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Meet Dr Franklin
“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’
December 1971 | Volume 23, Issue 1
The image of himself Franklin chose to leave us in his unfinished Autobiography was of a man on the make who insincerely exploited popular morality to keep his printing presses running. Yet he himself, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, would have said that the morality of Poor Richard was foreshadowed by the plan of conduct Franklin had put down on paper in 1726 on a return voyage to Philadelphia from London, where he had spent almost two years in an effort to be able to buy equipment to set himself up as a printer. Later in life Franklin praised the plan as “the most remarkable, as being formed when I was so young, and yet being pretty faithfully adhered to quite through to old age.” The plan stressed the practice of extreme frugality until he had paid his debts, as well as truthfulness, industry, and the avoidance of speaking ill of others.
Franklin, the sixteen-year-old apprentice, absorbed the literary styles of his brother James and other New England satirists running their pieces in the Courant and clearly used the Spectator as his literary model. He produced the Silence Dogood letters, thirteen in a row, until, he admitted, “my small fund of sense for such performances was pretty well exhausted.” Until then even his own brother was not aware of the identity of the author.
If the Dogood letters satisfied Franklin’s itch for authorship, Poor Richard brought him fame and fortune. Lacking originality, drawing upon a wide range of proverbs and aphorisms notably found in a half dozen contemporary English anthologies, Franklin skillfully selected, ed-
ited, and simplified. For example, James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (London, 1660) says: “The greatest talkers are the least doers”; Poor Richard in 1733 made it: “Great talkers, little doers.” Thomas Fuller’s Gnomolonia (London, 1732) advises: “The way to be safe is never to be secure”; this becomes, in Poor Richard , 1748, “He that’s secure is not safe.” Every so often one of the aphorisms seems to reflect Franklin’s own views. Thus Poor Richard in 1747 counselled: “Strive to be the greatest Man in your Country, and you may be disappointed; Strive to be the best , and you may succeed: He may well win the race that runs by himself.” Two years later Poor Richard extols Martin Luther for being “remarkably temperate in meat and drink”—perhaps a throwback to Franklin’s own adolescent dietary obsessions—with an added comment, “There was never any industrious man who was not a temperate man.” To the first American pragmatist what was moral was what worked, and what worked was moral.
If there was any priggish streak in the literary Franklin, it was abundantly redeemed by his bawdy sense of humor and his taste for earthy language. Thus, to Poor Richard , foretelling the weather by astrology was “as easy as pissing abed.” And: “He that lives upon hope, dies farting.” The bawdy note of reportage guaranteed a good circulation for Franklin’s Gazette . Thus in 1731 : We are credibly inform’d, that the young Woman who not long since petitioned the Governor, and the Assembly to be divorced from her Husband, and at times industriously solicited most of the Magistrates on that Account, has at last concluded to cohabit with him again. It is said the Report of the Physicians (who in Form examined his Abilities , and allowed him to be in every respect sufficient ) gave her but small Satisfaction; Whether any Experiments more satisfactory have been try’d, we cannot say; but it seems she now declares it as her Opinion, That George is as good as de best .
Franklin’s ambivalent views of women indubitably reflected his own personal relations with the other sex. In his younger days he took sex hungrily, secretly, and without love. One of his women—just which one nobody knows for sure—bore him a son in 1730 or 1731. It was rumored that the child’s mother was a maidservant of Franklin’s named Barbara, an accusation first printed in 1764 by a political foe of Franklin, reputedly Hugh Williamson. Whether it was this sudden responsibility or just the boredom of sowing his wild oats, Franklin came to realize that “a single man resembles the odd half of a pair of scissors.” Having unsuccessfully sought a match with a woman who would bring him money, Franklin turned his thoughts back to Deborah Read, the girl he had first courted in Philadelphia and then jilted. He “took her to wife, September ist, 1730.” The illegitimate child, William, whether born before or after Franklin’s common-law marriage to Deborah, became part of the household, a convenient arrangement for Franklin while a constant reminder to Deborah of her spouse’s less than romantic feelings about her. Soon there arose between Deborah and William a coldness bordering on hostility.