The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman (eds), with a new Foreword by Edmund S. Morgan
351 pages,
ISBN: 0300098588

Benjamin Franklin

by Edmund S. Morgan
400 pages,
ISBN: 0300101627

Post Your Opinion
Getting Acquainted With Ben Franklin
by Mark G. Spencer

Think of Benjamin Franklin. If the image that comes to mind is anything like mine, you'll be picturing Franklin as the renowned elderly man of the 1770s or 1780s. Perhaps you're envisioning Franklin at age 70¨the internationally famous scientist, donning a beaver-pelt hat and spectacles. Or is your image of Franklin informed by Houndon's graceful bust of the aging American statesman or, perhaps, Joseph Duplessis's famous portrait of a portly Franklin at age 80? Pursed lips, grave expression, thinning hair, patient but piercing eyes¨that is the Franklin familiar to most of us in the twenty-first century. But in his recent biography, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund S. Morgan, a renowned scholar of early American history, wants us to begin with a younger version of the man. As Morgan puts it: "Think of him first in his twenties and thirties, on his feet and ready to go." Morgan directs our early attention not to Franklin's surviving writings, of which there are many volumes, but to the activities of an energetic young man, "a precocious youngster ready to make his way in the world." That point of departure is not what we might expect given Morgan's position as chairman of the Administrative Board of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. But Morgan looks first to the boy who could not sit still, the twenty-year-old who loved to swim, the young man whose "insatiable curiosity" seemed always to lead to a steady stream of new projects. If we truly want to know Franklin, Morgan says, it is that core which we need first uncover.
Morgan wishes to reshape our image of Franklin in other interesting ways, too. He does not, however, intend to provide a definitive biographical account. For those who wish to know everything about Franklin's life, it is best to consult Carl Van Doren's Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1938; London, 1939), a classic account that is still in print today. Walter Issacson's recent Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, 2003) is another biography with more details than Morgan's. And for those who want to known more about particular facets of Franklin's life and thought there are numerous specialized monographs. For Franklin's time in Boston there is Arthur B. Tourtellot, Benjamin Franklin: The Shaping of Genius, The Boston Years (1977). And for his years in Pennsylvania one might read William S. Hanna's Benjamin Franklin and Pennsylvania Politics (1964) or even Carl and Jessica Bridenbaugh's Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin (1942). Franklin the scientist is the subject of Alfred Owen Aldridge's Benjamin Franklin and Nature's God (1967) as it is of I. Bernard Cohen's Benjamin Franklin's Science (1990). Gerald Stourzh has written Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (1969) and Claude-Anne Lopez looks to Franklin's time in France in Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966). But for those who want an entertaining, witty, succinct, and well-rounded account that captures Franklin's essential character, look no farther than Morgan. How does Morgan manage to capture Franklin so well in such a slim book?
In part he does so by wonderfully reading Franklin within the wider American context he did so much to shape. That is a context to which Morgan has devoted a career, and it shows. Morgan's biography is a book that relies on many sources, including the Franklin Autobiography, an authoritative (and affordable) edition published by Yale University Press, to which Morgan has recently contributed a new forward. In his "Forward" to the Autobiography Morgan argues that Franklin had "a long history of appealing to the public in political contests." In the biography, Morgan aims to define Franklin in part through the public "he wanted to serve." "The Franklin we want to know is recognizably the same man in 1770 or 1780 that he was in 1730, but the public he served, the larger group that commanded his loyalty beyond his family or business, was not the same." That twist helps Morgan to flesh out Franklin's character, but most of all Morgan defines Franklin by zeroing in on a few, select, traits at his core.
Perhaps the most important of these was Franklin's early realization that morality was grounded in usefulness. Morgan highlights that Franklin came to believe "that the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, coincided with the difference between what was beneficial to human beings and what was harmful to them." A large part of Morgan's biography is dedicated to unfolding the ways in which this principle shaped Franklin's life. Franklin's "own way of thinking about the most serious social and political issues was in the language of usefulness, of right and wrong." That theme is one of the unique aspects of Morgan's biography and it is a theme that guides Morgan's narrative. Morgan summarizes, for instance, that to understand Franklin's stand on the American Revolution, we must appreciate that for him "Parliamentary taxation of the colonies was wrong because it would harm both England and the colonies. That it would violate colonial 'rights' was a warning sign of its harmfulness, for those rights had grown from the fact that they were beneficial, and they were right because they were beneficial. Morgan rightly sees that aspect of Franklin's political thought as being often far removed from the stand of Franklin's American contemporaries, many of whom, such as Samuel Adams or Thomas Jefferson, were becoming accustomed to thinking in terms of "natural rights" rather than rights derived from usefulness.
Franklin's ability to direct actions without others seeing that to be the case was another one of Franklin's basic traits. Franklin always "took pains to keep himself inconspicuous," writes Morgan; indeed "that had always been his recipe for power." "Franklin was careful not to talk too much, not to rush things, to let others take charge until they were ready to go his way and ask his advice." Identifying this modus operandi Morgan is able to see Franklin as more of a silent leader in the American Revolutionary movement than have others.
Benjamin Franklin has many strengths. If one must point to a general weakness it is that Franklin's character is occasionally glossed. Some of Franklin's blemishes are discussed, to be sure. His active dislike of German migration to Pennsylvania, for instance, is noted and criticized as being "as politically incorrect in 1751 as it would be today." There are also, however, some overstatements and questionable interpretations. One of these is Morgan's oft-repeated claim that "Wherever Franklin went people loved him." "Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the man as we have come to know him," writes Morgan, "has been his ability to make friends with all kinds of people and to win their support and admiration." In Morgan's account Franklin's tension-filled relationship with William Penn, Pennsylvania's Quaker proprietor, stands out as the solitary exception to that rule. It is, says Morgan, "the only clue we have of a failure in dealing with people face to face." But is that so? No, not all of Franklin's contemporaries thought him as amicable.
John Adams's dislike of Franklin is legendary, and not overlooked by Morgan. Indeed, Morgan gives Adams due attention, describing him as Franklin's "not very peaceable fellow peacemaker," and suggesting that "vanity was [Adams's] most conspicuous quality." Morgan also documents Adams's "paranoid delusions," and discusses his "bull-in-a-china-shop" method of diplomacy. There is much truth in all of that, of course. Morgan appears here to be battling with John McCullough's assessment of the Adams-Franklin debate delivered in his recent biography of Adams, or so it seemed to this reviewer. But there were others besides Adams who saw a different side to Franklin than the "jovial" one Morgan persistently highlights¨the philosopher David Hume for instance. While Morgan rightly remarks on Franklin's friendship with Hume, with whom the American had lodged during a visit to Scotland in 1772, Morgan ought also to have taken account of Hume's critical assessment of Franklin's character. Hume wrote to Adam Smith in February, 1774: "I always knew [Franklin] to be a very factious man, and Faction, next to Fanaticism, is, of all passions, the most destructive of Morality." The next month Hume wrote to William Strahan, a close friend of both men: "The factious Part [Franklin] has all along acted must be given up by his best Friends." Even if Hume was wrong to see Franklin as a "factious" man, his comments suggest that Franklin was not so universally liked as Morgan would have his readers believe. Despite that shortcoming, if it is one, Morgan's biography is a book well worth reading as it provides an eloquent "letter of introduction to a man worth knowing." ˛

Mark G. Spencer is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto Department of History.

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