FRANKLIN AND THE AMERICAN MIRAGE:
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
FRANKLIN'S major political impact upon Italy was made as a legendary, or quasi-legendary, figure. Even in his lifetime a halo gathered about him, the outgrowth of a complex pattern of European aspirations and misconceptions regarding the New World. Men have always been prone to imagine situations, removed in time or space, in which they might enjoy the contentment denied them by reality. A profusion of utopias, golden ages, and paradises, postulated on a wide gamut of ideal circumstances, attests to the incessant human search for happiness. The mirage of America, as it has been called, has been for Europeans since the Renaissance one of the most seductive escapes from apparently ineluctable social trammels and misery.1 Three elements of the mirage underlie the varied manifestations of Franklin's political influence in Italy: the concept of the "noble savage"; the mystic interpretation of America as a plastic Mundus novus, or novissimus, where man was free to construct a terrestrial paradise conforming to natural and rational principles; and, finally, the apocalyptic vision of the New World as a force which would eventually overwhelm the Old World, culturally and politically.
Polybius may have been the first to observe that civilization has a way of following the sun, arising in the east and flowing toward the west. This idea of ab oriente lux, which subsequently fascinated thinkers from Machiavelli to Spengler,2 ultimately assumed the proportions of a myth. The discovery of America opened new horizons for the concept of westward flux. While much study needs yet to be made on the evolution of this idea in Italy between the date of the discovery of America and the time of the European Enlightenment, it is certain that by the 1770's many Italians were convinced that civilization, after a final stand in Paris and London, was moving inexorably across the Atlantic. The witty Abbé Ferdinando Galiani intended more than a gratuitous display of wit when he wrote from Naples to Mme D'Epinay, his faithful Parisian correspondent, in the fateful year 1776:3
Titus Livius said . . . of his century (which so strongly resembled ours): Ad haec tempora ventum est quibus, nec vitia nostra, nec remedia pati possumus. We live in a century in which the remedies are at least as harmful as the vices. Do you know what this amounts to? The