Benjamin Franklin and his Enemies 
by Robert Middlekauf.
California, 276 pp., £19.95, March 1996, 0 520 20268 6
Show More
Show More

‘Sloth, by bringing on Disease, absolutely shortens Life.’ ‘The cat in gloves catches no mice.’ ‘A watched pot never boils’. No one can wholly avoid hating ‘Old Daddy Franklin’, from whose Poor Richard’s Almanac these sayings come, especially if brought up to revere him in Public School, USA. Abraham Lincoln is the father of his people; George Washington, of his nation; but Benjamin Franklin – as it happens, a basically very decent man – hovers over the entire tradition of American ‘Babbittry’. Some subterranean but essential link runs from Poor Richard to Disneyland, Mozart on the muzak and the mailing of America.

It is no small relief, therefore, to be reminded by Robert Middlekauf, a leading historian of the American Enlightenment, that Franklin was in fact a complicated and charming man with the will heartily to dislike any number of people who stood in his way. People like William Penn, for example, the absentee ‘proprietor’ of Pennsylvania; or Penn’s American henchman, William Smith, provost of the Academy and College of Philadelphia; or again, Ralph Izard, Silas Deane and John Adams, who were in the 1770s and 1780s Franklin’s fellow diplomats in Paris. After 1765, Franklin seems to have hated the entire English nation as well. It was too corrupt to be reformed, he wrote in 1780; and in 1781 he concluded that the English had become genuine barbarians: ‘there was not a Spark of Honour left in that corrupted nation’ – a curiously radical and Republican statement, a prefiguration of Robespierre’s more celebrated Jacobinical cri de coeur of 1794, ‘Je hais le peuple anglais.’

Born in 1706 to a family of recently immigrated Bostonian tallow chandlers, Franklin did not, of course, attend Massachusett’s premier instructional seminary, Harvard College. (His bust today graces that institution’s most hallowed hall, all the same, and he also received an honorary Harvard MA in 1753. That is an egregious, if nonetheless typical, case of élitist cultural appropriation: W.E.B. Du Bois’s likeness has just been placed in the University Library’s Reading Room. The institution has no shame)

After a brief stint in Boston as a teenage journalist, Franklin defied his brother and father and fled to Philadelphia, where he arrived with just enough money to buy two bread rolls. Poor Richard’s Almanac, published between 1732 and 1757, made him world-famous. (In France, even the Jesuits disseminated its earnest, practical, Protestant maxims.) By 1748, Franklin was rich enough to retire. In 1753, his electrical experiments earned him a medal from the Royal Society. (It was he who invented the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, and first conceived and named the electrical condenser. He also invented the cast-iron Franklin stove and reinvented the glass harmonica, for which Mozart wrote some amusing scores.) In 1756, he became Deputy Postmaster General for continental North America. True, in these same years, as a Philadelphia politician, he lost a long running battle against William Penn’s son, Thomas; but this unsuccessful struggle against ‘the Proprietary’ greatly enhanced him in the public’s estimation. After 1757, back in England, Franklin gradually became a kind of unofficial ambassador for all of the 13 colonies. In 1775, he went home, his last English sojourn having raised his new American nationalism to an unexpected fever pitch. In 1777 he returned to Europe for eight years, but to Paris now, where, as America’s representative and ‘mon cher papa’, he charmed the ladies. And the men, too, or most of them: his features were everywhere reproduced, in painting, sculpture, print, and – by royal order – on the bottom of a Sèvres chamber pot: there were limits to the patience even of Louis XVI.

Franklin secured these many successes by his enormous and patient talents, but also by the conscious elaboration of a public character. He had an eerie capacity for ‘watching himself in action’, even, for example, in the galling, and unusual, role of a twice-spurned suitor, having been rejected by the amiable but determined, noble-born widow of the immensely rich tax farmer and philosophe, Helvétius. ‘Grieved by this rebuke from my Eurydice,’ Franklin wrote in an essay entitled ‘Bagatelle’, ‘I resolved there and then to abandon those ungrateful shadows.’ A mauvaise fortune, bon visage might well have been his motto.

As clearly appears from his Autobiography, which was immediately compared with Rousseau’s, Franklin created a persona of moderate, optimistic and innovative rationality to meet the needs of a changing age. For reasons of their own, the pre-Revolutionary French reconstructed him as an uncorrupted, fur-capped primitive, and Franklin did nothing to correct their errors. Rousseau’s larger fabrications acquired a distinct authenticity from his unprecedented admission of masturbation; in his Autobiography Franklin made his own – calculating – admission of having fornicated with loose or even fallen women. (One of them – we don’t know which – mothered his elder son William, later to be his ennemi intime and the last Royalist governor of New Jersey.) Franklin was instinctively industrious, but he knew that it mattered even more to give an appearance of industry and humility. He cultivated humorous, self-deprecating understatement: it was said that he was not asked to write the Declaration of Independence for fear that he would put jokes into it. Disputatious in his youth, Franklin learned from experience to avoid never, always and inevitably and to favour instead seems, perhaps and maybe. His style was at times ironic, but it was always plain: in the apt words of Claude Lopez, who was originally to have co-authored this engaging book, Franklin had a ‘passionate longing for clarity in communication’ and a talent for simplifying complex problems. His innumerable aphorisms ordinarily played on the theme of self-evident truth: ‘Of what use is the Montgolfiers’ hot air balloon?’ asked a jaundiced spectator. ‘Of what use is a new-born baby?’ responded the Philadelphia sage. Of all the framers of American independence, he alone never made any reference to natural law. Nor did he ever speculate metaphysically on the origins of government, or on the possible relevance of such matters to America’s discontent. As Middlekauf justly observes, ‘his was a generous and calm spirit.’ Franklin liked to avoid personal quarrels: unfounded accusations, he wrote, were like ‘spots of dirt’, they ‘would all rub off when they were more dry’. He was in consequence a most able diplomat, adept at smoothing ruffled feathers; when the French foreign minister Vergennes was aghast at learning in late 1782 that John Adams had been secretly negotiating with England’s emissaries, Franklin had the gall to answer with a straight face that his compatriot had perhaps ‘been guilty of neglecting a point of bienséance’. Be assured, he added, that Americans ‘love and honour’ the French King.

How then could this calculating, mild-mannered man hate so strongly? For hate he did: ‘You are a Member of Parliament and one of that Majority which has doomed my Country to Destruction,’ he wrote in 1775 to William Strahan, a Scottish-born printer in London who had once been a close friend. ‘You have begun to burn our Towns, and murder our People. Look upon your Hands! They are stained with the blood of your Relations! You and I were long Friends: You are now my Enemy, and I am Yours.‘ Middlekauf sensibly concludes that Franklin’s hatred of Thomas Penn was likewise ‘obsessive, uncontrollable, and almost without limits’, that it had ‘overcome his reason’.

A key, as the author of this elegant short book points out, is that Franklin invariably worked to show that whatever he himself wanted was in the public’s interest also. This important insight might be expanded to suggest that he used this to rationalise his private wilfulness, not just to others but, more important, to himself as well: only when a public grievance coincided with a latent private distaste could Franklin allow himself to hate openly, and perhaps also to release a fund of suppressed aggression which he had spent a lifetime controlling and concealing. (It is suggestive, given that 18th-century women were by and large expected to be private persons, that this highly sexed and demanding Pennsylvania mavin never had any female enemies.) His ambiguous dealings with Adams are also quite revealing. As an uncompromising Republican – however suspicious he may have been of direct democracy – Adams disdained ‘Franklinian politicks’. Since Franklin was popular at Versailles, Adams reasoned quite logically that he had to be corrupt, secretly, just as the French were, openly. But because Adams was a genuine Republican, Franklin could not allow himself really to dislike his associate: hence his celebrated and, as it happens, balanced judgment: ‘I am persuaded,’ he said, that Adams ‘means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but ... some times, and in some things, absolutely out of his Senses’.

Politics mattered immensely to Franklin. By the 1770s, he had long since become the perfect pre-Victorian apologist of modern bourgeois life, but he was also by then very old and a survival, in many ways, from another, more divided, epoch. In his politics he was a ‘pre-bourgeois’ radical Whig, the heir of the Puritan 17th century, and as such, quite close in some ways to the ostensibly more rabid Tom Paine. (Paine’s Common Sense, when it first appeared, was commonly attributed to Franklin.) Two generations older than Jefferson, Madison or Hamilton, Franklin was suspicious of the executive in government (in 1787, instead of a President, he would have preferred a multiple executive); he was also a unicameralist, uninterested in the balance of powers. Thomas Penn said of him that he was a leveller, and a ‘tribune of the people’. In his politics, if not in his morals, Franklin was closer to Cotton Mather (1663-1728), whom he had met back in 1724, than to the idéologue Cabanis (1757-1808), whom he informally adopted in the early 1780s.

As an old man, Franklin still believed strongly in the political principles of his youth and it was through these that he viewed not just his personal enemies but Britain as a whole. At first, in Middlekauf’s phrase, he had been ‘a romantic imperialist’. Franklin’s great love ‘was not a Woman. He loved his work more, and his science, and his country’ and ‘before the American Revolution, he loved England and the British Empire more than anything else and probably more than anyone else.’ But when Britain seemed to have become ‘corrupt’, as Radical Whig theory had all along explained would happen, his love of England turned to hatred. Now, finally, he could allow himself to remember – and avenge – the insolence and contempt of Thomas Penn, and the famous tongue-lashing to which Britain’s Attorney General Wedderburn had publicly subjected him in 1774. He could remember many other personal slights as well. ‘It is convenient,’ Franklin wrote, ‘that man is a reasonable creature since it enables him to find or make a Reason for every thing he has a mind to do.’

The oddity of this book is that it dwells lovingly on mundane mid-18th-century Pennsylvania politics and barely mentions what must surely stand as the most telling if covert instance of Franklin’s patient way of hating: his anguished relationship with his illegitimate and only surviving son, the loyalist William Franklin. When the War of Independence ended, William wanted to make up. He wrote plaintively, submissively even, to his world-famous father, urging him to revive ‘that affectionate Intercourse and Connexion which till the Commencement of the late Troubles had been the Pride and Happiness of my Life’. But Franklin was unmoved. He allowed that William might perhaps have remained neutral in America’s war against Britain, but his son’s active opposition to the patriotic cause could never be forgiven: ‘there are Natural Duties,’ wrote the unexpectedly stern father, ‘which precede political ones, and cannot be extinguish’d from them.’ William would not be allowed to defy him as he, Benjamin, had defied his own father seventy years before. Briefly, in 1785, the two men did meet once more, when Franklin’s ship laid in at Southampton on its way westward from France to America. There, Franklin senior more or less extorted payment from his now destitute son as compensation for ancient debts. And then, when told one day that conditions were right for sailing, ‘the old man woke early,’ roused his grandson (i.e. William’s son, William Temple Franklin) and boarded ship. But he did not wake his son William ‘and no goodbyes were exchanged before the ship sailed. Never would the two men lay eyes on one another again.’ It is hard to imagine that Franklin could have behaved in this inhuman way if a higher principle had not strengthened some dark, inadmissible dislike or disappointment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997

Patrice Higonnet’s phrase ‘élitist cultural appropriation’, used about Harvard’s adoption of Benjamin Franklin (LRB, 14 November 1996), deserves wider usage. For instance, it expresses more succinctly than the contemporary couplet what Elgin did with the marbles:

Noseless himself, he brings back noseless rocks,
Theirs weathered down by time, his by the pox.

Simon Currie

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences