Printer Friendly

The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin.

In Part I, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison traced the remarkable life of Benjamin Franklin from his birth in 1706 to his departure for England in 1757 as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. By that time Franklin had already distinguished himself as a universal genius as printer, philanthropist, philosopher, inventor, and man of science. Now he was to embark on a new career as a diplomat and revolutionary. Franklin remained in if England for 17 years, most of the time as agent for the assemblies of several colonies. He made a host of friends among scientists, men of letters, economists, and politicians; he promoted the scheme for a new Vandalia colony on the Ohio; he met Doctor Johnson as a member of a charitable society, The Associates of Doctor Bray, which set up schools for Negro children in colonial towns. He frequently contributed to the London newspapers articles, letters, and squibs supporting the rights of the colonists. The most humorous was called "Rules by which a Great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One," which he dedicated to one of the leading British ministers. At the same time, he wrote to his American friends begging them to moderate their demands, to respect law and order, because time was working for them.

This policy got him in wrong with the colonial radicals. He spoke different languages to his English and his American friends, precisely because he was trying to moderate the extreme demands of each side and to find a formula by which American liberty could be preserved within the British Empire. That, of course, exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. His position as colonial agent became very shaky in 1773. Sam Adams attacked him, partly because he regarded Franklin as a wicked old man. Debby refused to cross the ocean, and so never came to London with Ben, who was reported to be leading the life of young Boswell; and in his writings he took an earthy, practical view of sex that outraged Puritanical sentiment. Curiously enough, it was Franklin's attitude toward sex that inspired the vicious attack on his reputation, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), by D. H. Lawrence, who, though far from a Puritan himself in sexual matters, seems to have expected everyone else to be one.

Franklin worked hard to prevent a breach with the mother country, but when it became clear that Parliament would not repeal the Coercive Acts, he realized that his mission had failed. In March 1775, he sailed from England for the last time as a subject of King George. The very day after his arrival in Philadelphia he was chosen by the Pennsylvania Assembly to be a delegate to the Continental Congress.

In Congress or out, Franklin was no great or original political thinker. In politics he was an opportunist, or pragmatist, to give opportunism its modem philosophical term. His one test of a constitution, or of a political arrangement, was "Will it work?" The British Empire before 1763 worked very well, so he wished to continue it, or restore it as it had been, rather than break off. Similar was his attitude toward religion. As a young man he had been a typical 18th-century deist, but he abandoned deism because "this doctrine might be true, but was not very useful." He observed that public morality was essential to good government and that organized Christianity was the best promoter of public morality, so he supported churches and even occasionally attended them.

Franklin placed a high value on conciliation and compromise in politics. He did not like the result of the Federal Convention of 1787, of which he was the oldest and most experienced member, because he disliked checks and balances, and he wanted no U.S. Senate. Yet such was his common sense and his respect for the opinions of others that he accepted and supported the Federal Constitution instead of standing out against it as did George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and other members whose vanity had been wounded because their pet ideas had not been adopted. The famous speech Franklin delivered near the end of the convention expresses his attitude perfectly: I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions ... which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.... Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good; I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad; within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received.... Franklin may therefore be considered one of the founding fathers of American democracy, since no democratic government can last long without conciliation and compromise. And the mere knowledge that he was in favor of the Constitution did more to win acceptance from the common people of America than all the learned, close-reasoned articles in The Federalist, admirable as they are. In diplomacy, too, Franklin was a genius. The sending of him to France to represent the Continental Congress was a masterstroke, for in France he already had a great reputation as a man of science, and as "Bonhomme Richard." The French government, of course, favored him because he represented American resistance to their hereditary enemy; all who were dreaming of liberty for France revered him as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His book on electrical experiments, which had been translated, paraphrased, and published more than once, gave him high prestige among scientists and philosophers alike. An edition of Oeuvres de M. Franclin had appeared in 1773, and an enterprising Paris bookseller had translated his The Way to Wealth and a selection of his proverbs and witty sayings in the almanacs as La Science de Bonhomme Richard. This turned out to be even more important than his work on electricity in enhancing Franklin's reputation.

The simple yet witty moral teachings in these maxims made a tremendous appeal. Edition followed edition off the French press; it was even referred to as the "Bible of the Eighteenth Century," and a royal official advised the use of it in connection with the catechism. Bonhomme Richard proved that a scientist could be religious and creative, not merely a destructive critic of religion and a puller-down of ancient institutions, as most of the French men of science had been. The maxims were acceptable to the Church, and they made Franklin a favorite figure among the people at large. The ancient warfare between science and religion seemed to be ended. It was Franklin, more than any other person, who convinced the average Catholic bourgeois that natural science was not to be feared as impious and anti-Christian, but a good thing that would react in a beneficial way on human life.

Hitherto, little effort had been made to define the limits between science and religion. It was generally supposed to be immoral to assert a scientific cause for such phenomena as earthquakes, shooting stars, thunder, and lightning. Thus Franklin's proof of electricity's causing lightning became very significant. It had an impact comparable to that in our time of Einstein's theory of relativity. It took out of the field of religion something earlier classified as a mere act of God and included it in natural science. Yet nobody could deny that Franklin was a religious man, that he believed in God and called himself a Christian.

Franklin behaved in France with great sagacity. He did not mix with the people or drive through the streets waving his hat and soliciting cheers; he lived aloof in the Hotel Valentinois at Passy and appeared seldom in public. The rumor that he was a Quaker seemed to be confirmed because he allowed himself to be presented to the king without a wig or elaborate court dress. That was just an accident-the wig did not come in time-but it was all to the good because Quakers were the only Christian sect favored by the philosophers. Franklin also used his membership in the Masonic fraternity to good effect; the Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters, which he joined in Paris, and of which he became grand master, helped to mobilize public opinion in favor of French intervention in the War of Independence.

One of the warmest tributes to Franklin's influence and standing in France came from the pen of John Paul Jones, whose naval efforts Franklin consistently supported, despite countless difficulties. Jones wrote to Robert Morris, "I know the great and good in this kingdom better, perhaps, than any other American who has appeared in Europe since the treaty of alliance, and if my testimony could add anything to Franklin's reputation I would witness the universal veneration and esteem with which his name inspires all ranks, not only at Versailles and all over this kingdom, but also in Spain and Holland. And I can add from the testimony of the first characters of other nations that with them envy is dumb when the name of Franklin is but mentioned."

John Adams, Franklin's colleague at Paris, has left an amusing account of the doctor's working day as a diplomat. Hardworking, conscientious John tried to get the doctor to do business, or at least to sign papers, before breakfast, but seldom with success. Franklin breakfasted late, and as soon as it was over, carriages began arriving at the Hotel Valentinois with all sorts of people, "some philosophers, academicians and economists," some literary men; "but by far the greater part were women and children, come to have the pleasure of telling stories among their acquaintances about his simplicity, his bald head and scattering straight hairs." These visitors occupied all his time until the hour to dress for dinner, between one and two o'clock. He was invited to dine out almost every day and seldom declined. After dinner he sometimes attended the play, sometimes a session of the academy or a lodge meeting, but more often to visit a lady friend and take tea.

"Some of these ladies," Adams says, "I knew, as Madame Helvetius, Madame Brillon, Madame Chaumont, Madame Le Ray and others whom I never knew and never enquired for. After tea the evening was spent in hearing the ladies sing and play upon their pianofortes and other instrument of musick, and in various games as cards, chess, backgammon." Franklin, however, never played anything but chess or checkers. "In these agreeable and important occupations and amusements," Adams says, "the afternoon and evening was spent, and he came home at all hours from nine to twelve o'clock at night. This course of life contributed to his pleasure and I believe to his health and longevity."

To one of these ladies, Madame Helvetius, wealthy widow of a noted philosopher, Franklin proposed marriage when he was more than 70 and she was but a few years younger. The young, beautiful, and amiable Madame Brillon de Jouy was willing to sit on Franklin's lap and to let him play chess with her when she was soaking in one of those enormous covered bathtubs of the period, but no other favors beyond that would she allow. Madame Le Ray de Chaumont-she was one person and not two, as John Adams seemed to remember-was the wife of the owner of the Hotel Valentinois, in a wing of which Franklin lived. Her husband was a practical shipowner who handled much of the unneutral aid given by France to America before the treaty was signed in 1778. She became the first of a succession of French mistresses to John Paul Jones, when that gallant captain arrived in France as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Ranger.

For all that John Adams said, Franklin managed to write a surprising number of letters, by dictating them to his secretaries at breakfast or between social engagements. And he did the main work of the American mission, through personal contacts. Far more effective than formal notes were a whispered conversation at the play, a hint to a cabinet minister's mistress, a confidential chat at the Masonic Lodge.

Franklin was also keenly interested in aeronautics. He was a friend of the Montgolfier brothers, who made the first balloon ascensions. "We think of nothing here at present but of flying," he wrote from Paris in 1783. "The balloons engross all attention." John Jeffries, who made the first balloon crossing of the English Channel, brought Franklin from London the world's first airmail letter.

Thus Benjamin Franklin was a universal genius, more so than any other man of his day, American or European; one from whose writings the student of almost any subject from orchids to oceanography, or from politics to population growth, can learn something. He was the embodiment of what we like to call the American spirit-idealistic but practical, principled but expedient, optimistic for human betterment and the world's future.

One of his last letters, of March 9, 1790, was written in answer to President Ezra Stiles of Yale. "You desire to know something of my religion," he says. "It is the first time I have been questioned upon it." (Who but a president of Yale would have dared?) "But I cannot take your curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few words to gratify it." He affirms his belief in God as the Creator of the Universe, and in immortality. He expresses some doubt of the divinity of Jesus, but with characteristic humor adds that he will not dogmatize on the subject, "having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity to know the truth with less trouble." He had less than six weeks to wait. As "Poor Richard" he had remarked in one of his almanacs: If you would not be forgotten As soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading Or do things worth the writing. Benjamin Franklin did both. Everything he wrote is worth reading, and everything he did has become part of the fabric of American history and of Western civilization.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:part 2
Author:Morison, Samuel Eliot
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:Say it again, Sam.
Next Article:Labor's Elizabeth Dole.

Related Articles
The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin.
Portraits of Benjamin Franklin Presented in Museum's Galleries of European Art
U.S. Pavilion at World EXPO 2005 Introduced; 'The Franklin Spirit' to Honor 300th Birthday of Founding Father.
'Ben & Me' at the National Liberty Museum.
BEN & ME Premieres at Philadelphia's National Liberty Museum to Celebrate Benjamin Franklin's 300th Birthday.
Benjamin Franklin.
Independent Bank acquires Benjamin Franklin Bancorp.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters