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.

According to Wood, Franklin’s own transformation into an American patriot was gradual and singular. As a good imperialist he was not, at first, opposed to raising revenues in the New World to fund the empire. There was none of the fiscophobia that remains a key feature of American politics. Like the other colonial agents he disliked and opposed the Stamp Act, but his objections were pragmatic rather than principled. Indeed he suggested to George Grenville’s administration that they should levy a tax on paper money in its stead. Once the act was passed, he urged forbearance and loyalty. Writing to his friend John Hughes, appointed at Franklin’s behest as the tax collector for Pennsylvania, he spoke of the need for

a firm Loyalty to the Crown and faithful Adherence to the Government of this Nation, which it is the Safety as well as the Honour of the Colonies to be connected with…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.

Franklin’s misreading of colonial sentiment is well known. He completely misjudged the extent of hostility to the tax, disliked the disorders it provoked, and feared the divisive arguments of its opponents. In Philadelphia, Franklin’s pragmatism, association with Crown officials, and half-heartedness in the colonists’ cause led to accusations of betrayal. In September 1765 a crowd was driven back from his house, which they had vowed to destroy. Only Franklin’s brilliant appearance before the House of Commons in February 1766, when he was questioned for more than four hours about the stamp tax, saved his reputation. Asked “If the stamp-act should be repealed, would it induce the assemblies of America to acknowledge the rights of parliament to tax them?” his answer was a categorical “No, never.” His performance helped the new Rockingham administration repeal the tax, and the widespread publication of his testimony in the colonial press, says Wood, “probably saved his reputation in America.”

Franklin’s response to the crisis over the tax was to try to rethink the notion of empire. He came up with two somewhat contradictory solutions. The first was the idea of an imperial legislature, with North American and West Indian representatives sitting in the Commons. This scheme, far-fetched and impractical as it might seem, was not as unusual as Wood implies. Indeed it was quite often floated in English radical circles in the second half of the 1760s. Franklin’s second idea, elaborated in his testimony before the Commons in 1766, sketched a view of the empire as a federation of assemblies under the British Crown. Parliament, he said, could only tax subjects within the British realm, and “the Colonies are not supposed to be within the realm; they have assemblies of their own, which are their parliaments.”

This distinction between British and American subjects was made by many critics of the Stamp Act, chiefly as a response to the main argument in its defense, one that maintained that in both Britain and the colonies everyone was “virtually” represented in Parliament and therefore could be taxed. Faced with this argument, the colonists were forced to explain why their situation was different from their English counterparts. The nature of the debate pushed them to see themselves as distinctive if not yet separate.

In the years after the Stamp Act and its repeal, Franklin worked tirelessly to heal the wounds that had opened up between the mother country and the colonists. He repeatedly described the Americans as loyal subjects to the British, and the British as their friends and sympathizers to the Americans. As late as 1775 he was describing the conflict between Britain and the colonies as just “a Matter of Punctilio, which Two or three reasonable People might settle in half an Hour.”

But growing conflict severely tested Franklin’s predilection for compromise, his faith in reasonable conversation, and the natural affinity between colonists and Britons. As Wood puts it, he was “too English in America and too American in England.” He was shocked by the tough stand taken by George III’s changing administrations toward the colonies and alarmed by their implacable assertion of parliamentary sovereignty over America. Particularly worrying was the increasingly common assertion that Englishmen’s liberties did not extend to recalcitrant colonists. He kept on knocking at the doors of power, hoping to prise them open, but despite his friendship with officials within the administration, they remained closed. At the same time, he disliked the growing radical movement—both the English Wilkite radicals and their American friends—with their conspiracy theories of a royal plot to subvert liberties in both the Old World and the New. As attitudes hardened on both sides Franklin’s vision on the imperial relationship seemed more and more occluded.

Then Franklin made a catastrophic error which escalated the conflict he so desperately wanted to avoid. Early in 1773 he sent to Boston some of the correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, written some years earlier to a British official, Thomas Whately. Franklin hoped that the letters would show that there was no conspiracy in England to subvert colonial liberties, but that blame lay with officials like Hutchinson who misled the Westminster government. When the letters were published without his consent in June 1773, they unleashed an outburst of anger and played into the radical party’s hands in Massachusetts. They created the atmosphere that made the defiant actions of the Boston Tea Party possible. Hutchinson’s letters, among other suggestions, had urged “an abridgement of what are called English liberties” in the colonies to quell the friends of anarchy. To the Massachusetts radicals they were proof of the “plot that has been laid for us by our malicious and invidious enemies.” As Wood sardonically remarks, “Franklin was not always a shrewd politician, at least not when it came to judging popular passions.”

The British government’s reaction to the Tea Party and the news that Franklin had sent the Hutchinson correspondence to Boston was swift and cruel. On January 29, 1774, Franklin was publicly humiliated before the king’s council, first brutally interrogated and then excoriated by the brilliant solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, as “the true incendiary.” Two days later he was fired from his position as deputy postmaster general. Though Franklin continued to work for conciliation, drafting a proposal presented by Lord Chatham to the Lords, he grew more and more angry as British hostility toward the colonists increased. Bitter at the recognition that the empire and his life’s work had been “destroyed by the mangling hands of a few blundering ministers,” he returned to Philadelphia in May 1775.

Franklin, once the conciliator, now turned out to be one of the most ardent patriots. Some of this, as Wood explains, can be attributed to his desire to dispel rumors about the intensity of his commitment to the cause. But the Revolution, as Wood emphasizes, became for Franklin a very personal affair. “Franklin,” he writes,

had invested much more of himself in the British Empire than the other patriot leaders. He had had all his hopes of becoming an important player in that empire thwarted by the officials of the British government, and he had been personally humiliated by them as none of the other patriots had been.

He rejected his son for his loyalism, became an ardent democrat, and supported the radical scheme of a uni-cameral legislature for Pennsylvania. He became one of the toughest negotiators with the British, determined to concede no ground.

In the 1770s Franklin found himself a new role as the diplomatic representative of the fledgling American republic in France. His mission was to secure a European ally to provide both money and military might for the American cause. Franklin was the perfect man for the job—the most famous American in France, the hero of what Wood describes as the “radical chic” circles of Parisian salonnières, aristocratic reformers, and philosophers. He was lionized as a great yet simple man, the personification of the new American nation. For Franklin it seemed like London all over again, but even better: more beautiful women, more adulation, more refined manners, and much more sympathy for his views. In Wood’s account you can almost hear Franklin rubbing his eyes with astonishment and saying to himself, “Here I am, a humble man, embracing and kissing Europe’s greatest philosopher, Voltaire, standing be-fore the French king in simple rus-tic dress, and flirting with the most beautiful and refined women in Paris.” Like many a self-made man of hum-ble origins, Franklin seems to have been inordinately fond of the company and adulation of the rich and powerful.

This shocked and angered his fellow commissioners, especially the ascetic John Adams, and led them to fear that Franklin might be selling out to the French. But as Wood makes clear, his celebrity placed him in a unique position, able to negotiate directly with the Comte de Vergennes and to secure his trust and friendship. By 1783 France had granted more than twenty-five million livres in loans and subsidies to the United States. The American war eventually cost the French over one billion livres. These loans and the political and military commitment that accompanied them would, says Wood, never have been forthcoming without Franklin, and were essential to the success of the new nation. “He was,” he concludes, “the greatest diplomat America ever had.” (He refrains from making the inference that getting the French in so deep means that Franklin bears some responsibility for the fiscal crisis that provoked the French Revolution.)

Yet this triumph, as Wood reminds us, remained unacknowledged and unrewarded by the leaders of the new nation. On his return to his native Pennsylvania Franklin was made president of the elective council and a representative to the convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, but he played a minor role in its deliberations and his only substantive proposals were ignored. The Confederation Congress failed to settle his Paris expenses or pay his grandson, who acted as his secretary, ignored his supplications for redress, and summarily rejected the Memorial to Congress for the Abolition of Slavery that he supported in 1790. When he died, the French National Assembly declared three days of national mourning, but the US Senate dropped a proposal to adopt a tribute to their oldest Founding Father. The Federalists, fearful of what they saw as his radical, Francophile politics, vilified him as “one of our first Jacobins, the first to lay his head in the lap of French harlotry; and prostrate the christianity and honour of his country to the deism and democracies of Paris.”

But while the Federalists tried to bury Franklin under a heap of opprobrium, another Franklin was being (re)born, the Franklin of the Autobiography and The Way to Wealth. This was the Franklin celebrated by artisans and members of the middling classes, the associates of the Democratic-Republic Societies who attacked the Federalists as wealthy drones, and who celebrated productive labor, the joys and dignity of hard work. As Wood points out, “It was not Franklin the scientist and diplomat they emulated but the young man who through industry and frugality had risen from obscurity to fame and fortune.” In their eyes he became the exemplary self-made American. In the standard edition of Franklin’s Memoirs published in 1817 and 1818 the phrase “emerged from poverty” was replaced by “raised myself.” The difference was small but significant. Most of Wood’s study is devoted to getting beyond or behind the Franklin of myth to the complex and changing historical figure. But in his final pages Wood exposes his adversary, skillfully unveiling what he terms “the symbolic Franklin of the bumptious capitalism of the early republic.” The journey through the five lives of Benjamin Franklin—gent, imperialist, patriot, diplomat, and American—comes full circle and is complete.

Wood’s book is an elegant tour de force, beautifully written and tightly crafted. It is the work of a historian at the height of his powers. Bearing its exceptional erudition lightly, it conveys complex ideas in beguilingly simple prose, and deftly weaves the connections between the different Frank-lins. His overall characterization of Franklin’s shifting views is persuasive. Rarely does it put a foot wrong. But I am troubled by his description of Franklin as not just an imperialist but a “royalist”—a term that Walter Isaacson also uses in his biography. To oppose parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies, to attack proprietary rule in Pennsylvania and appeal to a countervailing royal power is one thing, but “royalism” (and I’m sure that the term was rarely if ever used, at least in Britain, in this period) smacks of an unfettered royal or executive authority unconstrained by representative institutions and redolent of the seventeenth century. That does not seem to me to have been Franklin’s intention. As Wood and others have pointed out, Franklin’s democratic unicameralism was a longstanding preoccupation. He supported a model of representation that was far more republican than the mixed form of government embodied in the British constitution and imitated in many colonies. And if Franklin had entertained views that, as Wood puts it, were tantamount to “an extreme Tory position,” he would have agonized far more than he did over ending allegiance to the British crown.

Commemorative biographies written to reach a public audience often embalm their subject in a vast tome or enshrine them with a panegyric. Wood avoids both hazards. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin does justice to its subject by enabling us to understand Franklin in all his richness and complexity.

  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.