The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin

By Morison, Samuel Eliot | The Saturday Evening Post, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin


Morison, Samuel Eliot, The Saturday Evening Post


In Part I, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison traced the remarkable life of Benjamin Franklin from his birth in 1706 to his departure for England in 1757 as a representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. By that time Franklin had already distinguished himself as a universal genius as printer, philanthropist, philosopher, inventor, and man of science. Now he was to embark on a new career as a diplomat and revolutionary. Franklin remained in if England for 17 years, most of the time as agent for the assemblies of several colonies. He made a host of friends among scientists, men of letters, economists, and politicians; he promoted the scheme for a new Vandalia colony on the Ohio; he met Doctor Johnson as a member of a charitable society, The Associates of Doctor Bray, which set up schools for Negro children in colonial towns. He frequently contributed to the London newspapers articles, letters, and squibs supporting the rights of the colonists. The most humorous was called "Rules by which a Great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One," which he dedicated to one of the leading British ministers. At the same time, he wrote to his American friends begging them to moderate their demands, to respect law and order, because time was working for them.

This policy got him in wrong with the colonial radicals. He spoke different languages to his English and his American friends, precisely because he was trying to moderate the extreme demands of each side and to find a formula by which American liberty could be preserved within the British Empire. That, of course, exposed him to the charge of hypocrisy. His position as colonial agent became very shaky in 1773. Sam Adams attacked him, partly because he regarded Franklin as a wicked old man. Debby refused to cross the ocean, and so never came to London with Ben, who was reported to be leading the life of young Boswell; and in his writings he took an earthy, practical view of sex that outraged Puritanical sentiment. Curiously enough, it was Franklin's attitude toward sex that inspired the vicious attack on his reputation, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), by D. H. Lawrence, who, though far from a Puritan himself in sexual matters, seems to have expected everyone else to be one.

Franklin worked hard to prevent a breach with the mother country, but when it became clear that Parliament would not repeal the Coercive Acts, he realized that his mission had failed. In March 1775, he sailed from England for the last time as a subject of King George. The very day after his arrival in Philadelphia he was chosen by the Pennsylvania Assembly to be a delegate to the Continental Congress.

In Congress or out, Franklin was no great or original political thinker. In politics he was an opportunist, or pragmatist, to give opportunism its modem philosophical term. His one test of a constitution, or of a political arrangement, was "Will it work?" The British Empire before 1763 worked very well, so he wished to continue it, or restore it as it had been, rather than break off. Similar was his attitude toward religion. As a young man he had been a typical 18th-century deist, but he abandoned deism because "this doctrine might be true, but was not very useful." He observed that public morality was essential to good government and that organized Christianity was the best promoter of public morality, so he supported churches and even occasionally attended them.

Franklin placed a high value on conciliation and compromise in politics. He did not like the result of the Federal Convention of 1787, of which he was the oldest and most experienced member, because he disliked checks and balances, and he wanted no U.S. Senate. Yet such was his common sense and his respect for the opinions of others that he accepted and supported the Federal Constitution instead of standing out against it as did George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and other members whose vanity had been wounded because their pet ideas had not been adopted. …

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