Benjamin Franklin: Philosophical Revolutionist

BY
BERNHARD KNOLLENBERG, Librarian, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

I am so much interested in Franklin that I accepted your invitation to speak in this series of Franklin Memorial Lectures without first inquiring as to my topic. I was later pleasantly surprised to learn that it was to be "Franklin as a Philosophical Revolutionist." This is a side of his character which is especially interesting to me and which has never been fully developed, though there are many sidelights on it in Mr. Van Doren's fine book.

Until the latter work appeared, the most careful study of Franklin's life was William Cabell Bruce "Benjamin Franklin Self Revealed". Yet even Bruce profoudly misread Franklin's character in declaring that "By nature and training Franklin was profoundly conservative at the core." This means, I take it, that Bruce considered Franklin a person who tended to accept and adhere to the existing order of things, whereas, Franklin was in fact the very opposite of this. For from the beginning to the end of his life, we find him approaching every canon of thought or conduct with the question, "Is this logical? Does it hold water? Shall I be bound by it?"--no matter how old and generally accepted the idea, tradition or rule might be. True, he was cautious; he was shrewd; he was temperate. This, however, shows, I think, not that he was conservative but that he was wise; that he challenged the status quo with the approach of the philosopher; that, in short, he was a philosophical revolutionist.

My grounds for this view are numerous and diverse. To begin with, one of the relatively few things we know about Franklin's youth is that he early challenged the established religious teachings of his day. His first serious difficulty, when a boy of only fifteen in Boston, arose out of his articles in his brother's newspaper and some challenging remarks in

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Meet Dr. Franklin
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Table of Contents iii
  • Foreword v
  • Meet Doctor Franklin 1
  • Benjamin Franklin as a Scientist 11
  • Self-Portraiture: the Autobiography 27
  • Dr. Franklin as the English Saw Him 43
  • Franklin's Political Journalism in England 63
  • Benjamin Franklin: Student of Life 83
  • Molding the Constitution 105
  • Benjamin Franklin: Philosophical Revolutionist 127
  • Looking Westward 135
  • Benjamin Franklin: the Printer at Work 151
  • Benjamin Franklin: Adventures In Agriculture 179
  • Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indians 201
  • Concluding Paper 221
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