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

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