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Can a man be as vast as a nation? Did the life-experiences and cultural contributions of a single individual play as pivotal a role in the establishment of American democracy and American culture as any written declaration, constitution, or law? Without a doubt, there are historians who stand at the ready to assert that Benjamin Franklin was just such an individual. Numerous books, scholarly articles, essays, encyclopedias, and even works of fiction have contributed and continue to contribute to the mythic status of Benjamin Franklin in American history.
However, there is is good reason to reject any surface-level interpretation of Franklin’s important contributions to the founding of American Democracy, and read with great care the complex and extensive evolution of Franklin’s actions and stated philosophies over the span of a great many years. The resulting image of Franklin when the myth of Franklin and the historical Franklin are compared is one of a challengingly deep and complex thinker, and of a man who acted in keeping with his deepest philosophical, moral, and spiritual beliefs — many of which were quite radical in his day and many of which were astonishingly traditional.
The truth of the matter is that “”Franklin’s extant writings are so rich and voluminous that one can find almost any sort of Franklin one wishes to find,” (Frasca, 2007) but, certainly, in comparing the historical Franklin to the mythic Franklin, important insight into American history and into the psychology of American culture can be gained.
Franklin’s career can be said to have begun very early in his life, when he “left school at 10 years of age to help his father” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007); not long afterward, he “was apprenticed to his half brother James, a printer and publisher of the New England Courant, to which young Ben secretly contributed.
After much disagreement he left his brother’s employment and went (1723) to Philadelphia to work as a printer” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007).
Franklin’s early life was later given its first “boost” toward mythic status with posthumous publication of Franklin’s “Autobiography” in 1791, not long after Franklin’s death. If the “Autobiography” helped to foster the mythic status of Franklin in American history, it was but one of the many examples of Franklin’s written contributions to American culture. During his active career, Franklin was immersed not only in science and history, but in philosophy and ethical theory as well.
His popular writings contained both humor and moral axioms — notably in his very popular publication, “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” which was “In his day the great source of profit to every printer [… ] which was issued yearly, and which was the vade-mecum in every household that could spare the necessary two or three pence annually” (Ford, 1899, p. 400). Franklin’s steady contributions to American popular culture during his lifetime included not only the folk wisdom of Poor Richard, but with much-needed humor for the American continent:
In America, however, either because the immigrants had been recruited from the unfortunate and the religiously austere, or because the hardness of the conditions resulted in a sadness which tinctured the lives of the people, there seems to have been a practical extinction of all sense of the humorous. (Ford, 1899, p. 388) Against this background, Franklin — himself often a deep-thinker and a moody person — articulated the first instances of a natively American sense of humor.
This fact is very important in evaluating both the mythical and the historical Franklin because the mythic Franklin remains empty of all but a few slight traces of Franklin’s triumphant career and reputation as a humorist. His status as such is very important because, as mentioned, it is Franklin’s cultural contribution to America as well as his political contributions which cements his status as a Founding Father and which has resulted in the extensive influence Franklin has held over American culture from its earliest beginnings.
Franklin used humor in a very conscious way to pave the way for his more considered ethical and moral ideas; more importantly he seized the opportunity to define humor in America for generations: “perhaps his most remarkable attribute is that the future historian of the now famous American humor must begin its history with the first publication of Poor Richard” (Ford, 1899, p. 389) and, by doing so, Franklin placed himself in a key position to define through humor just what it mean to be an American.
His capacities as a humorist do not seem to have been affected, but rather emerged naturally out of his personality. Franklin used humor to not only define himself and to partially define American culture, but as a method to settle scores or take shots at traditional beliefs or institutions: “His irresistible inclination to screw a joke out of everything is illustrated by the scrapes he got himself into with his advertisers. Employed to print an announcement of the sailing of a ship, he added an “N. B.
” of his own, to the effect that among the passengers “No Sea Hens, nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any terms. ” Some of the clergy, properly incensed, withdrew their subscriptions from the “Gazette. ” Yet this did not cure him of the tendency, and he was quickly offending again. (Ford, 1899, p. 394) Humor and literary works provided one means for Franklin to influence the development of early American culture and these aspects are slightly contained in the myth of Benjamin Franklin, with the humorous aspects downplayed.
For example, “Poor Richard’s Almanac” is probably part of the Franklin myth in most people’s minds and they probably also are aware that Franklin offered axioms of wisdom in this Almanac, but many people are probably deeply unaware that Franklin’s gift for humor was not only an important part of his literary output, but an aspect of his personal philosophy and a method by which he engaged other people and also helped to resolved conflicts. Another aspect of the Franklin myth is that he “invented” electricity by tying a key to a kite-string.
Like many myths, this myth has a basis in historical reality: “His experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm, which showed that lightning is an electrical discharge[… ] and his invention of the lightning rod[… ] won him recognition from the leading scientists in England” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007) but it is a slim basis. What the “lightning and key” myth represents in a compressed form is the long and complex contribution to the natural sciences and to popular inventions which actually was a part of the historical Franklin’s career.
In regards to his actual scientific achievements, Franklin is noted by historians to have been a brilliant inventor and adapter of existing technologies: “He repeated the experiments of other scientists and showed his usual practical bent by inventing such diverse things as the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and a glass harmonica” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007); he is regarded as having a very brilliant scientific mind and a keen sense of practical implementation of abstract ideas.
These qualities are also present in Franklin’s philosophical and political ideas which will be discussed shortly and together, Franklin’s scientific, philosophical. and political vision actually coincide with the “popular” aesthetic already shown to have been a part of his literary output. In some ways, Franklin’s cultural contributions mirror a deeply democratic sense of purpose and fulfillment: the creation of common axioms, a common wisdom, along with useful technologies are not separate from Franklin’s political vision.
Ironically, the egalitarianism which is inferred in Franklin’s guiding principles is less present on the surface in his specifically political writings. When specifically considering Franklin’s political beliefs and writings, it should be pointed out that Franklin was actually “very different from the other Founding Fathers. He was older and more committed to the British Empire and certainly more cosmopolitan and urbane than they were” (Morgan, 2005, p.
551) and because Franklin lived abroad for just under twenty years in England and having traveled a lot through Europe, Franklin was in many ways “the least American of the revolutionaries” (Morgan, 2005, p. 551). This duality in the historical Franklin is, of course, completely absent from the “lightning and key” mythic Franklin who is regarded as a Founding Father of American democracy.
This last idea of the myth of Franklin is true enough, but as this paper has hopefully shown, the historical picture of Franklin is a more ambiguous and much more complex than the myth. This is an understandable condition because part of what myth does with historical events is to simplify them and streamline them so that the symbolic impact can be made more powerful and less diluted by alternate interpretation.
It would be difficult if not impossible, for example, to generate a mythic vision of Franklin which included the historical reality that Franklin “preferred the social and intellectual life of London to that of Philadelphia” (Morgan, 2005, p. 551) or that “his landlady, Margaret Stevenson, and her precocious daughter, Polly, provided Franklin with more compatible intellectual companionship than did his own wife and daughter” (Morgan, 2005, p.
551) so these very real and very important aspects of Franklin’s actual life and his actual personality are absent from the Franklin myth. Yet these aspects, and others, are extremely important in helping to define and understand what exactly Franklin contributed as a Founding Father of American democracy. That his cultural contributions, whether humorous, literary, or scientific not only fostered his myth but actually altered the course and evolution of American society is demonstrable by way of historical evidence.
What, then, were Franklin’s political contributions to the early American nation? Did Franklin evidence as much resourcefulness and thoroughness in his political career as he evidenced in his career as a printer, or humorist, or inventor? One very interesting aspect of Franklin’s life is that he dealt with not only the revolt of the American colonies against a British Empire which he loved, but also with the resulting estrangement from his own (illegitimate) son during the course of the war.
Franklin’s actions at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War give a solid glimpse into his sympathies and beliefs at the time: As trouble between the British government and the colonies grew with the approach of the American Revolution, Franklin’s deep love for his native land and his devotion to individual freedom brought (1775) him back to America. There, while his illegitimate son, William Franklin, was becoming a leader of the Loyalists, Benjamin Franklin became one of the greatest statesmen of the American Revolution and of the newborn nation.
(“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007) As a statesman, Franklin’s contributions can be at least to some degree quantified and cited: he was postmaster general, a delegate to the Continental Congress, an appointee and signatory to the committee which wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was also “sent to Canada with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton to persuade the people of Canada to join the patriot cause” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007).
The mythic vision of Franklin as a powerful statesman delivering powerful, moving oratory before the Continental Congress, or laboriously poring over draft versions of the Declaration of Independence are confronted by anecdotes of historical fact. An example of this is John Adams, who “contemptuously described a Franklin “from day to day sitting in silence, a great part of the time fast asleep in his chair” and sighed that he was likely nevertheless to get credit for everything achieved by the Congress,” (Lopez & Herbert, 1975, p. 203).
Again, Franklin’s political reputation was based not so much in his perception among his American colleagues, but in his foreign popularity and fame. His best tactic was not spell-binding oratory or intricate legalese, but in injecting “a calm pronouncement or a bit of humor” (Lopez & Herbert, 1975, p. 203) into difficult political processes. The question still remains as to what Franklin, personally, believed about the American Revolution — during the time of the revolt and afterward — and whether or not Franklin can be accurately described as a firm believer in democratic principles.
The historical facts suggest that Franklin held conflicting views about democracy and royalist rule. On the one hand, he advocated personal liberty, on the other, he seemed reluctant to dismiss with the notion of a royalist government altogether. As he wrote in the “Autobiography,” his feelings were not at all certain during the time of the approaching revolution: “In our way thither I projected and drew up a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government, so far as might be necessary for defense, and other important general purposes” (Franklin, 1914, p.
131) but here there is no mention of a constitution or a strong Federal government at all. Franklin’s own visions for “a single-chamber congress and a weak executive council were rejected” (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007) and, alter, although he objected to aspects of the final Constitution, “he helped to direct the compromise [and] worked earnestly for its ratification’ (“Franklin, Benjamin,” 2007).
The picture which emerges of Franklin as a politician is one of a man whose core-principles were challenged by the birth of a new government, but who fought resolutely on behalf of the new nation without regard for the degree to which it mirrored, exactly, his always-evolving personal beliefs. In addition to the differences which are evident between Franklin the myth and Franklin the historical figure in regard to his literary, scientific, and political contributions to American history, two other areas of Franklin’s life are absent from the mythological figure of Franklin: his religious and racial convictions.
Of course, it is absolutely true that Franklin’s religious convictions and his views on race and ethnicity evolved throughout his lifetime. On the other hand, Franklin’s religious beliefs seemed to occupy a central place in his interpretation of his own life’s purpose and the meaning of his life. Where religion is concerned, Franklin’s most intimate beliefs depict a rather traditional point of view.
Because of his personal experiences and personal fortunes, Franklin tended to view the arc of his life in rather conventional religious terms: “Scattered through his writings are sentences full of gratitude to God for His favor in lifting him up from such a low to such a high estate, in bringing him substantially unscathed through the graver dangers and baser temptations of human life, and in affording him the assurance that the divine goodness, of which he had received such signal proofs in his career, would not cease with his death” (Bruce, 1917, p.
51) — these simple, but enduring, beliefs are easily compatible with many forms of American Christianity. That said, it would be very difficult to trace an influence from Franklin to modern Christianity, nor an influence of Christianity directly on the myth of Franklin. In both fact and in myth, Franklin’s traditional religious ideas are downplayed due, presumably, to their being conspicuously in keeping with the common ideas of Franklin’s time. Interestingly enough, Franklin retained his religious convictions at the close of his very eventful life and the fruition of his religious convictions strengthened him in old age and in death.
As one of his biographers wrote: “WHEN THE DAY CAME, April 17, 1790, he was ready. All his life he had been gingerly taming death, stripping it of its awe and power, clothing it in appealing metaphors of travel and bliss, humoring it, giving it a place in the family circle” (Lopez & Herbert, 1975, p. 308) and because of his receptiveness to deeply held religious convictions which were, nonetheless, not tied to any kind of dogma or strict adherence to religious doctrine, Franklin’s religious philosophies and his actual death are gestures, also, of a democratic sprit and and individualist.
The conflict which the religious side of the historical Franklin presents for the mythic vision of Franklin is difficult to articulate. It has to do with the fact that, while Franklin’s individualistic take on Christian principles and religious ideas does, in fact, make a very compatible fit with the American notion of individual liberty, Franklin’s avoidance of traditional dogma and doctrine results in making his individualistic religious beliefs more difficult to define and express to a popular audience.
Just as there is no easy mythical expression for Franklin’s humor, as there is for his scientific prowess, there is no ready mythic symbol for his peculiarly individualistic religious beliefs which are rooted in traditional Christianity. Just as Franklin’s religious attitudes fail to find mythic expression, his ambiguous views on race and racial prejudice also are a poor fit for the Franklin myth.
The attentive observer of history will take into consideration that at various points in his life, Franklin was demonstrably racist and xenophobic: “Franklin was clearly unhappy about the great number of Germans who were immigrating to his home town of Philadelphia, even though many supported him by patronizing his printing business” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005) and also, Franklin — prior to the Revolutionary War — “grumbled about Philadelphia’s bilingual (English and German) street signs and complained that the Pennsylvania parliament needed to use translators” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005).
In addition to these historical facts, there is evidence that Franklin was not only racist, but perhaps a bit paranoid about other races and cultures. He wrote on one occasion, “That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small…. ” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005) which in and of itself might be considered merely an observation of fact until it is paired with Franklin’s words, which preceded the statement: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005).
These kinds of historical details and indications of Franklin’s character have no place in the Franklin myth. Their impact on the historical influence of Franklin is one which is very complicated and fascinating because the evolution of Franklin’s thoughts and actions in regard to issues of race underwent a profound change throughout his life.
Although Franklin seemed to regard one race being in conflict with another in some of his writings, he nevertheless, “was chosen to be president of one of the first anti-slavery societies in America,” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005) and he went on to help to “create black schools, assist free blacks to obtain work, promote family-friendly values, and improve the social conditions black children” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005).
The most important aspect of Franklin’s views on racism is that his ideas “evolved over his lifetime, becoming more tolerant and egalitarian as he grew older” (Lapham & Saunders, 2005), however, even such a dramatic and ultimately positivistic aspect of Franklin’s historical biography is left out of the Franklin myth. A letter to Franklin from his sister seems to encapsulate the very kinds of ambiguities and vagaries which the myth of Franklin exists to erase.
His sister remarks of the American revolution: “to Propagate Is stufed into them, & it is Dificult to know whither Either Party are in the Right. for my Part I wish we had Let alone strife before it was medled with & folowed things that make for Peace” (Van Doren, 1950, p. 107) and from this letter and others like it, the modern observer is able to glean at least a partial understanding that ideas and conflicts in Franklin’s time were no more clear, no more “black and white” than they are in our own.
In conclusion, while the myth of Benjamin Franklin, the man who “discovered” electricity with a key tied to a kite, the man who “wrote” the Declaration of Independence, a man who is one of the Founding Fathers of America, is a powerful and enduring myth, the historical facts of Franklin’s long and eventful life offer and a more authentic illustration of early-American philosophy, politics, and culture.
The conflict between the myth of Franklin and Franklin the historical figure is rooted in the fact that historical truths are often ambiguous, complex and difficult to express succinctly, whereas myth, while sacrificing authenticity often makes a far more expedient impact on popular consciousness. Franklin the historical figure achieved a far greater influence practically over the development of American culture and American politics than the myth is capable of expressing; however, the historical facts of Franklin’s life also sometimes stand in stark opposition to the myth which they, at least in part, began.
References Bruce, W. C. (1917). Benjamin Franklin, Self-Revealed: A Biographical and Critical Study Based Mainly on His Own Writings (Vol. 1). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Franklin, Benjamin. (2007). In The Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed. ). New York: Columbia University Press. Ford, P. L. (1899). The Many-Sided Franklin. New York: The Century Co. Franklin, B. (1914). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Macmillan. Frasca, R. (2007). Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and
Political Thought. The Historian, 69(2), 359+. Lapham, S. S. , & Saunders, A. (2005). Benjamin Franklin’s Evolving Views on Race and Ethnicity. Social Education, 69(1), 13+. Lopez, C. , & Herbert, E. W. (1975). The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: W. W. Norton. Morgan, D. T. (2005). The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. The Historian, 67(3), 551. Van Doren, C. (Ed. ). (1950). The Letters of Benjamin Franklin & Jane Mecom. Princeton, NJ:
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