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Not So Poor Richard

Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies

by Robert Middlekauff
University of California Press, 275 pp., $24.95

The Devious Dr. Franklin, Colonial Agent: Benjamin Franklin’s Years in London

by David T. Morgan
Mercer University Press, 280 pp., $34.95

Of all the Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin is the most puzzling, the most difficult to understand and explain. He is a bundle of contradictions. At one and the same time he seems to be the most American and the least American of the Revolutionary leaders. He is the classic American success story, the prototypal self-made man, rising from obscure origins to great preeminence. He began as a printer’s apprentice, the son of an insignificant tallow chandler and soapmaker, and became so rich and successful as a publisher of newspapers and books that he could retire at the age of forty-two. Despite his dramatic rise, however, he seems to later generations never to have shed his lowly origins. Of all the Founding Fathers he seems the most folksy, the most popular, the one with the greatest common touch. Ordinary Americans today seem to be able to identify with him in a way they cannot with Washington or Jefferson. He remains the most rustic, bourgeois, and democratic of the Founders.

Yet this homespun, hardworking, prototypal American was at the same time the most European, the most cosmopolitan, the most sophisticated, indeed, the most aristocratic of the Founding Fathers. (In the Constitutional Convention, for example, he proposed that all members of the executive branch in the new federal government serve without pay.) He became an internationally renowned scientist who moved in the highest circles of the British and European nobility. He conversed with kings and even dined with one. He loved England and Europe and spent most of the last thirty-three years of his life living abroad, far away from America. At several points it was doubtful whether he would ever return to America, or wanted to, or even cared much about America.

Franklin was the least likely of revolutionaries. Certainly compared to the other leaders his participation in the Revolution is the hardest to explain. First of all, he was an old man—seventy years of age in 1776, not the age when we think of men becoming revolutionaries. He was twenty-six years older than Washington, twenty-nine years older than John Adams, thirty-seven years older than Jefferson, and nearly a half-century older than Madison and Hamilton. More important, unlike the other Revolutionary leaders, who were young men virtually unknown outside of their little provinces, Franklin already had an established worldwide reputation. He was known all over Britain and Europe for his scientific work on electricity. He had received honorary degrees from St. Andrews and Oxford and was a member of the leading learned societies of Europe. By the time of the Revolution he was already an international celebrity, and of course he had no way of knowing what a great folk hero he would become. None of the Founding Fathers had so much to lose and so little to gain. We can generally comprehend the personal motives of the other Revolutionary leaders, but Franklin is different. He alone already had the position and the prospect of fame that the others could only yearn for. Since Franklin could scarcely have foreseen how much the Revolution would enhance his reputation, why at his age would he have risked so much? How and why did this cosmopolitan imperial enthusiast become an American patriot?

We do not usually ask why Franklin became an American revolutionary. We take his Americanism for granted. Indeed, he is usually so identified with America that we can scarcely think of him in any other way. But this is a problem of history. He is so overlaid with two hundred years of interpretations, symbols, and images that we have difficulty getting through to the authentic historical Franklin.1 Despite hundreds upon hundreds of studies of all aspects of Franklin and despite the magnificent ongoing publication of his papers by the Yale University Press, we hardly know the man.

Franklin wrote an Autobiography and lots of letters; indeed, Yale University Press has published thirty-one volumes of his papers and is only up to 1780. But despite this huge body of writings he never truly reveals much of himself. He always seems to be calculating and holding something of himself back—characteristics of restraint bred perhaps by his spectacular rise and the kind of patronage-dominated world he had to operate in. In his personal writings, especially in his Autobiography, he assumes so many roles and personae that it is difficult to know how to read him. Is he serious? Or is he ironical? Behind all the masks we do not know who he really is. “Many-sided” is the best we can do. He has certainly come to stand for America in all its many-sidedness in a way none of the other Founding Fathers has.

For many Americans throughout our history, and especially in our own time, the Poor Richard side of Franklin, who preached frugality, industry, and thrift in the “Almanack” he published between 1732 and 1757, has not been much valued. Imaginative writers and sensitive souls from Poe and Melville through Twain and D.H. Lawrence have ridiculed Franklin as the embodiment of America’s middle-class complacency, its get-ahead materialism, its utilitarian obsession with success. Yet, as Robert Middlekauff, professor of history at Berkeley, points out in his neat little book, these nineteenth- and twentieth-century criticisms of Franklin were not those of his eighteenth-century enemies. Franklin’s Autobiography was not published until after his death, and thus his eighteenth-century enemies did not know the folksy bourgeois character that we have come to know. They hated and feared a very different Franklin. Describing these enemies’ hatreds and fears of this eighteenth-century Franklin is the subject of Middlekauff’s book.

It is an ingenious subject, and Middlekauff develops it with elegance and grace. His writing has an easy conversational tone that hides the extensive research that lies behind it. He has a knack for compression and for summing up people, John Adams for example, in just a few paragraphs.

Middlekauff begins with a chapter on Franklin’s many friends. Franklin made friends easily and kept most of them his whole life. His extraordinary affability and curiosity drew people out and warmed them. And he could relate to all sorts, ranks, and ages of people. Children especially took to him and he to them. Women too: he flirted easily and charmed them. He had female friends his entire life, and as a widower of seventy-three he asked one of them, Madame Helvetius, to marry him. If she had accepted him, he would have remained in France for the rest of his days. Despite his generous capacity for friendship, however, Franklin, Middlekauff says, was “not all sunshine and light.” He had another passionate side that could attract and make enemies. He could love, but he could hate too. His enemies returned his hatred in kind.

His enemies, says Middlekauff, were mostly political enemies; they usually disliked Franklin for the very characteristics that have made him so impenetrable to us—his deep reserve, his wearing of masks, his playing of roles. He was devious and duplicitous. He could not be trusted. His loyalties were questionable. Who was he anyhow and what did he really believe in? He seemed more at home in London and Paris than in Philadelphia, and that made him suspect in many Americans’ eyes. John Adams, when he got to know him during the peace negotiations in France, especially came to dislike Franklin. Adams’s impulsiveness and honesty contrasted sharply with Franklin’s reticence and secrecy. Adams thought he did all the work in France while Franklin got all the credit. Adams could never forgive Franklin his popularity with the French, and he wondered whether Franklin, that “old Conjurer,” was not more concerned with the interests of France than he was with those of America. Franklin’s personality seemed to breed mistrust.

Middlekauff obviously likes Adams, but he does not have much sympathy with Franklin’s other enemies in France, namely Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard, who are depicted with some justification as sick and jealous souls. But Franklin’s antagonisms in France were nothing compared to the long conflict he had with Thomas Penn, the greatest of his enemies and the one on whom Middlekauff concentrates. Penn was the son of the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn, and the principal proprietor of the colony during Franklin’s lifetime. William Penn had obtained from Charles II, in payment of a debt owed Penn’s father, a charter giving him both feudal-like power to preside over his “holy experiment” and rights of ownership to his colony’s land. Thomas Penn had shed most of his father’s Quaker roots and had become a member of the Church of England. He spent a few years in America, but for the rest of his life he remained in England, appointed governors, and tried to run his province from afar.

In the process he and the proprietary interests in the colony, including William Smith, the first rector of the Philadelphia Academy, found themselves increasingly at odds with the so-called Quaker Party in the Pennsylvania assembly, a party often dominated by the non-Quaker Benjamin Franklin. The major issues at stake were how the colony’s defense was to be organized and the taxing of the proprietors’ lands. Because of the Quakers’ pacifism Franklin arranged for the colony’s militia to be supported by private means, independent of government. Penn naturally viewed this as a threat to the authority of his government and came to see Franklin as “a dangerous Man.” At the same time Franklin and the Quaker Party continually sought to tax the undeveloped proprietary lands in the province—a move stoutly resisted by Penn and his governors.

Middlekauff describes all this political wrangling with great economy and clarity. He does not like Penn at all (apparently Penn was such a cold and formal character that few people did), and he does not display much sympathy for Penn’s political positions and his associates. Indeed, Middlekauff often seems to suggest that Franklin’s enemies could have no objective reasons for hating the great man, that they were simply petty men who disliked someone larger than themselves. Franklin, on the other hand, is pictured as a remarkably good-natured and sensible fellow, “a rational man determined to see things honestly and clearly.” But in Penn’s case he hated with a passion, and the working out of the consequences of that passion takes up a good part of Middlekauff’s book.

Middlekauff finds Franklin’s obsessive hatred of Penn “surprising.” It was not like Franklin to let passion get the better of him: “His was a generous and calm spirit.” Indeed, so taken is Middlekauff with Franklin’s general affability and reasonableness that he can account for Franklin’s hatred of Penn only as some sort of extraordinary lapse, a temporary loss of good sense and judgment. “His feeling about Penn overcame all of his usual standards of conduct, skewed his vision, and set him on a course that he abandoned only after years of reckless behavior.”

  1. 1

    For an interesting survey of the changing images of Franklin, see Nian-Sheng Huang, Benjamin Franklin in American Thought and Culture 1790-1990 (American Philosophical Society, 1994).

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