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The real Ben Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is not the devious and "conscious manipulation of his own persona" that Jerry Weinberger claims it is in his essay "American Idol" (Winter 2005/06). Tailoring his memoirs to provide a good model for his intended audience--his own progeny and, by inference, other young people in America--he put some things in, left some out, and gave slanted accounts of others. The result, though, is not basically false or misguided. I served as co-editor of the Yale edition of The Autobiography, which appeared after the first six edited volumes of Franklin's Papers--documenting the years of his life covered in The Autobiography--had been published. We thus had the facts of his life before us, and we found no more than a few, trivial places where The Autobiography was inaccurate (all noted in that edition). Weinberger terms the two letters written by Franklin's friends urging him to continue his Autobiography "absurdly bombastic" and "hilariously hyperbolic." In truth, the missives are entirely in the conventional style of letters of the time written to an older and distinguished person.

Nor was Franklin anything like the "political elitist and fixer" that Weinberger makes him out to be. When he arrived in London, Franklin immediately understood that the British ministry thought that "The King was the legislator for the colonies"; and he concluded that should British authorities prove adamant (as they did), Pennsylvania and the other colonies would have to leave what he finally called "an old, rotten state." He engaged in many subtle and adroit maneuvers, not in the disgraceful or unrepublican way Weinberger implies, but in a wise, principled, even clever way, quite in accord with the ideals of the American Revolution, of which he is a legitimate hero.

Weinberger also misunderstands Franklin's relationship to slavery. He was only a bit player in working out the three-fifths compromise (the language came from Continental Congress usage). There is no reason to doubt Franklifts earnestness in the anti-slavery petition (he was much on record already opposing slavery)--in fact, in the very last month of his life, he wrote for a Pennsylvania newspaper a lively, slashing hoax ridiculing a speech by the very Southern congressman who had opposed the petition Franklin had signed.

Ralph Ketcham

Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY

Behind Benjamin Franklin's carefully wrought graven image there lurks, according to Jerry Weinberger, "a serious thinker who, though he wore a leather apron, philosophized not with a hammer but a joke." Weinberger's Franklin observes the world with disenchanted eyes, but with this difference: each man's closet nihilism is draped to suit his distinct private purposes. Franklin was in it for the pleasure of playing "the grand game of modernity," as Weinberger terms it. As with chess, or with the construction of arithmetical magic squares and circles, or with charming and disarming conversation, he was good at it. He loved challenges and even more his success in mastering them, sometimes with subtlety but always with panache.

But does this reading account for, let alone do justice to, Franklin's astonishing achievements? Can one leave it at his "apparent dedication to public service"? Even if he was an Olympic-class voyeur, amateur, and gamesman, these qualities by themselves leave unanswered the question, what did Ben 'really care about? He cared for America, first as the jewel in the imperial crown, then as a jewel in its solitaire setting. He also cared for Philadelphia, for which he labored tirelessly (both before and after his retirement from business) on behalf of its inhabitants' security and quality of life. Turning to his sundry projects, this savvy man of affairs was well served by his clarity of mind. In confronting any particular situation, condition, or impasse, he steered clear of the commonplaces and certitudes that were the stuff of ordinary discourse. These, he thought, were less shortcuts to truth than barriers to understanding and peaceful resolution. Just about any ringing abstract claim invites its equally assertive counterclaim. The colonists' claim of rights elicited the Parliament's claim of its rights; the arguments used by Britain could as well--and as absurdly--be Used (in Franklin's famous hoax) by the "King of Prussia" in reasserting his rights against the English descendants of his Saxon subjects.

Franklin's famous "strategy of humility" aimed at getting people off their doctrinal high horses. With their feet more solidly planted on earth, they might engage fruitfully with one another and with the world as it is. He counseled that we ought neither to accept passively the cards we are dealt by accident or Providence, nor curse them, nor ignore them. Instead, he urged that we focus our attention on whatever lay within our grasp and means. Caring so deeply about human providence, Franklin made it his business to help others try their hand as well.

Ralph Lerner

The University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

Jerry Weinberger has worked hard to pull off Franklin's mask, but in the process he has distorted Franklin's face almost beyond recognition. Weinberger rightly finds Franklin full of sly, playful irony, but he erroneously imagines that behind the charming persona stands nothing but a coldly detached thinker and "above all else a political elitist and fixer and something of a cool opportunist," devoid of any belief in justice, convinced that the very distinction between virtue and vice is chimerical. In short, "the Hero of Public Service is a myth." What evidence does Weinberger adduce for such astonishing charges? He cites only the ubiquity of Franklin's unsparing humor and an adolescent essay that denies the existence of free will. But before concluding that Franklin had no commitment to justice, Weinberger would do well to consider more carefully the bitter sarcasm into which Franklin's humor descended during his long, fruitless struggle to win from the British court fair treatment for Americans. Even more telling is the insuperable bitterness that engulfed Franklin's affection for his loyalist son William. Franklin believed that William had betrayed his father, his country, and the just cause to advance his own fortunes. Laughter can be revealing, as Weinberger says, but the moments at which we cannot laugh are most revealing of all.

These dark moments were rare for Franklin not because he lacked moral principles but because those very principles gave him a deep affection for simple decency and a supreme vantage point from which to laugh at the pretenses and self-deceptions that surround most efforts to be moral--including many of his own. That vantage point was not attained all at once. In his early essay on liberty and necessity, Franklin did conclude that the metaphysical difficulties with the doctrine of free will made the distinction between virtue and vice an empty one. But a little more experience and reflection soon persuaded him that this conclusion was absurd. He saw that some ways of living are decisively wiser and better than others because they are truly fairer and more beneficial for all concerned. These wise habits he called virtues, and he spent his life trying to cultivate them in himself and teaching the good sense of living virtuously to others. In particular, he taught that virtue need not be a sour, gloomy affair or a ridiculous hypocrisy. He thought he had learned from Socrates that the dictates of true virtue and the requisites of true happiness are one and the same, but whether virtue and happiness converge quite so easily as he believed is a question that Socrates would surely have suggested Franklin ponder more deeply.

Lorraine Smith Pangle

University of Texas at Austin

Austin, TX

Jerry Weinberger's Franklin may seem controversial to historians, but his theme that "our commonsensical concepts of morality ... make no logical sense, despite the fact that they seem so obvious" is a staple argument of Straussian thinkers. Weinberger follows Leo Strauss's teaching that all philosophers starting with Plato must confront the conflicting claims made by reason and revelation. This means that no moral opinion is safe from philosophic scrutiny, including natural rights and social compact theory.

Weinberger suggests that because Franklin did not believe in natural rights, he did not think that they were supported by reason as the most useful foundation for society. But natural-rights theory may be grounded in empiricism, and bolstered by what Locke calls "ascending degrees of probability." Rational men can then posit, without being dogmatic, that certain natural laws govern the world. This twin foundation of natural rights is the genius of the theory. The difficulty in understanding Franklin's own thoughts about natural rights and social compact theory is that he speaks of them selectively, though he indeed speaks of them.

There is reason to believe that Franklin's use of natural rights was selective because he thought that too of ten they were asserted in a way that led people to think that there were no natural duties. If there is one message that Americans, including Mark Twain, have received from Franklin, it is that they do have natural duties. Franklin himself does not hesitate to remind others of these duties, and his private letters and early writings are saturated with admonitions to virtue. Franklin writes that it is honor and shame that provide order in society by leading men to virtue. He thought marriage important to the nation and called it "the most natural State of Man." Weinberger de-emphasizes all of this, undermining the virtues Franklin tried to teach.

Perhaps Weinberger's most controversial assertion about Franklin is that he had no political principles and wasn't concerned with forms of government, whether monarchic or democratic. But if Franklin's philosophy and natural science led him to reject ordinary moral opinion, they may have also led him to think that there was an optimal theory of politics and economics that would support those political principles critical to furthering his own philosophic project.

Kevin Slack

Irving, TX

Jerry Weinberger replies:

There is nothing anybody can do to make the central contradiction in The Autobiography--that Franklin lost and regained his faith, yet he also never lost his faith--go away. With this self-disclosed but artful contradiction, The Autobiography unravels and is, consequently, Franklin's conscious manipulation of his own persona. Professor Ketcham ignores this contradiction, which is not "trivial."

Franklin's political machinations were not disgraceful or anti-republican. But Franklin was not a conscientious republican--he was an egalitarian and a kind of libertarian, and any form of government that would promote these ends was just fine with him.

As regards Franklin and the three-fifths compromise, he really did come to oppose slavery and I don't doubt his sincerity in promoting the anti-slavery petition. But he didn't oppose slavery on natural-rights grounds or because he thought it was a sin against God, as the very piece Ketcham mentions ("Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade") makes clear.

I agree with almost everything Professor Lerner says in his elegant letter--especially with his comment that Franklin cared a lot about the British Empire, America, and Philadelphia. In my view, however, Franklin thought the attachments of the heart quite different from the obligations of moral duty, and believed the former to be real but the latter to make no sense. Professor Lerner seems to think that without the two together we find "closet nihilism." Franklin wouldn't agree with this. He meant it when he said that doing good to others was doing good to oneself--and thinking that fact through led him to his radical skepticism about morality. To the charge of selfish nihilism, Franklin would reply that the good things of life are best enjoyed when not distorted by our moral hopes, and that friendship, public service, and other common pursuits are very good things. That said, I admit that I can't read Franklin without sensing reserve, not just of the mind but of the heart as well, in his public professions of duty.

Professor Pangle hangs me for my Franklin because the evidence I offer is only the "ubiquity of his humor" and the "adolescent essay" that denied free will. Not so. Franklin's humor is ubiquitous, and that makes it shameless, which is a real problem for anyone who thinks of Franklin as a paragon of moral virtue. But I don't derive my view of Franklin from that fact alone.

I don't offer the adolescent essay (A Discourse on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain) as direct evidence, either. Rather, I refer to what The Autobiography says about that pamphlet as part of the evidence for the central contradiction in The Autobiograpby--a contradiction that makes "the whole story of fall and redemption, in one way or another, dubious." That's an argument for a careful reading of The Autobiography (and an attempt to follow the entire path of thinking), not for the sufficiency of the adolescent essay considered by itself.

Pangle needs to read what Franklin said about that essay more carefully. Franklin never says that its conclusion was "absurd." The most he says is that its doctrine (Deism) might be true (I repeat, might be true) but not useful, and that some error may have "insinuated itself unperceived, into my argument, so as to infect all that followed, as is common in metaphysical reasoning." All this is as tentative and provocative as could be; whether Franklin then came to believe in vice and virtue can be determined, I contend, only by a careful reading of The Autobiography and the other writings to which it points. I try to provide such a reading in my book, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked.

I agree with Pangle that Franklin became increasingly irritated at mounting British stupidity and that his satirical propaganda reflected the fact. But so little did that propaganda reflect his moral high dudgeon that Franklin was still hoping for a job in the British government until the Hutchinson affair in 1773, just a year before he was forced to flee London. (Can anyone blame Madison for later suspecting Franklin to be a spy?)

And the matter of William is telling, but tells just the opposite of what Pangle suggests. In his only writing about the breach, the famous 1784 letter to William, Franklin does not blame the boy for having "betrayed his father, his country, and the just cause to advance his own fortunes." (Pangle's words, but where do they come from?) Franklin rather complains of Williams "taking up arms against me, in a cause, wherein my good fame, fortune and life were all at stake." Could this be clearer? The issue was the hurt to Franklin, not to cause and country (Franklin never mentions justice).

As regards cause and country, Franklin excuses the boy because our opinions are subject to error and "not in our own power: they are formed and governed much by circumstances, that are of ten as inexplicable as they are irresistible. Your situation was such that few would have censured your remaining neuter, though there are natural duties which precede political ones, and cannot be extinguished by them" (emphasis added). Again, the natural duties trump political obligation and consist in what William owed to Franklin's good fame, fortune, and life. Franklin's tone in the letter is sad and hurt but, even so, still cooled with the usual touch of Franklin playfulness; there isn't a hint of the bitterness or moral indignation Pangle tries hard to find.

I may have misled Mr. Slack by saying that Franklin didn't believe in natural rights. I should rather have said that he could find no good reason to think that they exist. But Franklin could have agreed with Slack that it could be useful to refer to such rights, as Franklin did on a very few occasions. He once wrote that a right is "whatever a man thinks is his right." There is no way to get from this position to natural rights with corresponding natural duties.

Franklin did indeed once call marriage "the most natural State of Man." But he did so in Old Mistress Apologue, a coarse but brilliant reflection on the illusions of beauty, sex, and marriage.
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Author:Ketcham, Ralph; Lerner, Ralph; Pangle, Lorraine Smith; Slack, Kevin
Publication:Claremont Review of Books
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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