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Notes for Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Comprehensive Notes of Walter Isaacson's Classic Benjamin Franklin Biography
Notes for Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

CHAPTER ONE - Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of America


Some who see the reflection of Franklin in the world today fret about a shallowness of soul and a spiritual complacency that seem to permeate a culture of materialism. They say that he teaches us how to live a practical and pecuniary life, but not an exalted existence. Others see the same reflection and admire the basic middle-class values and democratic sentiments that now seem under assault from elitists, radicals, reactionaries, and other bashers of the bourgeoisie. They regard Franklin as an exemplar of the personal character and civic virtue that are too often missing in modern America.
Much of the admiration is warranted, and so too are some of the qualms. But the lessons from Franklin’s life are more complex than those usually drawn by either his fans or his foes. Both sides too often confuse him with the striving pilgrim he portrayed in his autobiography. They mistake his genial moral maxims for the fundamental faiths that motivated his actions.
His morality was built on a sincere belief in leading a virtuous life, serving the country he loved, and hoping to achieve salvation through good works. That led him to make the link between private virtue and civic virtue, and to suspect, based on the meager evidence he could muster about God’s will, that these earthly virtues were linked to heavenly ones as well. As he put it in the motto for the library he founded, “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” In comparison to contemporaries such as Jonathan Edwards, who believed that men were sinners in the hands of an angry God and that salvation could come through grace alone, this outlook might seem somewhat complacent. In some ways it was, but it was also genuine.
Whatever view one takes, it is useful to engage anew with Franklin, for in doing so we are grappling with a fundamental issue: How does one live a life that is useful, virtuous, worthy, moral, and spiritually meaningful? For that matter, which of these attributes is most important? These are questions just as vital for a self-satisfied age as they were for a revolutionary one.

CHAPTER TWO - Pilgrim's Progress: Boston, 1706 - 1723


And thus the Puritan migration established the foundation for some characteristics of Benjamin Franklin, and of America itself: a belief that spiritual salvation and secular success need not be at odds, that industriousness is next to godliness, and that free thought and free enterprise are integrally related.


A central theme of Bunyan's book - and of the passage from Puritanism to Enlightenment, and of Franklin's life - was contained in its title: progress, the concept that individuals, and humanity in general, move forward and improve based on a steady increase of knowledge and the wisdom that comes from conquering adversity.Christian's famous opening phrase sets the tone: "As I walked through the wilderness of this world..." Even for the faithful, this progress was not solely the handiwork of the Lord but also the result of a human struggle, by individuals and communities, to trump over obstacles.

CHAPTER THREE - Journeyman: Philadelphia and London, 1723 - 1726


so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.


People are more likely to admire your work if you're able to keep them from feeling jealous of you.


Franklin later concluded that the loss of money he was owned was balanced by the loss of the burden of having Ralph as a friend. A pattern was emerging. Beginning with Collins and Ralph, Franklin easily made casual friends, intellectual companions, useful patrons, flirty admirers, and circles of genial acquaintances, but he was less good at nurturing lasting bonds that involved deep personal commitments or emotional relationships, even within his own family.


To perfect the art of becoming such a reliable person, Franklin wrote out a “Plan for Future Conduct” during his eleven-week voyage back to Philadelphia. It would be the first of many personal credos that laid out pragmatic rules for success and made him the patron saint of self-improvement guides. He lamented that because he had never outlined a design for how he should conduct himself, his life so far had been somewhat confused. “Let me, therefore, make some resolutions, and some form of action, that, henceforth, I may live in all respects like a rational creature.” There were four rules:

1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being.
3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty.

  1. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

Rule 1 he had already mastered. Rule 3 he likewise had little trouble following. As for 2 and 4, he would henceforth preach them diligently and generally make a show of practicing them, through he would sometimes be better a the show than the practicing


He also developed theories about the sociable yearnings of men, ones that applied particularly to himself. One of the passengers was caught cheating at cards, and the others sought to fine him. When the fellow resisted paying, they decided on an even tougher punishment: he would be ostracized and completely shunned until he relented. Finally the miscreant paid the fine in order to end his excommunication. Franklin concluded:

Man is a sociable being, and it is, for aught I know, one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know it is a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.

One of the fundamental sentiments of the Enlightenment was that there is a sociable affinity, based on the natural instinct of benevolence, among fellow humans, and Franklin was an exemplar of this outlook. The opening phrase of the passage—“Man is a sociable being”—would turn out to be a defining credo of his long life. Later in the voyage, they encountered another vessel. Franklin noted:

There is really something strangely cheering to the spirits in the meeting of a ship at sea, containing a society of creatures of the same species and in the same circumstances with ourselves, after we had been long separated and excommunicated as it were from the rest of mankind. I saw so many human countenances and I could scarce refrain from that kind of laughter which proceeds from some degree of inward pleasure.

His greatest happiness, however, came when he finally glimpsed the American shore. “My eyes,” he wrote, “were dimmed with the suffusion of two small drops of joy.” With his deepened appreciation of community, his scientific curiosity, and his rules for leading a practical life, Franklin was ready to settle down and pursue success in the city that, more than Boston or London, he now realized was his true home.

CHAPTER FOUR - Printer: Philadelphia, 1726 - 1732


One method, which he had developed during his mock debates with John Collins in Boston and then when discoursing with Keimer, was to pursue topics through soft, Socratic queries. That became the preferred style for Junto meetings. Discussions were to be conducted “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” Franklin taught his friends to push their ideas through suggestions and questions, and to use (or at least feign) naïve curiosity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense. “All expressions of positiveness in opinion or of direct contradiction,” he recalled, “were prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.” It was a style he would urge on the Constitutional Convention sixty years later.
In a witty newspaper piece called “On Conversation,” which he wrote shortly after forming the Junto, Franklin stressed the importance of deferring, or at least giving the appearance of deferring, to others. Otherwise, even the smartest comments would “occasion envy and disgust.” His secret for how to win friends and influence people read like an early Dale Carnegie course: “Would you win the hearts of others, you must not seem to vie with them, but to admire them. Give them every opportunity of displaying their own qualifications, and when you have indulged their vanity, they will praise you in turn and prefer you above others.. Such is the vanity of mankind that talking well ourselves.


First he made a list of twelve virtues he thought desirable, and to each he appended a short definition:

Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing).

Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”


On the pages of a little notebook, he made a chart with seven red columns for the days of the week and thirteen rows labeled with his virtues. Infractions were marked with a black spot. The first week he focused on temperance, trying to keep that line clear while not worrying about the other lines. With that virtue strengthened, he could turn his attention to the next one, silence, hoping that the temperance line would stay clear as well. In the course of the year, he would complete the thirteen-week cycle four times.


There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride; disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” This battle against pride would challenge—and amuse—him for the rest of his life. “You will see it perhaps often in this history. For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I would probably be proud of my humility.


Like Franklin’s moral perfection project and Autobiography, the sayings of Poor Richard have been criticized for revealing the mind of a penny-saving prig. “It has taken me many years and countless smarts to get out of that barbed wire moral enclosure that Poor Richard rigged up,” wrote D. H. Lawrence. But that misses the humor and irony, as well as the nice mix of cleverness and morality, that Franklin deftly brewed. It also mistakenly confuses Franklin with the characters he created. The real Franklin was not a moral prude, and he did not dedicate his life to accumulating wealth. “The general foible of mankind,” he told a friend, is “in the pursuit of wealth to no end.” His goal was to help aspiring tradesmen become more diligent, and thus more able to be useful and virtuous citizens.

CHAPTER SIX - Scientist and Inventor: Philadelphia, 1744 - 1751


In describing to Collinson how metal points draw off electrical charges, Franklin ventured some theories on the underlying physics. But he admitted that he had “some doubts” about these conjectures, and he added his opinion that learning how nature acted was more important than knowing the theoretical reasons why: “Nor is it much importance to us to know the manner in which nature executes her laws; it is enough if we know the laws themselves. It is of real use to know that china left in the air unsupported will fall and break; but how it comes to fall and why it breaks are matters of speculation. It is a pleasure indeed to know them, but we can preserve our china without it.”
This attitude, and his lack of grounding in theoretical math and physics, is why Franklin, ingenious as he was, was no Galileo or Newton. He was a practical experimenter more than a systematic theorist. As with his moral and religious philosophy, Franklin’s scientific work was distinguished less for its abstract theoretical sophistication than for its focus on finding out facts and putting them to use.

CHAPTER SEVEN- Politician: Philadelphia, 1749 - 1756


It also taught him a useful trick for seducing opponents. After one rich and well-bred member spoke against him, Franklin decided to win him over:

I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged,"


With only one daughter (and an illegitimate stepson), Deborah’s was an unusually small brood for a robust woman in colonial days; she was one of seven children, Franklin’s father had seventeen in his two marriages, and the average family at the time had about eight. Franklin wrote glowingly of children and had Poor Richard sing praises to the look of a pregnant woman. In satires such as “Polly Baker” and serious essays such as “Observations on the Increase of Mankind,” he extolled the benefits of fecundity. So the Franklins’ paucity of children does not appear to reflect a deliberate decision; instead, it indicated either that they lacked abundant intimacy or found conceiving not always easy, or a combination of both. Whatever the cause, it would eventually give Franklin more leeway to retire from his business early to pursue scientific endeavors and far-flung diplomatic journeys. It also, perhaps, contributed to his lifelong practice of befriending younger people—women in particular—and forging relationships with them as if they were his children.


Out of this arose a vision of America as a nation where people, whatever their birth or social class, could rise (as he did) to wealth and status based on their willingness to be industrious and cultivate their virtues. In this regard, his ideal was more egalitarian and democratic than even Thomas Jefferson’s view of a “natural aristocracy,” which sought to pluck selected men with promising “virtues and talents” and groom them to be part of a new leadership elite. Franklin’s own idea was more expansive: he believed in encouraging and providing opportunities for all people to succeed based on their diligence, hard work, virtue, and ambition. His proposals for what became the University of Pennsylvania (in contrast to Jefferson’s for the University of Virginia) were aimed not at filtering a new elite but at encouraging and enriching all “aspiring” young men.”


As a result, Franklin was able to draw up a bill in the Assembly to pay for street paving, and he accompanied it with a proposal to install street lamps in front of each house. With his love of science and detail, Franklin even worked on a design for the lamps. The globes imported from London, he noticed, did not have a vent on the bottom to allow air in, which meant the smoke collected and darkened the glass. Franklin invented a new model with vents and a chimney, so that the lamp remained clean and bright. He also designed the style of lamp, common today, that had four flat panes of glass rather than one globe, making it easier to repair if broken. “Some may think these trifling matters not worth minding,” Franklin said, but they should remember that “human felicity is produced . . . by little advantages that occur every day.”


In his letter to Parker, Franklin sketched out a structure for colonial cooperation: there should be, he said, a General Council with delegates from all the colonies, in rough proportion to the amount each paid in taxes to the general treasury, and a governor appointed by the king. The meeting sites should rotate among the various colonial capitals, so delegates could better understand the rest of America, and money would be raised by a tax on liquor. Typically, he felt the council should arise voluntarily rather than being imposed by London. The best way to get it going, he thought, was to pick a handful of smart men to visit influential people throughout the colonies and enlist support. “Reasonable, sensible men can always make a reasonable scheme appear such to other reasonable men.”


When he left a few weeks later on a postal inspection trip, “the officers of my regiment took it into their heads that it would be proper for them to escort me out of town.” They drew their swords and accompanied him to the ferry, which infuriated Thomas Penn when he read of it in London. “This silly affair,” Franklin noted, “greatly increased his rancor against me . . . and he instanced this parade with my officers as a proof of my having an intention to take the government of the province out of his hands by force.” Franklin was likewise “chagrined” by the display, or at least so he said in retrospect. “I had not been previously acquainted with the project or I should have prevented it, being naturally averse to the assuming of state on any occasion.
In fairness to Franklin, he was never the type of person who liked to revel in public ceremony or the pomposity and perks of power. When Penn and his allies sought to neutralize him by forming rival militias in Philadelphia and then convincing the king’s ministers to nullify his militia act, Franklin responded by readily surrendering his commission. In a reflective letter to his friend Peter Collinson, he admitted that he enjoyed the public affection but realized that he should not allow it to go to his head. “The people happen to love me,” he wrote, but then added, “Forgive your friend a little vanity, as it’s only between ourselves . . . You are now ready to tell me that popular favor is a most uncertain thing. You are right. I blush at having valued myself so much upon it."

CHAPTER EIGHT - Troubled Waters: London, 1757 - 1762


Franklin’s mission to London had produced mixed results. The dispute over taxing the Proprietors had reached a compromise for the moment, and the end of the French and Indian War had calmed the larger disagreements over raising funds for colonial defense. Unresolved, however, was the underlying question of colonial governance. For Franklin, who saw himself equally as a Briton and an American, the answer was obvious. The powers of the colonial assemblies should evolve to mirror those of Parliament, and Englishmen on either side of the ocean should enjoy the same liberties. After five years in England, however, he had begun to realize that the Penns were not the only ones who saw things differently.


If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that injury on all Indians?” he asked. “The only crime of these poor wretches seems to have been that they had a reddish brown skin and black hair.” It was immoral, he argued, to punish an individual as revenge for what others of his race, tribe, or group may have done. “Should any man with a freckled face and red hair kill a wife or child of mine, [by this reasoning] it would be right for me to revenge it by killing all the freckled red-haired men, women and children I could afterwards anywhere meet.


Another broadside painted him as an excitable lecher:

Franklin, though plagued with fumbling age,
Needs nothing to excite him,
But is too ready to engage,
When younger arms invite him.

Modern election campaigns are often criticized for being negative, and today’s press is slammed for being scurrilous. But the most brutal of modern attack ads pale in comparison to the barrage of pamphlets in the 1764 Assembly election. Pennsylvania survived them, as did Franklin, and American democracy learned that it could thrive in an atmosphere of unrestrained, even intemperate, free expression. As the election of 1764 showed, American democracy was built on a foundation of unbridled free speech. In the centuries since then, the nations that have thrived have been those, like America, that are most comfortable with the cacophony, and even occasional messiness, that comes from robust discourse.
Election Day was as wild as the pamphlets. Throngs of voters clogged the State House steps throughout the day of October 1, and the lines remained long well past midnight. Franklin’s supporters were able to force the polls to stay open until dawn as they roused anyone they could find who had not yet voted. It was a tactical mistakes. The Proprietary party sent workers up to Germantown to round up even more supporters. Franklin finished thirteenth out fourteen candidates vying for the eight sears in Philadelphia.


Responding to reports that Britain might propose taxes on the colonies, he wrote to Richard Jackson, whom he had left behind in London as Pennsylvania’s other agent, a suggested response: “If you choose to tax us, give us members in your legislature, and let us be one people.”
As he prepared to leave for England in November 1764, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter. It included paternal exhortations to be “dutiful and tender towards your good mama” and typical Franklin advice, such as “to acquire those useful accomplishments arithmetic and bookkeeping.” But it also contained a more serious note. “I have many enemies,” he said. “Your slightest indiscretions will be magnified into crimes, in order the more sensibly to wound and afflict me. It is therefore the more necessary for you to be extremely circumspect in all your behavior that no advantage may be given to their malevolence.”
He also had many supporters. More than three hundred cheered him as he left Philadelphia for his ship. Cannons were fired as a send-off, and a song was sung to the tune of “God Save the King,” with the new ending “Franklin on thee we fix / God save us all." He told some friends that he expected to be gone only a few months. others that he might never return. It is not clear which predictions, if either, he truly believed, but as it turned out, neither proved correct.

CHAPTER NINE Home Leave: Philadelphia, 1763 - 1764

CHAPTER TEN- Agent Provocator: London, 1765 - 1770


Franklin’s moderation was due in part to his temperament, his love of Britain, and his dreams of a harmonious empire. It was in his nature to be a smooth operator rather than a revolutionary. He liked witty discussion over Madeira, and he hated disorder and mob behavior. The fine wines and meals contributed not only to his gout, but also to his blurred vision about the animosity that was building back home. Perhaps more important, he was making one last attempt to turn Pennsylvania into a royal rather than Proprietary colony.


Still, like many Americans, he was not yet willing to advocate a total break with Britain. The solution, he felt, was a new arrangement in which the colonial assemblies would remain loyal to the king but no longer be subservient to Britain’s Parliament. As he told Cooper, “Let us therefore hold fast our loyalty to our King (who has the best disposition toward us, and has a family interest in our prosperity) as that steady loyalty is the most probable means of securing us from the arbitrary power of a corrupt Parliament that does not like us and conceives itself to have an interest in keeping us down and fleecing us.” It was an elegant formula for commonwealth governance. Alas, it was based on the unproven assumption that the king would be more sympathetic to colonial rights than was Parliament.

CHAPTER ELEVEN - Rebel: London, 1771 - 1775


With a mix of wry detachment and amused self-awareness, Franklin was able to keep his creation at a bit of a distance, to be modestly revealing but never deeply so. Amid all the enlightening anecdotes, he included few intimations of inner torment, no struggles of the soul or reflections of the deeper spirit. More pregnant than profound, his recollections provide a cheerful look at a simple approach to life that only hints at the deeper meanings he found in serving his fellow man and thus his God. What he wrote had little pretension other than pretending to poke fun at all pretensions. It was the work of a gregarious man who loved to recount stories, turn them into down-home parables that could lead to a better life, and delve into the shallows of simple lessons.
To some, this simplicity is its failing. The great literary critic Charles Angoff declares that “it is lacking in almost everything necessary to a really great work of belles lettres: grace of expression, charm of personality, and intellectual flight.” But surely it is unfair to say that it lacks charm of personality, and as the historian Henry Steele Commager points out, its "artless simplicity, lucidity, homely idiom, freshness and humor have commended it anew to each generation of readers." Indeed, read with an unjaundiced eye, it is a pure delight as well as an archetype of homespun American literature, And it was destined to become, through hundreds of editions published in almost every language, the world's most popular autobiography.


On the other hand, much of what he saw in Ireland distressed him. England severely regulated Irish trade, and absentee English landlords exploited Irish tenant farmers. “They live in wretched hovels of mud and straw, are clothed in rags, and subsist chiefly on potatoes,” he noted. His shock at the disparity between rich and poor made him all the more proud that America was building a vibrant middle class. The strength of America, he wrote, was its proud freeholders and tradesmen, who had the right to vote on public affairs and ample opportunity to feed and clothe their families.”


These laws were compassionate. But he warned that they could have unintended consequences and promote laziness: "I feat the giving mankind a dependence on anything for support in age or sickness, besides industry and frugality during youth and health, tends to flatter our natural indolence, to encourage idleness and prodigality, and thereby to promote and increase poverty, the very evil it was intended to cure.i


His ideal was of a prosperous middle class whose members lived simple lives of democratic equality," writes James Campbell. "Those who met with greater economic success in life were responsible to help those in genuine need; but those who from lack of virtue failed to pull their own weight could expect no help from society."


Silence had often been his best weapon, making him seem wise or benign or serene. On this occasion, it made him look stronger than his powerful adversaries, contemptuous rather than contrite, condescending rather than cowed.

CHAPTER TWELVE - Independence: Philadelphia, 1775 - 1776


It is hard to pinpoint precisely when America crossed the threshold of deciding that complete independence from Britain was necessary and desirable. It is even difficult to determine when that tipping point came for specific individuals. Franklin, who for ten years had juggled hope and despair that a breach could be avoided, made his own private declaration to his family during their summit at Trevose. By early July 1775, precisely a year before his fellow American patriots made their own stance official, he was ready to come out publicly.


It is a testament to the powerful personal force exerted by Benjamin Franklin, a man so often callous about the feelings of his family, that William was so pitifully accepting of the situation. “If the old gentleman has taken the boy with him,” he wrote to his forlorn wife, “I hope it is only to put him in some foreign university.


But Franklin realized that appealing to a cold calculus of interests was only part of the equation. Better than most other diplomats in the nation’s history, he understood that America’s strength in world affairs would come from a unique mix that included idealism as well as realism. When woven together, as they would later be in policies ranging from the Monroe Doctrine to the Marshall Plan, they were the warp and woof of a resilient foreign policy. “America’s great historical moments,” writes historian Bernard Bailyn, “have occurred when realism and idealism have been combined, and no one knew this better than Franklin."

CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Courtier: Paris, 1776 - 1778


As Yale historian Jonathan Dull has noted, "The ineptitude of the British government presented Franklin with a chance to play one of his best diplomatic roles: the innocent who may not be so innocent as he pretends.


Franklin's diplomatic triumph would help seal the course of the Revolution. It would also alter the world's balances of power, not just between France and England, but also - through France certainly did not intend it to - between republicanism and monarchy.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Bon Vivant: Paris, 1778 - 1785


They were both very smart, but otherwise they had quite different personalities. Adams was unbending and outspoken and argumentative, Franklin charming and taciturn and flirtatious. Adams was rigid in his personal morality and lifestyle, Franklin famously playful. Adams learned French by poring over grammar books and memorizing a collection of funeral orations; Franklin (who cared little about the grammar) learned the language by lounging on the pillows of his female friends and writing them amusing little tales. Adams felt comfortable confronting people, whereas Franklin preferred to seduce them, and the same was true of the way they dealt with nations.


In describing his sexual desires, Franklin could be quite salacious. “My poor little boy, whom you ought to have cherished, instead of being fat and jolly like those in your elegant drawings, is thin and starved for want of the nourishment that you inhumanely deny him.” Madame Brillon continued the colloquy by calling him an Epicurean, who “wants a fat chubby love,” and herself a Platonist, who “tries to blunt his little arrows.” In another suggestive letter, he told a fable about a man who refused to lend out his horses to a friend. He was not like that. “You know that I am ready to sacrifice my beautiful big horses.”


Franklin used his bagatelles as a way to improve his language skills; he would translate them back and forth, show them to friends like the Abbé de la Roche, and then incorporate corrections. He wrote his famous story about paying too much for a whistle as a child, for example, in two columns, the left in French and the right in English, with space in the margins for revisions. Because Madame Brillon spoke no English, Franklin sent her the French versions of his writings, often showing her the corrections others had made."

CHAPTER FIFTEEN - Peacemaker: Paris, 1778 - 1785


With the British not yet ready to deal with him and the French no longer willing to deal with him, Adams once again left Paris feeling resentful. And Franklin once again tried to keep their disagreements from becoming personal. He wrote to Adams in Holland, where he had gone to try to elicit a loan for America, and commiserated about the difficulties of that task. “I have long been humiliated,” he said, “with the idea of our running from court to court begging for money and friendship.” And in a subsequent letter complaining about how long France was taking to answer his own requests, Franklin wryly wrote Adams: “I have, however, two of the Christian graces, faith and hope. But my faith is only that of which the apostle speaks, the evidence of things not seen.” If their mutual endeavors failed, he added, “I shall be ready to break, run away, or go to prison with you, as it shall please God.”


"Great affairs sometimes take their rise from small circumstances," Franklin recorded in the journal be began of the 1782 peace negotiations.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Sage: Philadelphia, 1785 - 1790


There were only four left of the volunteer fire company he founded in 1736, but Franklin dug out his bucket and convened a meeting. The American Philosophical Society, which sometimes held sessions in his dining room, elected Temple a new member in 1786, along with most of the intellectual friends Franklin had made in Europe over the years: le Veillard, la Rochefoucauld, Condorcet, Ingenhousz, and Cabanis. To apply the same earnest curiosity to “the arduous and complicated science of government” that the philosophical society applied to the science of nature, Franklin organized a companion group, the Society for Political Inquiries, whose members included his young activist friends such as Thomas Paine.


It was typical of Franklin. Throughout his life, he loved immersing himself in minutiae and trivia in a manner so obsessive that it might today be described as geeky. He was meticulous in describing every technical detail of his inventions, be it the library arm, stove, or lightning rod. In his essays, ranging from his arguments against hereditary honors to his discussions of trade, he provided reams of detailed calculations and historical footnotes. Even in his most humorous parodies, such as his proposal for the study of farts, the cleverness was enhanced by his inclusion of mock-serious facts, trivia, calculations, and learned precedents.
This penchant was on display in its most charming manner in a long letter he wrote to his young friend Kitty Shipley, daughter of the bishop, on the art of procuring pleasant dreams. It contained all of his theories, some more sound than others, on nutrition, exercise, fresh air, and health. Exercise should precede meals, he advised, not follow them. There should be a constant supply of fresh air in the bedroom; Methuselah, he reminded, always slept outdoors. He propounded a thorough, though not scientifically valid, theory of how air in a stifled room gets saturated and thus prevents people’s pores from expelling “putrid particles.” After a full discourse on the science and pseudoscience, he provided three important ways to avoid unpleasant dreams:

1. By eating moderately, less perspirable matter is produced in a given time; hence the bed-clothes receive it longer before they are saturated, and we may therefore sleep longer before we are made uneasy by their refusing to receive any more.
2. By using thinner and more porous bed-clothes, which will suffer the perspirable matter more easily to pass through them, we are less incommoded, such being longer tolerable.

3. When you are awakened by this uneasiness, and find you cannot easily sleep again, get out of bed, beat up and turn your pillow, shake the bed-clothes well, with at least twenty shakes, then throw the bed open and leave it to cool; in the meanwhile, continuing undressed, walk about your chamber till your skin has had time to discharge its load, which it will do sooner as the air may be dried and colder. When you begin to feel the cool air unpleasant, then return to your bed, and you will soon fall asleep, and your sleep will be sweet and pleasant . . . If you happen to be too indolent to get out of bed, you may, instead of it, lift up your bed-clothes with one arm and leg, so as to draw in a good deal of fresh air, and by letting them fall force it out again. This, repeated twenty times, will so clear them of the perspirable matter they have imbibed, as to permit your sleeping well for some time afterwards. But this latter method is not equal to the former. Those who do not love trouble, and can afford to have two beds, will find great luxury in rising, when they wake in a hot bed, and going into the cool one.


The new country was, in some ways, “one political society,” but in other ways it was a federation of separate states, yet these two concepts need not conflict, for they could be combined as “halves of a unique whole.” There was, however, little discussion of the plan. By a 6–5 vote, the idea was rejected, for the time being, in favor of proportional representation in both chambers.


Franklin, I think, did not intend for his proposal to be elitist or exclusionary, but instead saw it as a way to limit corrupting influences. In his many letters on the subject, he never considered, though he should have, that his plan might limit the jobs to those who could afford to work for free. Indeed, he seemed quite oblivious to this argument. Instead, he based his position on his faith in citizen volunteers and his long-standing belief that a pursuit of profit had corrupted English government. It was a case he had made in an exchange of letters with William Strahan three years earlier, and he used almost the exact same language on the floor of the convention:

There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects . . . And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.


Throughout his life, Franklin had, by his thoughts and activities, helped to lay the foundation for the democratic republic that this Constitution enshrined. He had begun as a young man by teaching his fellow tradesmen ways to become virtuous, diligent, and responsible citizens. Then he sought to enlist them in associations—Juntos, libraries, fire departments, neighborhood patrols, and militias—for their mutual benefit and the good of the common community. Later, he created networks, from the postal service to the American Philosophical Society, designed to foster the connections that would integrate an emerging nation. Finally, in the 1750s, he began pushing the colonies to gain strength through unity, to stand together for common purposes in a way that helped shape a national identity.


He was also sanguine about the revolution now welling up in his beloved France. The explosion of democratic sentiments was producing “mischief and trouble,” he noted, but he assumed that it would lead to greater democracy and eventually a good constitution. So most of his letters to his French friends were inappropriately lighthearted. “Are you still living?” he wrote the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, his friend and Passy neighbor, in late 1789. “Or have the mob of Paris mistaken the head of a monopolizer of knowledge for a monopolizer of corn, and paraded it about the streets upon a pole?” (It was also in this letter that he famously noted that “nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”) He assured Louis-Guillaume le Veillard, his neighbor and closest friend in Passy, that it was all for the good. “When the fermentation is over and the troubling parts subsided, the wine will be fine and good, and cheer the hearts of those that drink it.



The great romantic poet John Keats was among the many who assaulted Franklin for his lowly sensibilities. He was, Keats wrote his brother in 1818, “full of mean and thrifty maxims” and a “not sublime man.” Keats’s friend and early publisher, the poet and editor Leigh Hunt, heaped scorn on Franklin’s “scoundrel maxims” and charged that he was “at the head of those who think that man lives by bread alone.” He had “few passions and no imagination,” Leigh’s indictment continued, and he encouraged mankind to a “love of wealth” that was stripped of “higher callings” or of “heart and soul.” Along these lines, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish critic so in love with romantic heroism, scorned Franklin as “the father of all Yankees,” which was perhaps not as denigrating as Carlyle meant it to be.”


But with the publication of fuller editions of his papers, Franklin’s reputation began to revive. After the Civil War, the growth of industry and the onset of the Gilded Age made the times ripe for the glorification of his ideas, and for the next three decades he was the most popular subject of American biography. The 130 novels by Horatio Alger, which would eventually sell twenty million copies, made tales of virtuous boys who rose from rags to riches popular again. Franklin’s reputation was also elevated by the emergence of that distinctly American philosophy known as pragmatism, which holds, as Franklin had, that the truth of any proposition, whether it be a scientific or moral or theological or social one, is based on how well it correlates with experimental results and produces a practical outcome.


To assess Franklin properly, we must view him, instead, in all his complexity. He was not a frivolous man, nor a shallow one, nor a simple one. There are many layers to peel back as he stands before us so coyly disguised, both to history and to himself, as a plain character unadorned by wigs and other pretensions.


More important, Franklin did in fact believe, uncompromisingly, in a few high principles—very important ones for shaping a new nation—that he stuck to throughout his life. Having learned from his brother a resistance to establishment power, he was ever unwavering in his opposition to arbitrary authority. That led him to be unflinching in opposing the unfair tax policies the Penns tried to impose, even when it would have served his personal advantage to go along. It also meant that, despite his desire to find a compromise with Britain during the 1770s, he adhered firmly to the principle that American citizens and their legislatures must not be treated as subservient.


All of this made him the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become. Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin: its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation; its philosophical pragmatism; its celebration of meritocratic mobility; the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy; and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values. He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved of individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privileges to people based on their birth.