Meet Dr Franklin

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As bedfellows they were curiously mismatched. Yet Benjamin Franklin and John Adams once shared a bed at a crowded New Brunswick inn, which grudgingly provided them with a room to themselves hardly larger than the bed itself. The room had one small window. Adams, who has recorded the night’s adventure, remembered that the window was open. Afraid of the mild September night air, he got out of bed and shut it.

“Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated,” Franklin remonstrated. Adams explained his fears of the night air, but his senior companion reassured him: “The air within the chamber will soon be, and indeed is now, worse than without doors. Come, open the window and come to bed, and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds.” With misgivings Adams agreed to open the window. While Franklin continued to expound his theory of the causes of colds, Adams fell asleep, remembering that the last words he heard were spoken very drowsily. For this one night the testy Adams, who never relished being crossed or losing an argument, yielded to the diplomatic blandishments of Franklin, whose scientific experimentalism extended even to his code of personal hygiene. Neither caught colds that night.

Out of choice neither Adams nor Franklin would have picked the other as a companion with whom to spend that or any other night, but they had no choice. Dispatched in the late summer of 1776 by the Continental Congress, along with Edward Rutledge, the young Carolinian, they were en route to a rendezvous with Lord Richard Howe, the British admiral, and Sir William Howe, the general, on Staten Island for an informal peace conference. The hour was late for reconciliation. On the second of July the Congress had voted independence. At the end of August a vast amphibious force had routed the rebels on Long Island and was readying the trap for Washington’s forces defending Manhattan. The three congressmen contested for space with soldiers thronging the Jersey roads to join Washington. What the Howes had to offer at the peace conference finally held on September 11 was no more than a pardon for those who had rebelled. It was too little and came too late. The war would be fought to a finish.

No one, least of all an Adams, could really get to know Franklin after a single night in bed with him. While Adams was to become increasingly-disenchanted with the man with whom he was to work abroad for a number of years, he could take satisfaction in the knowledge that his prejudices were shared by a whole party in Congress which well knew that Dr. Franklin was up to no good. To the rest of mankind (British officialdom and Tories excepted, of course) Franklin embodied the most admirable traits and was a truly great man.

Deceptively simple and disarmingly candid, but in reality a man of enormous complexity, Franklin wore many masks, and from his own time to this day each beholder has chosen the mask that suited his fancy. To D. H. Lawrence, Franklin typified the hypocritical and bankrupt morality of the do-gooder American, with his stress upon an old-fashioned Puritan ethic that glorified work, frugality, and temperance—in short, a “snuff-coloured little man” of whom “the immortal soul part was a sort of cheap insurance policy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald quickly fired off a broadside of his own. In The Great Gatsby that literary darling of the Jazz Age indicted Poor Richard’s Almanack as midwife to a generation of bootleggers.

If Lawrence and Fitzgerald were put off by Franklin’s common-sense materialism, which verged on crassness, or if Max Weber saw Franklin as embodying all that was despicable both in the American character and the capitalist system, if they and other critics considered him as little more than a methodical shopkeeper, they signally failed to understand that man of many masks. They failed to perceive how Franklin’s materialism was transmuted into benevolent and humanitarian ends; how that shopkeeper’s mind was stimulated by a ranging imagination that set no bounds to his intellectual interests and that continually fed an extraordinarily inventive and creative spark. They failed to explain how the popularizer of an American code of hard work, frugality, and moral restraint had no conscientious scruples about enjoying high living, a liberal sexual code for himself, and bawdy humor. They failed to explain how so prudent and methodical a man could have gotten caught up in a revolution in no small part of his own making.