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Last Footnotes

May 2024
5min read

Catherine Drinker Bowen—historian, musician, and most of all biographer—said in our sister magazine, HORIZON , in an article written shortly before her death, that all of her biographical heroes were possessed by a sense of urgency. Tchaikovsky, about whom she wrote a book in 1937, had to hurry, hurry so he wouldn’t die with “all my music in me.” Oliver Wendell Holmes ( Yankee from Olympus , 1944) decided, at eighty, to perfect his writing style because he had no more time for “complicated self-deception.”

The urgency that attracted Mrs. Bowen, the zest and the sense that work was sacred, obviously infused her own life, too. In the last dozen years she wrote four highly respected and successful books, and she was working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin when she died.

By the fall of 1973 the last chapter was not quite finished, and Mrs. Bowen knew she was critically ill. Her research was largely complete, but she found she could no longer write. On October 14 she started dictating into a tape recorder, first a plan for the final pages of her last chapter and then notes for an afterword she planned to write about “some of Franklin’s traits that I have not put in the book.”

Mrs. Bowen died on November 1, 1973. She was seventy-six years old. The notes that she had recorded for her afterword appear—exactly as she spoke them—at the end of her book, which under the title The Most Dangerous Man in America will be published soon by Little, Brown and Company. Before her death Mrs. Bowen wrote distinguished articles for A MERICAN H ERITAGE and we are pleased to share with our readers her highly personal and perceptive musings on Benjamin Franklin, the last of her heroes.

This,” I wrote once when I was thinking about my preface, “is the best integrated man I ever studied.” He accepted what came, never agonized in the romantic manner of Jonathan Edwards, who wrote, “My soul breaketh for the longing it hath.” Franklin never would have said anything like this, nor would he have given Thomas Jefferson’s reply when made commissioner to France: “I would go to Hell for my country.” On September 26, 1776, as Congress voted unanimously for Franklin to be commissioner of France, he turned to Benjamin Rush, who was sitting beside him, and said: “I am old and good for nothing; but, as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, ‘I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you please,’ just so my country may command my services in any way they choose.”

Then I want to say something about Franklin not having, as Herbert Butterfield says, “the tragic sense of life” that many great men have had. … Franklin was apparently one of those men who was born with a cheerful disposition. This is a tremendous gift. He had a talent for happiness, just as George Washington had a talent for character, integrity. Franklin said when he was old and suffering terribly, so that he had to lie in bed and use opium, that if he had the chance he would live his life over again. You do not find many men who would say this. To me it is very admirable. He suffered in his life a great deal of sickness, sore throats, gout, stone, all kinds of very difficult and painful illnesses. He never seemed to worry whether he would get well; he just got well. Sainte-Beuve called him “this most graceful of all utilitarians. …”

And it has been said that “Benjamin Franklin is enigmatic, always held something back.” Carl Becker in the Dictionary of American Biography says, “Benjamin Franklin is nevertheless not wholely committed. Some thought remains uncommunicated, some penetrating observation is held in reserve.” I’m not sure that I agree with this. I would rather believe that Franklin simply said what he thought as far as he had thought at the moment. Later he may change his mind.

Doctor Holmes, O. W. Holmes’s father, said that sanctimonious people made him sneeze and go home with a cold. I think Franklin was like that. He hated solemn, pompous people. He simply never replied to them. He talked very little in company but talked freely with a friend or two, especially over a few drinks.

As I said, it is true that Benjamin Franklin lacked that tragic sense of life that makes heroes, but I love him for it; he simply accepted. Though I doubt if he ever accepted the Wedderburn scene [Solicitor General Wedderburn, who in 1774 before the Privy Council in London called Franklin a thief], and why should he? What a brute that man was! I think the English can be more insulting than any nation on earth, perhaps because they do it politely.

Benjamin Franklin simply wrested a happy life from circumstances that would have dulled or embittered a lesser man. His wife could have bored him; he could easily have abandoned her. He never did. His son William imprisoned for two or three years as a Tory, his grandson a social climber or a fop. …

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.

—Catherine Drinker Bowen

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