Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

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Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement. By Alan Houston. Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c. 2008. Pp. [xiv], 321. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-300-12447-7.)

Alan Houston has produced in this volume an insightful and reflective meditation on the political thought of Benjamin Franklin. The work is organized into five thematic chapters: "Commerce" "Association," "Population," "Union," and "Slavery." Much of the text is dedicated to the first two because Franklin had a good deal to say about commerce and association, and Houston's interpretation places Franklin at the front of a lineage of relatively modern commentators on both subjects--ready to shed, for example, some of the Georgian-era reservations about commerce in return for freedom of enterprise, ambition, and self-regard. On the subject of association--the readiness of citizens to organize themselves into voluntary associations for common projects--Franklin, the author suggests, appears to anticipate Alexis de Tocqueville in celebration of the American habit of taking hold and plunging in. Frequently such associations picked up work assumed to belong to the sovereign authority that had been neglected for one reason or another. In Franklin's Pennsylvania, famously, this included self-defense, as the Quaker founders refused to take up arms against Native American threats.

Chapters on population, union, and slavery evoke less readily the theme of improvement, but Houston collects in handy form the essence of Franklin's writings on all three. Finally, the substantive chapters are followed by an epilogue that seeks to establish Franklin's relevance to both the republican and liberal "narratives of American identity. …