Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin; drawing by David Levine

For over twelve months now I have been in pursuit of Benjamin Franklin—rereading his autobiography, plowing systematically through his letters and essays, sampling the deluge of Franklin books that flow from the presses. Franklin is still, I suspect, a million-dollar-a-year industry, possibly more. Who buys, who reads, who believes? Why has Franklin resonated down the centuries? Does he still ring loud and clear to the present generation? Why, again, were his talents so appropriate to his age? Is he, above all, a man whose depth of character combined with genius put him into that category of great men whom time and change in society and politics can never topple?

That, oddly enough, is the easiest question to answer. No. He does not belong with Shakespeare, Newton, Washington, Beethoven, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and the rest of the indubitably great men. He obviously lacked in science, in politics, in life a quality hard to define—passion, vision, penetration, whatever that mysterious quality is that transforms great capacities into towering genius. He changed neither politics nor science in any fundamental sense. Having lived with Franklin for twelve months I no longer, however, doubt his capacities; I do not under-estimate the power or force of his character; or even at times his originality and, at others, his daring. He was a very great man ravaged by common sense, and perhaps ultimately defeated by those very controls of his temperament that led to his immediate success.

I did not think this at first. Renewing acquaintance with him, I felt initially a distaste for Franklin. And when I reread D.H. Lawrence’s article on him in Studies in Classical American Literature I thought, how perceptive, how wise. Of course this essay was written in the most repellent form of Lawrentian prose. “All the qualities of a great man, and never more than a great citizen. Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-colored Doctor Franklin, one of the soundest citizens that ever tried or used venery.” That phrase “used venery” rankled with Lawrence; the dark animal forces are unlikely to be a subject of common sense, and Lawrence abhorred Franklin’s wise advice to the incontinent young man to take an old, not a young mistress, pointing out that the trunk might still be succulent though the limbs were aging. “And that, as in any craft, there was a knack in making love, more likely to be known to the old practitioner than the young novice.” Naturally such bland common sense was an anathema to Lawrence: it indicated an absence of passion, an absence of those deep primeval drives, not merely sexual, that, had he possessed them, might have lifted a man of Franklin’s qualities into true greatness.

Franklin for Lawrence was never more than a great citizen. Certainly this is perceptive, certainly it touches the heart of the matter, as Lawrence so often did in a few almost hysterical sentences that read like Carlyle at his worst. And because of the scream in the prose, Lawrence’s sound perception is often overlooked. The essay on Franklin, like the rest of his studies of American literature, bears reading and rereading.

But it is not enough. Snuff-colored in soul as well as clothes Franklin might be, but his achievement was indubitably there. After all he was the mainspring of cultural growth in Philadelphia. And Franklin’s powerful journalism began to create for the northern colonists a sense of their own identity. He made them aware of what they, as Americans, felt their social attitudes should be, and how to conduct their personal relationships. His positive contributions to science cannot be denied, or his cool-headed statesmanship, or his effectiveness as a great ambassador.

Franklin’s achievements are as undeniable as they are permanent. For anyone who doubts it, look at Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words, for it deserves looking at as well as reading and pondering, being beautifully and pertinently illustrated. In this book his life is told as plainly as one would expect in his own words. And like everything else that he did, Franklin’s writing was always to the point, usually unadorned but never over plain, for his clarity possesses a remarkable radiance. Franklin learned quite early the value of irony and at times he permitted himself a sardonic humor.

And yet, when read in quantity, he is not compulsively readable. The clarity is so unrelieved that, like white light, it tires the eyes as much as his devastating common sense bores the mind. Even his Autobiography (the best and most beautiful edition is the one edited by Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene M. Fineman for the Yale University Press) is hard to get through in one sitting, although it is a mere twenty thousand words. It has a strange opacity, an odd lack of variety, rather as if Franklin’s mind could only take a photograph and never paint a picture. Any sensitivity to the external world is totally absent. Franklin describes accurately and clearly the violent squall he encountered off Long Island on his first voyage from Boston, but somehow we never hear the wind or feel the rage of the sea. We enter New York and Philadelphia with him; of their sights and sounds we learn nothing. We are told that Collins drank, but never what he looked like. We should never have heard of Keimer’s beard except that it arose from his religious principles and so became an object of Franklin’s interest. Although he mentions with self-satisfaction the genteel new suit in which he visited his brother, we remain ignorant of its color—brown, black, or gray.


Yet Franklin was a man of extraordinary curiosity and a most acute observer of all external phenomena. Perhaps his intensity of observation and his accuracy were greater because of his almost total lack of aesthetic and emotional response. Noticing but not troubled by the ravages of age in a woman’s face, he could see what others might not—the firmness and succulence of the trunk. Unmoved by lightning, he watched it. Imagination had no place in Franklin’s world, and his intuitions were entirely intellectual.

This absence of self-involvement with nature is, I think, an exceptionally powerful force in Franklin’s early success. Distance and detachment from the world about him would have been a useful social asset at most times in human history—at least for personal rather than public achievement, for these qualities help to produce a good merchant, a good steward, a sensible administrator. But Franklin’s personality fitted his time and the milieu into which he was born like a key to a complex lock.

The spirit of enlightenment in the eighteenth century flourished and grew most vigorously not where we might have expected it—in England or the Netherlands, which had the greatest intellectual freedom and the least press censorship, considerable though the contributions of both countries were. The spirit of enlightenment developed most strongly where there was severe tension between a powerful, ideologically committed church, either Calvinist or Catholic, and the new spread of secularism. The gradual contraction of the range of social and personal life which the church could dominate had become more acute in Boston as well as in Paris before the end of the seventeenth century. In the 1690s there was a growth of scientific speculation and activity at Harvard. In religion, too, there was a slackening of hostility to associated religious sects—the latitudinarian Tillotson’s sermons, the works of the Cambridge neoplatonists were recommended reading by Brattle and Leverett.

Not only was scientific activity pursued, but also French—that language of radicalism as well as of sin. Addison and Steele’s Spectator and the early works of Voltaire circulated widely and so strengthened an attitude toward religion that was spreading throughout Europe, namely that Christianity was not grievous, that right behavior, a decent charity toward one’s fellow men were the fundamentals of a Christian life. That was rational enough for Franklin. Even better, the view that riches, the world’s goods, even places of profit were not inherently wicked in themselves gained increasing currency.

This new social attitude toward religion spread like a prairie fire, not only in England at the turn of the seventeenth century but also in Catholic France; and its growing presence in America had, of course, scared the active New England puritans, creating tension in Boston and elsewhere. Yet like the oncoming of permissive societies in our generation, this change of religious style could not be stopped. It was the mood that fitted the enterprising businessman, the complacent well-to-do, the ambitious, and the successful. Its outward clothes were prudence, modesty, hard work, and charity; the inward dynamism was a lust for worldly success, a hunger for power, above all—acquisition.

No emergent ideology could have been more appropriate for young Benjamin Franklin or Poor Richard. The new social attitude to religion fitted this cool man like a glove. It removed the agony of a spirit tortured by good and evil, and replaced it by an aphoristic Confucianism that judged godliness by social behavior. America was particularly ripe for easing the rigors of doctrinaire Calvinism. And once the immediate and purposeful hand of Providence was removed from daily life, it left so much of the visible world open to secular explanation. Once lightning was no longer God’s wrath directed at particular people and places, to remind them of their sins or to punish them, it could be investigated, explained, and maybe controlled. Franklin’s cool observant nature and the blossoming spirit of his age fertilized and nurtured each other, a fact of which Franklin himself was acutely aware, and he did all he could to foster common sense, prudence, conciliation, and rational acts based on rational grounds. Franklin could assess the contingencies of politics with detachment; time and time again he projects this temperate, rational image of himself for posterity’s sake.


At which point it is prudent to turn to Cecil B. Currey’s blistering attacks on Franklin, both the Road to Revolution: Benjamin Franklin in England 1765-1775 (1968) and his new book, Code 72—Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy? First, in Road to Revolution, he attempts to depict Franklin as a devious, self-seeking politician who became radical more through frustration of his private enterprises by British officials than through commitment to American independence. It seems plausible, but it is not. Yet one can admit right away that Franklin was devious; so was Voltaire. Both liked money, both enjoyed social success, both were avid, in old age, for female flattery, yet both could separate these things easily enough from politics. A cool temperament does not imply lack of greed, only a lack of passionate involvement with people, in events, in beliefs. True enough, some of Franklin’s complex maneuvers to make a fortune out of land speculation are as involved as any of Voltaire’s financial enterprises. Franklin certainly enjoyed money—getting it, spending it—and used most of his considerable cunning to get it. Money and fame were deep driving forces in Franklin’s nature, but, as he well knew, dangerous to success if too candidly admitted. Guile, discretion surely were a part of Franklin’s common sense.

But frustration of his economic hopes does not explain Franklin’s commitment to the American cause. True, in 1760 he approved highly of George III, probably he toyed with the idea of settling in England. But remember the early 1760s. British arms had never been so successful; the French were thoroughly beaten, in Canada as well as the West, and so the American situation had scarcely looked brighter. Problems about finance, taxation, commercial relations with Britain were neither worse nor better than they had been for a generation. But as soon as Franklin realized the note of intransigence, as soon as he grasped the likely magnitude of the impending conflict between Britain and America and the possibility of independence, then he saw the potentiality for himself as well as his country.

It was a typically cool assessment, and one suitable to his social and political attitudes, and easier to exploit in his own interests than the frustrating rigidities of English oligarchy and bureaucracy. The best opportunists are not warm men and no one seized his chances more adroitly than Franklin did between 1765 and 1775. After all, these were the years when he transformed himself from a successful colonial to a man of his time. That he should at the same time have been working with highly placed British politicians and officials to grab a huge territory in Ohio for a pittance is in no way contradictory. It was another opportunity.

And so, too, there is nothing sinister in Franklin still attempting to get his western lands through his English partner, Thomas Walpole, while he was Commissioner at Paris. True, his commercial ventures, which made Congress pay dear for what his associates bought cheap, were neither more nor less heinous than the acts of most public men in England and France. Currey, of course, has no difficulty in showing that Franklin was surrounded by spies or that he was careless of security. But we can only impugn Franklin’s patriotism by association. And, of course, he ignores certain factors. Franklin by 1778 was an old, tired man enjoying social success and indeed sexual success as rarely before. Age and new preoccupations help us to understand both his carelessness and his obstinacy.

Nevertheless the grave weakness of Currey’s new book is the unrelieved derogation of any act of Franklin’s. Currey makes everything about Franklin extremely sinister. His conversations with William Pulteney in Paris about possible peace negotiations are a case in point. There is nothing sinister in this at all. Of course Franklin had to see Pulteney. Of course these meetings had to be kept as secret as possible. It would have been insane for any ambassador of any power not to try to keep the door ajar for further talks. Yet Currey manages to imply a hint of treason in these talks. Currey has a powerful case, surely, in laying bare Franklin’s calculating cupidity, his hunger for money and fame, but I do not think that he has succeeded in impugning Franklin’s basic patriotism or his attachment to the cause of American independence. I would agree that he was less emotionally involved, less passionate about American interests than he liked the public to think. Certainly the coldness of his temperament operated here too.

A sympathetic social environment combined with a cool temperament, practical intelligence, driving ambition, hunger for work, a capacity for secrecy, and guile—are these sufficient to explain Franklin’s growing public fame, which overrode the bitter and critical attitudes of his enemies, many of them men of distinction and ability? Yet against the dislike of John Adams, Arthur Lee, or Lord Hillsborough, there were scores of Franklin admirers from Philadelphia to Paris. In the struggle for public acceptance, Franklin won handsomely. Few men have exploited both themselves and their opportunities with such skill.

One of the most difficult problems for a historian dealing with individual personalities is to get an idea of the physical impression that a man such as Franklin had on his contemporaries, on the men with whom he plotted and negotiated, for as anyone who has ever sat on a committee knows, physical impact is important, as is the voice—its warmth, its timber, its speed. Some men by their very physical presence upset others; some create a sense of authority, others exude charm. Often men are disturbed by the suspicion of a rich instinctive life in others beyond their own hopes; sexual envy and malice can find their outlets in the dreariest committee. So it is important to ponder on Franklin’s face as well as on his letters, pamphlets, and autobiography, and there is Charles Coleman Sellers’s magnificent Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture to do it with.1

From earliest to latest we witness, of course, the ravages of time, but even so the same basic notes are struck. Franklin’s face was neither sensual nor virile: it lacked vivacity. Certainly it was an unusual face, with its thin, tight lips, heavy chin, cold eyes, and huge domed forehead, but one that was basically plain and charmless; powerful, but unlikely to stir sexual envy. The most impressive fact about it is the sense of controlled power and watchfulness that comes through even in the worst of sketches. A man, one feels, who had little difficulty but considerable desire to control his emotions. Compared with, say, Rousseau’s, or even Voltaire’s, it is an exceedingly passionless face.

Although many may disagree, I feel that Franklin’s face helps us to grasp some of the reasons for his swift success, the ease with which, during his early days in Philadelphia, he could cajole men to fall in with his schemes. Franklin’s face is a tranquil face; intelligent, quizzical, but not emotion-ridden, not full of suspect charm. It is the face that might have been designed by a public relations expert for his Autobiography. The face, indeed, that one can imagine arousing D. H. Lawrence’s ire, but few girls’ hopes.

Quite early in life, Franklin had his eye cocked on posterity. Throughout his life he was busy manufacturing a persona which he hoped would appeal not only to his own time and generation but also to the future. And this needs to be grasped, otherwise his huge bulk of papers can so easily mislead. These are being magnificently edited at Yale by a skillful team, now headed by William B. Willcox, and beautifully produced by the Yale Press.2 But there is already more than enough, like the portraits, to see the man at work. How rarely is there any rage or passion; indeed never. Even when he writes to his wife about her extravagance and the need for retrenchment, he is all benevolence and generosity; in the evening of life his letters to his grandson betray the same model equanimity and kindness.

True, such severity, such sweet reasonableness make him at times almost a bore to read. However, it is well to remember that every letter Franklin wrote was written in the awareness that it might one day be printed. Their composition was influenced by the way Franklin wished to be regarded as much as the Autobiography itself was. Franklin was as avid for greatness in the future as in the present. He realized that he would be a public man, a historic figure, long before it can have seemed possible to others, and took the necessary actions to construct a durable image of himself. And Franklin successfully projected himself for the best part of two hundred years—projected an image which America could accept as symbolic of its own qualities—frugal, prudent, kind, above all practical, all leading to worldly success and the esteem of one’s fellows.

This image, created by Franklin, has been sold to the historians. And, of course, it embodies some elements of the truth. But increasingly it seems too simple, too cool, too contrived, and Lawrence’s criticism would today find far greater acceptance, indeed the mask and the man are coming apart. So long as the bourgeois world continued to expand in America, Franklin’s name, career, and writings haunted the classroom and remained a substantial myth in America’s past. But increasingly his aphorisms, his autobiography, and his letters create a sense of distaste as the mechanics of the projection of his personality become steadily more obvious.

Franklin made a vast success of his life and so made certain of his immortality, which always controlled both the tactics and the strategy of his actions. From adolescence his eye was glued both to his image and to posterity. Yet his fame would have been greater, and in the present day less at risk, had his candor been greater. Cool temperaments, however, are rarely candid. The bitter anger toward his brother, the sexual hunger of a plain-faced youth, the longing for intellectual and social acceptance, the unassuageable thrust of ambition, the rage against the world that any man of great powers must feel at times of frustration—were these things repressed into the deep recesses of his being, or were they always lacking in intensity? Was he one of the true spectators of the life of the heart, sitting quietly behind the plate glass window of his temperament? Here is the enigma of Franklin.

But it is too facile to say that often cool temperaments are “repressed” temperaments; anger, lust, longing may not have stirred the depths of Franklin. About that we can only guess. Of one thing only we can be certain, that he craved distinction, hungered for success, lusted for money, and used all his resources—guile, intelligence, and above all, the opportunities of his age—to achieve them.

This Issue

April 19, 1973