Life, liberty and the pursuit of Benjamin Franklin

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.”


Isaacson has special reason for noting both parts of this passage. A distinguished journalist who became managing editor at Time magazine and then chairman and chief executive of CNN, only to be eased out after that cable network fell behind the Fox News Network in the ratings race, Isaacson possesses an insider’s knowledge of the business that provided the basis for nearly everything Franklin accomplished in life. Franklin long identified himself simply as “B. Franklin, printer,” and even after winning renown for his electrical research and political accomplishments, he continued to write for newspaper publication and to operate a press as a hobby. Other biographers have traced the development of Franklin’s printing business, but none with such insight as Isaacson -- or with such a modernist tone. “Over the next decade,” Isaacson writes of the young entrepreneur, “he would build a media conglomerate that included production capacity (printing operations, franchised printers in other cities), products (a newspaper, magazine, almanac), content (his own writings, his alter ego Poor Richard’s, and those of his Junto), and distribution (eventually the whole of the Colonial postal system).” When Isaacson describes the publishing wars between Franklin and his rivals, he writes with the intimacy and respect of one battle-scarred veteran for another.

Isaacson is the author of a well-received biography of Henry A. Kissinger and the co-author of a collective biography of several diplomats of the early Cold War. Here again, his background benefits his study of Franklin. Isaacson’s account of Franklin’s diplomacy during and after the Revolutionary War -- diplomacy that produced, first, an alliance with France that made the American victory possible and, second, a peace treaty that confirmed the victory -- is the fullest in any of the Franklin biographies. Occasionally, again, Isaacson trades historical tone for analytical insight. He sees Franklin’s balancing of material interest and republican ideals as a foreshadowing of the Monroe Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and he explains that Franklin’s conscious cultivation of his admirers placed him in a long line of diplomats -- including Kissinger -- who understood “that with celebrity came cachet, and with that came influence.”

On the whole, the reader is well-served by Isaacson’s contemporary analytical perspective, but not always. Isaacson has Franklin employing both the “hard power” of America’s strategic might and the “soft power” of its ideals and culture. This is really getting ahead of the story, for Franklin’s problem in France was that the infant United States had precious little of either. American tenacity allowed the new country to hold out against the British until Franklin coaxed King Louis XVI into the alliance, but it was French (and Spanish) power that transformed the war into a contest the Americans could actually win. As for the asserted attractiveness of American ideals, these ideals, in fact, hindered Franklin’s diplomacy. Louis was happy to make trouble for Britain, but he didn’t want to get any closer to the Americans than necessary. They were, after all, engaged in overthrowing their monarch, a practice that could be pernicious if it caught on. Louis’ attitude toward Franklin was indicated by a gift he gave one of Franklin’s admirers, a noblewoman who, Louis thought, should have known better. At a time when Franklin’s face was all over Paris, on medallions and busts and portraits, Louis presented the woman a chamber pot showing that same face smiling up from the bottom.

Isaacson doesn’t know quite what to do with Franklin’s famous assertion that “there never was a good war or a bad peace.” He suggests that Franklin turned the phrase to sell the peace treaty he had just negotiated with Britain. Certainly, Franklin employed the sentiment to that end. But Isaacson underestimates the depth of Franklin’s conviction that war represented a failure of human reason. Wars might occasionally be necessary, as in the defense of American rights against British aggression. But he never ceased to think that wars were evil, or to hope that humans might eventually discover how to render them obsolete. As for peace, while some settlements might be better than others -- and the one he and his fellow commissioners got from Britain in 1783 was far better than the Americans had any right to expect -- peace was almost always better than war.


At the war’s end, Franklin flattered himself and his compatriots with the idea that virtue had triumphed with American arms. “Our Revolution is an important event for the advantage of mankind in general,” he wrote. The American example would inspire other peoples to seek self-government. “Liberty, which some years since appeared in danger of extinction, is now regaining the ground she had lost .... Arbitrary governments are likely to become more mild and reasonable, and to expire by degrees.” Yet before long, Franklin began to doubt that virtue was as firmly seated in America as he had hoped. The states refused to pay their obligations to the national government, dishonoring the debts Franklin had contracted on behalf of American independence. Many Americans simply opposed taxes in any form. Franklin thought such an attitude selfish, shortsighted and singularly lacking in republican virtue. “All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of,” Franklin asserted. “But all property superfluous to such purposes is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition.” Taxes were the price of living in a community. “He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire and live among savages.”

And it is in this radical interpretation of civic virtue that Franklin would find himself most out of step with contemporary thinking. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he argued for measures to keep money out of politics. “There are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men,” he declared. “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.” Franklin knew enough of the world not to shock easily, but it is fair to say that he would be appalled by the role money plays in American politics today. What our jaded age takes for granted -- that a president, to cite the most striking example, should prepare to raise and spend $200 million to ensure his reelection -- was the sort of thing, when practiced by the English, that had made a revolutionary of Franklin.

Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was asked by a Philadelphian what the gathering had produced. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” Returning today, he might wonder whether we have.


From Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington’s colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles.