Benjamin Franklin and the American Character

By Charles L. Sanford | Go to book overview

of the statesman whose code permits him to effect a compromise on matters of detail and mechanism and even degree without sacrifice of his fundamental principles. Whether Franklin's outstanding performance as the representative of America in France during the Revolution arose from such qualities, or whether nothing more was required than a native shrewdness and the bargaining skill of a businessman, he was certainly a master of the conference table. His major contribution to the Constitution was that compromise between the large and small states on the question of representation in the Congress.

Carl Van Doren, Franklin's greatest biographer, has written that this compromise "was Franklin's great victory in the Convention." He was author of "the compromise which held the delegates together at a time when they were ready to break up without forming any new Federal agreement. The Constitution was not his document. But without the weight of his prestige and the influence of his temper there might have been no document at all."

One of the features of the Constitution that most appealed to Franklin was the provision for amendment on trial, the possibility for alterations to be made in the light of actual experience. I am convinced that in Franklin's mind the greatest experiment was not the test of the electrification of clouds but the test of whether a democratic form of government could be established in the world and whether it could survive the trials of experience and function as its framers had intended.


Carl Van Doren: CONCLUDING PAPER

DR. SIMON FLEXNER recently told me about his signing the Guest Book of the Royal Society. He asked to see Newton's autograph. So many before him had done this, and run their fingers beneath it as they read, that the name next after Newton's is completely wiped out. Dr. Flexner then turned to Franklin's name and found the name underneath his also worn away, though not quite so completely as the one under Newton's. Newton and Franklin were the only names so eminent as to have caused this obliteration of their neighbors.

But it must not be forgotten that Franklin, while a great scientist, was a great man of letters. He is no more to be judged merely by his "Autobiography" than Dr. Johnson is to be judged merely by "Rasselas" or the "Lives of the Poets." These men were greater writers than their books indicate. Their writings run through their lives.

Franklin said: "Prose writing has been of great value to me in my life, and was a principal means of my advancement." But he began by writing verse. His first Philadelphia friends, obscure youths who talked literature and philosophy as they walked along the Schuylkill with him, were all poets. It was with a poet, James Ralph, that Franklin first went to England. Franklin thought that writing verse was the best way of learning to write

____________________
From "Concluding Paper" by Carl Van Doren in Meet Dr. Franklin ( Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute, 1943), pp. 227-234. Used by permission of the publishers.

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