A quarter-century ago, I compiled an edition of anecdotes by and about Ben Franklin aimed at charting the growth of his fame as America’s enduring voice of good-humored common sense. The present book focuses on how a quintessentially private person used humor to craft the image of an iconic sociable American. Besides noting that mood affected motive and mode, I have identified Franklin’s practical purpose in writing and that his topics were timely, that his models were already familiar to his readers, and that his basic theme was how abusing common sense led to perpetual self-delusion.
Selecting Franklin’s humor must be subjective. Like the judge who knows pornography when he sees it, people know humor when they laugh at it. My favorite samples of Franklin’s humor are those sketches that use a Socratic irony to distance him from his subject. Because his topics were necessarily ephemeral, I have tried in every case to identify the context. Besides identifying the immediate circumstance, model, and intended readers, I have tried to reprint the texts as those readers saw them. Because those sources are generally inaccessible to modern readers, i have cited recent editions in my source notes. Explanatory notes and comments are incorporated in the indented discussions linking each selection. They derive from the resources of the Huntington Library and the unsparing assistance of librarian David Zeidberg and his staff, LindSAY Obregon, Claire V. Fountain, and Evie Cutting.