Benjamin Franklin and the American Character

By Charles L. Sanford | Go to book overview

Gladys Meyer: THE URBAN PATTERN OF SUCCESS

SOME writers have stressed Franklin's sane estimate of the value of money and his essential public spiritedness in his early retirement from business. A more searching interpretation would suggest that Franklin continued to increase his wealth by speculation and investment even without active management of his business. In his business itself, his experiments with magazines and the foreign language press showed that he had reached the limits of possible expansion in the kinds of product he could introduce. With increased wealth alone, furthermore, he most probably could not have elevated himself further in the social scale, for his origin was for all social purposes unknown, he had not known the proprietor and his circle, and neither he nor his wife had the taste or the connections to conduct the social life of the inner circle.

His retirement must be interpreted in terms, as indeed he stated himself, of needing more time, first to experiment and second for the conduct of political life which was the natural terrain for his manipulating genius.

Franklin clearly developed certain techniques for personal social advancement. Good repute, the strength of association, the threat of adverse publicity, the use of patronage, the accumulation of wealth, the interest in civic improvement, interplayed continually to promote his rise. It is interesting as a preface to understanding his values to ask at what personal cost this technique was perfected.

To raise the question of the relation between Franklin's public and private personality, and of the character and integrity of his procedure, is difficult because Franklin was discreet and always aware of the public to whom he spoke, if and when he revealed himself at all. His biography, seemingly so candid, is a masterpiece of discretion. He had no intimate friend, letters to whom might give any direct clue to his inner spirit. "Let all men know thee, but no man know thee thoroughly," advised Poor Richard.

It is apparent that as a young man the gap between Franklin's behavior and the demands of custom for good character were wide. The curious, observant, adventurous young apprentice in Boston and in London had little concern for the world's opinion of him. Slowly he began to be aware of the force of social pressure. His brother was imprisoned for speaking boldly. In London the printers broke up his forms when he would not observe their customs. His casualness in lending money brought him privation. It became apparent that if he were to survive he would have to modify his unpatterned behavior.

He modified quickly in externals. He set about to give the appearance of hard work, of simplicity and content, and to speak, through his paper and his almanack, moral precepts for the general public. Inside Franklin there was a picture of the gentleman of wealth and leisure. If wealthy Franklin said through Poor Richard "Content makes poor men rich,"

____________________

From Gladys Meyer, Free Trade in Ideas, ( New York: King's Crown Press, 1941), pp. 70-71, 72-75, 86-88, with permission of the publisher.

-48-

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