Edmund S. Morgan
Edmund S. Morgan; drawing by David Levine

It is wonderful to have another book by Edmund S. Morgan, and that one on Benjamin Franklin, who is not only one of the greatest of America’s Founders but also someone who would have appreciated Morgan’s offbeat humor and engaging personality. At the age of eighty-six most scholars would have long since put down their pens and settled for chairing sessions at scholarly meetings. But not Morgan. As readers of these pages know from his sparkling reviews, four dozen of which have appeared over the past three decades, he is still very actively thinking and writing about history. He also spends a lot of time now on woodturning, of which he is a master, making beautiful bowls and other wooden vessels. But, as this superb short biography of Franklin demonstrates, as a historian he is still as active and sharp as ever, and for that we can be very grateful.

For well over the past half-century Morgan, who is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, has been one of the most influential and admired historians writing on colonial and early America. To have a major influence on early American history, or on any part of American history for that matter, is no longer easy. During the past fifty years the field of early American history has become so vast and boundless, with so many historians involved in so many aspects of America’s early years, that it has been very difficult for any single historian to make much of a difference. One more monograph among the thousands published can hardly have much effect. But Morgan is one of the exceptions: he has made a decisive difference in the way we interpret the earliest decades of our history. Not only has he influenced the field by training dozens of distinguished graduate students, first at Brown and later at Yale, but he also has written more than a dozen important books and a large number of articles, many of which have helped fundamentally to shape our understanding of colonial and early American history.

In 1944 Morgan published his first book, The Puritan Family, which was followed by a similar study of the colonial Virginia family. By now family history has become fashionable and an integral part of mainstream history, but sixty years ago it was not. Morgan’s work effectively launched the modern study of the family in American history. In 1953 he, together with his wife Helen, did the same for the modern study of the American Revolution. For over a half-century prior to the publication of the Morgans’ The Stamp Act Crisis, scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. had described the Revolution as the product of underlying forces, mostly economic in nature. These Progressive scholars dismissed the revolutionaries’ own explanation of their motives—that they were revolting on behalf of their rights against parliamentary power—as bombastic and inconsistent propaganda, not to be taken seriously by any hardheaded realist. But writing in the face of decades of economic determinist scholarship, the Morgans did take seriously what the American colonists had to say about parliamentary power and their rights. And they thus set in motion a generation of historical scholarship that began by revealing the richness of the ideas of the revolutionaries and ended by turning the American Revolution into one of the great intellectual achievements of modern times.

Morgan next went back to his earlier interest in the Puritans of New England and wrote several works explaining what these powerful seventeenth-century religious dissidents were up to. Not only did his works help to reverse a half-century of scholarly and popular denigration of the Puritans, but he demonstrated his remarkable ability to make the most recondite material comprehensible. For decades thousands of students have used his short books The Puritan Dilemma and Visible Saints to make sense of the esoteric distinctions and peculiarities of Puritan theology. (As far as I know Morgan is the only scholar to have a rock band, the Puritan Dilemma, named after one of his books.) As readers of this paper know, Morgan always writes with a clarity and elegance that few authors ever achieve. For that reason his work, however scholarly and however complicated its subject matter, has always had an appeal beyond the academic community.

Morgan’s major book, and perhaps his most influential one, is American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, published in 1975. This book was one of the first of several important works published over the past generation that have transformed our understanding of the seventeenth-century Chesapeake. Morgan revealed a world in early Virginia that we scarcely knew existed—a world in which life was nasty, brutish, and short, where money was quickly made and lost, diseases ran rampant, Indian conflict was constant, and parentless children and multiple marriages were the norm. This historical reconstruction of a lost Chesapeake world is one of the major achievements of modern scholarship. In the final section of his book Morgan set forth his view that there was a deep connection between slavery and freedom in America, a view that still generates controversy and debate.


More recently Morgan has returned to the era of the American Revolution. He has traced the rise of the idea of popular sovereignty from England to its fulfillment in late-eighteenth-century America and has written essays on several of the Founders, with Washington being a particular favorite. His books have received numerous prizes and in 2000 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal. He has had an extraordinary career and, as his neat biography of Franklin shows, it is far from over.

Morgan is chairman of the Administrative Board of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, of which Yale University Press has published thirty-six volumes so far, taking Franklin’s life up to March 1782. In view of his connection with the papers and with Yale, it was perhaps natural that Morgan would become interested in Franklin, especially since he and Franklin share the same birth date, January 17, if we use the modern calendar; besides, Franklin was the one major Founder that Morgan had not written about. When David W. Packard of the Packard Humanities Institute funded the placing of all the Franklin Papers on a CD-ROM, and made an advance copy of that disc available to Morgan, his writing a biography became inevitable. The disc, says Morgan, not only enabled him to write the book, it “compelled” him to.

There have been many biographies of Franklin, though none of them is a multivolume work like Dumas Malone’s six volumes on Jefferson or Douglas Southall Freeman’s seven volumes on Washington. The great expert and Franklin celebrant of our time, J.A. Leo Lemay, is reputedly preparing a huge seven-volume biography to be published in time for the tricentennial celebration of Franklin’s birth in 2006. In addition to Morgan’s biography, James Srodes has also recently published a biography, entitled Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.* As the tricentenary of his birth approaches we can expect a spate of Franklin studies. At present the best big biography of Franklin is still Carl Van Doren’s, written in 1938. Until recently nothing else written has come close to Van Doren’s. In 2000 H.R. Brands published The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, comprehensive, very readable, and certainly the best full-scale biography since Van Doren’s. In 1954 Verner Crane wrote a splendid brief life of Franklin in 220 pages. I thought no one could better Crane’s concise achievement until I read Morgan’s book. Now Morgan has given us the best short biography of Franklin ever written.

His book, he says, is “purposely short. It is meant only to say enough about the man to show that he is worth the trouble” to read about him. Because Morgan used the Franklin Papers “but not much else,” he says his biography is “pretty one-sided,” what he calls “a letter of introduction to a man worth knowing, worth spending time with.” Because it is one-sided, Morgan’s biography tends to describe Franklin very much as he would like to have been described. It is essentially a celebration of a great man, and the second-brightest star after Washington in the galaxy of American Founders.

Morgan spends very little time on Franklin’s youth, which is covered fully in the first part of Franklin’s autobiography—the only substantial source we have for the early years of his life. He jumps almost immediately into telling us about Franklin’s “most conspicuous virtue, the thing that would earn him world-wide fame in his own lifetime: his insatiable curiosity.” In just a few pages Morgan deftly describes Franklin’s peculiar questioning temperament—“that rare capacity for surprise that has made possible so many advances in human knowledge, the habit of not taking things for granted, the ability to look at some everyday occurrence and wonder why.” So he wondered about some pelagic crabs he found in seaweed; he wondered about the effects of differing amounts of oil on water; he wondered why an ocean voyage between England and America usually took two weeks longer going east than it did going west. He could not drink a cup of tea without wondering why the tea leaves at the bottom gathered in one way rather than in another. He possessed, says Morgan, the same curiosity about the world that drives today’s scientists. It was this scientific curiosity that led Franklin to his exciting discoveries in electricity—discoveries that originally established his fame in the world.

Electricity was one of those hidden forces like gravity and magnetism that fascinated everyone in the eighteenth century. Initially, however, like so much in that era that we today label “science,” electricity was simply a curious amusement, a matter for showmen-savants or “electricians” playing parlor tricks with electrostatics, trying to get people to laugh at the way things attracted and repelled one another. The court electrician to Louis XV of France once sent an electric shock through 180 soldiers of the guard who were touching one another in order to get them to jump simultaneously and amuse the court.


Naturally Franklin was intrigued by electricity and in the late 1740s started to study and play with it. He began sending to a correspondent in England piecemeal reports of his ideas and experiments. Because he could not know what European philosophers had already discovered and was never really sure of the significance of his findings, he presented them diffidently. He apologized for the crudity and hastiness of his thoughts and generously urged his English correspondent to share them with whomever he pleased. It was his English correspondent who collected his findings and oversaw their publication in London in 1751. The eighty-six-page book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America, was translated into French, Italian, and German and turned Franklin into an international celebrity.

Despite the fact that Franklin was out of touch with the centers of European thought, his ideas on electricity were truly original and fundamental, laying, as Morgan points out, “the foundations for all subsequent electrical research.” Although Franklin was excited by his findings, he was chagrined that he could not at first discover any practical use for them, and, for Franklin, science or philosophy, indeed anything valuable, had to be useful. Only his invention of the lightning rod seemed to him to make all his experiments with electricity worthwhile.

As much as Franklin appreciated his scientific achievements, however, science was not what he came to value most. What truly moved him and what ultimately dominated his life was public service. In 1750 he warned a fellow scientist, Cadwallader Colden, who also happened to be lieutenant-governor of colonial New York, not to let his “Love of Philosophical Amusements” outweigh his commitment to government. Even the greatest of Newton’s discoveries, said Franklin, would not have excused his abandoning public office if the government of England had needed him.

With his retirement in 1748 at age forty-two from his prosperous printing business to become a leisured gentleman (a significant step that Morgan does not make much of), Franklin was ready for public office. He became a member of the Philadelphia City Council in 1748; he was appointed a justice of the peace in 1749; and in 1751 he became a city alderman and was elected from Philadelphia to be one of the twenty-six members of the very clubby eastern- and Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania Assembly.

Franklin brought his immense talents to bear in improving the lives of his fellow citizens in both Philadelphia and the colony of Pennsylvania. He took the lead in starting a subscription lending library for the city. He promoted the printing of paper money that helped to make Pennsylvania one of the most prosperous provinces in North America. He organized fire and insurance companies for the city; he proposed tax-supported night watchmen to make the streets safer; he set up an academy for educating youth; he concocted the idea of matching grants between private enterprise and government; and in order to deal with smoky chimneys and poor indoor heating he invented his Pennsylvania stove. No civic project was too large or too small for his interest. When the Quaker-dominated Assembly refused to provide for defense against the threat from French and Indian forces, Franklin privately raised an army of 10,000 men and organized lotteries to pay for cannons and other arms. No wonder he began to believe that it took only a few reasonable men, and maybe only a single dedicated and talented person, to deal with intractable problems and set matters right.

Already in the 1750s his sights were on the larger sphere of the British Empire, whose spectacular rise he believed was the marvel of modern times. By 1753 he had become a royal officeholder—deputy postmaster-general for North America. But he had ambitions to play a much bigger part in the British Empire.

In 1754 he participated in the Albany Congress concerned with defense and security among the colonies, and he took the lead in drawing up a “Plan of Union” that was eventually rejected by the separate colonies and the British government. Franklin later said that if his plan for uniting the colonies had been accepted in 1754, it would have prevented the Revolution. At this point he very much thought of himself not as an American but as an Englishman who happened to live in America. Not only did he feel himself the equal of any Englishman back home, but his vision of the future of the British Empire was as grand and persuasive as anyone’s in the English-speaking world. It was, he said, “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected.”

Franklin’s Pennsylvania was not a royal colony but a proprietary one under the control of the Penn family, to which the Crown had granted large powers over land and its administration. This proprietary control became an increasing source of friction between the provincial Assembly, under the control of Franklin, and the governor appointed by the Penn family. With the Assembly and the governor continuing to wrangle over the issue of taxing the proprietors’ lands in the colony, the Assembly in 1757 decided to send Franklin on a mission to England to argue the Assembly’s case. At last Franklin would have a public stage fit for what he assumed would be the final act of his already remarkable life. Except for a two-year return to the colonies in 1763–1764, Franklin spent the next eighteen years in England, at first trying to transform Pennsylvania into a royal colony and then trying to hold his beloved Empire together.

Franklin in the late 1750s and early 1760s became a thoroughgoing Anglophile and dedicated imperialist. He sought at every turn to affirm what he called his and his fellow Americans’ “respect for the mother country, and admiration of every thing that is British.” Although he believed that “the Foundations of the future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire” would eventually lie in America, he spoke, he said, “not merely as I am a Colonist, but as I am a Briton.” The New World might be the future source of the Empire’s greatness, but for Franklin that Empire would certainly remain British.

Although Morgan acknowledges Franklin’s dream of becoming “the architect” of the British Empire, he, like some other historians, has a hard time explaining Franklin’s relentless attempt to turn Pennsylvania into a royal colony in the late 1750s and early 1760s. He “allowed himself,” says Morgan, “to become preoccupied with something that had only a tenuous connection with his larger vision of an Anglo-American empire.” (Why his attempt to make Pennsylvania a royal colony has “only a tenuous connection” to his vision of the empire is never made clear.) In his quarrel with the Penns and in his exhaustive efforts to take away the Penns’ charter and make Pennsylvania a royal colony, Franklin, says Morgan, “seems to have lost his perspective, his sense not only of what could be done or of what was useful but also of what was worth devoting his time and energy to.” His anger at the Penns distorted his judgment and obscured his perception of what was politically feasible. He was afflicted, says Morgan, “with a prolonged fit of political blindness.” Even though friends warned him that abrogating Pennsylvania’s charter and placing the king in control of the colony might actually prove dangerous to the colonists’ liberties, Franklin nevertheless persisted in his efforts, and managed to convince himself that Crown officials wanted the same thing he did. Why he should have thought that these British officials wanted Pennsylvania to become a royal colony is, to Morgan, “a mystery.” Morgan finally concedes that Franklin in the early 1760s made so many “mistakes” that we have to “wonder if we have made mistakes in our attempts to understand him.”

I think we have. I believe we have a hard time admitting that Franklin could be anything but a latent patriot and real American at heart. Morgan himself is such a good patriot and has such scorn for Tories and bumbling royal officials that he can scarcely believe that Franklin could have been a fervent royal supporter in the early 1760s. Any leanings in a royal direction had to be a temporary mistake, a result of “political blindness.” Morgan admits that “it is difficult in hindsight to recover his or anyone else’s perspective on the relations between England and America” in this period; nevertheless his account of Franklin seems at times subtly infused with what historians call “whiggism,” the anachronistic foreshortening that makes the past an anticipation of the future.

Try as he might, Morgan sometimes cannot help foreseeing the future in his discussion of Franklin’s behavior in the 1750s and early 1760s; it’s as if the patriotic Franklin of 1776 had to be there all along. When, for example, Franklin in 1754 was willing to have the British Parliament simply impose his Albany Plan for union on the colonies, Morgan remarks that “it must have cost him something to invoke the dominance of Parliament” in this way. By the late 1760s it would have cost him something, but not in 1754. In a similar manner, Franklin’s attitudes of the early 1760s are not those of a later period. His efforts to royalize Pennsylvania are “mistakes” only in hindsight, only because we know the future and Franklin did not. Once we fully accept the fact that Franklin between 1760 and 1764 was an enthusiastic and unabashed royalist who did not and could not foresee the breakup of the Empire, then much of the surprise, confusion, and mystery of his behavior in these years falls away.

Franklin may have technically been the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, but in reality he was the king’s man. No one in the early 1760s could have been more respectful of royal authority. His confidence in the virtue and good sense of politicians at the highest levels of the British government was so great that it bewildered and amazed even some of his British friends. He bragged of his acquaintance with Lord Bute, George III’s chief minister, and prominently displayed a picture of Bute in his Philadelphia house. He even had enough influence with Bute in 1762 to get his thirty-two-year-old son William appointed royal governor of New Jersey. Many thought that he himself had an eye on a more prestigious imperial office than deputy postmaster of the colonies. Morgan does not consider the question of Franklin’s ambitions in the early 1760s; but if Franklin were to become “the architect” of the British Empire, he would likely have needed to have an important royal office, since the Empire was the king’s Empire.

Morgan stresses that public outcries in Pennsylvania against the prospect of becoming a royal colony and Franklin’s defeat at the polls in an election to the Assembly “should have given him pause” and “prompted second thoughts” in his mind. But no, he kept pushing Pennsylvania to become a royal colony in the face of mounting local opposition. Morgan asks about the extent of Franklin’s ambition at this point, but because Franklin was “too shrewd to show” his ambition, he doesn’t do much to follow up his question. Instead, Morgan blames Franklin’s behavior simply on the bad company he was keeping. He guesses (and parenthetically adds, “Who can do more than guess about this man?”) that Franklin was moving in such elevated royalist circles in both England and America that he had lost touch with the people he was supposed to be representing.

Franklin’s reaction to the Stamp Act in 1765 revealed very clearly the extent to which he misjudged colonial opinion. The act was, in effect, the first direct tax on the colonies. It required that every newspaper, legal document, and pamphlet bear a stamp, with the proceeds from sales of stamps allotted to colonial defense. As agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin naturally opposed the stamp tax, proposing instead a tax on American paper money; but once the act was passed, pragmatist that he was, he determined to make the best of the situation. He thought the stamp tax would not amount to a lot of money anyhow and that Americans would eventually accept it. He even obtained for his friend John Hughes the stamp agency in Philadelphia. Again he made a huge mistake. His acceptance of the stamp tax and his efforts over Hughes’s appointment almost ruined his position with the American public and nearly cost Hughes his life when violent protests against the tax broke out. According to Morgan, Franklin experienced “a deserved unpleasant surprise” with the colonists’ reaction to the Stamp Act. The unpleasant surprise was “deserved” only if Franklin should have known better, should have been more in tune with American opinion, which seems to be Morgan’s rather whiggish assumption when he catalogs Franklin’s many “mistakes” in these years of the imperial crisis.

One of his “mistakes,” says Morgan, was that in 1765 he thought of rights instrumentally, and thus as negotiable, and not in the absolute terms that his fellow Americans did. Indeed, writes Morgan, he was “more interested in right than in rights.” He wanted what was right and useful (for Franklin the two were identical) for the Empire as a whole, and if that meant the colonists’ paying some taxes, so be it. Still, as Morgan emphasizes, Franklin also never doubted that all authority should ultimately rest on consent. If the British Parliament wanted to tax the Americans, then the Americans should be given appropriate representation in the House of Commons, just as the Scots had with the Act of Union of 1707. So committed was Franklin to the glory of the Empire that he clung to this idea of colonial representation in Parliament even though virtually none of his fellow Americans ever supported it.

Although Franklin’s efforts to make Pennsylvania a royal colony were going nowhere, “he always found reason to stay a little longer in London.” Even when his wife Deborah told him she was dying and pleaded with him to return to America so she could see him one more time, he lingered on, desperately trying to hold together the Empire he admired so much. Morgan finely describes the way in which the participants separated by an ocean were forced to act in the dark, with the American and British injuries and provocations “leapfrogging and overlapping each other, as each side reacted to an earlier affront while news of another was crossing the Atlantic.” He is especially skillful in using Franklin to personify the gradual alienation of America from Britain and the coming of the Revolution.

Once Morgan has Franklin leaving England in 1775 and becoming an enthusiastic patriot, he says no more about Franklin’s “mistakes” and “political blindness.” It’s as if Franklin’s destiny as a full-fledged American was at last fulfilled. Morgan’s account of Franklin’s mission in France between 1776 and 1785 is brilliantly succinct. In just two brief chapters he captures all the difficulties Franklin faced in bringing France into the struggle against Britain and in sustaining that alliance and negotiating a peace in the face of constant carping from his fellow commissioners. Morgan has little patience with the adoration that one of those commissioners, John Adams, is currently receiving. According to Morgan, Adams was in fact “a contentious colleague,” an extremely clumsy diplomat who was temperamentally incapable of diplomacy, who made life miserable for Franklin, and who messed up nearly everything he touched abroad, including what he thought was one of his greatest achievements—gaining Dutch recognition of American independence. Adams’s extraordinary vanity may have been “lovable” as well as “laughable,” says Morgan, if it hadn’t led him “into paranoid delusions of persecution and treachery by people whom he thought insufficiently appreciative of his merits and achievements.”

Not only did Adams endanger the delicate relationship that Franklin had with the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier Vergennes—a remarkable relationship that made it possible for the American republic to receive loan after loan from an increasingly impoverished French government. But Adams also helped to poison large sectors of American public opinion against Franklin. Although Morgan clearly depicts Adams’s enmity toward Franklin in France, he does not make much of the extraordinary degree of hostility that Franklin faced from the Congress and others after he returned to America in 1785—hostility that owed much to Adams and his friends. Morgan is content to let Franklin have the last word with what Morgan labels “the fairest and most quoted assessment anyone ever made of the character of John Adams: ‘…that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his Senses.'”

By the end Morgan can scarcely restrain his praise for this “man of wisdom,” as Herman Melville sardonically called him. Not only did Franklin in the years immediately preceding his death in 1790 write a number of scientific papers, including “his observations on the course of the Gulf Stream, a piece of writing that deserves a place alongside Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for aircraft.” But he also took the lead in promoting the abolition of slavery and in endorsing the strengthening of the national government.

In the final analysis, writes Morgan, the most important aspect of Franklin’s character was his self-sacrifice on behalf of others. “In all public controversies he engaged in, he spoke more for others than for himself. He made their cause his cause, became their instrument to achieve what they wanted to achieve, but not necessarily what he would have desired.” Being useful meant serving the needs of other people, not himself. Franklin was “a man with a wisdom about himself that comes only to the great of heart.” Because of all the papers he left us, “we can know what many of his contemporaries came to recognize, that he did as much as any man ever has to shape the world he and they lived in.”

It is hard to imagine a more fitting introduction to the tricentennial commemoration of Franklin’s birth that is almost upon us than this concise and beautifully written portrait of an American hero.

This Issue

September 26, 2002