Benjamin Franklin and the American Character

By Charles L. Sanford | Go to book overview

told him that he "was generally thought proud."1Franklin's diagnosis of his own case corresponds fairly well to the historians' diagnosis of Puritans in general. They pretended to live saintly lives, but their actual ideals were pagan. They pursued "health, wealth and wisdom" while they professed election into the Covenant of Grace. Franklin saw clearly the growing incompatibility between the morals practiced and the morals preached, and he changed the preaching.

There was a brief time in Franklin's life when he concerned himself more or less seriously with religious reform. He tried to work out in detail a religious system which would give sincere expression to his moral ideas. He wrote down the rudiments of a theology, composed prayers, and while in England he even undertook, with Lord le Despencer, to revise the English Prayer Book. For various reasons he soon abandoned this project. To a certain extent Freemasonry and his Junto Club were his substitutes for churches. But above all he dropped religious subjects in order not to stimulate one more theological controversy. He made it a policy to disturb no one in his religious practices and beliefs; he supported various religious institutions and he apparently became a good friend of both Whitefield and Samuel Johnson. Thus he made his peace with all religions and devoted himself to none. And while theologians were struggling, as we have seen, to revise Christian ideas to meet changing American morals, Franklin was free to take the other alternative. He reasserted the stern Puritan morality, but divorced it from the theocratic aims which it originally served.

In his austere moralism, Franklin was undoubtedly a Puritan, however much he may have revolted against Calvinism. His "art of virtue" is in significant contrast to the liberal temper and popular radicalism of his day and it can not be regarded as the product of his contacts with European civilization, nor of his Freemasonry, nor of his admiration for Sir Roger de Coverley. In other ways Franklin was no doubt a typical eighteenth-century man of the world, but as a moralist he was a child of the New England frontier. Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin thus represent the two opposite poles of Puritan thought. It was Edwards who attempted to induce New England to lead a godly, not a sober, life; it was Franklin who succeeded in teaching Americans to lead a sober and not a godly life.


I. Bernard Cohen: THE EMPIRICAL TEMPER

As an expression of the American character, Franklin spoke with the personality of his own genius, but the particular qualities of the American character that he represented were also the results of the time and place in which he lived. He was a product of the philosophies of the eighteenth century, but he also came out of an American background -- in Boston and Philadelphia -- that conditioned

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From Benjamin Franklin by I. Bernard Cohen, copyright 1958, used by special permission of the publishers, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.
1
Compare Jonathan Edwards' remark that he was not content to be merely humble to the dust as other sinners are, but infinitely humble!

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