Is he winking?

Joseph J. Ellis

  • Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan
    Yale, 339 pp, £19.95, October 2002, ISBN 0 300 09532 5

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.