In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Is he winking?Joseph J. Ellis
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Benjamin Franklin 
by Edmund S. Morgan.
Yale, 339 pp., £19.95, October 2002, 0 300 09532 5
Show More
Show More

When Thomas Jefferson was introduced as the new American Ambassador to France in 1784, legend has it that the French minister asked if he was Benjamin Franklin’s replacement, and Jefferson replied that he was merely Franklin’s successor; no one could replace him. Whether or not the story is true, it conveys Franklin’s stature as the only serious rival to George Washington for the title of America’s greatest hero of the age. He was the American Newton, Voltaire and Talleyrand rolled into one: the most distinguished scientist, the most accomplished prose stylist and sharpest wit, the most skilful diplomat. Franklin was present at almost every dramatic event of the American Revolution: at the Continental Congress to help draft and sign the Declaration of Independence; in Paris to negotiate the treaty ending the war with Britain; in Philadelphia for the creation of the Constitution. He had not only an uncanny knack for showing up where history was happening, but an instinctive flair for striking poses, whether holding the kite as the lightning struck, wearing a coonskin cap for his portrait in Paris, or appearing in Philadelphia as a young upstart with two loaves of bread tucked under his arm, the original poor American boy about to make good.

One of the leading historians of early American history during the last half-century, Edmund Morgan has, like Franklin, demonstrated great range, oblivious to the habit of specialisation and the accompanying turf wars that claim so many academic casualties. He has written biographies of John Winthrop, Ezra Stiles, Roger Williams and George Washington; political histories of the Stamp Act crisis and the causes of the American Revolution; social histories of family life in colonial New England and Virginia; intellectual histories of Puritan sainthood and republican versions of ‘the people’; and, perhaps his most influential book, an appraisal of the way class and race conspired in early Virginia to shape the peculiar institution of American slavery. Like Franklin, Morgan conveys complex ideas in a simple style designed to conceal rather than flaunt his learning. Morgan is Franklinesque, too, in his longevity, still writing and researching long after most would have retired. When I was Morgan’s graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s, he remarked in a seminar that his assessment of our scholarship was merely provisional, because historians needed to ‘mosey on down the trail of life’ before they produced their best work. Morgan is now 86, and has produced a book that crowns his career. While several previous biographies provide fuller accounts of Franklin’s life, none rivals Morgan’s study for its grasp of Franklin’s character, its affinity not just for his ideas, but for the way his mind worked.

One of the maxims of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, published from 1732 to 1757, was: ‘Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly.’ Franklin was not only an acknowledged genius in several fields but a man of multiple masks with a genius at convincing people that he agreed with them. D.H. Lawrence referred to him as ‘snuff-coloured Ben’, and suggested that he was an earlier version of the American used-car salesman who deals in hypocrisy and deception. Beneath the masks lay only more masks. Morgan considers this view misguided, but is still faced with what we might call the Franklin Problem: that is, when is he winking? When is his tongue in his cheek? The greatest achievement of this book is to offer persuasive answers to this question.

Morgan is modest about his interpretations. On Franklin’s marriage to Deborah Read, he writes: ‘Something in their relationship eludes us.’ Or on Franklin’s misreading of the American colonists’ response to the Stamp Act: ‘He made mistakes, mistakes that make us wonder if we have made mistakes in our attempts to understand him.’ At the end of the book, when Morgan concludes that Franklin was driven by an inquisitive spirit ‘which is not too sure it is right’, we recognise that spirit as the animating principle of Morgan’s meditation.

This book doesn’t pretend to provide an exhaustive chronicle of Franklin’s life and times. His youth is skipped altogether. The tangled history of his marathon battle with the Penn family – who were at the centre of Pennsylvania politics in the Colonial era – receives only passing notice. Similarly, his role in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention gets only glancing attention. Chronology frames the narrative, but Morgan feels free to accelerate across great swathes of time, then linger in places that afford him the greatest opportunity to comment on Franklin’s beguiling personality.

Morgan’s biography is distinctive for the attention it pays to Franklin’s convictions. He had an insatiable curiosity that consistently sought practical applications for its speculations. What was lightning and how could its energy be harnessed? Where did the Gulf Stream come from and where did it go? Why did some chimneys smoke more than others and some stoves produce more heat? Long before the term ‘pragmatism’ became the name for America’s first indigenous philosophy, Franklin was practising its principles. In an effort to explain George Whitefield’s extraordinary success as a preacher, for example, ministers had tried to analyse the theological content of his sermons. Franklin paced off the distance from Whitefield’s pulpit to the back of the crowd and concluded that his voice carried further than anyone else’s.

Another deep-seated belief, evident from his earliest days as a printer in Philadelphia, was that institutions worked best when their membership was voluntary. His role in creating Pennsylvania’s first lending library, fire company, hospital, college and philosophical society is well known. Nearly a century before Tocqueville recognised voluntary associations as a hallmark of America’s emerging democratic culture, Franklin was pioneering the concept of consent as a source of social energy. Morgan’s treatment of Franklin’s formative years as Philadelphia’s most useful and inventive citizen carries this theme further than any previous account, and focuses our attention on the subtle but radical implications of voluntary consent as a social principle.

For more than a century, until the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, the British Empire had functioned in a way that emphasised consent over coercion. Franklin came to maturity during those years, which Burke described as an era of ‘salutary neglect’, and internalised the presumption that officials in Whitehall recognised the economic and political advantages of a consensual Empire. When the recently crowned George III and a succession of British ministries began to tighten the commercial restrictions on colonial trade, impose new taxes and station a permanent standing army in America, Franklin regarded these changes as a temporary aberration. He assumed, incorrectly, that the old pattern of political laxity and live-and-let-live mutuality would soon return. Only a fool, or a collection of fools, would tamper with this splendid arrangement in the misguided belief that a more rigidly managed Empire would prove more profitable.

Morgan’s inside-out approach to Franklin, which focuses on the way he saw the world during the escalation of the Imperial crisis as well as at other times, provides a fresh interpretation of a long-standing mystery: why was he so late to recognise that the Imperial reforms launched in the 1760s would lead to American Independence? Why did he spend 16 years lobbying in London for a royal charter for Pennsylvania? How could he have been so blind to the implications of such widespread colonial resistance to the Stamp Act? Part of the answer is that he was in London rather than Philadelphia for most of those eventful years. But the deeper answer, which Morgan is the first to develop fully, is that he misread the intentions of the British Government, having presumed that British officials recognised as clearly as he did that the Empire was one huge voluntary association.

Franklin’s idea of an Anglo-American Empire of equal partners was first spelled out in a pamphlet he wrote in 1751, entitled ‘Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind’. He argued that, contrary to previous calculations, the population of the American Colonies was doubling not every thirty, but every twenty years; the chief source of the growth was not immigration from Europe but a burgeoning birth-rate. Given this pattern, the demographic centre of the Empire would eventually shift to North America, and so the only sensible British policy was to integrate its Colonies into a more expansive version of Empire. Though several major figures such as Pitt and Burke listened attentively as Franklin continued to expound this view, they happened not to be in power. Instead he had to endure the supercilious stupidities of the Earl of Hillsborough, to whom he dedicated his devastating satire, Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One (1773).

Satire was Franklin’s favourite way of delivering bad news to pompous officials. He had earlier proposed that, in exchange for British convicts being sent to America, the Colonial Governments should ship rattlesnakes back to London. (Later, as his last official act, he wrote a pamphlet congratulating delegates from the Southern states for their brilliant defence of black enslavement, which mirrored Islamic arguments for enslaving Christians.) By 1775, however, it had become clear that the British Government was unswervingly committed to what, at least in retrospect, must be regarded as the biggest blunder in the history of British statecraft. Morgan gives us the final scene in the British tragedy, which took place on 20 January 1775, when Pitt addressed the House of Lords, defending Franklin’s recommendations for a revised Empire, with Franklin sitting silently in the gallery. But the man who, more than anyone else, had created the Empire, together with the man who, more than anyone else, had tried to save it, could only watch helplessly as inferior statesmen, convinced of their own superiority, lost it.

Morgan’s account of Franklin’s role in the Paris negotiations that ended the American Revolution is equally surefooted as narrative, though I disagree with the idea that Franklin was almost single-handedly responsible for conducting the intricate negotiations with the British and French delegates: in Morgan’s version of events, the other American representatives, in particular John Adams, appear as superfluous neurotics, jealous of Franklin’s reputation – men whose clumsy and often crazed contributions served only to complicate the task. This was definitely Franklin’s view of the matter, and several scholars have endorsed it over the years, but it is a partisan interpretation. To be sure, Adams’s view was just as partisan (perhaps more so), and Franklin had a natural self-confidence guaranteed to drive a nervous man like Adams crazy. But Adams played more than a nuisance role: it was the effective combination of their contrasting temperaments that gave the final treaty its successful shape.

Even this caveat makes Morgan’s major point, which is that coming to terms with Franklin means engaging in a never-ending argument. To risk an oversimplification, Britain lost its American Colonies because it refused to take Franklin seriously. For most of his life he not only regarded himself as a Briton, and desperately wished to remain such, but more than any other man of his time transformed the meaning of ‘American’ from an insult (a provincial low-life located on the periphery of a civilisation radiating out from London) into a compliment.

Send Letters To:

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

letters@lrb.co.uk

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.