The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin chronicles the birth of the United States and Ben Franklin's role in it. Written by the esteemed historian Gordon S. Wood, the book is a delightful basket of surprises. 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.

Perhaps no one knows the Colonial period better than Gordon Wood, Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. His lectures on YouTube demonstrate 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 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 historians. Wood is currently 84 years old and may even still be doing occasional lectures.

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, and became 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 he could completely shake. This was a “severely hierarchical” time period according to Wood. 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. While we may think of class division to be mostly true for Europe of this time period, Wood reminds us that it was also true for colonial America.

Franklin was a man of opposites. He was born in Boston in 1706, the son of a soap and candle maker. (Johann Sebastian Bach was only 21 as the time -- it was the Baroque period!)  Despite his working class roots, Franklin showed deep sympathies for the Crown most of his life. He disliked mobs, particularly drunken ones, but was also an early supporter of education for artisans and “mechanics.”  (At the time, higher education usually involved Greek and Latin, skills of no use to the artisan.)  Socially, Franklin had an introverted side and was not a particularly good public speaker, yet he mixed with dignitaries, princes, kings, and celebrities wherever he lived.

——— 

Franklin left the world a better place with his many contributions. He's mostly remembered for his diplomacy and inventions. But some of his contributions are much harder to catalog. For example, the idea that labor itself was inherently valuable, instead of something to be looked down on. Franklin was proud to wear his leather apron at a time when others saw labor as vulgar and undignified, something a gentleman tried to avoid. The glorification of labor would come several generations later, when the Horatio Alger myths would emerge. Franklin, on the other hand, was born into a world where wealth and privilege and birth were intimately tied together. The heaviest manual labor of all was the work of slaves. (Franklin was also ahead of the curve on slavery. More on that later.)

For all his great qualities, Franklin had plenty of critics. Some believed he waited too long to join the Revolutionary cause. Others faulted his autobiography for being a bit false and rosy. Some of his contemporaries perceived him as having a weak moral compass. Wood does not dwell on the salacious accusations, which is probably not that well supported in any case. We do know that Franklin had detractors who may have intentionally sullied his reputation, a common practice in those days. Franklin evidently enjoyed a very full life, and had an aversion to religious fervor. Wood puts the pieces of Franklin's complex character into focus, and chooses to face head on some of the more delicate subjects that other writers have shied from. For example, his excessive vanity and apparent neglect of his family.

Wood details how Franklin's reputation has risen and fallen 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 measured. DH Lawrence had no use for his moralizing. Other intellectuals dismissed Franklin for being too middling and materialistic, too "penny getting" with his Poor Richard advice column on how to be frugal and virtuous.  Woods shows us a man who was as eccentric an American as they come, nearly becoming an ex-patriot on several occasions while on extended leave in Europe.

Wood helps us understand Franklin's obsession with virtue by putting it in context. One of the most radical aspects of the American Constitution was the idea that the average citizen could become educated, vote wisely, and participate in government. A certain level of civic virtue was critical to this new republican experiment, 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. In fact, Franklin was one of the most if not the most "democratic" of the founders. Franklin's notion of democracy remains increasingly distant and removed from the norm, particularly as the modern world drift further away from an empowered, educated citizen as its core.

One of the biggest surprises in the book is the number of enemies Franklin had over his lifetime. The Penn family didn’t care for him, since he continually tried to get them to pay their fair share of taxes, or any taxes. (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, for whom he worked as Postmaster of the North American colonies. Later, after the revolution commenced, Franklin was sent as America's chief diplomat to France where he became the darling of French society, much to the chagrin of John Adams and others who were never comfortable with the French way of life. 

Franklin was no doubt one of the great independent thinkers of his era. He was able to see many things in a fresh light. 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 by laying out a 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, a prediction that was later confirmed by the great statistician Thomas Malthus. Adam Smith also took great interest in this pamphlet. The handwriting was on the wall, yet it took a genius like Franklin to articulate it: Family-friendly nations will grow and prosper, while nations that heavily taxed and regulated their citizens will be stifled in their growth.

Unfortunately Franklin’s theory on population is just one of many aspects of Franklin that Wood does not dwell on. Wood's main focus appears to be Franklin’s early rise in business, his success in local, national, and international affairs, and his near-complete expatriation to Europe. Franklin was a kind of born-again American, hence, the book's title, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. If you are interested in Franklin the scientist, this is not your book.

For all his achievements, Franklin certainly had some rough spots. One example is his diatribe against the German immigrants in the previously mentioned Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.  He complained that German immigrants were refusing to assimilate the American customs, preferring to settle in exclusively German communities, and refusing to learn the language. He extended his vitriol to a wide range of ethnic groups, including Blacks, French, and Italians (anyone who was not English Anglo Saxon).  Oddly, he gave a pass to American Indians. It’s quite likely he softened his stance toward the French after living in France for eight years, a time which Wood calls the “happiest of his life.” Franklin also later helped to found an early abolitionist group. He also freed his three slaves, which most of the other founders did not do. Washington was the exception, who famously freed his slaves in his will. Franklin's throwing shade on the German immigrants came back to haunt him later when he needed their votes to stay in office and did not receive them.

Wood contends that Franklin the man has become lost in myth over the years, particularly the myth of the self-made businessman. It’s never been easy to put Franklin in a box, though many have tried. Franklin's influence has been so pervasive, that the iconic myth has often overshadowed the mortal human. 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 then the only public library of the colonies which Franklin founded. Imagine most homes protected against heaven's wrath by a Franklin lightning rod. Also appreciate how Franklin 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, yet the man behind these achievements remains somewhat elusive.

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. 

Another fun fact: Franklin was simply out of step with the superpatriots of the day. Whether consumed in philosophic thought, pondering nature’s secrets, or working the back channels of diplomacy, it would seem that no man alive possessed his broad skillset. One exception was his military service, which was unremarkable. 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. He must have known how to shoot a rifle. But his real talents lay not in fighting but in 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 amused him greatly, John and Abigail Adams had absolutely no taste for it during their visit. Wood’s masterful vignettes of John Adams and other leading figures who interacted with Franklin help us see Franklin through the eyes of his contemporaries.

Another shortcoming: Franklin could be quite out of sync with public opinion. For example, he badly misjudged the public reaction to the notorious Stamp Act of 1765. He didn’t particularly like the idea of a new tax on paper products imposed by Parliament, which stood to hurt him as a printer. But he knew that empires cost money and that the British were massively in debt from the French and Indian war.  He believed that Americans could live with the tax without serious issues. He couldn't have been more wrong. This came at a time when Franklin was on one of his extended stays in London, 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 with 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 simply 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 products.

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 please the 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, both home and abroad.   

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 in the colonies 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, he would make Hutchinson seem 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. Soon 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.” In the end, 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, in utero. Franklin was at the center of this process, a kind of fulcrum upon which it all turned. 

———

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 very 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, and the idea that charge was "positive" and "negative" and equally balanced, were Franklin’s.  His 1751 pamphlet, “Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America,” is available at Gutenberg.org and well worth your time.

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 their Iroquois allies 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 diplomatic work in Britain.

The Albany Plan was possibly the first attempt by the colonies to form any kind of union among themselves, which must have troubled the Crown. States were extremely divergent in character and could not agree on much of anything, which is how the Crown wanted it. The Albany 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 did not 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 a sense of the continuity of events and the inevitability of the clash of between Britain and America.

So In 1757 at age 51, Franklin, 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 had the time of his life. He 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. 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 Philadelphia where he took care of personal 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. He somehow managed to quiet the mob. The whole affair reminds us that anarchy was never far below the surface, as American grievances were mounting fast at this time. Franklin hoped the affair 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 enough signatures. Wood suspects that Franklin's disparaging comments about the Germans in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind pamphlet may have cost him the support of the rapidly growing German immigrant population, which he could not afford to lose.

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 shifted somewhat over the years. Tories originally supported the Crown, while Whigs favored the Parliament. Most commoners favored the Whigs, who created the Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, with its House of Commons as the people’s voice and the House of Lords as the gentry's. Britain thus became a constitutional monarchy. 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 flipped and becomes a staunch democrat.

In one of history's great ironies, Britain could easily have diffused the American Revolution by simply allowing the American colonies to have full-fledged status in the British Empire, similar to Scotland or Wales. Franklin wanted nothing more than for this to happen. However, the intensely hierarchical and prejudicial nature of a British society refused to accept America as a first-class province. Franklin watched this drama as both spectator and participant.

——— 

To be sure, there were some bad actors in the Colonial period: Benedict Arnold, Thomas Hutchinson, and Aaron Burr, to name a few. 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 Burr, in part because he was a throwback to the old ways of privilege and patronage which threatened to destroy all the gains America had made.

Today, one could build a case that America is still vulnerable to bad actors: pompous, arrogant yet charming individuals who show contempt for the common interest while masquerading as populists. (Some would put Donald Trump in that category.) However one could also argue that America has been trending away from the empowered citizen for decades. Liberal or conservative makes little difference. What happens when a conservative demagogue is followed by his or her liberal counterpart? Can America weather the storm of whipsaw change with each administration? There may well come another time of great turbulence on the scale of the American Revolution, when grievances mounted, confidence shattered, and institutions broke down. At such an extreme time, people may yet again turn to the founders for direction, as they often have. Yet this time, perhaps someone will reach for the very dusty shelf reserved for the political thought of Ben Franklin. As probably the most democratic of the founders, Franklin very consciously strove to keep Pennsylvania free from the corrupting influence of unearned wealth and privilege. The Pennsylvania state constitution, for example, of which he was the primary author, called for a plural executive and a single-house legislature. Completely missing was an “upper chamber” that could nix or veto the lower house. Just as the Glorious Revolution of 1680 created a famously well-balanced governing body by creating a new formula for representation, Franklin's constitution may yet hold a similar key to political balance. Gordon Wood does not dwell on such speculation, however.

Franklin deserves to be remembered as more than a bronze statue in a park. 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 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 of the process. Could there be a road less traveled, a more Franklinian one, that could make us whole again?