Meet Dr Franklin

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Franklin would have been the first to concede that he had in his Autobiography created a character gratifying to his own vanity. “Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves,” he observed, “but I give it fair quarter where I meet it.” Begun in 1771, when the author had completed a half dozen careers and stood on the threshold of his most dramatic role, the Autobiography constitutes the most dazzling success story of American history. The penniless waif who arrived in Philadelphia dishevelled and friendless, walking up Market Street munching a great puffy roll, had by grit and ability propelled himself to the top. Not only did the young printer’s apprentice manage the speedy acquisition of a fortune, but he went on to achieve distinction in many different fields and greatness in a few of them. In an age when the mastery of more than one discipline was possible, Franklin surpassed all his contemporaries as a well-rounded citizen of the world. Endowed with a physique so strong that as a young man he could carry a large form of type in each hand “when others carried but one in both hands,” a superb athlete and a proficient swimmer, Franklin proved to be a talented printer, an enterprising newspaper editor and publisher, a tireless promoter of cultural institutes, America’s first great scientist, whose volume on electricity turned out to be the most influential book to emerge from America in the eighteenth century, and second to none as a statesman. Eldest of the Founding Fathers by a whole generation, he was in some respects the most radical, most devious, and most complicated.

From the available evidence, mainly provided by the subject himself, Franklin underwent two separate identity crises, those periods when, as modern-day psychoanalysts suggest, the subject struggles for a new self and a new conception of his place in the world. In adolescence Franklin experienced a psychological crisis of the kind that Erik Erikson has so perceptively attributed to personages as disparate as Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi. Again, Franklin, the middle-aged man seeking a new image of himself, seems the prototype of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s classic case. As regards the first crisis, the Autobiography reveals a sixteen-year-old rebelling against sibling rivalry and the authority of his household, using a variety of devices to maintain his individuality and sense of self-importance.

Born in Boston in 1706, the tenth son of Josiah and Abiah Folger Franklin and the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations, Franklin could very easily have developed an inferiority complex as one of the youngest of thirteen children sitting around his father’s table at one time. Everything about the home reduced Franklin’s stature in his own eyes. When his father tried to make a tallow chandler and soap boiler out of him, he made it clear that his father’s trade, was not to his liking. His father then apprenticed the twelve-year-old lad to his brother James, who had started a Boston newspaper, the New England Courant , in 1721. For the next few years Benjamin was involved in one or another kind of rebellion.

Take the matter of food. Benjamin, an omnivorous reader, devoured a book recommending a vegetarian diet. Since his brother James boarded both himself and his apprentices at another establishment, Franklin’s refusal to eat meat or fish proved an embarrassment to his elder brother and a nuisance to the housekeeper. Franklin, to save arguments, which he abhorred, worked out a deal with his brother, who agreed to remit to him half the money he paid out for him for board if he would board himself. Concentrating on a frugal meatless diet, which he dispatched quickly, Franklin, eating by himself, had more time to continue his studies. While eating one of his hastily prepared meals, he first feasted on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , by John Locke.

A trivial episode indeed, but this piece of self-flagellation forecast a lifelong pattern of pervasive traits. Benjamin Franklin did not like to hurt anyone, even nonhuman creatures. He was prone to avoid hostilities. Rather than insisting upon getting the menu he preferred, he withdrew from the table of battle and arranged to feed himself. This noncombative nature, masking a steely determination, explains much of Franklin’s relations with others thereafter. Even his abandonment of the faddish vegetarian diet provides insights into the evolving Franklin with his pride in rational decision. On his famous voyage from Boston to Philadelphia, he tells us, his ship became becalmed off Block Island, where the crew spent their idle moments catching cod. When the fish were opened, he saw that smaller fish came out of the stomachs of the larger cod. “Then, thought I,” he confessed in his Autobiography , “if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you.” With that he proceeded to enjoy a hearty codfish repast and to return at once to a normal flesh-eating diet. With a flash of self-revelation, he comments, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature , since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”