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The Modern Founder

March 2024
15min read

Benjamin Franklin speaks to us more directly than any of his colleagues. Perhaps that’s why so many different kinds of Americans have never stopped hating him.

“Mankind divides into two classes,” The Nation magazine declared in 1868: the “natural-born lovers” and the “natural-born haters” of Benjamin Franklin. One reason for this split is that Franklin does not, despite what some commentators claim, embody the American character. Instead he embodies one aspect of it —one side of a national dichotomy that has existed since the days when he and the fierce Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards stood as contrasting cultural figures.

On one side were those who believed in an anointed elect and in salvation through God’s grace alone. They tended to have a religious fervor, a sense of social class and hierarchy, and an appreciation for exalted virtues over earthly ones. On the other side were those who, like Franklin, believed in salvation through good works, whose religion was benevolent and tolerant, and who were unabashedly striving and upwardly mobile.

Out of this grew many related divides in the American character, and Franklin represents one strand: the side of pragmatism versus romanticism, of practical benevolence versus moral crusading. He was on the side of religious tolerance rather than evangelical faith. The side of social mobility rather than an established elite.

During the three centuries since his birth, the changing assessments of Franklin have tended to reveal less about him than about the people judging him. From an august historical stage filled with far less accessible Founders, he turned to each new generation with a half-smile and spoke directly in whatever vernacular was in vogue, infuriating some and beguiling others.

In the years right after his death, reverence for him grew. Even Franklin’s sometime antagonist John Adams mellowed. His earlier harsh criticisms, Adams explained in an 1811 essay, were in ways a testament to Franklin’s greatness: “Had he been an ordinary man, I should never have taken the trouble to expose the turpitude of his intrigues.” At times, Adams charged, Franklin was hypocritical, a poor negotiator, and a misguided politician. But his essay also included some of the most nuanced words of appreciation written by any contemporary: “Franklin had a great genius, original, sagacious and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and the mechanic arts. He had a vast imagination. … He had wit at will. He had humor that, when he pleased, was delicate and delightful. He had a satire that was good-natured or caustic, Horace or Juvenal, Swift or Rabelais, at his pleasure. He had talents for irony, allegory, and fable, that he could adapt with great skill to the promotion of moral and political truth. He was a master of that infantine simplicity which the French call naivete, which never fails to charm.”

By this time Franklin’s view of the central role of the middle class in American life had triumphed, despite the qualms of those who felt that this represented a trend toward vulgarization. “By absorbing the gentility of the aristocracy and the work of the working class, the middling sorts gained a powerful hegemony over the whole society,” the historian Gordon Wood noted. He was describing America in the early 180Os, but he could also have been describing Benjamin Franklin personally.

The age of enlightenment, however, was being replaced in the early 1800s by a literary era that valued romanticism more than rationality. The romantics admired not reason and intellect but deep emotion and subjective sensibility, and their criticisms decimated the reputations of Franklin, Voltaire, Swift, and other Enlightenment thinkers.

The great romantic poet John Keats was among the many who assaulted Franklin. He was, Keats wrote in 1818, “full of mean and thrifty maxims” and a “not sublime man.” Keats’s friend the poet and editor Leigh Hunt charged that Franklin had “few passions and no imagination” and encouraged mankind to a “love of wealth” that was stripped of “heart and soul.” Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish critic so in love with romantic heroism, scorned Franklin as “the father of all Yankees,” which was perhaps not as denigrating as Carlyle meant it to be.

American transcendentalists such as Thoreau and Emerson, who shared the romantics’ allergic reaction to rationalism and materialism, also found Franklin too mundane. The more earthy still revered his Autobiography —it was the one book that Davy Crockett carried with him to his death at the Alamo —but Thoreau had no place for it when heading off to Waiden Pond. Indeed, the first chapter of his Waiden journal, on economy, has tables and charts that subtly satirize those used by Franklin.

Emerson provided a mixed assessment. “Franklin was one of the most sensible men that ever lived,” he wrote his aunt, and was “more useful, more moral and more pure” than Socrates. But he went on to lament, “Franklin’s man is a frugal, inoffensive, thrifty citizen, but savors of nothing heroic.”

Along with the rise of romanticism came a growing disdain, among those for whom bourgeois would become a term of contempt, for Franklin’s beloved urban middle class and its shopkeeping values. It was a snobbery that would come to be shared by very disparate groups: proletarians and aristocrats, radical workers and leisured landowners, Marxists and elitists, intellectuals and anti-intellectuals.

But after the Civil War, with the growth of industry and the onset of the Gilded Age, Franklin’s reputation revived. The 130 novels by Horatio Alger, which eventually sold 20 million copies, made tales of virtuous boys who rose from rags to riches popular again. Franklin’s standing was also elevated by the emergence of that distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism, which holds, as Franklin had, that the truth of any proposition, whether it be scientific or moral or theological or social, is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.

The critic Van Wyck Brooks thought Franklin exemplified “a catchpenny opportunism.”

Many of the great capitalists took Franklin’s maxims seriously indeed. The industrialist Thomas Mellon declared that Franklin had inspired him to leave the family farm near Pittsburgh and go into business. “I regard the reading of Franklin’s Autobiography as the turning point of my life,” he wrote. “Here was Franklin, poorer than myself, who by industry, thrift and frugality had become learned and wise, and elevated to wealth and fame. … The maxims of ‘poor Richard’ exactly suited my sendments. I read the book again and again, and wondered if I might not do something in the same line by similar means.” So did Andrew Carnegie; not only did Franklin’s success story provide him guidance in business, it also inspired his philanthropy, especially his devotion to the creation of public libraries.

Franklin was praised as “the first great American” by the definitive historian of that period, Frederick Jackson Turner. “His life is the story of American common-sense in its highest form,” he wrote in 1887, “applied to business, to politics, to science, to diplomacy, to religion, to philanthropy.”

The pendulum again swung against Franklin in the 1920s, as Gilded Age individualism fell out of intellectual favor. Max Weber famously dissected America’s middle-class work ethic from a quasi-Marxist perspective in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , which quoted Franklin (and Poor Richard) extensively as a prime example of the “philosophy of avarice.” The critic Van Wyck Brooks distinguished between America’s highbrow and lowbrow cultures, and he placed Franklin as the founder of the latter. He exemplified, Brooks said, a “catchpenny opportunism” and a “two-dimensional wisdom.” The poet William Carlos Williams added that he was “our wise prophet of chicanery.”

The most vicious and amusing—and in ways most misguided—attack on Franklin came in 1923 from the English critic and novelist D. H. Lawrence: “Doctor Franklin. Snuff-colored little man! Immortal soul and all! The immortal soul part was a sort of cheap insurance policy. Benjamin had no concern, really, with the immortal soul. He was too busy with social man.…

“I can remember, when I was a little boy. … I used to have my little priggish laugh at the woman who counted her chickens before they were hatched and so forth, and I was convinced that honesty was the best policy, also a little priggishly. … And probably I haven’t got over those Poor Richard tags yet. I rankle still with them. They are thorns in young flesh.

“Because, although I still believe that honesty is the best policy, I dislike policy altogether; though it is just as well not to count your chickens before they are hatched, it’s still more hateful to count them with gloating when they are hatched. It has taken me many years and countless smarts to get out of that barbed wire moral enclosure that Poor Richard rigged up.…”

This is a bracing essay, but it should be noted that Lawrence aimed his assault not on the real-life Franklin but on the character he created in Poor Richard and in the Autobiography . In addition, Lawrence got a few facts wrong, among them attributing to Franklin the maxim “Honesty is the best policy,” which sounds like him but actually is from Cervantes, just as the one about not counting unhatched chickens is from Aesop.

Lawrence’s approach was echoed in a more substantive, if less dramatic, attack on Franklin’s bourgeois Babbittry by Charles Angoff in his Literary History of the American People , published in 1931. Carlyle’s description of Franklin as the father of all Yankees was, Angoff declared, a “libel against the tribe” that had produced Hawthorne and Thoreau. “It would be more accurate to call Franklin the father of all Kiwanians,” Angoff sneered. “Franklin represented the least praise-worthy qualities of the inhabitants of the new world: miserliness, fanatical practicality, and lack of interest in what are usually known as spiritual things. … He had a cheap and shabby soul. …”

The Great Depression reminded people that the virtues of industry and frugality, of helping others and making sure that the community held together, did not deserve to be dismissed as trivial and mundane. In 1938 Carl Van Doren published his glorious literary biography of Franklin. “He moved through this world in a humorous mastery of it,” Van Doren concluded. And the great historian of science I. Bernard Cohen began his lifelong work of showing that Franklin’s scientific achievements placed him in the pantheon with Newton. Franklin’s experiments, Cohen wrote in 1941, “afforded a basis for the explanation for all the known phenomenon of electricity.”

Franklin also became the patron saint of the self-help movement. Dale Carnegie studied the Autobiography when writing How to Win Friends and Influence People , which, after its publication in 1937, helped launch a craze that persists to this day for books featuring simple rules and secrets about how to succeed.

Steven Covey, the guru of the genre, referred to Franklin’s system in developing his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People , and a national chain of stores now sells FranklinCovey Organizers and other paraphernalia featuring Franklin’s ideas. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the self-help shelves of bookstores were filled with titles such as Ben Franklin’s 12 Rules of Management: The Founding Father of American Business Solves Your Toughest Problems and Healthy, Wealthy and Wise: Principals /sic/ for Successful Living From the Life of Benjamin Franklin .

In the academic world, Franklin was the subject of generally favorable books as the three hundredth anniversary of his birth approached. In The First American , H. W. Brands of Texas A&M sympathetically described the evolution of Franklin’s character in a solid and balanced narrative biography. “To genius he joined a passion for virtue,” he concluded. In 2002, Edmund S. Morgan, the revered Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, wrote a wonderfully astute character analysis based on an exhaustive reading of Franklin’s papers. “We may discover,” Morgan declared, a “man with a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart.”

Before this, during an era that was filled with sexual winks and unfettered entrepreneurship, Franklin was enlisted into the spirit. He became a jovial lecher dabbling in statecraft in such plays as 1776 and Ben Franklin in Paris , a genial sage whose adages were designed to entertain rather than intimidate aspiring young workers.

To the social commentator David Brooks, this version of Franklin embodies both the entrepreneurial and moral tenor of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He was the one historic figure from the American pantheon, Brooks wrote, “who would be instantly at home in an office park.

“He’d probably join the chorus of all those techno-enthusiasts who claim that the’Internet and bio-tech breakthroughs are going to transform life on earth wonderfully; he shared that passion for progress. At the same time, he’d be completely at home with the irony and gentle cynicism that is the prevailing conversational tone in those buildings. …”

Franklin has been unfairly attacked over the years, Brooks concluded, by romantics whose real targets were capitalism and middle-class morality. “But now the main problem is excess Franklinism, and we’ve got to figure out how to bring to today’s America the tragic sense and the moral gravity that was so lacking in its Founding Yuppie.”

This perceived lack of moral gravity and spiritual depth is the most serious charge against Franklin. A sentence he wrote to his sister Jane in 1771 captured this complacency and dearth of passion: “Upon the whole, I am much disposed to like the world as I find it, and to doubt my own judgment as to what would mend it.”

His religious beliefs, especially early in life, were largely a calculus of what credos would prove useful for people to believe, rather than an expression of sincere inner convictions. As he had no factual evidence about what was divinely inspired, he settled instead for the simple creed that the best way to serve God was by doing good to others.

As a scientist he had a feel for the mechanical workings of the world but little appreciation for abstract theories or the sublime. He was a great experimenter and clever inventor, with an emphasis on things useful, but he had neither the temperament nor the training to be a profound conceptualizer. In his personal life as well, there was likewise a lack of soulful commitment and deep passion. He frequented many antechambers but few inner chambers. His love of travel reflected the spirit of a young runaway. Throughout his life he had few emotional bonds tying him to any one place, and he seemed to glide through the world the way he glided through relationships. He could also, despite his professed belief in the virtue of sincerity, come across as conniving. He wrote his first hoax at 16 and the last on his deathbed; he perfected indirection as a conversation artifice; and he utilized the appearance of virtue as well as its reality.

All of which has led some critics to dismiss even Franklin’s civic accomplishments as the mundane aspirations of a shallow soul. The apotheosis of such criticism is in Vernon Parrington’s famous Main Currents in American Thought : “A man who is less concerned with the golden pavements of the City of God than that the cobblestones on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia should be well and evenly laid, who troubles less to save his soul from burning hereafter than to protect his neighbors’ houses by organizing an efficient fire-company, who is less regardful of the light that was never on sea or land than of a new-model street lamp to light the steps of a belated wayfarer—such a man, obviously, does not reveal the full nature of human aspiration.”

It is Parrington’s haughty use of the word obviously that provides us with a good launching point for a defense of Franklin. “Obviously,” perhaps, to Parrington and others of rarefied sensibility whose contributions to society are not so mundane as a library, university, fire company, bifocals, stove, lightning rod, or, for that matter, democratic constitutions. Their disdain is in part a yearning for the loftier ideals that could sometimes seem lacking in Franklin’s soul. Yet it is also, in part, a kind of snobbery.

So how are we, as Franklin the bookkeeper would have wished, to balance the ledger fairly? As he did in his own version of a moral calculus, we can list all the pros on the other side and determine if they outweigh the cons.

First we must rescue Franklin from the Schoolbook caricature of a genial codger flying kites in the rain and spouting homespun maxims about a penny saved. We must also rescue him from the critics who would confuse him with the character he carefully crafted in his Autobiography .

When Max Weber says that Franklin’s ethics are based only on the earning of more money, and when D. H. Lawrence reduces him to a man who pinched pennies and morals, they betray the lack of even a passing familiarity with the man who retired from business at 42, dedicated himself to civic and scientific endeavors, gave up much of his public salaries, and eschewed getting patents on his inventions.

The roots of much of what distinguishes this nation can be found in Franklin.

To assess Franklin properly, we must view him in all his complexity. There are many layers to peel back as he stands before us so coyly disguised, both to history and to himself, as a plain character unadorned by wigs and other pretensions.

Let’s begin with the surface layer, the Franklin who serves as a lightning rod for Jovian bolts from those who disdain middle-class values. There is something to be said—and Franklin said it well and often—for the personal virtues of diligence, honesty, industry, and temperance, especially when they are viewed as a means toward a nobler and more benevolent end.

The same is true of the civic virtues Franklin both practiced and preached. His community improvement associations and other public endeavors helped create a social order that promoted the common good. Few people have ever worked as hard, or done as much, to inculcate virtue in themselves and their communities.

Were such efforts mundane? Perhaps in part, but in his Autobiography , after recounting his effort to pave Philadelphia’s streets, Franklin provided an eloquent defense against such aspersions: “Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding or relating; but when they consider that though dust blown into the eyes of a single person, or into a single shop on a windy day, is but of small importance, yet the great number of the instances in a populous city, and its frequent repetitions give it weight and consequence, perhaps they will not censure very severely those who bestow some attention to affairs of this seemingly low nature. Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.”

Likewise, although a religious faith based on fervor can be inspiring, there is also something admirable about a religious outlook based on humility and openness. Charles Angoff charged that Franklin’s “main contribution to the religious question was little more than a good-natured tolerance.” Well, perhaps so, but the concept of good-natured religious tolerance was in fact no small advance for civilization in the eighteenth century. It was one of the greatest contributions to arise out of the Enlightenment, and in both his life and his writings, Franklin became a pre-eminent proponent of this creed. He developed it with great humor in his tales and with an earnest depth in his life and letters. In a world that was then, as, alas, it still is now, bloodied by those who seek to impose theocracies, he helped create a new type of nation that could draw strength from its religious pluralism. As Carry Wills argues in his book Under God, this, “more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth.”

Franklin also made a more subtle religious contribution: He detached Puritanism’s spirit of industriousness and diligence from its rigid dogma. Weber, with his contempt for middle-class values, disdained the Protestant ethic, and Lawrence felt that Franklin’s demystified version of it could not sate the dark soul. This ethic was, however, instrumental in instilling the virtue and character that built a nation. “He remade the Puritan in him into a zealous bourgeois,” writes John Updike, whose novels explore these very themes, “and certainly this is his main meaning for the American psyche: a release into the Enlightenment of the energies cramped under Puritainism.” As Henry Steele Commager declared in The American Mind , “In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.”

So, does Franklin deserve the accolade, accorded by his great contemporary David Hume, of America’s “first philosopher”? To some extent, he does. Disentangling morality from theology was an important achievement of the Enlightenment, and Franklin was its avatar in America. His moral and religious thinking, when judged in the context of his actions, writes James Campbell, “becomes a rich philosophical defense of service to advance the common good.” What it lacked in spiritual profundity, it made up for in practicality and potency.

What about the charge that Franklin was tod much of a compromiser instead of a heroic man of principle? Yes, he played both sides for a few years in the 177Os, when he was trying to mediate between England and America. Yes, he was somewhat squishy in dealing with the Stamp Act. He had taught himself as a young tradesman to avoid disputatious assertations, and his habit of benignly smiling while he listened to all sorts of people makes him seem at times duplicitous or insinuating.

But once again, there’s something to be said for Franklin’s outlook, for his pragmatism and occasional willingness to compromise. He believed in having the humility to be open to different opinions. For him that was not merely a practical virtue but a moral one as well. It was based on the tenet, fundamental to most moral systems, that every individual deserves respect. During the Constitutional Convention, for example, he was willing to compromise some of his beliefs to play a critical role in the conciliation that produced a near-perfect document. It could not have been accomplished if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle. Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make democracies.

More important, Franklin did in fact believe uncompromisingly in a few high principles—very important for shaping a new nation—that he stuck to throughout his life. He was ever unwavering in his opposition to arbitrary authority. This meant that despite his desire to find a compromise with Britain during the 177Os, he adhered firmly to the principle that American citizens and their legislatures must not be treated as subservient.

Similarly, he helped create, and came to symbolize, a new political order in which rights and power were based not on the happenstance of heritage but on merit and virtue and hard work. He rose up the social ladder, from runaway apprentice to dining with kings, in a way that would become quintessentially American. But in doing so he resolutely resisted, as a matter of principle, taking on aristocratic pretensions. More than almost any other Founder, he held firm to a fundamental faith that the New World should avoid replicating the hierarchies of the Old. His aversion to elitism and his faith in a new order built on the virtues of common people were among his most valuable contributions to a new nation.

Franklin’s belief that he could best serve God by serving his fellow man may strike some as mundane, but it was in truth a worthy creed that he deeply believed and faithfully followed. He was remarkably versatile in this service. He devised legislatures and lightning rods, lotteries and lending libraries. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation’s federal compromise. As his friend the French statesman Turgot said, in his famous epigram “ Eripuit caelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis, ” he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.

All of this made him the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become. Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin: its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom, its technological ingenuity, its pluralistic tolerance, its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation, its philosophical pragmatism, its celebration of meritocratic mobility, the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy, and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values.

His focus tended to be on how ordinary issues affect everyday lives and on how ordinary people could build a better society. But that did not make him an ordinary man. Nor did it reflect a shallowness. On the contrary, his vision of how to build a new type of nation was both revolutionary and profound.

Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow leather-aprons more than those of any inbred elite. His guiding principle was a “dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” Few of his fellow Founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively.

Throughout his long life he held true to a fundamental ideal with unwavering and at times heroic fortitude: a faith in the wisdom of the common citizen that was manifest in an appreciation for the possibilities of democracy. It was a noble ideal, one that was transcendent and poetic in its own way. And it turned out to be, as history proved, a practical and useful one as well.

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