When Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, a little more than two hundred years ago, the first Congress of the United States under its new Constitution was busy addressing the problems of a young republic in a world of monarchies. Franklin was eighty-four years old, had been ill for some time, and his death could scarcely have come as a surprise, Still, apart from the republic’s new president, Franklin was the best known of the Founding Fathers. His death could not go without some sort of official notice. The House of Representatives, after listening to a brief tribute by James Madison, voted to wear badges of mourning for two months and then got on with business.
In France the reaction was more dramatic. There the new National Assembly was in session in June when Mirabeau, who had just received the news, rose and announced simply, “Franklin est mort.” There was a stunned silence before Mirabeau proceeded to an eloquent eulogy, giving Franklin credit not only for American independence and the framing of the United States Constitution but also for gaining recognition of the rights of man throughout the world. The Assembly voted by acclamation to join the United States Congress in mourning. That evening the Commune of Paris commissioned another eulogy, which was delivered to an audience of three thousand on July 21, a little over a year after the storming of the Bastille.
Something more, or less, than mourning lay behind these proceedings in both France and America. Enlisting dead heroes in live causes has always been a stock in trade of politics. In France, where Franklin had lived from 1776 to 1785, he had won an extraordinary place in the public mind. The French had lionized him to the point of absurdity—or so at least his colleagues in the American mission thought. John Adams, who joined the mission in 1778, remembered years later that
His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen who was not familiar with it and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.
Franklin himself was surprised to find his image everywhere, in medallions, portraits, busts, and prints. He could hear his name linked regularly with those of Voltaire and Rousseau in the galaxy of Enlightment heroes. He could view the three of them in waxworks at the fair of St. Germain, standing together beside the King, Queen, and Dauphin. The adulation reached the point where the king himself found it a bit much and is said to have presented one over-enthusiastic admirer of Franklin with a Sèvres porcelain chamber pot carrying the philosopher’s portrait.
In 1790 Franklin was remembered in France as “that great man, who will be ever the object of the admiration of succeeding ages.”1 Mirabeau’s motion for mourning in the National Assembly was probably motivated not simply by grief but by the desire to associate “that great man” with the liberal monarchical constitution which Mirabeau was promoting. Although no one ventured to speak against mourning, those who opposed the new constitution abstained from the vote.
In America the politics of mourning were more complex than the vote in the House of Representatives would suggest.2 Here Franklin was not only a more controversial figure but one now associated with a controversial country: many Americans were beginning to have doubts about the French Revolution. After the House of Representatives passed Madison’s resolution of mourning, Charles Carroll introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. The motion was opposed before it could be seconded and was quickly withdrawn. A vote for Franklin, it seems, would have been a vote for the French Revolution, even though Franklin’s career in France had been under the ancien régime. And when the official notice of the French Assembly’s action arrived in December, the various branches of government tossed it back and forth like a hot potato until they could draft a suitably noncommittal reply.
Franklin was certainly not without honor in his own country, but from that day to this the honor has been a little mixed with mockery, from John Adams to Mark Twain, not to mention D.H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature gave a twentieth-century twist to the contempt of eighteenth-century English statesmen for an uppity colonist. Modern scholars have found much to admire in the man, but they have also found puzzles in his writings that often make him seem contriving, to be not quite what he wants people to think he is. Carl Becker’s brilliant sketch of Franklin in the Dictionary of American Biography may have been the inadvertent source. Becker was actually remarking on the depth of Franklin’s genius when he wrote:
In all of Franklin’s dealings with men and affairs, genuine, sincere, loyal as he surely was, one feels that he is nevertheless not wholly committed; some thought remains uncommunicated; some penetrating observation is held in reserve.
Subsequent scholars have gone beyond Becker’s insight to emphasize the poses that Franklin assumed in his voluminous pseudonymous writing for newspapers and almanacs as Silence Do-good, the Busy-Body, and a host of other names, including above all Poor Richard. Was any of these the real Franklin? And was the Autobiography, with its depiction of a thrifty, industrious young tradesman, a true portrait of the man who retired from business at the age of forty-two, prepared from then on to spend what he had got rather than accumulate more? For his remaining forty-two years (he happened to divide his lifetime neatly in half) he had no need to think about making or saving money. Although he kept a government office as postmaster until 1774 and turned it into a considerable source of profit, he could afford to leave the actual work of his printing business to others. As he himself remarked in The Way to Wealth, “money can beget money,” and he had made enough of it to beget an income of almost £2,000 a year, more than the governor of Pennsylvania enjoyed. He did not use it frivolously. But was it not a little disingenuous of him to keep on, as he did, singing the praises of frugality and affecting a simplicity of dress that belied the comfortable style of living he treated himself to, whether in Philadelphia, London, or Paris? Does the real Franklin lie hidden behind a mask or masks?
The question is worth asking, but it is a good deal less searching than the attention given it would suggest, and it would scarcely be worth the trouble if there were not so much of Franklin that is not hidden at all, so much that brought him conspicuously in view of the whole world. The real Franklin, I would argue, is not all that hard to know, and concentration on any discrepancy between what he was and what he seemed distracts from the message he sent not only in his writings but in the whole shape of his public life.
Franklin lived the better part of his life in the public eye. He was the only one of the Founding Fathers who had achieved international renown before the American Revolution and achieved it as an intellectual peer of the eighteenth century’s foremost figures. When he arrived in France in 1776 the French made such a fuss over him not simply because of his winning ways, but because his reputation had preceded him by many years. I.B. Cohen long ago explained why in two major works (Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments, 1941; and Franklin and Newton, 1956) and repeats the explanation in Benjamin Franklin’s Science, a collection of earlier essays now revised and reprinted. The essays are mainly about Franklin’s contributions to electricity and electrical theory, but they all sustain Cohen’s main point; that Franklin was no mere tinkerer, that he was moved by the same intellectual curiosity that has driven pure science in every age.
Franklin did like to tinker, to devise gadgets that would make life easier for himself and everyone else. But his tinkering, Cohen shows, was an after-thought, the result, not the cause, of his scientific explorations. He won world-wide recognition in his own time and a secure place in the history of science ever since, not by his invention of the lightning rod, but by his discovery that electricity, like gravity, was one of the basic forces of nature. Before Franklin electricity was a curiosity, something known through the amusing parlor tricks that could be played with the Leyden jar. Franklin devised the experiments, first carried out in France under his written instructions, that demonstrated lightning to be electric. And it was Franklin, experimenting with the Leyden jar, who formulated the general hypotheses that guided future electrical research. Some of them, such as the concept of plus and minus current, still prevail.
Franklin had finished his crucial work with electricity by 1750, and thereafter he was showered with honors for it at home and abroad: honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, and St. Andrews in Scotland; election to the English Society of Arts, the Royal Society of London, the Batavian Society of Experimental Science (Rotterdam) and perhaps most significantly the Académie Royale des Sciences (Paris). When Franklin arrived in France in 1776 as America’s representative, Cohen reminds us, “he was already a public figure, well known to the French court and to the French public at large in a sense that would have been true of no other American in the political diplomatic arena, and this was so because of his stature as a scientist and because of the spectacular nature of his work on lightning.”
Franklin did not make a life work of electricity. He showed no proprietary interest in his discoveries and no evangelical urge to propagate his theories. Happy to encourage and give credit to other investigators, he declined to enter into the usual controversies that follow breakthroughs in science and that inevitably followed his. Instead, he let his fruitful curiosity range off to other natural phenomena—heat, sound, fluid dynamics. So much was unknown and discovery so rapid that he sometimes wished he could have been born two centuries later when more of the answers would have become available. He made his own answers available to anyone who was interested, not only to his intellectual peers in the various academies but also in casual letters to friends. He might explain his ideas about tides and river currents to his London landlady’s daughter (in a fivepage letter) with as much care as in a paper for the Royal Society. When his ideas led to useful devices like the lightning rod or the Franklin stove, he did not attempt to profit from them, preferring to let the public receive any benefit they might bring. If he withheld any part of himself from public gaze, it was certainly not in his pursuit of science or in the discoveries it produced.
But science was, of course, not Franklin’s only pursuit or even a major one. Although his contemporaries often likened him to Newton, his priorities differed from Newton’s. As he explained in a letter to a fellow scientist, “Had Newton been Pilot but of a single common Ship, the finest of his Discoveries would scarce have excused or atoned for his abandoning the Helm one Hour in Time of Danger; how much less if she had carried the Fate of the Commonwealth.” When he was appointed Minister to France by the Continental Congress, Franklin did carry the fate of the commonwealth.
It has to be allowed that he seemed to carry it lightly. During the years from 1776 to 1778 when he shared the burden with Silas Deane, John Adams, Arthur Lee, and Ralph Izard, all but Deane thought he carried it much too lightly. John Adams, consumed with jealousy of Franklin’s reputation, complained that
The Life of Dr. Franklin was a Scene of continuall discipation… It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as Breakfast was over, a crowd of Carriages came to his Levee or if you like the term better to his Lodgings, with all Sorts of People; some Phylosophers, Accademicians and Economists,…but by far the greater part were Women and Children, come to have the honour to see the great Franklin, and to have the pleasure of telling Stories about his Simplicity, his bald head and scattering strait hairs….3
They came to him and he came to them, enjoying every minute of it, dinner party after dinner party. If Franklin arrived in France already trailing clouds of glory, the French found the man even more entrancing than the philosopher, wise, wordly, and witty. Claude-Anne Lopez has captured the scene in her two studies of Franklin in Paris. Le Sceptre et la foudre: Franklin à Paris, just published in France, is an abridgement, revision, and in parts an expansion, of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, recently reissued here. From a lifetime spent in the editing of Franklin’s papers at Yale, Lopez knows intimately, as no other biographer has, the man whom the French encountered. Whether writing in French or in English, she gives us a sharper appreciation of his mature humanity than can be found anywhere else.
Lopez’s portrayal is made possible by the habit of the time for friends and neighbors to bombard each other with little notes, invitations to dinner, thankyou notes, begging notes, scolding notes, and notes for no reason at all. Many of those that Franklin received were from men, on serious issues of science and politics and philosophy: from Turgot, the famous economist, from the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, from the great Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry. Lavoisier became a close friend, as did his wife, who painted Franklin’s portrait and made a duplicate for herself. And indeed it was mainly the women who kept up the barrage of social correspondence.
Franklin’s relations with them have long been a subject of sly speculation, for the letters, not to mention John Adams’s direct observations, suggest that Franklin in his seventies had become the Don Juan of diplomacy. The letters are filled with references to hugging and kissing, sitting on laps and holding hands, together with professions of undying love and demands, on his part, for greater intimacies with what would seem to be a whole harem of passionate and beautiful women. He liked to tell them that “love thy neighbor” should be coupled with the injunction to increase and multiply; he liked to confess his failure to obey the prohibition against coveting thy neighbor’s wife. This kind of half-joking, half-serious badinage delighted the French, who responded in kind. Lopez allows us to enjoy the spectacle in all its richness but also lets us see just how far it went and where it stopped. Franklin may complain to Madame Helvétius, with whom he says he has spent “so many of his days,” because “she seems very ungrateful in never giving him one of her nights.” But when a lady actually yields to such entreaties, he asks for a delay “until the nights were longer.”
Franklin, it is clear, enjoyed the company of women, and chastity was low in his scale of virtues. He had had one illegitimate son and he spent much of his (common-law) married life away from his wife. His friendship with a series of other women in America, England, and France was not without a large element of sexual attraction. Read out of context, passages in his letters sound like what today would be called propositions, if not proposals, but Lopez shows us that Franklin’s seeming affairs were all what the French call “amitiés amoureuses.” They were “more than close friendship,” but they stopped short of any consummation of physical passion.
It could be argued that these relationships show Franklin once again assuming a persona, wearing the mask of a passion he did not feel. To be sure, some of the ladies he courted so happily were women of influence, and their fondness for him could have assisted him in his official mission. But whatever benefit he may have received in that way was wholly incidental, indirect, and almost certainly uncalculated. Franklin was having a good time. He had always liked to flirt, and the French had raised flirtation to a fine art. The letters, which sound a little shocking today, were part of a game that everyone, in France at least, understood, a game that could be played hard and might conceivably slip out of control but in Franklin’s case never did. Most of the women who played it with him had husbands who watched it as a spectator sport (when they were not similarly engaged themselves) and enjoyed Franklin’s skill at it. Le Sceptre et la foudre and Mon Cher Papa give us a chance to watch with them.
That Franklin’s social connections interfered with his diplomatic mission, as John Adams believed, is as doubtful as it is to suggest that they were undertaken on behalf of it. Franklin’s diplomatic style was certainly disorderly and casual, a cross for the methodical Adams to bear. But Franklin was the key man in the mission. He had secured the French alliance before Adams arrived on the scene, and he had done it by dealing with the French court more openly and cordially than Adams thought advisable. Franklin as a diplomat did not play his cards close to his chest. Following his own too much misunderstood aphorism that “honesty is the best policy,” he believed that in American relations with France, “an Expression of Gratitude is not only our Duty, but our Interest.”
Adams, as Franklin reported to his superiors, thought the United States could get more out of the French by “a little apparent Stoutness, and greater air of Independence and Boldness in our Demands.” But Adams in France succeeded only in offending the French foreign minister, and Franklin breathed a sigh of relief when Congress dismissed Adams from the mission and left Franklin to deal with the French in his own way. In that way he succeeded in getting the continued financial and military assistance that made American victory possible. If Franklin’s public stance differed from his private one, it was not in diplomacy, where one might expect to find it.
In truth the variance that scholars find between the public and private Franklin lies not between the positions he took in public and in private on public policy or on philosophical and scientific questions but rather in his literary creativity. Nature may imitate art and art nature, but they are never quite the same. And Franklin’s creative writing was clearly artful.
We can easily dismiss most of the early pieces he wrote for newspapers. The story is familiar of his precocious success in secretly submitting the “Silence Dogood” letters to his brother’s Boston paper, The New England Courant. When he himself acquired the Pennsylvania Gazette at the age of twenty-three, he continued to fill it with facetious, pseudonymous essays on the model of Addison’s Spectator, mildly satirizing the follies of the day. These were the standard fare of eighteenth-century newspapers, and most of Franklin’s were no better than the standard. They are all so derivative and imitative that the only real Franklin to be found in them is the clever young printer on the make. The best that can be said for them is that they were exercises in which Franklin learned something about writing. But somewhere, somehow he learned a lot more than is evident in any of them. The Autobiography, though written at three widely separated intervals, is an enduring work of art in a recognized genre. Franklin called it his “memoirs,” for the word “autobiography” did not come into use until the nineteenth century. But the genre existed long before the modern name for it, and like other autobiographies Franklin’s is selective and studied.
The selection is dictated in part by the fact that it was originally addressed to his son and in the process of writing became a cautionary tale for other younger persons. As such it has a hortatory tone that readers often find irritating. What makes it fascinating for those seeking some elusive real Franklin is that it is the work of an older and wiser man reconstructing a youth that he wants to make instructive. He does it with a literary skill that is all the more artful for its artless appearance. The book invites literary analysis and has received it in large measure. Some of the best is to be found in Ormond Seavey’s Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The ‘Autobiography’ and the Life.
Seavey guides us through the Autobiography as an expression of Franklin’s identity as finally achieved in maturity and then through Franklin’s life on the way to achieving it. As is often the case in such analyses, Seavey tends to attribute to Franklin motives derived from concepts that had to be unknown to him. But the fact that Franklin would not himself have seen his career in terms of finding an identity does not necessarily vitiate the analysis. It makes Franklin’s development seem more deliberate than it probably was, but it does show us how his restless movement from Boston to Philadelphia to London and back again reflected the young man’s ambition to gain a place in a larger world than local circumstances offered him. He courted the friendship of men in power, and he made his way easily into local politics, but he had his eye on a world beyond Massachusetts or Pennsylvania or even, as it turned out, England, a world that did not quite exist at the time, a world with America at its center. As Seavey shrewdly comments, “Politically he was an American before it was really possible to be one.”
Seavey’s most arresting insights are those in which he examines Franklin’s sense of audience: beginning the Autobiography after he had already spent a dozen years in England, he writes as everyman, addressing himself to posterity, to young men who could be either in England or America. Franklin had in mind an enduring imperial society that was actually, as Seavey puts it, a “particularly fragile construct” at the time (1771) when he started writing. As the fragile construct began to destruct, he stopped writing and did not take up the manuscript again until after the Revolution, when his vision of a rising American empire restored his confidence in his own career as a model for the young.
But the Autobiography, however worthy of study as a work of art in its own right, has become something of a red herring for the study of Franklin himself and of his place in history. It does not get beyond his arrival in England as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1757. By that time he was fifty-one, had won his reputation as a scientist, had become a prominent figure in Pennsylvania politics, and had already formulated some prescient views about the British Empire. But his most brilliant years in London and Paris were just beginning, and the materials for following him through those years are more abundantly available today than ever before. They are being published in scrupulously accurate form in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, now reaching to twenty-eight volumes with perhaps another twenty to come. The period covered by the Autobiography lasts only to the middle of the seventh volume.
If there is a real Franklin different from the one on display in the Autobiography, he is to be found in the letters and memoranda and essays of these volumes, especially in the later ones. In them Franklin devotes his literary skill to stating his views both on the ephemera of everyday life and on the manifold public issues of his day. Since Franklin was closely involved in the events that led to the creation of the United States and conscious of what he was doing at every step, his developing opinions as the events unfolded are as instructive for adults as the Autobiography was supposed to be for the young. To read any one of these volumes is to be thrust into a part of the past that still bears heavily on the present.
For anyone daunted by such full participation in one man’s life, there are a couple of samplings. The newest, Benjamin Franklin: His Life As He Wrote It, edited by Esmond Wright, gives selections from the Autobiography interspersed with other writings, followed by more of these for the years after 1757. Wright has chosen passages that reveal Franklin’s daily life and public career, his wit and wisdom, and Wright gives continuity to them with brief introductions and comments. The whole is all too brief, much shorter than Wright’s own widely read biography, Franklin of Philadelphia.4 Unfortunately the transcription and editing of the selections leave something to be desired. The editor tells us that he has attached to each extract its source and date and that omissions within each selection are marked with ellipses. But in too many cases the source or date is missing, and whole pages, paragraphs, and phrases have been dropped without indication. For a quick taste of Franklin the collection nevertheless serves reasonably well.
A much larger selection and one adhering meticulously to high editorial standards is J.A. Leo Lemay’s volume in the Library of America series, 1,605 pages, including 134 pages of notes, chronology, and index. Lemay has identified as Franklin’s a number of newspaper pieces not hitherto attributed and includes them in the edition along with many more of Franklin’s early newspaper writings. He devotes 491 pages to the period covered by the Autobiography as well as giving the entire Autobiography itself and all of Poor Richard. This is more than most of us would want for the copybook exercises of the young printer. But it still leaves 687 pages for the later years in London and Paris and the final five years in Philadelphia.
The items selected are given in full. The annotation is sparse, and for one accustomed to the assistance that the editors of the Papers provide in their volumes it is sometimes annoying not to know the context (the Papers include the letters Franklin received) and not to have obscure allusions and references explained. But more of this would have meant less of Franklin: in this splendid volume, one quickly ceases to worry about any variance between Franklin as he was and Franklin as he makes himself appear. No one reveals all of himself in his writing, but there is less apparent reserve in Franklin than in most public figures, Jefferson and Washington for example. With Franklin, as with John Adams, what you see is what you get.
What you get, in Lemay’s volume as in the Papers, is a man who offers his opinions freely to anyone who asks for them and often gives vent to them in print when they are not asked. Franklin’s opinions are still worth listening to, not simply for the wit and the literary grace with which he delivered them, but for the example they offer of what Emerson called “man thinking.” Franklin thinking is especially worth listening to because what he thought about most was not his persona but the configuration of social forces that had begun to shape the modern world. Franklin was present at the creation, in London during the crucial years when Britain secured its hold on North America and then lost it, in Paris when Americans won their place in the world of nations, in Philadelphia when the United States gained its present government. At every stage he perceived what was going on more clearly than any other participant who has left us his thoughts about it.
Franklin was one of the first British colonists to think, as Alexander Hamilton later put it, continentally, to think as an American and of America as a factor in world power. Traveling probably contributed to his perspective. By the time he was twenty Franklin had already lived in Boston, Philadelphia, and for a year and a half in London. Over the next two decades, as printer of a newspaper, postmaster, and a tireless correspondent, he kept in touch with what was going on in the other colonies and in England. After he retired from the printing business he began to think more and more about America and its place in the British Empire.
Franklin loved and honored the mother country and wanted to think of America as part of the whole, but he recognized early on that America was the most dynamic part of the Empire and that its growth posed a challenge which statesmen in London were proving slow to recognize. British imperial policy in the eighteenth century was directed more by pressure groups in England than by any larger vision. In 1750 Parliament passed the Iron Act, prohibiting the growth of iron manufacturing in America in order to benefit English producers. Franklin responded with a small treatise, never mentioning the Iron Act, that analyzed the social dynamics of empire. He took it as given that the wealth of any country lay in the numbers of its people, and proceeded to show (before Malthus was born) that the growth of population was governed by economic opportunity, that economic opportunity in America would for a long time be almost unlimited because of the unique abundance of land, that population in America increased accordingly, by natural propagation, far more rapidly than population in England and more rapidly than English manufacturers would be able to supply. It was therefore unnecessary and unwise to restrain American manufacturing, unwise to do anything to discourage economic opportunity and growth within the empire. American growth could itself contribute to English growth by furnishing an ever larger market for English producers. But the important thing was to see America itself as the place where the English could grow. As Tocqueville in the next century saw America as the future of Europe, Franklin saw the American colonies as the future of England.
Behind these observations lay an imperial ethnic pride. Franklin was not pleased by the immigration of Germans or other foreigners to Pennsylvania or of African slaves to the southern colonies (though he himself owned slaves), for he wanted America to be peopled by the English. He was proud of being English, he wanted the English to prosper, and he was sure that North America was where they could prosper most rapidly. It distressed him that the English in England did not recognize where their future lay. The English in North America, he observed, simply by natural increase,
will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water…. We have been here but little more than 100 Years, and yet the Force of our Privateers in the late War [the war of the Austrian Succession], united, was greater, both in Men and Guns, than that of the whole British Navy in Queen Elizabeth’s Time.
There is perhaps just a hint here that it might be well for an English government not to alienate a growing body of Englishmen who could already mount a naval force larger than England had been able to send against the Spanish Armada. Franklin dispatched these “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” privately to friends in England, and they were not published until 1754. He was not so gentle or so cautious in another admonition. In 1751 he published in his own newspaper a letter, which he appropriately signed “Americanus,” directed against the British government’s veto of colonial laws that forbade the importation of convicts, a veto justified on the ground that excluding convicts would interfere with the peopling of the colonies. Americanus urged the colonists to show their appreciation by shipping in exchange a regular cargo of rattlesnakes to England. There they might teach
the honest rough British Gentry…to creep, and to insinuate, and to slaver, and to wriggle into Place (and perhaps to poison such as stand in their Way) Qualities of no small Advantage to Courtiers!
Franklin was not only giving a direct rebuke to British policy makers but also taking a jibe at the corruption in the British government that reformers had been denouncing for half a century. He was reluctant to believe that things could be quite as bad as the critics made out. But, as he told his friend Peter Collinson in 1753, if the degeneration of England came to the worst, “the good among you” might take refuge in America. “O let not Britain seek to oppress us,” he wrote, “but like an affectionate parent endeavour to secure freedom to her children; they may be able one day to assist her in defending her own.”
In the fifteen years he spent in England after 1757 Franklin was able to observe at first hand the narrowness of vision and the politics of place-hunting that prevented the government from facing facts or even getting close enough to recognize them. He enjoyed England and the people he met there, enjoyed them so much that he found it hard to leave them. “Of all the enviable Things England has,” he wrote to a friend, “I envy it most its People.” Why, he asked himself, “should that little Island, enjoy in almost every Neighbourhood, more sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds, than we can collect in ranging 100 Leagues of our vast Forests?” In every neighborhood, it seemed, but Whitehall. There Franklin encountered the complacency, the incompetence, the corruption, and the insularity that were proof against all his efforts to direct imperial policy away from self-destruction.
Franklin, serving at one time as the agent of four different colonies (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia), lobbied incessantly against the succession of measures from 1764 to 1775 that alienated Americans beyond recovery, against the Stamp Act of 1765, against the Townshend Acts of 1767, against the Tea Act of 1773, against the Coercive Acts of 1774. Although he had secured a place for his son as royal governor of New Jersey, he continually warned the government that the reports reaching England from royal governors were not reliable indicators of American opinion, that American dissidence was not the product of a few agitators but deep-seated, justified, and very English. He did not confine himself to pleading with officials. He wrote pamphlets and filled the newspapers with letters and articles in which he pointed out the folly of treating Americans as though they were not English. He wheedled, he cajoled, and he stung. In 1773, for example, he dedicated to a Secretary of State for the Colonies a brief history of the government’s actions during the preceding decade. The title said it all: Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.
Franklin still believed, as he had told Lord Kames in 1760, “that the Foundations of the future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire, lie in America.” But by 1766 he was convinced that the British Parliament could not be trusted to preserve or direct the Empire. The only way to preserve the Empire was to acknowledge the exclusive legislative authority of each colonial government within its own borders. This was too radical a suggestion to be taken seriously in England at the time, and historians, equally limited in vision, have generally agreed. Franklin’s espousal of it, before anyone in America had taken such a position, invites us to ask whether he was radical or profoundly conservative.
What Franklin wanted was to preserve the Empire. He did not despair of doing so, but he was the only one of the future Founding Fathers who had dealt face-to-face with the people who ran the British government. He was also more of a pragmatist than other colonial leaders, without much interest in political ideas as such. All he asked of Britain’s leaders was that they stop doing demonstrably foolish things. Despite Mirabeau’s tribute to his defense of the rights of man, Franklin did not often talk the language of rights. Like Edmund Burke he thought that when people began to talk that language, it was a sure symptom of an ill-conducted government. His American friends had begun to talk it, and he knew much better than they did just how ill-conducted the British government was. He was willing to go on trying to improve its conduct, hoping against hope, counseling patience to his outraged constituents. The persistent blundering of the British ministry convinced him as early as 1771 that it would probably come to war in the end and that the Americans would probably win such a war. But, as he told the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he wanted to be sure that “whenever this catastrophe shall happen, it may appear to all mankind, that the fault has not been ours.”
By the time he left England in March 1775 he was sure that nothing more could be done. His last weeks had been spent in negotiations initiated by Lord Richard Howe, a well-wisher who, like other Englishmen, continued to underestimate the seriousness of American demands and the consequences of meeting them with force. When Franklin boarded ship for Philadelphia he knew that the point of no return had passed. A little over a year later Lord Howe and his brother were in America, in command respectively of British naval and military operations for reduction of the colonies to obedience. As a last resort Howe sent Franklin another offer to pardon the colonists if they would submit. Franklin’s reply displays once again his cool perception of realities, quite beyond the rhetoric of rights. War had been in progress for more than a year. The English had burned American towns, he reminded Howe, and were even now enlisting mercenaries and savages to fight against people whom they claimed as fellow subjects. It would be difficult at best for Americans to forget such injuries. “But were it possible for us to forget and forgive them” he told Howe, “it is not possible for you (I mean the British Nation) to forgive the People you have so heavily injured.” No single statement of Franklin’s reveals so sharply his insight into human relations. He went on to explain:
You can never confide in those as Fellow Subjects, and permit them to enjoy equal Freedom, to whom you know you have given such just Cause of lasting Enmity. And this must impel you, were we again under your Government, to endeavour the breaking our Spirit by the severest Tyranny, and obstructing by every means in your Power our growing Strength and Prosperity.
For a quarter of a century Franklin had been reminding the British of growing American strength. His conservatism had kept him trying to constrain the growth within the confines of “that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire.” But when British arms shattered the vase he knew it could not be put together again.
Throughout his years in England, as he became a citizen of the world, he had never ceased to be an American. He knew where his loyalties lay, as his son, the governor of New Jersey, in Franklin’s view did not. William Temple Franklin opposed the Revolution, and Franklin never forgave him. Once the point of no return had passed, Franklin devoted himself whole-heartedly to building the American empire he had originally envisaged as an extension of England. He had formulated a union of the colonies under Britain in 1754 at the Albany Congress only to see it rejected by both Britain and the several colonies. He urged it again in 1773 as a means of bringing the British to their senses. When he arrived home in May 1775 the Second Continental Congress was about to assemble, and he was immediately elected to it. The other delegates soon discovered that he was ahead of them in his thinking. “He…seems to think us too irresolute and backward,” John Adams observed, “He thinks, that We have the Power of preserving ourselves, and that even if We should be driven to the disagreeable Necessity of assuming a total Independency, and set up a separate State, We could maintain it.”
A separate state was precisely what Franklin had in mind, and he found out how far in front he was when, a year before the Declaration of Independence, he drafted articles of confederation that provided for a perpetual union among the colonies. In his plan the central congress would have had power to make ordinances “necessary to the General Welfare” that the legislative assemblies of the separate states “cannot be competent to.” Without dissolving the existing colony or state governments, this would in effect have created a single sovereign American government. The other delegates, more attached than Franklin to their local governments and more reluctant than he to turn their backs on old times, would not even put his proposal to a vote. Franklin was quite willing to wait for them to catch up. They never quite did. After finally declaring independence, when they came to discuss confederation, they could not accept the degree of centralization that Franklin advocated. He was a little too American.
In 1776 Franklin had spent fifteen of the preceding twenty years abroad. He would spend nine of his remaining years in France, winning time for Americans to build their own empire. He did not get everything he wanted for them, for he did not get Canada, which he had first attempted on a fruitless mission in 1776 to persuade the Canadians to join in the Revolution. He tried again unsuccessfully in the peace negotiations to get Britain to cede the region. Franklin always thought continentally. He wanted not only Canada but the Mississippi Valley as well. When he heard rumors in 1780 that Spain might try to exclude the United States from the Mississippi as a price for help in the Revolutionary War, he wrote to John Jay, the American envoy to Spain, that “Poor as we are, yet as I know we shall be rich, I would rather agree with them to buy at a great price the whole of their right on the Mississippi, than sell a drop of its waters. A neighbor might as well ask me to sell my street door.”
When Franklin returned home for the last time in 1785, after his nine-year love affair with the French, he was still too “American” for most of his countrymen, still too continental in his thinking. Attending the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he argued for a single national legislative chamber, with representation distributed entirely according to population. The other delegates listened politely, but they had no intention of going that far in overriding the authority of the separate states. Characteristically it did not bother him. Forms of government were not a crucial matter, and he supported the Constitution without hesitation because it was the best you could get a majority to agree to.
Franklin devoted his remaining years to the abolition of slavery. It was a cause to which he had come only late in life and without the religious zeal that spurred many of its advocates, but once again he was too far ahead. The reluctance of the United States Senate to indulge in mourning for his death may have been prompted not simply by his association with France but by the fact that he had just sponsored a memorial to Congress calling for an end to slavery in the whole United States. Congress had been embarrassed.
Was Franklin too “radical” or too “conservative” for his countrymen? It is easy to make a case that he was too radical. Although he never stopped extolling industry and frugality, he had no reverence for the sanctity of private property. Everyone, he believed, had a right to the property needed to keep alive and propagate the species. “But all Property superfluous to such purpose is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition.” When he helped draft a constitution for Pennsylvania in 1776, it provided for the most democratic government of any state then in existence, but Franklin would have made it more so with a clause to limit large holdings of property. Nor did Franklin, the friend of so many aristocrats, have much use for aristocracy. When the officers of Washington’s army formed the Society of the Cincinnati after the war, with a provision for hereditary membership, Franklin mocked the idea. Hereditary honors, he said, would much better be made to ascend to parents rather than descend to children.
Nevertheless, a case can be made for Franklin as a conservative, provided we use a broader definition of conservatism than most American conservatives today would accept. Conservatism in America has been for the most part an intellectual desert. It has been too often a rear-guard, somewhat desperate and indiscriminate struggle against change, its spokesmen more stubborn than rational. For intellectual support it has had to resort to the likes of John Caldwell Calhoun with his absurd and doctrinaire formulas for preserving the status quo, whatever it might be. For more respectable philosophical foundations American conservatives have had to look abroad to Edmund Burke.
Burke was Franklin’s contemporary and a kindred spirit. They had both tried to save the British Empire, and their prescriptions for saving it were much the same (stop treating the colonists as aliens). They both recognized that once broken it could not be put back together. The two shared an impatience with the doctrinaire. Franklin liked to fix things, to make them more workable, but along with Burke he shunned the urge to fix what was working (the British Empire had been working until statesmen began to fix it). Where he perhaps went a little beyond Burke was in his quickness to recognize when a political or social change was irreversible, when constructive political activity must lie in making the most of the change. Or perhaps this is only to say that Franklin was an American. When he was convinced, before most of his countrymen, that Americans were irretrievably out of the Empire, he devoted himself to making the most of America. The most, as he saw it, included immediate independence and a real national government. It also included, as he saw at the end, putting a stop to slavery, for which his reasons may have been as much ethnic or racist as humanitarian.
Was he radical or conservative? Was it radical or conservative to deny the authority of Parliament over the colonies in 1766? Was it radical or conservative to want a more consolidated national government in 1787? Was it radical or conservative to oppose slavery in 1790? Can a conservative be ahead of his time?
January 31, 1991
Madame D’Houdetot to Thomas Jefferson, 3 September 1790, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. J.P. Boyd et al., Vol. 17, p. 486 (Princeton University Press, 1963). ↩
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 19, pp. 140–172. ↩
The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield et al., Vol. 4, p. 118. ↩
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 1986. ↩