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Big Ben

Publishers, publicists, and broadcasters love anniversaries, those occasions when historical events and characters become marketable artifacts in a commercial culture of celebration. Next year the British will be inundated with books, programs, exhibitions, and memorabilia to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the death at the Battle of Trafalgar of a national hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson. In 2006 the Americans and the French—though probably not the British—celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, America’s oldest Founding Father. No doubt the hoopla will be even greater than for the admiral. On such occasions sentiment and national pride get wrapped in the panoply of history to make myth and memory, shaped as a usable past for public consumption.

It will be interesting to see how twenty-first-century Britons remember Nelson, whose legacy—as brilliant leader of the navy, executioner of the flower of the Neapolitan enlightenment, innovative strategist, national savior, and impossibly vainglorious womanizer—is far from unambiguous. The response to Franklin is a little easier to predict. As Gordon Wood has already explained in these pages, Franklin has long been seen as an exemplary American character: “He has represented everything Americans like about themselves—their level-headedness, common sense, pragmatism, ingenuity, and get-up-and-go.”1 His critics, such as Poe, Melville, and Thoreau, saw the same qualities, though in a less charitable light. For them, says Wood, Franklin embodied “all of America’s bourgeois complacency, its get-ahead materialism, its utilitarian obsession with success…. He eventually became Main Street and Babbittry rolled into one.” As John Kenneth Galbraith concluded in his elegant dissection of The Affluent Society, “Benjamin Franklin is the sacred archetype of the American genius and nothing may be done to disturb his position.”2 So we can be reasonably sure that 2006 will see the resurrection of Franklin as the embodiment of what Walter Isaacson in his Benjamin Franklin: An American Life lists as the virtues of “diligence, honesty, industry, and temperance” together with the reiteration of the belief that self-help and limitless opportunity mark the American way.3

Wood’s dazzling biographical essay The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin takes on the Franklin myth in two different ways. On the one hand it recuperates “the historic Franklin who did not know the kind of massively symbolic folk hero he would become.” On the other it sets out to show how the mythical Franklin was fashioned. Both the man and the myth get put back into history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the manner of Wood’s treatment of Franklin as a historical character. Most such discussions seek to identify the essential Franklin. Isaacson, for all his willingness to speak of Franklin’s complexity, talks about peeling back the layers of his character, as if there was some central, stable core. Wood’s approach is radically different. He makes no attempt to portray a universal, timeless Franklin, but in a sequence of brilliant chapters unravels the complex changes in circumstance and shifts in view that occurred throughout Franklin’s rich life.

Wood constantly confronts us with the many paradoxes of Franklin’s career. These include not only some familiar contradictions—the artisan who longed for gentility, the man who boasted of his humility, the businessman who disparaged avarice, the American patriot who spent much of his life in Europe—but larger shifts in view. Wood reveals to us the ardent supporter of the British Empire who became a passionate advocate of its dismemberment, the often inept politician who became a brilliant diplomatic negotiator, the royalist who helped create a republic, the phlegmatic man whose commitment to the American cause was fueled by deep personal resentment, and the Founding Father spurned in his final years by the nation he had helped create. His aim is not to resolve these paradoxes and contradictions but to treat them historically, to show us how and why Franklin took different positions at different times.

His key notion is that of “becoming.” Each of the five chapters is an exploration in the shaping of Franklin’s different identities and values: “Becoming a Gentleman,” “Becoming a British Imperialist,” “Becoming a Patriot,” “Becoming a Diplomat,” and, finally, “Becoming an American.” As Wood makes clear from the outset this is “not meant to be a traditional biography of Franklin.” It does not aim at broad coverage—there is comparatively little, for instance, about Franklin’s scientific work—but focuses on “specific aspects of this extraordinary man’s life that reveal a Benjamin Franklin who is different in important ways from the Franklin of our inherited common understanding.”

This means that even when Wood covers familiar ground his perspective is unusual. His first chapter, devoted to the years before Franklin retired from business, eschews the conventional rags-to-riches story of a self-made man. Of course Wood acknowledges Franklin’s business acumen, as the young man makes his way from Boston to Philadelphia, to London for a two-year stint, and then back again to Pennsylvania. The Horatio Alger story of the printer’s apprentice who starts his own business, sets up a stationery shop, begins a newspaper—the Pennsylvania Gazette—publishes a successful almanac, wins the printing contracts for the legislature, and uses his place as the postmaster of Philadelphia to help establish business partnerships in other colonies is all there. So are Franklin’s real estate speculations and development of paper mills.

But Wood’s account emphasizes the importance of factors that have often been overlooked but that he regards as central to Franklin’s advancement. He points to old-fashioned patronage, the help of “the leading Men…[who] thought it convenient to oblige and encourage me,” politicians, lawyers, and rich merchants like Thomas Denham, who paid for his return from London, as vital in furthering Franklin’s career. And he underscores Franklin’s status anxieties: his pride at being “an honest Tradesman,” his fear of being viewed as a “Molatto Gentleman,” and his passionate desire to cross the sharp divide between the commoner who labored for a living and the true gentleman who was defined by his independence of any sort of “business.”

Wood’s portrait of Franklin’s Philadelphia is reminiscent of almost all British provincial cities of the eighteenth century. His account could apply to Bristol, Norwich, Newcastle, or Liverpool. In all these towns, clubs and lodges of Freemasons and improving associations like the Philadelphia Library Society and the American Philosophical Society were places where tradesmen, merchants, and gentlemen worked together for the collective good of their community. There were far more opportunities for such mixing in towns like Philadelphia or Leeds than in a metropolis like London. A civic busybody like Franklin—promoting schools, hospitals, and fire insurance—easily attracted the notice of his superiors. He may not have been a proper gentleman, but his conspicuous civic-mindedness (acts of public good, not private gain) and his familiarity with the gentry meant that when he retired from business at a youthful forty-two, it was not hard for him to slip across the great divide.

Wood shows how quickly Franklin adopted the badges of gentility—moving into a new house, acquiring slaves and a coat of arms which he used on a signet ring, and having his portrait painted by Robert Feke. It is conventional to point to the stark simplicity of this portrait, but as Wood points out, “Franklin…stands in an aristocratic pose, stiff and mannered and wearing a dark green velvet coat and tightly curled brown wig, with his right arm extended to reveal the frilled ruffle of his silk sleeve.” Equally important is the total absence in the portrait of any sign of the sources of Franklin’s wealth. Elegantly attired, he foregrounds a distant rural scene, the place of the country gentleman rather than the city entrepreneur.

Franklin the gentleman rose quickly up the political ladder. In 1748 he became a member of the Philadelphia city council. In the following year he was made a justice of the peace. By 1751 he was both a city alderman and a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Soon his political horizons extended beyond the colony. He became joint postmaster general of the colonies in 1753. Franklin, Wood emphasizes, was becoming an ardent and ambitious imperialist, committed to a vision of an expanding unitary empire. He wanted Britain and the colonists to “learn to consider themselves, not as belonging to different Communities with different Interests, but to one Community with one Interest.” His characteristically energetic reform of the colonial postal service brought the thirteen colonies closer together; he was the author of the 1754 Albany Plan of colonial union. Franklin, says Wood, had none of his fellow colonists’ suspicion of the mother country and its leaders, and when he arrived in London in 1757 as the representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he saw his task as promoting “respect for the mother country, and admiration of everything that is British” among his fellow Pennsylvanians.

Franklin traveled to London to try to persuade the proprietors of the Pennsylvania colony to pay taxes on their lands to fund the costs of the French and Indian War. But Franklin’s negotiations with Thomas Penn, whom he came to dislike heartily, were a disaster. The proprietor refused to budge and scorned Franklin and his efforts. Franklin was furious and urged the Pennsylvania Assembly to petition “the Crown to take the Province under its immediate Government and Protection.” This response, Wood maintains, was not a fit of pique on Franklin’s part, but the first move in a campaign to put the colony in royal hands that continued until Franklin lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1764.

The Franklin of the 1760s, Wood stresses, was not the Franklin of the 1770s. On the contrary, “He was in fact a good royalist, a crown officeholder, after all, who was completely devoted to the king and to the king’s empire.” Franklin’s advocacy in London of a royal takeover of Pennsylvania and his attempts back in America, in 1763, to use the rebellion of settlers in the Paxton region of western Pennsylvania to justify royal intervention were, Wood argues, all of a piece. Wood concedes that Franklin misread American sentiment, which was suspicious of the Crown and defensive about colonial rights. But he disagrees with historians who have seen these years as not just an error but an aberration.

Wood makes a strong case. He shows how Franklin was much more sympathetic to the British government than other Americans and far more at home with the metropolitan sophistication of London. It helped that Franklin’s reputation as a scientist and natural philosopher had preceded him—no American agent was ever so lionized—and his fame opened doors that were closed to others. He had contacts with Lord Bute, George III’s notorious and much-maligned favorite, and enough influence with his ministry to secure his son’s appointment as the governor of New Jersey. Extraordinary as it may seem, given George III’s views about America, Franklin, until as late as 1773, maintained the fiction that the King was sympathetic to the colonists but misguided by his ministers. He seems to have clung to the idea that the young monarch was indeed a Patriot King.

  1. 1

    Uncle Ben,” The New York Review, December 4, 2003.

  2. 2

    The Affluent Society, updated and with a new introduction by the author (Mariner, 1998), pp. 201–202.

  3. 3

    Simon and Schuster, 2003, p. 489.

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