Benjamin Franklin and the American Character

By Charles L. Sanford | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

FOR better or worse, rightly or wrongly, Benjamin Franklin has been identified with the American national character. Though greater hero worship has been accorded to Washington and Lincoln, Americans and Europeans have judged Franklin to be more representative. They have called him "the first American," "the father of all the Yankees," "the multiple American." As a result, he has become a center of controversy, a conspicuous target for abuse by critics of American society and a rallying point for defenders of the American "way of life."

The problem presented here is a problem in values and in historical interpretation. Americans who read the promise of American life chiefly in terms of economic opportunity and technological advance hail Franklin as the patron saint of material success. For them the essential Franklin is the provincial hero and tinkerer of their schoolbooks. Critics of Franklin and the American society, for the most part, accept this portrait, but place a different evaluation upon it. They point out the grave defects of materialistic values. In the face of this criticism, the more recent defenders of Franklin and the American character, led by Carl Van Doren, author of the prize-winning biography ( 1938), have tended to discard the popular image of Franklin as being incomplete and inaccurate. They say that Americans have done Franklin and themselves a great injustice in making a parody of Franklin their guide through life. They see the problem primarily as one of historical interpretation and maintain that the "real" Franklin which their research has uncovered is worthy of emulation and representative of the best traits in our society. The purpose of this volume is to present the best materials available from both sides of the case for and against Franklin and the American character so that the reader may come to his own conclusions.

Benjamin Franklin himself opens the volume as spokesman for the essential historical Franklin with selections from his Autobiography. The next group of readings early raises an issue pursued directly and indirectly throughout the volume: whether the attribute of "greatness," so frequently bestowed upon Franklin, is merited. During his lifetime Franklin achieved an almost universal celebrity, as the first selection, a letter by George Washington, attests. But another famous contemporary, John Adams, records a dissenting view. John Adams in the next selection admits Franklin's fame but argues that it is not wholly deserved because it owes a great deal to the excitability of public opinion in a revolutionary period, an excitability which, with Franklin's cooperation, made him a symbol of the great changes then taking place. The last selection in this group forms an introduction to modern interpretations of Franklin. Here Carl Van Doren exhumes and refutes John Adams" old argument, defending the view that Franklin would have been great in any age or place.

But Van Doren also uses the occasion

-v-

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