The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin chronicles the birth of the United States as seen through the lens of Ben Franklin. Written by Gordon S. Wood, a legendary and iconic historian in his own right, the book is a delightful basket of surprises. In this year of 2018, with the most unconventional president in American history sitting in the oval office, it seems only appropriate to revisit that most turbulent of all periods in our history: the American Revolution.

If you’ve never read Gordon Wood, you’re in for a treat. Perhaps no one knows the Colonial period better. His lectures on YouTube illustrate why he's considered one of the great living historians. In the movie Goodwill Hunting, the Matt Damon character, a janitor/genius, confronts a grad student and accuses him of stealing his ideas from books:  “ . . . next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about you know, the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.”  Wood considered it his 15 minutes of fame, though he’s long been famous among academic types. Wood is currently 84 years old and may still be doing occasional lectures.

Wood peers deep into the historical looking glass, transporting us to a distant time and place. Franklin was different from the other founders, Wood tells us: He was less educated, with only two years of schooling, slightly behind George Washington’s seven or eight. (Most Revolutionary leaders were first-generation college grads, says Wood.) He was also much older and wealthier, worth $40 million in today's money when he died, becoming one of America’s first philanthropists. He was also better traveled, having spent about 25 years abroad in France and England, many of those years working for the British Crown. Toward the end of his career, he was possibly more beloved in France than in America or Britain. All this was quite an accomplishment for someone born near the bottom of the social spectrum. (Perhaps only Hamilton was lower-born among the major founders.)

Wood explains 18th-century society in vivid detail. Franklin was born a commoner, a stigma that not even Ben Franklin could completely shake. This was a “severely hierarchical” time period according to Wood, when the gentry were a distinctly different class of people. A person was either a commoner or of “the better sort,” with little room in between, until the emergence of the “middling sort” to which Franklin belonged. Even colonial America, the "land of the free," was an extremely stratified society. 

Franklin was a man of extremes. He was born in Boston in 1706, the son of a soap and candle maker. (Johann Sebastian Bach was only 21 as the time -- the Baroque period!)  At times during his life Franklin could be a “man of the people,” at other times a strong Royalist. He disliked mobs but was a lifelong promoter of education for artisans and “mechanics,” at a time when higher education was exclusively for the upper classes. Most of his life was consumed by his printing trade and his government work, yet he was an inventor and scientist who made important discoveries and inventions. Socially, Franklin had an introverted side and was not a particularly good public speaker, yet he mixed it up with the highest social circles wherever he lived.

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There is no doubt that Franklin left the world a better place with his inventions, advice columns, and government service. He also did much to champion the idea of the respectability of labor itself, which many in the 18th century considered vulgar and undignified. Yet Franklin had plenty of critics. Some say he waited too long to join the Revolutionary cause, that he sewed a few too many wild oats as a young man, that he sacrificed family for career, or that his autobiography painted too rosy a picture of his life. In that book, Franklin can sometimes appear as someone who cultivated moral perfection, leading some to question his sincerity, particularly those of his contemporaries who perceived him as a bon vivant with a weak moral compass. Wood does not dwell on the salacious aspects of his life, which is probably just as well because those aspects are probably not well supported in any case. Franklin had detractors who may have intentionally sullied his reputation, as character assassination was common practice in those days. We do know that Franklin lived life to the fullest. Nor was he consumed by religious fervor. Wood puts it all into focus, choosing to face head on some of the more delicate subjects other writers have shied from. Warts and all, it's hard not to like old Ben, at least in my opinion.

Wood points out how authors have occasionally mocked or ridiculed Franklin over the years. Edgar Allen Poe seems to lampoon him in his 1845 short story, “The Businessman.” Mark Twain satirized him as setting an impossibly high bar against which young people were too often measured. DH Lawrence had no use for his moralizing. Other intellectuals dismissed Franklin for being too middling and materialistic, or too closely tied to the Enlightenment period. The rise and fall of Franklin's reputation over the years would have been a great subject in one of my Comparative Literature classes. Historians too often tend to skip over this kind of information.

Wood helps us understand Franklin's obsession with virtue and why it was part and parcel to the time period.  One of the most radical things about the Constitution itself was its idea that the average citizen could step up and assume greater responsibility, to become educated, vote wisely, or run for office, etc. A certain level of civic virtue was critical to the new American republic, and that’s what worried founders like John Adams, who took a less sanguine view of the average citizen. Adams pushed for a stronger, almost monarchical executive branch, as did other Federalists. Franklin leaned in the opposite direction, toward more trust in the common man's ability to rise to the challenge. In fact, Franklin was one of the most if not the most "democratic" of the founders.

One of the biggest surprises in the book is the number of enemies Franklin had. Yes, Ben had enemies!  The Penn family didn’t care much for him, since on many occasions he tried to get them to pony up their fair share of taxes, particularly for military defense. (The Penn family had been granted an exclusive tax-free charter by the Crown.) Later, as the Revolution approached, Franklin was often seen as too cozy with the Crown, which displeased certain patriots. Later, after the revolution commenced, Franklin was sent as America's chief diplomat to France, where he became the darling of French society, prompting John Adams and others to see him as too cozy with the French. At this time quite a few colonists retained the British disdain toward the French, even as Americans were breaking free of Britain.

Franklin was no doubt one of the great independent thinkers of his time period. In 1751, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc.  The Crown had placed severe restrictions on manufacturing in the colonies, angering many colonists. He begins with a broad theory of prosperity: “People increase in Proportion to the Number of Marriages, and that is greater in Proportion to the Ease and Convenience of supporting a Family.”  Land was cheap and abundant but labor scarce and expensive in America, while the reverse was true in Europe, he wrote.  As a result, families in America tended to start earlier and produce more children. Franklin predicted that America would likely double in population within 20 years, which the great statistician Thomas Malthus later confirmed. Adam Smith also took an interest in this pamphlet. The handwriting was on the wall yet it took a genius like Franklin to articulate it: Nations that are conducive to family prosperity will themselves grow and prosper, a lesson that is too often forgotten even today. 

Franklin’s theory on population is just one of many aspects of Franklin that Wood does not spend much time on. His main focus is Franklin’s early rise in business, his success in local, national, and international affairs, and his near-complete expatriation to Europe. Franklin was in essence a kind of born-again American, hence, the book's title, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin.

For all his achievements, Franklin certainly had some rough spots. One example is his diatribe against the German immigrants at the end of his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind mentioned previously.  He feared the Germans were keeping to themselves, refusing to assimilate the primarily English customs and habits, nor were they learning English, preferring to settle in exclusively German communities. He extended his vitriol to not just Germans but also to Blacks, French, Italians, and just about anyone who was not English Anglo Saxon and, oddly, American Indians. It’s quite likely he softened his stance toward the French later, after living in France for eight years, a time which Wood calls the “happiest of his life.” Franklin also later became a founding member of an early abolitionist group and freed his three slaves. As a point of comparison, most of the other founders did not free their slaves, including Thomas Jefferson. Washington of course freed his in his will, however. Still, some of the controversial paragraphs in this pamphlet were damaging to Franklin, particularly later on when he needed their votes.

Wood contends that Franklin the man has become lost in myth over the years, particularly the myth of the self-made businessman. In the smokey mist of this mythology, Franklin’s flaws also get overlooked. It’s never been easy to put Franklin in a box. His influence was simply pervasive. Imagine an American in the 1770s, sitting in front of a Franklin stove, wearing Franklin bifocal glasses, reading Franklin’s The Way to Wealth checked out from the nation’s only public library which Franklin founded, with a Franklin lightning rod on his roof to protect against heaven’s wrath. He also headed up the first “national” postal system and invented some of the earliest vocabulary for electricity (“positive” and “negative,” for example).  Franklin’s achievements fill volumes.

Helping to drive the myth was the fact Franklin often cloaked his true beliefs in irony and satire. His autobiography reveals little in the way of inner dialog and gives the impression he was impeccably virtuous. Franklin was “reserved and impenetrable,” in contrast with his political enemy John Adams, who was “impulsive and open” and hot tempered, according to Wood. 

Franklin was simply out of step with the superpatriots of the day.  Whether consumed in philosophic thought, charming kings and dignitaries, or pondering nature’s secrets, Franklin was in a class by himself. Nor was his military service particularly remarkable. He worked hard to procure wagons for General Braddock's campaign in the French and Indian War, and he participated in various militias to some extent. His real talent was not fighting, but the written word, science, and diplomacy. He also seemed to be a man who liked to party.  While the often risqué lifestyle of the French aristocracy amused him greatly, John and Abigail Adams had absolutely no taste for it. Wood’s masterful vignettes of John Adams and other leading figures help us grasp the time period as a whole.

Franklin could be quite out of sync with public opinion too. For example, Franklin badly misjudged the public reaction to the notorious Stamp Act of 1765. Franklin didn’t particularly like the idea of a new tax on paper products imposed by Parliament. As the owner of a printing business, it would hurt him. But he knew that empires cost money and that the British were massively in debt from the French and Indian war.  He believed the tax to be something that Americans could live with it. He couldn't have been more wrong. Franklin was on one of his extended stays in London at the time, still a staunch loyalist to the Crown. He was also acting as an official agent of several of the states. Perhaps Franklin was losing touch with just how dissatisfied Americans back home were becoming of the British regulations limiting their ability to produce metal, rum, and sugar — simply to protect British monopolies and interests.  

Finally, mob violence killed the Stamp Act. The stamp distributor for Massachusetts was violently attacked, and even Franklin’s home in Philadelphia was threatened by a mob. The Stamp Act was unenforceable, according to Wood. Some people had noticed that Franklin’s newspapers had tried to remain neutral by not speaking out against the Stamp Act, unlike other newspapers, casting suspicion on Franklin's true loyalties. In fact he had counseled the British government to levy a tax on money, not paper.

Franklin was among 41 people called in front of Parliament to state the case of the American resistance to the Stamp Act. When asked if Americans would ever submit to any kind of stamp act, Franklin answered emphatically no. But when asked if he believed Americans would submit to any tax levied by Parliament, he said he was not aware of objections to taxes on commerce, just not to “internal commerce.”  That answer did not appeal to patriots back home who objected to Parliament’s taxing the colonies for any reason.  The Stamp Act was repealed, but it left Franklin’s reputation somewhat tarnished.   

Wood navigates us through the murky waters of Franklin's fall from grace in Britain. Ever the businessman, while in London Franklin became a lobbyist for a land investment scheme known as the Ohio Company, which sought permission from Lord Hillsborough, head of the American Department, to develop several million acres of land, a very large amount of land at the time. Hillsborough happened to have 20,000 tenants on his own lands in Ireland, however, and was not interested in promoting cheap land deals that would draw away his tenants.  Franklin was snubbed and denied by Hillsborough, further dashing Franklin's hopes of obtaining a royal appointment. Not long afterward came the Hutchinson affair, involving some letters which Franklin publicized, written by the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. In those letters, Hutchinson stated that Britain needed to take away more of the colonist’s liberties, in order to make them more dependent on the Crown (and thereby keep rebellions in check).  Franklin intended that by revealing the letters, Hutchinson would be seen as the villain for raising taxes on the colonies, deflecting blame from the Crown. His plan backfired as a major scandal erupted and anger toward the Crown only amplified. Not long afterward came the Boston Tea Party. The affair not only demonstrated Franklin's naïvete, but also his tendency to place too much faith in the power of reason to work out human differences, according to Wood.

In January of 1764, the Privy Council was to meet regarding the Hutchinson affair, but just days earlier news of the Boston Tea Party had reached London, changing everything. Franklin was now the scapegoat. He was called forth at the council meeting, attended by the entire king’s council and numerous court officials and spectators. The solicitor general proceeded to heap abuse on Franklin for more than an hour, publicly humiliating him while the crowd “cheered and laughed.” To top it off, Franklin lost his job as deputy postmaster general for North America. Wood paints a very graphic tableau of the human passions and suffering driving this moment in history. This was the birth of America taking shape, from a prenatal point of view. Franklin was at the center of this process, a kind of pivot point upon which it all turned. 

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By the time of the Revolution, Franklin's relatively brief foray into cutting edge science was a quarter century past. His scientific study was made possible by his years as a successful printer and author. In 1748, at age 42, he retired from actively managing his printing business and dove headlong into scientific experiments. Unfortunately, Wood gives Franklin's scientific work only cursory attention. True, Franklin’s electrical discoveries were primarily theoretical and did not result in many useful inventions, which is what really mattered to Franklin.  He did establish some fundamental principles that helped usher in the electrical age later (1880s). "Conservation of charge," for example, the idea that charge was "positive" and "negative" and equally balanced, was Franklin’s.  His 1751 pamphlet, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America,” is available at Gutenberg.org. 

Perhaps Franklin's primary mission in life was to help shape international politics as a diplomat. His entry into diplomacy began in 1751 when he proposed the Albany Plan, a grand scheme to unite the colonies and Iroquois tribes in defense against the French and their allies, just in time for the coming French and Indian War. His plan failed miserably, but it gave him his first exposure to national politics, followed by his diplomacy work in Britain.

The Albany Plan was possibly the first attempt by the colonies to form any kind of union, which may have troubled the Crown. States were extremely divergent in character and could not agree on much of anything, however.  The plan called for a property tax to fund a joint militia. However, the most populous state of Virginia didn’t bother to send a delegation to the first meeting; the Penn family, who enjoyed tax-free status and mostly lived in England, were not eager to start paying taxes; and the Crown didn’t want to allow the colonies to move in the direction of strength and autonomy. (The colonies were primarily a revenue stream for the Crown and corporate interests.)  These very same tensions would of course reach a boiling point in the American Revolution 20-some-odd years later. Reading this book gives you an idea of the continuity of events.

So In 1757 at age 51, Franklin, the famous scientist and wealthy retiree, was sent by the Pennsylvania legislature to London to convince the Penn family to contribute toward the defense of the state, and if that failed, to convince the Crown to make Pennsylvania a royal colony like most of the other states. 

[Wood explains there were three types of colonies: Pennsylvania and Maryland were charter colonies granted to families (the Penn family and Baltimore families, respectively). Connecticut and Rhode Island were corporate charters, beholden to investors similar to a modern corporation. The nine other colonies were directly controlled by the Crown. Franklin hoped to make Pennsylvania the tenth, but did not succeed.]

While in London Franklin joined social clubs, received honorary degrees, had his portrait painted numerous times, and met the luminaries of the day. He also toured Scotland where he met David Hume, Adam Smith, and others. No wonder that, in Woods’ words, Franklin “found it difficult to even contemplate going back to America.”  Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase seemed to apply: “To love London was to love life and to love life was to love London.” Philadelphia’s 20,000 people was no match for London’s 750,000, the largest and probably grandest city in Europe.

After five years in London he returned to Philly where he took care of personal and financial business, built a house for his wife Deborah, who still refused to leave Philadelphia, and began a lengthy tour of post offices all over America since he was still deputy postmaster. Within a year, he was called on to help the governor of Pennsylvania put down a rebellion. A mob was threatening to march on Philadelphia, angry at the government’s failure to remove Indians from their territory on the Susquehanna River. (The “Paxton Boys” as they were called, a vigilante group of Scots-Irish settlers, would be responsible for a horrific Indian massacre the following year.)  The mob was so hostile that, according to Franklin, the governor and his counselors fled to Franklin’s house at midnight, making it their headquarters for a time. Franklin was quickly appointed head of a militia and also managed to quiet the mob.  The incident reminds us that anarchy was never far below the surface in these times, as American grievances were mounting fast.  Franklin hoped the rioting would convince everyone that Pennsylvania was drifting toward anarchy and needed to take drastic steps regarding defense and security. The legislature passed measures blaming the Penn family for the problems. Franklin launched a petition and vigorous propaganda campaign to oust the Penn family but in the end could not muster nearly enough signatures. Wood suspects that Franklin's disparaging comments about the Germans in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind pamphlet, may have angered the rapidly growing German immigrant population and cost him their support.

Franklin would remain in Britain for the next 11 years, returning in 1775, on the verge of the Revolution.

One of the least known aspects of Franklin is that he was an extreme Tory for much of his life, which is to say, an extreme conservative, although that term has meant different things over the years. Tories supported the Crown, and Whigs the Parliament. Most commoners favored the Whigs, who created the Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, which produced the famously balanced British government. Britain became a constitutional monarchy, with the House of Commons as the people’s voice and the House of Lords as the gentry's. As a Loyalist for most of his life, Franklin wanted nothing more than for America to be given full representation in Parliament, similar to Scotland. Sometime in the 1770s, he flips and becomes a staunch democrat.

Franklin was uniquely positioned between two titanic forces: the British Crown and America. He wanted nothing more than for America to become a full-fledged member of the British Empire, similar to Scotland or Wales. He understood the growing strength of America, as well as the intensely hierarchical and prejudiced nature of a British society that refused to accept America as a first-class province. As such, Franklin was a fulcrum upon which the destiny of America turned, both agent and observer.  As the world watched, this ragged and renegade colony rose up to beat the greatest empire on earth, upon which the "sun never set."

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To be sure, there were some bad actors in the Colonial period. Benedict Arnold, Thomas Hutchinson, and Aaron Burr are examples. Burr in particular stands out as a pompous, self-interested character who was born into wealth and privilege and stood for no particular cause other than himself, according to Wood and others. Jefferson and Hamilton, from opposite ends of the spectrum, both abhorred him, in part because he was a throwback to the old ways and threatened to destroy all the gains America had made.

Today, one could argue that America is still vulnerable to pompous, arrogant yet charming individuals who show contempt for the common interest, while masquerading as a populist. Some would put Donald J. Trump in that category. Trump, however, is just the latest manifestation of a long trend dating back decades. What happens when Trump is followed by his liberal counterpart? Can America weather the storm? After a period of whipsaw change, shattered confidence, and broken institutions, people may well turn to the founders for direction once again. It’s possible that that amid the wreckage, someone will discover the very potent political formula favored by our most democratic founder, Ben Franklin, as a better safeguard against tyranny.  Franklin's Pennsylvania state constitution, for example, called for a plural executive and a single-house legislature. Missing was an “upper chamber” that could nix or veto the people’s voice. Could that be the direction that holds the key to American survival? Time will tell. Gordon Wood does not dwell on such speculation.

Franklin deserves to be remembered as more than a bronze statue. He turned his gaze toward nature and made new discoveries that benefited all mankind. He visualized a republic where the “middling sort” could rise and contribute alongside the gentry. He dared to stand up for democracy at a time when many founders recoiled from it. He believed in the transformative power of civic virtue, in contrast with the Britain where the “offices of profit” resulted in “dependence and servility unbecoming of free men,” leading to “faction, contention, corruption, and disorder among the people.”

Faction fighting was the ruin of many great republics and empires throughout history. American politics is nothing if not a contest of powerful factions, with the little guy increasingly left out in the cold. Could there be a road less traveled, a more Franklinian one, that could make us whole again?