"…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
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