Not So Poor Richard

Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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