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The Sage of Common Sense

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, By Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University Press: 340 pp., $24.95

September 22, 2002|H.W. BRANDS | H.W. Brands is the author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" and "The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream."

The English novelist and critic D.H. Lawrence didn't like Benjamin Franklin. "I haven't got over those Poor Richard tags yet," he wrote. "I still rankle with them. They are thorns in young flesh."

Mark Twain spoke more satirically than Lawrence, but no more charitably, in describing his own encounter with Franklin. "His simplest acts ... were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever--boys who might otherwise have been happy.... With a malevolence which is without parallel in history, he would work all day and then sit up nights and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smouldering fire, so that all other boys might have to do that also or else have Benjamin Franklin thrown up to them." John Adams judged Franklin to be vastly overrated. Adams called his famous contemporary "the old Conjuror" and said Franklin's life was "a Scene of continual Discipation."

Edmund Morgan disagrees, and devotes this "purposely short" book to explaining why. Begun as a preface to a digital edition of Franklin's papers, it is not so much a biography, in the cradle-to-grave sense of relating a life, as an appreciative inquiry into the mind of America's foremost polymath--"a letter of introduction to a man worth knowing, worth spending time with."

"Benjamin Franklin" reflects its origins, relying almost entirely on Franklin's letters and printed works. It also reflects Morgan's scholarly interests. A professor emeritus of history at Yale, Morgan has authored several distinguished volumes on the American Colonial experience and the social and intellectual construction of an American identity therein. Franklin provides Morgan with a revealing case study; by examining Franklin's changing views on citizenship, obligation, empire and authority, Morgan goes far toward explaining America's decision for independence from Britain.

Franklin's first step toward independence was personal: He ran away from home at 17. In doing so he rejected family (he was apprenticed to his elder brother), authority (he violated his indenture in doing so) and religious orthodoxy (he had got into trouble with the Puritan establishment that governed Massachusetts and tried to control its conscience). Morgan says little about the physical journey that carried Franklin from Boston to Philadelphia, but he says much about the moral and intellectual journey that carried Franklin from predestinarian Congregationalism to latitudinarian deism. "Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end; and if the end be obtained, it is no matter by what means," Franklin concluded, in words that were heresy to the Cotton Mather crowd. Turning convention on its head, he declared, "Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful." Thus Franklin arrived at a central tenet of the dawning Enlightenment: that man is the measure of morality, not morality of man.

From this Franklin derived his own rule of social conduct. "I would rather have it said, he lived usefully, than, he died rich," he told a friend with whom he had been reflecting on the far end of the mortal coil. Few people have made themselves more useful to their contemporaries than Franklin. As a beginning businessman, he gathered several others in like circumstances to form a discussion club devoted to self-and civic improvement. When the club came up short on reading material, he organized America's first lending library. After fires ravaged Philadelphia, he founded a firefighting company. He raised money for a hospital, chartered the school that became the University of Pennsylvania, conceived the American Philosophical Society and mustered the Pennsylvania militia.

In each of these initiatives, he struck a nice balance between personal interest and public interest, operating on the premise--which he confirmed in practice--that what served Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and made the city and colony more comfortable and cultured, served all who lived there, including Franklin. This coincidence of the public and private prompted some to see Franklin as a master manipulator who used the larger community to further his own ends; he may not have helped his reputation by frequently disguising his sponsorship of the initiatives. He had thought to spread the credit and thereby speed the work, but he raised suspicions as to what he might be hiding.

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