Books to read: Franklin, or the public-minded man

February 20, 2010

Even though his image graces the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin may be the least appreciated of the Founding Fathers.  He ranks with Jefferson – who practically invented us – in his influence on the American character.

Jefferson articulated the American ideology:  the belief in limited government, and the irrepresible faith in human nature necessary to sustain this belief.  This ideology has been implanted in the hearts and souls of the American people – it is who we are, as even a popular politician like President Obama, in seeking to expand federal power, has learned.

But on every question of detail, Jefferson was wrong.  He imagined the US as an agricultural nation, with small farmers providing the unbending backbone of the citizenry.  Cities, businessmen, banks, the middle class – about the groups and institutions which would forge the American future, Jefferson’s attitude ranged from contempt to indifference.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin places him, in a sense, at the opposite pole from Jefferson.  Franklin was nothing if not practical.  He was a man of principle, not of ideology – he carefully avoided religious disputes, for example.

Yet he exemplified virtues which were prophetic of the future character of his country:  self-reliance, hard work, generosity, mutual assistance, openness in friendship, all spiced with a sly sense of humor.

Franklin was proud to be a man of the city and of the mobile “middling” part of the population.  He lacked Jefferson’s romantic notions about farming, yet in a backhanded way he became the living model of the Jeffersonian ideal.  The urban middle class, sturdy and capable, made the system of limited government a going concern.

It did this by a relentless self-accounting, of the kind Franklin made famous.  To the poetic soul, the call to pinch pennies may sound like spiritual poverty, and the desire for self-improvemement may appear fatuous.  But let’s recall Franklin’s circumstances.  He was a self-made, self-taught man.  He had known real poverty, and labored with little assistance other than will power to eradicate his own ignorance.

The struggle for moral self-improvement waged by Franklin had a private and a public aspect.  He avoided debt and drink, and lived frugally, to avoid falling into a debased  dependence on others; for the same reason, he scorned get-rich schemes.  On the public side, he understood the importance of honesty and integrity to the success of business and government.  Both aspects of morality can be found in the moral to-do lists he often  penned:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak the truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action . . .
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich . . .
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

Above all, in an almost superhuman way, Franklin was public-minded – I believe he might have been  the most useful man who ever lived.  He worked hard at the printing profession, and saved his pennies to achieve personal independence.  But he worked still harder to organize an astonishing number of activities which aimed – again, in a practical and sensible way – to improve the community.

The list of Franklin’s public achievements boggles the mind, particularly when one considers how many have lasted to this day.  He conceived and implemented the first subscription lending library in the colonies.  He was the moving spirit behind the first volunteer fire brigade, to which he brought his own leather bucket.  He helped establish the American Philosophical Society, which still continues its scholarly work.  He organized the first Pennsylvania militia – to the scandal of the Penns and the Crown, a volunteer, self-managed body.

He proposed, designed, and helped raise money for an academy of higher learning in Philadelphia – what is today the University of Pennsylvania.  Unlike Jefferson’s University of Virginia, it intended to educate the offspring of the middle class, rather than produce a natural aristocracy.

Franklin was inexhaustible in the service of his neighbors, his city, and his state.  In the end, however, he served his country longer and, arguably, better.

He was appointed postmaster to the colonies, and significantly improved the speed of the mail.  He was probably the most famous member of the Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He was without a doubt the most successful American diplomat ever – the leading negotiator of the treaty of alliance with France which ensured victory for the Revolution, and of the treaty of peace with Britain which assured the new country of an unencumbered path ahead.  Then he went hope and played a leading part in the Constitutional Convention.

None of this accounts for the activities which made Franklin famous in his own lifetime:  his science and inventions, of which the lightning-rod and bifocal glasses are only two of the better known.

Given this roster of accomplishments, I confess to some mystification regarding Franklin’s place in our history.  There can be no doubt he was a towering figure, one of a handful in terms of lasting influence.  It’s instructive to compare him with his peers.

George Washington was an incorruptible statesman and military hero.  Abraham Lincoln combined common sense and practical politics with a moral grandeur expressed in almost biblical language.  Jefferson was an ideologist and moral legislator, president and diplomat, and wielded the most articulate pen in American politics.

But Franklin was a successful and lasting author, an organizing dynamo, a scientist of note, a famous inventor, a brilliant diplomat, and – like Lincoln but unlike Washington and Jefferson – a model of how to rise from a humble start to such accomplishment.

In the closing chapter, Isaacson observes that Franklin’s reputation has suffered at the hands of romantics and Marxists.  Both, in essence, found him too bourgeois.  One has to wonder, however, why the rest of us, who owe him so much, should allow a judgment on a Founding Father to stand based almost entirely on snobbishness.