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Meet Dr Franklin

May 2024
31min read

“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’

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.

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.”

Franklin’s rebellion against authority and convention soon assumed a more meaningful dimension. When, in 1722, his brother James was jailed for a month for printing in his newspaper critical remarks about the authorities, the sixteen-year-old apprentice pounced on the chance to achieve something on his own. He published the paper for his brother, running his own name on the masthead to circumvent the government. Continually quarrelling with his overbearing brother, Franklin determined to part company with his job, his family, and Boston, and to establish himself by his own efforts, unaided. The youthful rebel set forth on his journey to Philadelphia, arriving in that bustling town in October, 1723, when he was little more than seventeen years of age.

To carve out a niche for himself in the printing trade Franklin had to keep a checkrein on his rebellious disposition. For weeks he bore without ill temper the badgering of his master, Samuel Keimer. When the blowup came, Franklin, rather than stay and quarrel, packed up and lit out. Once more he was on his own. “Of all things I hate altercation,” he wrote years later to one of his fellow commissioners in Paris with whom he was continually at odds. He would write sharp retorts and then not mail the letters. An operator or negotiator par excellence, Franklin revealed in his youthful rebellion against family and employers the defensive techniques he so skillfully utilized to avoid combat. Yet there was little about Franklin’s behavior that we associate with neurotics. He was a happy extrovert who enjoyed the company of women and was gregarious and self-assured—a striking contrast to Isaac Newton, a tortured introvert who remained a bachelor all his life. Suffice it to say that Franklin never suffered the kind of nervous breakdown that Newton experienced at the height of his powers, and as a result his effectiveness remained undiminished until a very advanced age.


If Franklin early showed an inclination to back away from a quarrel, to avoid a head-on collision; if his modesty and candor concealed a comprehension of his own importance and a notably persistent deviousness, such traits may go far to explain the curious satisfaction he took in perpetrating hoaxes on an unsuspecting and gullible public. The clandestine side of Franklin, a manifestation of his unwillingness to engage in direct confrontation, hugely benefited by his sense of humor and satirical tal ents. An inveterate literary prankster from his precocious teens until his death, Franklin perpetrated one literary hoax after another. In 1730, when he became the sole owner of a printing shop and proprietor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which his quondam boss, Keimer, had launched a few years earlier, Franklin’s paper reported a witch trial at Mount Holly, New Jersey, for which there was no authority in fact.

Franklin’s greatest hoax was probably written in 1746 and perpetrated the following year, when the story ran in London’s General Advertiser. It was quickly reprinted throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland and in turn picked up by the Boston and New York papers. This was his report of a speech by Polly Baker before a Massachusetts court, in defense of an alleged prosecution for the fifth time for having a bastard child. “Can it be a crime (in the nature of things I mean) to add to the number of the King’s subjects, in a new country that really wants people?” she pleaded. “I own it, I should think it as praiseworthy, rather than a punishable action.” Denying that she had ever turned down a marriage proposal, but contrariwise was betrayed by the man who first made her such an offer, she compared her role with that of the great number of bachelors in the new country who had “never sincerely and honourably courtet a woman in their lives” and insisted that, far from sinning, she had obeyed the “great command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, Encrease and Multiply .” Her compassionate judges remitted her punishment, and, according to this account, one of them married her the very next day.

That so obviously concocted a morality tale as that one could have gained such wide credence seems incredible on its face. Yet the French sage, the Abbé Raynal, picked it up for his Histoire Philosophique et Politique , published in 1770. Some seven years later, while visiting Franklin at Passy, Raynal was to be disabused. ”When I was young and printed a newspaper,” Franklin confessed, “it sometimes happened, when I was short of material to fill my sheet, that I amused myself by making up stories, and that of Polly Baker is one of the number.”

When, some years later, Franklin’s severe critic John Adams listed Polly Baker’s speech as one of Franklin’s many “outrages to morality and decorum,” he was censuring not only Franklin’s liberal sexual code but his evident inability to throw off bad habits in old age. Franklin’s penchant for pseudonymous writing, abundantly displayed in the Revolutionary years, was one side of his devious nature and evidenced his desire to avoid direct confrontation. …

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.

The married Franklin’s literary allusions to women could be both amicable and patronizing; he could treat them as equals but show downright hostility at times. He stuffed his Almanack with female stereotypes, perhaps charging off his own grievances to the sex in general. He frequently jabbed at “domineering women,” with Richard Saunders the prototype of all hen-pecked husbands. A woman’s role in life, he tells us, is to be a wife and have babies, but a man has a more versatile role and therefore commands a higher value.

With the sexual revolution of the twentieth century and the modern penchant for pornographic vocabulary, Franklin’s letter on marriages and mistresses has attained respectability and wide circulation. In essence, Franklin, in a letter dated June 25, 1745, commended marriage as the state in which a man was “most likely to find solid happiness.” However, those wishing to avoid matrimony without forgoing sex were advised to prefer “old women to young ones.” Among the virtues of older women he listed their more agreeable conversation, their continued amiability to counteract the “diminution of beauty,” the absence of a “hazard of children,” their greater prudence and discretion in conducting extramarital affairs, and the superiority of their techniques. “As in the dark all cats are gray, the pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every knack being by practice capable of improvement.” Furthermore, who could doubt the advantages of making an old woman “happy” over debauching a virgin and contributing to her ruin. Finally, old women are “so grateful!!”

How much this advice reflected Franklin’s own marriage of convenience remains for speculation. Poor Richard is constantly chiding cuck olds, scolding wives, and suggesting that marital infidelity is the course of things: “Let thy maidservant be faithful, strong, and homely"; “She that paints her face, thinks of her tail"; “Three things are men most liable to be cheated in, a horse, a wig, and a wife.” Or consider poor Lub lying on his deathbed, both he and his wife despairing, he fearing death, she “that he may live.” Or the metaphor of women as books and men the readers: “Are Women Books? says Hodge, then would mine were an Almanack, to change her every year.”

Enough examples, perhaps, have been chosen to show that Franklin’s early view of women was based on a combination of gross and illicit sexual experiences and a less than satisfying marriage with a wife neither glamorous nor intellectually compatible.

Abruptly, at the age of forty-two, Franklin retired from active participation in his printing business. He explained the action quite simply: “I flattered myself that, by the sufficient tho’ modest fortune I had acquir’d, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements.” These words masked the middle-age identity crisis that he was now undergoing. Seeking to project himself on a larger stage, he did not completely cut his ties to a less glamorous past—including a wife who was a social liability—but conveniently evaded it. Now he could lay aside the tools of his trade and the garments of a petit bourgeois and enter the circles of gentility. Gone were the days when he would sup on an anchovy, a slice of bread and butter, and a half pint of ale shared with a companion. His long bouts with the gout in later life attest to his penchant for high living—Madeira, champagne, Parmesan cheese, and other continental delicacies. Sage, philanthropist, statesman, he became, as one critic has remarked, “an intellectual transvestite,” affecting a personality switch that was virtually completed before he left on his first mission (second trip) to England in 1757. Not that Franklin was a purely parochial figure at the time of his retirement from business. Already he had shown that passion for improvement that was to mark his entire career. Already he had achieved some local reputation in public office, notably in the Pennsylvania assembly. Already he had displayed his inventive techniques, most notably with his invention of the “Pennsylvania Fireplace,” and had begun his inquiries into the natural sciences.

Now, on retirement from private affairs, he stood on the threshold of fame. In the subsequent decade he plunged into his scientific investigations and into provincial politics with equal zest. Dispatched to England in 175710 present the case of the Pennsylvania assembly against the proprietor, he spent five of the happiest years of his life residing at the Craven Street residence of the widowed Margaret Stevenson. Mrs. Stevenson, and especially her daughter Mary, provided for him a pleasant and stimulating home away from home. Reluctantly he returned to Philadelphia at the end of his five-year stay, so enraptured by England that he even contemplated settling there, “provided we can persuade the good woman to cross the seas.” Once more, in 1764, he was sent abroad, where he stayed to participate in all the agitation associated with the Grenville revenue measures. Snugly content in the Stevenson ménage, Franklin corresponded perfunctorily with his wife back in Philadelphia. Knowing that Deborah was unwilling to risk a sea voyage to join him in London, Franklin did not insist. And though he wrote his wife affectionate letters and sent her gifts, he never saw her again. She died of a stroke in December, 1774, without benefit of Franklin’s presence.

It was in France after the American Revolution had broken out that Franklin achieved more completely the new identity that was the quest of his later years. There the mellow septuagenarian, diplomat, and peacemaker carried out a game with the ladies of the salon, playing a part, ironic, detached but romantic, enjoying an amitié amoureuse with Mme. Brillon, his impressionable and neurotic neighbor in Passy, flirting in Paris with the romantically minded Comtesse d’Houdetot, and then in the rustic retreat of Auteuil falling in love with the widow of Claude Adrien Helvétius, whom he was prepared to marry had she been so inclined. In the unreal world of the salon Franklin relished the role of “papa.” Still he avoided combat or confrontation even in his flirtation. Where he scented rejection, he turned witty, ironic, and verbally sexual.

He found time, while engaged in the weighty affairs of peacemaking during the summer of 1782, to draw up a treaty of “eternal peace, friendship, and love” between himself and Mme. Brillon. Like a good draftsman, Franklin was careful to preserve his freedom of action, in this case toward other females, while at the same time insisting on his right to behave without inhibitions toward his amiable neighbor. Some months before, he wrote her: I often pass your house. It appears desolate to me. Formerly I broke the Commandment by coveting it along with my neighbour’s wife. Now I do not covet it any more, so I am less a sinner. But as to his wife I always find these Commandments inconvenient and I am sorry that they were ever made. If in your travels you happen to see the Holy Father, ask him to repeal them, as things given only to the Jews and too uncomfortable for good Christians.

Franklin met Mme. Brillon in 1777 and found her a beautiful woman in her early thirties, an accomplished musician, married to a rich and tolerant man twenty-four years her senior. To Mme. Brillon, Franklin was a father figure, while to Franklin she combined the qualities of daughter and mistress. Part tease, part prude, Mme. Brillon once remarked: “Do you know, my dear papa, that people have criticized the sweet habit I have of sitting on your lap, and your habit of soliciting from me what I always refuse?” In turn Franklin reminded her of a game of chess he had played in her bathroom while she soaked in the tub.

If Franklin was perhaps most passionately fond of Brillon, other ladies of the salon set managed to catch his eye, among them the pockmarked, cross-eyed Comtesse d’Houdetot, who made up in sex appeal what she lacked in looks. Unlike Rousseau, who cherished for the Comtesse an unrequited passion that was publicized in the posthumously printed Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloise , Franklin had a relationship with her that never seemed to border on intimacy. Contrariwise, Franklin carried on a long flirtation with the widowed Madame Helvétius. Abigail Adams, John’s strait-laced wife, was shocked at the open intimacies between the pair. Franklin complained that since he had given Madame “so many of his days,” she appeared “very ungrateful in not giving him one of her nights.” Whether in desperation or because he really felt the need to rebuild some kind of family life, he proposed to her. When she turned him down, he wrote a bagatelle recounting a conversation with Madame’s husband in the Elysian Fields as well as his own encounter with his deceased wife Deborah. He then dashed into print with the piece, an odd thing to do if he were deadly serious about the proposal. As Sainte-Beuve remarked of this episode, Franklin never allowed himself to be carried away by feeling, whether in his youth or in old age, whether in love or in religion. His romantic posture was almost ritualistic. He almost seemed relieved at the chance to convert an emotional rebuff into a literary exercise.


Despite his casual attitude toward sexual morality, Franklin was far from being a playboy. The old Doctor, an irrepressible activist and dogooder, embodied in his own career the blend of practicality and idealism that has characterized Americans ever since. Convinced from early youth of the values of self-improvement and self-education, Franklin on his return to Philadelphia from his first trip to England organized the Junto, a society half debating, half social, attesting both to the sponsor’s belief in the potentialities of continued adult education and to his craving for intellectual companionship not provided in his own home. Then came the subscription library, still flourishing in Philadelphia. Franklin’s plans for a Pennsylvania academy, drawn up in 1743, reached fruition a decade later and were a positive outgrowth of his conviction that an English rather than a classical education was more suitable to modern man and that most colleges stuffed the heads of students with irrelevant book-knowledge. Then, too, the task of organizing a Pennsylvania hospital—hospitalization being defended by him as more economical than home care—drew upon his seemingly inexhaustible fund of energy. So did his organization of a local fire company, and his program for a tax-supported permanent police watch, and for lighting, paving, sweeping, draining, and de-icing the streets of Philadelphia. Convinced of the virtues of thrift and industry, Franklin could be expected to take a dim view of poor relief, and questioned “whether the laws peculiar to England which compel the rich to maintain the poor have not given the latter a dependence that very much lessens the care of providing against the wants of old age.” Truly, this revolutionary, if he returned to us today, might well be aghast at the largess of the modern welfare state with its indifference to the work ethos. That the oldest of American revolutionaries should be committed to controlled, orderly change takes on larger significance when one seeks explanations as to why the American Revolution did not pursue the violent, even chaotic, course of the French. …

A man of the Enlightenment, Franklin had faith in the power and beneficence of science. In moments snatched from public affairs during the latter 1740’s and early 50’s—moments when public alarms interrupted his research at the most creative instant—he plunged into scientific experimentation. While his lightning kite and rod quickly made him an, international celebrity, Franklin was no mere dilettante gadgeteer. His conception of electricity as a flow with negative and positive force promoted further theoretical development in the theory of electromagnetism. His pamphlet on electricity, published originally in 1751, went through ten editions, including revisions, in four languages before the American Revolution. Honors from British scientists were heaped upon him; and when he arrived in England in 1757 and again in 1764 and in France in 1776, he came each time with an enlarged international reputation as a scientist whom Chatham compared in Parliament to “our Boyle” and “our Newton.”

Pathbreaking as Franklin’s work on electricity proved to be, his range of scientific interest extended far beyond theoretical physics. He pioneered in locating the Gulf Stream, in discovering that northeast storms come from the southwest, in making measurements of heat absorption with regard to color, and in investigating the conductivity of different substances with regard to heat. A variety of inventions attested to his utilitarian bent—the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the flexible metal catheter, bifocal glasses, the glass harmonica, the smokeless chimney. Indefatigable in his expenditure of his spare time on useful ends, he made observations on the nature of communication between insects, contributed importantly to our knowledge of the causes of the common cold, advocated scientific ventilation, and even tried on a number of occasions electric shock treatment to combat palsy.

To the last Franklin stoutly defended scientific experimentation that promised no immediate practical consequences. Watching the first balloon ascension in Paris, he parried the question, “What good is it?” with a characteristic retort, “What good is a newborn baby?”

Committed as he was to discovering truth through scientific inquiry, Franklin could be expected to be impatient with formal theology. While not denigrating faith, he regretted that it had not been “more productive of good works than I have generally seen it.” He suggested that, Chinese style, laymen leave praying to the men who were paid to pray for them. At the age of twenty-two he articulated a simple creed, positing a deistic Christian God with infinite power that He would abstain from wielding in arbitrary fashion. His deistic views remained unchanged when, a month before his death, Ezra Stiles asked him his opinion of the divinity of Jesus. Confessing doubts, Franklin refused to dogmatize or to busy himself with the problem at so late a date, since, he remarked, “I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

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.

Standing on the brink of a stunning success, the Vandalia speculators were now put in jeopardy by Franklin’s rash indiscretion in turning over to his radical friends in Massachusetts some embarrassing

letters of Governor Thomas Hutchinson that had been given to him in confidence. Indignant at Franklin’s disloyalty, the Crown officers refused to complete the papers confirming the grant to the Grand Ohio Company. With his usual deviousness, Franklin, in concert with the banker Thomas Walpole, publicly resigned from the company. In reality Walpole and Franklin had a private understanding by which the latter would retain his two shares out of the total of seventy-two shares of stock in the company. As late as April 11, 1775, Franklin, Walpole, and others signed a power of attorney authorizing land speculator William Trent to act on their behalf with respect to the grant, hardly necessary if Franklin was indeed out of the picture. In the summer of 1778 Franklin had a change of heart and decided to get back his original letter of resignation. When Walpole complied, Franklin added thereto a memorandum asserting: “I am still to be considered as an Associate, and was called upon for my Payments as before. My right to two shares, or two Parts of 72, in that Purchase still continues … and I hope, that when the Trouble of America is over, my Posterity may reap the Benefits of them.” Franklin’s posterity, it should be pointed out, stood a much better chance were England to retain the Old Northwest and the Crown validate the Grand Ohio claim than were title thereto to pass to the new United States, whose claim to that region Franklin would be expected by Congress to press at the peacemaking. Such an impropriety on Franklin’s part was compounded by his casual attitude about his carrying on a correspondence with a British subject in wartime while officially an American commissioner to France.

Franklin’s critics decried his penchant for nepotism, his padding the postmastership payroll with his relatives, the pressure he exercised on his fellow peace commissioners to have the unqualified Temple Franklin appointed as secretary to the commission, and his willingness to have his grandnephew Jonathan Williams set up as a shipping agent at Nantes. Franklin’s conduct of his office in France continued to supply grounds for ugly charges. What is significant is not that Franklin was guilty as charged but rather that the suspicion of conflict of interest would not die down despite his own disclaimer. At best, Franklin in France was untidy and careless in running his office. What can be said about a statesman whose entourage included a secretary who was a spy in British pay, a maître d’h’f4tel who was a thief, and a grandson who was a playboy! Only a genius could surmount these irregularities and achieve a stunning triumph. And Franklin had genius.

Because of Franklin’s prominence in the Revolutionary movement, it is often forgotten that in the generation prior to the final break with England he was America’s most notable imperial statesman, and that the zigzag course he was to pursue owed more to events than to logic. As early as 1751 he had proposed an intercolonial union to be established by voluntary action on the part of the colonies. Three years later at Albany, where he presented his grand design of continental union, he included therein a provision for having the plan imposed by parliamentary authority. …

Each intensely jealous of its own prerogatives, the colonial assemblies proved cool to the plan, while the Privy Council was frigid. As Franklin remarked years later, “the Crown disapproved it as having too much weight in the democratic part of the constitution, and every assembly as having allowed too much to the prerogative; so it was totally rejected.” In short, the thinking of the men who met at Albany in 1754 was too bold for that day. In evolving his Plan of Union Franklin had shown himself to be an imperial-minded thinker who placed the unity and effective administration of the Englishspeaking world above the rights and rivalries of the separate parts. Had Franklin’s Plan of Union been put in operation, it would very likely have obviated the necessity for any Parliamentary enactment of taxes for the military defense and administration of the colonies.

Franklin’s pride in the Empire survived his letdown in 1754. In April, 1761, he issued his famous Canada pamphlet, The Interest of Great Britain Considered , wherein he argued the case for a plan that would secure for Great Britain Canada and the trans-Appalachian West rather than the French West Indian islands, arguments upon which Lord Shelburne drew heavily in supporting the Preliminary Articles of Peace of 1762 that his sponsor Lord Bute had negotiated with France.

For Franklin, 1765 may be considered the critical year of his political career. Thereafter he abandoned his role as imperial statesman and moved steadily on a course toward revolution. Some would make Franklin out as a conspirator motivated by personal pique, and, while one must concede that Franklin’s reticence and deviousness endowed him with the ideal temperament for conspiracy and that his public humiliation at the hands of Crown officials provided him with all the motivation that most men would need, one must remember that above all Franklin was an empiricist. If one course would not. work, he would try another. Thus, Franklin as agent in London for Pennsylvania’s assembly not only approved the Stamp Act in advance, but proposed many of the stamp collectors to the British government. To John Hughes, one of his unfortunate nominees who secured the unhappy job for his own province, Franklin counselled “coolness and steadiness,” adding: … a firm loyalty to the Crown and faithful adherence to the government of this nation, which it is the safety as well as honour of the colonies to be connected with, will always be the wisest course for you and I to take, whatever may be the madness of the populace or their blind leaders, who can only bring themselves and country into trouble and draw on greater burthens by acts of rebellious tendency.

But Franklin was a fast learner. If the violence and virtual unanimity of the opposition in the colonies to the Stamp Act took him by surprise, Franklin quickly adjusted to the new realities. In an examination before the House of Commons in February, 1766, he made clear the depth of American opposition to the new tax, warned that the colonies would refuse to pay any future internal levy, and intimated that “in time” the colonists might move to the more radical position that Parliament had no right to levy external taxes upon them either. Henceforth Franklin was the colonists’ leading advocate abroad of their rights to self-government, a position grounded not only on his own eminence but on his agency of the four colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Georgia. If he now counselled peaceful protest, it was because he felt that violent confrontations would give the British government a pretext for increasing the military forces and placing the colonies under even more serious repression. A permissive parent even by today’s lax standards, Franklin drew an interesting analogy between governing a family and governing an empire. In one of his last nostalgic invocations of imperial greatness, Franklin wrote: Those men make a mighty noise about the importance of keeping up our authority over the colonies. They govern and regulate too much. Like some unthinking parents, who are every moment exerting their authority in obliging their children to make bows, and interrupting the course of their innocent amusements, attending constantly to their own prerogative, but forgetting tenderness due to their offspring. The true act of governing the colonies lies in a nut-shell. It is only letting them alone.

Down to the outbreak of hostilities Franklin still clung to his post of absentee deputy postmaster general of the colonies, with all the perquisites thereto attached. All that dramatically changed in the years 1773-74, a final turning point in his career.

Franklin had gotten his hands on a series of indiscreet letters written by Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts Bay, respectively, and addressed to Thomas Whately, a member of the Grenville and North ministries. The letters, which urged that the liberties of the province be restricted, were given to Franklin by a person whose confidence he preserved to show him that false advice from America went far toward explaining the obnoxious acts of the British government. Tongue in cheek, Franklin sent the letters on to Thomas Gushing, speaker of the Massachusetts house of representatives, with an injunction that they were not to be copied or published but merely shown in the original to individuals in the province. But in June, 1773, the irrepressible Samuel Adams read the letters before a secret session of the house and later had the letters copied and printed.

The publication of the Hutchinson-Oliver letters, ostensibly against Franklin’s wishes, caused an international scandal, which for the moment did Franklin’s reputation no good. Summoned before the Privy Council, he was excoriated by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn. The only way Franklin could have obtained the letters, Wedderburn charged, was by stealing them from the person who stole them, and, according to one account, he added, “I hope, my lords, you will mark and brand the man” who “has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.” Henceforth, he concluded, “Men will watch him with a jealous eye; they will hide their papers from him, and lock up their escritoires. He will henceforth esteem it a libel to be called a man of letters; homo tnum literarum! ” Of course, everyone in the audience knew Latin and recognized the “three letters” Wedderburn referred to as fûr, the word for “thief.”

Discounting Wedderburn’s animosity, the solicitor general may have accurately captured Franklin’s frame of mind at this time when he remarked that “Dr. Franklin’s mind may have been so possessed with the idea of a Great American Republic, that he may easily slide into the language of the minister of a foreign independent state,” who, “just before the breaking out of war . . . may bribe a villain to steal or betray any state papers.” There was one punishment the Crown could inflict upon its stalwart antagonist, and that was to strip him of his office as deputy postmaster general. That was done at once. Imperturbable as was his wont, Franklin remained silent throughout the entire castigation, but inwardly he seethed at both the humiliation and the monetary loss that the job, along with his now collapsed Vandalia scheme, would cost him. He never forgot the scorching rebuke. He himself had once remarked that he “never forgave contempt” and that it “costs me nothing to be civil to inferiors; a good deal to be submissive to superiors.” It is reported that on the occasion of the signing of the treaty of alliance with France, he donned the suit of figured blue velvet that he had worn on that less triumphal occasion and, according to an unsubstantiated legend, wore it again at the signing of the preliminary peace treaty by which Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States.

Believing he could help best by aiding Pitt in his fruitless efforts at conciliation, Franklin stayed on in England for another year. On March 20, 1775, he sailed for America, convinced that England had lost her colonies forever. On May 6, 1775, the day following his return to Philadelphia, he was chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress. There he would rekindle old associations and meet for the first time some of the younger patriots who were to lead the nation along the path to independence.

An apocryphal story is told of Franklin’s journey from Nantes to Paris, where he would later be the American ambassador. At one of the inns in which he stayed, he was informed that the Tory-minded Edward Gibbon, the first volume of whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had been published in the spring of that year, was also stopping. Franklin sent his compliments, requesting the pleasure of spending the evening with the historian. In answer he received a card stating that notwithstanding Gibbon’s regard for the character of Dr. Franklin as a man and a philosopher, he could not reconcile it with his duty to his king to have any conversation with a rebellious subject. In reply Franklin wrote a note declaring that “though Mr. Gibbon’s principles had compelled him to withhold the pleasure of his conversation, Dr. Franklin had still such a respect for the character of Mr. Gibbon, as a gentleman and a historian, that when, in the course of his writing a history of the decline and fall of empires, the decline and fall of the British Empire should come to be his subject as he expects it soon would, Dr. Franklin would be happy to furnish him with ample materials which were in his possession.”


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