the amiable and engaging kind. . . . Possessed of power, possessed of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benefit of his Country. Witness his retirement to private life when Peace closed the scenes of War; when called by the unanimous suffrages of the People to the chief Majestracy of the Nation, he acquitted himself to the satisfaction and applause of all good men. When assailed by faction, when reviled by party, he suffered with dignity, and retired from his exalted station with a character which malice would not wound, nor envy tarnish. If we look through the whole tenor of his life, history will not produce to us a parallel.”[11]

[1] George Washington (GW) to James Madison, May 20, 1792, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York; James Madison to George Washington, June 21, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 
[2] Dr. Jeffry Morrison, Associate Professor of Government, Regent University, “Washington & Religion,” Presentation at Christopher Newport University, February 21, 2014 (
[3] GW to Catherine Macaulay Graham, July 19, 1791
[4] GW to the President of Congress, Dec. 20, 1776
[5] Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), p. 39 (cited as Brookhiser).
[6] JTF, Vil. II, p. 63 (the French officer was Marquis de Chastellux).
[7] W. Abbott, ed., The Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1987), 2:216-17.
[8] Stephen F. Knott, “George Washington: The Indispensable President” (Article, February 20, 2014,
[9] Brookhiser, p. 79.
[10] Page Smith, John Adams, (Garden City: Double Day & Co., 1962), p. 1084.
[11] Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Philadelphia, December 22, 1799.

Image is of "Washington at Peace" (A. Stirling Calder) with figures at his side representing Wisdom and Justice, on the Washington Arch in Greenwich Village, New York (