Benjamin Franklin and the American Character

By Charles L. Sanford | Go to book overview

Franklin furthermore may be called a liberal because he advocated those principles of public action which have historically been the terms of the liberal campaign, freedom of speech, of the press, and that relation of liberty and discretion which seeks to confine change to orderly process within the existing social framework.

Is the belief that such discretionary change is possible a characteristic of a member of a rising group which becomes successfully integrated into the social structure, whose frustrations are not acute and whose economic life is not in jeopardy? Is it a corollary, then, of an expanding economy, and its popular acceptance dependent on a widespread hope for economic improvement?

As we have seen from Franklin's activities, liberalism may flourish in a society replete with face to face associations, each somewhat different in the details of purpose and method, with overlapping membership, each empirical in their approach to public policy. Can those conditions continue in an increasingly complex social and economic structure?


Charles Angoff: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

. . . [ FRANKLIN] was the first great fixer of American political history, and also, if John Adams is to be believed, its first great trimmer. He made friends of the English, he made friends of the French, he made friends of the Germans, he made friends of the Federalists, he made friends of the Republicans, and when he died the whole civilized world mourned him. Just where he stood on any one of the fundamental issues is still something of a mystery. He trusted the people, and he didn't trust them. He claimed to be a deist, but he contributed to all the churches in his neighborhood, and believed in the transmigration of souls. All his life long he preached a copy-book morality, but he himself was extremely careless in his personal affairs. He spent money lavishly, ate so much that he suffered from gout for years and years, and when he was married at the age of twenty-four brought to his wife, as a wedding present, an illegitimate son.

He wrote a great deal, but it was chiefly to make money, or to forget the pain of his gout. He knew his public well. He made a fortune as a newspaper and a magazine editor, and his "Poor Richard's Almanac" was an immediate success: it sold 10,000 copies within the first three months of publication. He did not produce one truly great work of the imagination, and his general style was surely not above the ordinary, but his work achieved an amazing popularity.

All this was probably a colossal misfortune to the United States, for, despite his good fellowship and occasional good sense, Franklin represented the least praiseworthy qualities of the inhabitants of the New World: miserliness, fanatical practicality, and lack of interest in what are usually known as spiritual things. Babbittry was not a new thing in America, but he made a religion of it, and by his tremendous success with it he grafted it upon the American people so securely

____________________

From Charles Angoff, A Literary History of the American People ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), pp, 295-310. Use by permission of the author.

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