Benjamin Franklin, the First Civilized American

By Phillips Russell | Go to book overview
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THE eighteenth century, to which Franklin belonged, has been dealt with in the preceding pages. The nineteenth was an age of avid commercial exploitation. The twentieth century, the inheritor of its fathers sins, will perhaps be referred to by future historians as the era in which, all the once empty and remote spaces of the earth having been explored or at least visited, even to the North Pole itself, men sickened of externalities and began to explore themselves.

Human nature still remains the dark zone which, like all unknown lands, is believed to be peopled with nameless things. This is because the light has penetrated so little beyond its edges that its recesses, its mountains, and inhabitants cannot yet be seen in their true proportions. However, some advances have been made. Messrs. Freud, Jung, and other leaders in psychological exploration have brought their lanterns to bear, and have dragged out of shadowed or buried caves certain presences which were once believed to be monsters, but which, examined and handled without fear or passion, are found to be in essence harmless, and which, if not beaten or screamed at, are even useful.

Biography of the past concerned itself with little beyond the external man. But such writing no longer satisfies. Men now wish to know themselves and their neighbors. They are even ready to know a worshipped hero, particularly if dead.

When the author began to study the life of Benjamin Franklin, he believed there was an inner Franklin the springs of whose actions could be uncovered. His search was only partly successful, and he is now convinced that either there was no inner Franklin, or that the outer Franklin so successfully covered and shielded the inner man by a host of external activities that any attempt to penetrate more than an ell below the surface of his life is and must be baffled.

It is possible that certain men possess no elements which are not translucent. Franklin's friend, Dr. Joseph Priestley, seems to have been one. His life has been described as "clear as crystal." Franklin was an admirer of simple, crystal people, and he gathered many such around him. Since he so easily took on the color of his associates, it may be that he finally succeeded in removing from himself whatever was cloudy and hidden and became, like them, translucent.

Either that was the case, or he was one of the most successful self-hiders who ever wrote an autobiography. Certain it is that about particular phases


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