- Historic Sites
October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
John Adams, for instance, was very concerned with himself, very apt to be jealous, at times pompous. He was a more intellectual man than Franklin, with a real knowledge of history that enabled Adams to compare systems of governments, ancient and modern. Yet Benjamin Franklin was a philosopher; he absolutely knew himself, never had feared to face himself, and without self-guilt or self-righteousness set about improving himself. What young revolutionary today wants to improve himself? He only wants to improve other people. To seek self-improvement a man has to believe in life, which means believing in himself. Montaigne said, “Of all the infirmities we have, the most savage is to despise our being.”
Of course the eighteenth century was a great believer in reason. Benjamin Franklin says to his sister Jane: “Our Reason would still be of more use to us if it could enable us to prevent the evils it can hardly enable us to bear, but in that it is so deficient and in other things so often misleads us that I have sometimes been almost tempted to wish we have been furnished with a good sensible instinct instead of it.”
John Adams commented on the growing myth surrounding the heroes of American independence rather sarcastically: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War .”
Benjamin Franklin loved to sing. He tells us that a certain song, “The Old Man’s Wish,” he had sung at least a thousand times. The chorus says: May I govern my passions with absolute sway Grow wiser and better as my strength wears away, Without gout or stone by gentle decay.
Of course he had both gout and stone, but he governed his passions, that we know. In many ways it is easier to write about somebody who did not govern their passions, somebody like John Adams, who thumped with his cane on the floor at the Continental Congress. Even George Washington could become terribly angry and burst out. It is true that every now and then Franklin lost his temper, but not often.
I want something about the ease with which Benjamin Franklin moved to his tasks, the lack of pretentiousness. Francis Bacon has a wonderful phrase in his essays about “the slide and ease with which one should learn to move.” Carl Van Doren says that Franklin must have been all that he seems, because nobody could have invented such a figure. I wish I’d thought of that.
When [George] Bancroft began his five or six volumes of his American history, he said, “I have formed the design of writing a History of the United States from the discovery of the American Continent to the present time. … I can find for myself no excuse but in the sincerity with which I have sought to collect the truth from trustworthy documents and testimony.”
I, C.B., have no such glorious, comprehensive plans. I purpose to catch glimpses of Franklin as he streaks, streams, boils by, borne along by a smoking cataract, yet himself cool as an apple in storage.
Franklin used to talk about “happy mediocrity,” and he used to be proud that America—American citizens—were in a state of happy mediocrity. Nobody could have said this except someone who was himself immensely superior, and yet is not this a revolutionary saying? A rom Tyler’s Literary History of the American Revolution: “It is only by continuous reading of the entire body of Franklin’s Revolutionary writings, from grave to gay, from lively to severe, that anyone can know how brilliant was his wisdom, or how wise was his brilliance, or how humane and gentle and helpful were both. …”
Franklin said: “Methinks life should have a dramatic ending like a stage piece. …” And he said, “Live as if you are to live forever.” A
And he had that quality that I call grace.