Meet Dr Franklin

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Unlike the philosophes who spread toleration but were intolerant of Roman Catholicism, Franklin tolerated and even encouraged any and all sects. He contributed to the support of various Protestant churches and the Jewish synagogue in Philadelphia, and, exploiting his friendship with the papal nuncio in Paris, he had his friend John Carroll made the first bishop of the Catholic Church in the new United States. He declared himself ready to welcome a Muslim preacher sent by the Grand Mufti in Constantinople, but that exotic spectacle was spared Protestant America of his day.

Although he fancied the garb of a Quaker, a subtle form of reverse ostentation that ill accorded with his preachments about humility, Franklin was no pacifist. Following Braddock’s disastrous defeat in December, 1755, Franklin as a civilian committeeman marched into the interior at the head of an armed force, directing an improvised relief program for the frontier refugees who had crowded into Bethlehem and seeing about the fortifying of the Lehigh gap. Once again, almost a decade later, he took command of a military force—this time to face down a frontier band known as the Paxton Boys, who in 1764 set out on a lawless march to Philadelphia to present the government with a demand for protection against the Indians. Franklin issued a blazing pamphlet denouncing the Paxton Boys for their attacks on peaceful Indians and organized and led a force to Germantown, where he confronted the remonstrants and issued a firm warning. The Paxton Boys veered off, and order was finally restored. “For about fortyeight hours,” Franklin remarked, “I was a very great man, as I had been once some years before in a time of public danger.”

 

Franklin’s brief exposure as a military figure, combined with his leadership of the antiproprietary party and his general prominence and popularity had by now made him anathema to proprietor and conservatives alike. Standing out against the Establishment, Franklin was heartened by the enemies he had made. A thorough democrat, Franklin had little use for proprietary privileges or a titled aristocracy. In his Silence Dogood letters written as far back as 1723 he had pointed out that “Adam was never called Master Adam; we never read of Noah Esquire , Lot Knight and Baronet , nor the Right Honourable Abraham, Viscount Mesopotamia, Baron of Carian; no, no, they were plain Men.” Again, Poor Richard engaged in an amusing genealogical computation to prove that over the centuries it was impossible to preserve blood free of mixtures, and “that the pretension of such purity of blood in ancient families is a mere joke.” With perhaps pardonable inconsistency Franklin took the trouble to trace his own family back to stout English gentry, but his basic antiaristocratic convictions stood the test of time. When, in the post-Revolutionary years, the patrician-sounding Society of the Cincinnati was founded in America, Franklin in France scoffed at the Cincinnati as “hereditary knights” and egged on Comte de Mirabeau to publish an indictment of the society which set off an international clamor against its hereditary character.

For courts and lawyers, defenders of property and the status quo, Franklin reserved some of his most vitriolic humor. His Pennsylvania Gazette consistently held up to ridicule the snobbery of using law French in the courts, excessive legal fees and court costs, and the prolixity and perils of litigation. For the lawyers who “can, with ease, twist words and meanings as you please,” Poor Richard shows no tolerance. Predictably, Franklin took the side of the debtor against the creditor, the paper money man against the hard currency man.

Franklin’s support of paper money did not hurt him in the least. As a matter of fact, the Pennsylvania assembly gave him the printing contract in 1731 for the£40,000 in bills of credit that it authorized that year. This incident could be multiplied many times. Franklin ever had an eye for the main chance. Whether as a poor printer, a rising politician, or an established statesman-scientist, Franklin was regarded by unfriendly critics as a man on the make, of dubious integrity.

Accumulating a tidy capital, Franklin invested in Philadelphia townlots, and then, as the speculative bug bit him, plunged into Nova Scotian and western land ventures. His secretive nature seemed ideally suited to such investments, in which he followed a rule he laid down in 1753: “Great designs should not be made publick till they are ripe for execution, lest obstacles are thrown in the way.” The climax of Franklin’s land speculations came in 1769 when he joined forces with Samuel Wharton to advance in England the interests of the Grand Ohio Company, which was more British than colonial in composition. This grand alliance of speculators and big-time politicians succeeded in winning from the Privy Council on July 1, 1772, a favorable recommendation supporting their fantastic dream of a colony called “Vandalia,” to be fitted together from the pieces of the present-day states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Kentucky. There Franklin’s love of order would replace that frontier anarchy which he abhorred.