Last Footnotes

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Catherine Drinker Bowen—historian, musician, and most of all biographer—said in our sister magazine, HORIZON , in an article written shortly before her death, that all of her biographical heroes were possessed by a sense of urgency. Tchaikovsky, about whom she wrote a book in 1937, had to hurry, hurry so he wouldn’t die with “all my music in me.” Oliver Wendell Holmes ( Yankee from Olympus , 1944) decided, at eighty, to perfect his writing style because he had no more time for “complicated self-deception.”

The urgency that attracted Mrs. Bowen, the zest and the sense that work was sacred, obviously infused her own life, too. In the last dozen years she wrote four highly respected and successful books, and she was working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin when she died.

By the fall of 1973 the last chapter was not quite finished, and Mrs. Bowen knew she was critically ill. Her research was largely complete, but she found she could no longer write. On October 14 she started dictating into a tape recorder, first a plan for the final pages of her last chapter and then notes for an afterword she planned to write about “some of Franklin’s traits that I have not put in the book.”

Mrs. Bowen died on November 1, 1973. She was seventy-six years old. The notes that she had recorded for her afterword appear—exactly as she spoke them—at the end of her book, which under the title The Most Dangerous Man in America will be published soon by Little, Brown and Company. Before her death Mrs. Bowen wrote distinguished articles for A MERICAN H ERITAGE and we are pleased to share with our readers her highly personal and perceptive musings on Benjamin Franklin, the last of her heroes.

This,” I wrote once when I was thinking about my preface, “is the best integrated man I ever studied.” He accepted what came, never agonized in the romantic manner of Jonathan Edwards, who wrote, “My soul breaketh for the longing it hath.” Franklin never would have said anything like this, nor would he have given Thomas Jefferson’s reply when made commissioner to France: “I would go to Hell for my country.” On September 26, 1776, as Congress voted unanimously for Franklin to be commissioner of France, he turned to Benjamin Rush, who was sitting beside him, and said: “I am old and good for nothing; but, as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, ‘I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you please,’ just so my country may command my services in any way they choose.”

Then I want to say something about Franklin not having, as Herbert Butterfield says, “the tragic sense of life” that many great men have had. … Franklin was apparently one of those men who was born with a cheerful disposition. This is a tremendous gift. He had a talent for happiness, just as George Washington had a talent for character, integrity. Franklin said when he was old and suffering terribly, so that he had to lie in bed and use opium, that if he had the chance he would live his life over again. You do not find many men who would say this. To me it is very admirable. He suffered in his life a great deal of sickness, sore throats, gout, stone, all kinds of very difficult and painful illnesses. He never seemed to worry whether he would get well; he just got well. Sainte-Beuve called him “this most graceful of all utilitarians. …”

And it has been said that “Benjamin Franklin is enigmatic, always held something back.” Carl Becker in the Dictionary of American Biography says, “Benjamin Franklin is nevertheless not wholely committed. Some thought remains uncommunicated, some penetrating observation is held in reserve.” I’m not sure that I agree with this. I would rather believe that Franklin simply said what he thought as far as he had thought at the moment. Later he may change his mind.

Doctor Holmes, O. W. Holmes’s father, said that sanctimonious people made him sneeze and go home with a cold. I think Franklin was like that. He hated solemn, pompous people. He simply never replied to them. He talked very little in company but talked freely with a friend or two, especially over a few drinks.

As I said, it is true that Benjamin Franklin lacked that tragic sense of life that makes heroes, but I love him for it; he simply accepted. Though I doubt if he ever accepted the Wedderburn scene [Solicitor General Wedderburn, who in 1774 before the Privy Council in London called Franklin a thief], and why should he? What a brute that man was! I think the English can be more insulting than any nation on earth, perhaps because they do it politely.

Benjamin Franklin simply wrested a happy life from circumstances that would have dulled or embittered a lesser man. His wife could have bored him; he could easily have abandoned her. He never did. His son William imprisoned for two or three years as a Tory, his grandson a social climber or a fop. …