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Life, liberty and the pursuit of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster: 596 pp., $30

June 29, 2003|H.W. Brands | H.W. Brands is the author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" and other works of American history.

Of all the Founders, Benjamin Franklin is the easiest to imagine transposed to the present day. Unlike planters George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Franklin was a city boy; Boston-born, Philadelphia-adopted and London-polished, he would adapt readily to the urbanism of the 21st century. More worldly than John Adams, whose Puritan sensibilities were offended by the behavior of the Parisians among whom Franklin moved with easy grace during his Revolutionary War diplomatic mission, he would have no difficulty with the diversity of lifestyles that marks our age in America. Less zealous than Samuel Adams or Thomas Paine and more modest than Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, Franklin poked fun at himself in a style that has since become mandatory among public figures. In an era that distrusted democracy, Franklin precociously placed his faith in the common people. In contrast to most successful politicians before the 20th century, Franklin never mastered the art of wholesale oratory, but his quiet wit and confidential humor would have made him the best guest that Larry King ever had.

Yet for all his flexibility, Franklin would find dismaying certain aspects of American life two centuries after his death. Franklin became a revolutionary not because he disputed the taxes levied by the British Parliament on the American Colonies nor, more generally, because his interpretation of John Locke or Francis Hutcheson drove him to deny the right of Parliament to legislate for the Colonies. These were matters he thought could be negotiated. No, Franklin broke with Britain because he believed that money and the private use of public power had corrupted British politics beyond redemption and that the corruption would spread to America unless the Colonies cut their ties to the mother country. Franklin had a better view of British politics than any of the other Founders, having spent most of the two decades before 1775 in London as an agent of the Colonies to the British government. When he did come home, his long absence rendered him suspect in the eyes of many American patriots, but he quickly showed that his attachment to American liberty was more advanced than that of most of his colleagues in the Continental Congress.

For Franklin, the American Revolution was chiefly about civic virtue. And in this regard, the Revolution was an extension of what Franklin had been attempting all his life. Walter Isaacson, in this solid new biography, aptly quotes Franklin to summarize his guiding principle as "a dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people." Franklin's dislike for the debasing became apparent early, when he fled Boston at age 17 to escape a jealous older brother, to whom he was apprenticed, and to break free of the religious orthodoxy that confined the spirit of the people there, including himself. He landed in Philadelphia, a town far more congenial to religious dissent and a community that afforded scope for both business success and the secular pursuit of virtue. Even while establishing himself in the printing trade, Franklin gathered a group of like-minded young men into a club, the Junto, devoted to civic and self-improvement. He organized the first lending library in America to make books available to those of modest means. He helped establish an academy (later the University of Pennsylvania) to allow Americans to finish their schooling without expatriating to England or matriculating in a sectarian college. He sponsored a fire company, a hospital and a Colonial militia. In each case, his purpose was to expand opportunities for ordinary people and allow civic virtue to blossom more fully.

Of course, Franklin's opportunities would expand along with everyone else's. In his day and later, critics contended that Franklin's self-interest was paramount and the interests of the community derivative. Franklin didn't bother with such distinctions. If something served him and served the community too, why worry whose benefit was the greater? Not long after taking control of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin articulated what became a credo for journalists: "Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public, and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter." What is less remembered in newsrooms, or at least less revered, is Franklin's corollary: a reminder that printers must make ends meet. "Hence they cheerfully service all contending writers that pay them well."

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