BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND THE INVENTION OF AMERICA
His arrival in Philadelphia is one of the most famous scenes in autobiographical literature: the bedraggled 17-year-old runaway, cheeky yet with a pretense of humility, straggling off the boat and buying three puffy rolls as he wanders up Market Street. But wait a minute. There’s something more. Peel back a layer and we can see him as a 65-year-old wry observer, sitting in an English country house, writing this scene, pretending it’s part of a letter to his son, an illegitimate son who has become a royal governor with aristocratic pretensions and needs to be reminded of his humble roots.
A careful look at the manuscript peels back yet another layer. Inserted into the sentence about his pilgrim’s progress up Market Street is a phrase, written in the margin, in which he notes that he passed by the house of his future wife, Deborah Read, and that “she, standing at the door, saw me and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward ridiculous appearance.” So here we have, in a brief paragraph, the multilayered character known so fondly to his author as Benjamin Franklin: as a young man, then seen through the eyes of his older self, and then through the memories later recounted by his wife. It’s all topped off with the old man’s deft little affirmation—“as I certainly did”—in which his self-deprecation barely cloaks the pride he felt regarding his remarkable rise in the world.1
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington’s colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with orotund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.
He was, during his eighty-four-year-long life, America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer, and business strategist, and he was also one of its most practical, though not most profound, political thinkers. He proved by flying a kite that lightning was electricity, and he invented a rod to tame it. He devised bifocal glasses and clean-burning stoves, charts of the Gulf Stream and theories about the contagious nature of the common cold. He launched various civic improvement schemes, such as a lending library, college, volunteer fire corps, insurance association, and matching grant fund-raiser. He helped invent America’s unique style of homespun humor and philosophical pragmatism. In foreign policy, he created an approach that wove together idealism with balance-of-power realism. And in politics, he proposed seminal plans for uniting the colonies and creating a federal model for a national government.
But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. America’s first great publicist, he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.
Partly, it was a matter of image. As a young printer in Philadelphia, he carted rolls of paper through the streets to give the appearance of being industrious. As an old diplomat in France, he wore a fur cap to portray the role of backwoods sage. In between, he created an image for himself as a simple yet striving tradesman, assiduously honing the
virtues—diligence, frugality, honesty—of a good shopkeeper and beneficent member of his community.
But the image he created was rooted in reality. Born and bred a member of the leather-aproned class, Franklin was, at least for most of his life, more comfortable with artisans and thinkers than with the established elite, and he was allergic to the pomp and perks of a hereditary aristocracy. Throughout his life he would refer to himself as “B. Franklin, printer.”
From these attitudes sprang what may be Franklin’s most important vision: an American national identity based on the virtues and values of its middle class. Instinctively more comfortable with democracy than were 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.” Through his self-improvement tips for cultivating personal virtues and his civic-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create, and to celebrate, a new ruling class of ordinary citizens.
The complex interplay among various facets of Franklin’s character—his ingenuity and unreflective wisdom, his Protestant ethic divorced from dogma, the principles he held firm and those he was willing to compromise—means that each new look at him reflects and refracts the nation’s changing values. He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of itself.
Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks’s phrase, “our founding Yuppie.” We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas. He would laugh at the latest joke about a
priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer’s daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation, wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values.2
Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.
Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons from Franklin’s life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.
His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God’s will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” In comparison to contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone, this outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine.
Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.
THE FRANKLINS OF ECTON
During the late Middle Ages, a new class emerged in the villages of rural England: men who possessed property and wealth but were not members of the titled aristocracy. Proud but without great pretension, assertive of their rights as members of an independent middle class, these freeholders came to be known as franklins, from the Middle English word “frankeleyn,” meaning freeman.1
When surnames gained currency, families from the upper classes tended to take on the titles of their domains, such as Lancaster or Salisbury. Their tenants sometimes resorted to invocations of their own little turf, such as Hill or Meadows. Artisans tended to take their name from their labor, be it Smith or Taylor or Weaver. And for some families, the descriptor that seemed most appropriate was Franklin.
The earliest documented use of that name by one of Benjamin Franklin’s ancestors, at least that can be found today, was by his great-great-grandfather Thomas Francklyne or Franklin, born around 1540 in the Northamptonshire village of Ecton. His independent spirit became part of the family lore. “This obscure family of ours was early in the Reformation,” Franklin later wrote, and “were sometimes in danger of trouble on account of their zeal against popery.” When Queen Mary I was engaged in her bloody crusade to reestablish the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Franklin kept the banned English Bible
tied to the underside of a stool. The stool could be turned over on a lap so the Bible could be read aloud, but then instantly hidden whenever the apparitor rode by.2
The strong yet pragmatic independence of Thomas Franklin, along with his clever ingenuity, seems to have been passed down through four generations. The family produced dissenters and nonconformists who were willing to defy authority, although not to the point of becoming zealots. They were clever craftsmen and inventive blacksmiths with a love of learning. Avid readers and writers, they had deep convictions—but knew how to wear them lightly. Sociable by nature, the Franklins tended to become trusted counselors to their neighbors, and they were proud to be part of the middling class of independent shopkeepers and tradesmen and freeholders.
It may be merely a biographer’s conceit to think that a person’s character can be illuminated by rummaging among his family roots and pointing out the recurring traits that culminate tidily in the personality at hand. Nevertheless, Franklin’s family heritage seems a fruitful place to begin a study. For some people, the most important formative element is place. To appreciate Harry Truman, for example, you must understand the Missouri frontier of the nineteenth century; likewise, you must delve into the Hill Country of Texas to fathom Lyndon Johnson.3
But Benjamin Franklin was not so rooted. His heritage was that of a people without place—the youngest sons of middle-class artisans—most of whom made their careers in towns different from those of their fathers. He is thus best understood as a product of lineage rather than of land.
Moreover, Franklin thought so as well. “I have ever had a pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors,” reads the opening sentence in his autobiography. It was a pleasure he would indulge when he journeyed to Ecton as a middle-aged man to interview distant relatives, research church records, and copy inscriptions from family tombstones.
The dissenting streak that ran in his family, he discovered, involved more than just matters of religion. Thomas Franklin’s father had been active, according to lore, as a legal advocate on the side of the common man in the controversy over the practice known as enclosure, under
which the landed aristocracy closed off their estates and prevented poorer farmers from grazing their herds there. And Thomas’s son Henry spent a year in prison for writing some poetry that, as one descendant noted, “touched the character of some great man.” The inclination to defy the elite, and to write mediocre poetry, was to last a few more generations.
Henry’s son Thomas II also displayed traits that would later be evident in his famous grandson. He was a gregarious soul who loved reading, writing, and tinkering. As a young man, he built from scratch a clock that worked throughout his life. Like his father and grandfather, he became a blacksmith, but in small English villages the smith took on a variety of tasks. According to a nephew, he “also practiced for diversion the trade of a turner [turning wood with a lathe], a gunsmith, a surgeon, a scrivener, and wrote as pretty a hand as ever I saw. He was a historian and had some skill in astronomy and chemistry.”4
His eldest son took over the blacksmith business and also prospered as a school owner and a solicitor. But this is a story about youngest sons: Benjamin Franklin was the youngest son of the youngest sons for five generations. Being the last of the litter often meant having to strike out on your own. For people like the Franklins, that generally meant leaving villages such as Ecton that were too tiny to support more than one or two practitioners of each trade and moving to a larger town where they could secure an apprenticeship.
It was not unusual—especially in the Franklin family—for younger brothers to be apprenticed to older ones. So it was that Thomas II’s youngest son, Josiah Franklin,I
left Ecton in the 1670s for the nearby Oxfordshire market town of Banbury and bound himself to a pleasant older brother named John, who had set up shop there as a silk and cloth dyer. After the dour days of Cromwell’s protectorate, the restoration under King Charles II led to a brief flowering of the garment industry.
While in Banbury, Josiah was swept up in the second great religious convulsion to hit England. The first had been settled by Queen Elizabeth: the English church would be Protestant rather than
Roman Catholic. Yet she and her successors subsequently faced pressure from those who wanted to go even further and to “purify” the church of all Roman Catholic traces. The Puritans, as these Calvinist dissenters who advocated this purge of papist vestiges came to be known, were particularly vocal in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. They stressed congregational self-governance, emphasized the sermon and Bible study over the liturgy and ritual, and disdained much of the Anglican Church’s adornments as lingering pollutants from the Church of Rome. Despite their puritanical views on personal morality, their sect appealed to some of the more intellectual members of the middle class because it emphasized the value of meetings, discussions, sermons, and a personal understanding of the Bible.
By the time Josiah arrived in Banbury, the town was torn by the struggle over Puritanism. (During one of the more physical battles, a mob of Puritans toppled Banbury’s famous cross.) The Franklin family was divided as well, though less bitterly. John and Thomas III remained loyal to the Anglican Church; their younger brothers, Josiah and Benjamin (sometimes called Benjamin the Elder to distinguish him from his famous nephew), became dissenters. But Josiah was never fanatic in pursuing theological disputes. There is no record of any family feud over the issue.5
ERRAND INTO THE WILDERNESS
Franklin would later claim that it was a desire “to enjoy the exercise of their religion with freedom” that led his father, Josiah, to emigrate to America. To some extent, this was true. The end of Cromwell’s Puritan rule and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had led to restrictions on the Puritan faithful, and dissenting ministers were forced from their pulpits.
But Josiah’s brother, Benjamin the Elder, was probably right in attributing the move more to economic than religious factors. Josiah was not zealous about his faith. He was close to his father and older brother John, both of whom remained Anglican. “All evidence suggests that it was a spirit of independence, coupled with a kind of intellectual liveliness and earthy pract...