The Reading Room

Benjamin Franklin: “First philosopher” of America

"Every man…is, of common right, and by the laws of God, a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty." "All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual… is his natural right which none can justly deprive him of." 
“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government.” --Benjamin Franklin
It was David Hume, foremost philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, who referred to Franklin as “the first philosopher” of America. He did not mean the “earliest,” because he added that Franklin might  be an American Isaac Newton—and the intellectuals of the European Enlightenment simply had no higher praise.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the British philosophers and French philosophes revered Ben Franklin, almost held him in awe. Franklin was a remarkable inventor but a theoretical scientist in the class of Nobel Prize winners in physics. He was among the most effective of American revolutionaries, perhaps one of the half-dozen individuals who contributed most to American independence and the survival of the new republic. He was among a handful of influential deists who arguably (it is controversial) created a deist, not a Christian, U.S. Constitution and government. He was a world-renowned stylist and author--almost a badge of the Enlightenment intellectual--and used his talent to translate philosophy into practical advice and morality as popular in Europe as America. He was decidedly a self-made individualist and successful “common man,” who by age 40 was among the richest men in the colonies. His invention and initiation of public but voluntary social organizations and institutions made initiative in a free society seem to have limitless potential.
Some Enlightenment intellectuals may have taken notice of Franklin’s whole-hearted engagement in seeking happiness here on earth, in this life, including the Enlightenment’s commitment to the naturalness and innocence of sensual pleasure.
Education and the printing business
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), a.k.a., Richard Saunders (as in “Poor Richard” of the Almanack), virtually dramatized the concept of the American “self-made man”—and during the 19th century was a symbol of that American type. Born in Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony into a family with 17 children, Franklin later would quip that he was the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back.
Franklin’s formal education ended when he was 10 years old. At 12, he was apprenticed to the print shop of a brother, James Franklin, who founded the weekly New England Courant. Franklin certainly mastered the printing trade, but his obsession was reading and teaching himself not just writing but rhetoric.
At that time, what must be reckoned a leading British Enlightenment publication, Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Spectator (published daily in 1711 and 1712), attracted the attention of budding Enlighteners on both sides of the Atlantic. (Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison confessed to making the Spectator their textbook for learning rhetoric.) Franklin read and reread the articles; he said, later, “Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself.” (Perhaps, but Franklin also excelled in athletics, in particular, swimming, and invented swim fins. He was a robust, barrel-chested six-footer. Even later in life, become portly, he lifted weights.)
He copied and recopied articles from the Spectator. And to come to intimate grips with their use of language, he converted them into poetry and then reconverted them back to prose. He realized with other future Founding Fathers and European intellectuals that in a predominantly illiterate age writing effectively was a rare talent that attracted immediate attention. Franklin wrote later that the skill was “of great use to me…a principal Means of My Advancement.” When later he wrote his Autobiography (published after his death), he created one of the most widely-read autobiographies in history.
The New England Courant published many essays of comment and opinion from readers and Ben Franklin soon decided he could do it as well. Under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood,” a persona he created of a middle-aged woman, he published 14 essays that lampooned everything, including students at Harvard College. No one knew the author, but Silence Dogood got a reputation as a learned and ingenious commentator.
Although raised by pious parents, Franklin wrote that at age 15, “After doubting by turns several points, I began to doubt revelation itself.”  And “Some books against Deism fell into my hands… It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary…”  The arguments of the Deists were quoted to be refuted, but “appeared to me much stronger than the refutations. In short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
For no specific reasons that history records, but without doubt at least in part expressing Franklin’s astonishingly “thrusting,” ambitious, impatient nature, he left home secretly one night when he was 17. His destination was Philadelphia, a Quaker city known for religious tolerance as compared with severely Puritan Boston. There is a famous story of Franklin arriving with scant funds and paying a few cents for two large loaves of bread, which he ate as he strolled the streets.
That first day, he met his future wife, Deborah, with whose family he roomed. He sought employment as a printer, but, with a talent evident in Franklin, managed to meet and impress the Governor of Pennsylvania, who suggested he set up his own printing business and even urged him to sail to England to examine the latest printing techniques and typefaces.
The sojourn in London and rise to riches
On the ship bound for England, Franklin realized that in today’s parlance, the governor had “screwed him.” Franklin did not have with him, as he thought, either the letters of introduction or the letters of credit the governor had promised.
Franklin’s trade and his writing skills saved him; he found employment in London. During his stay, he immediately began an involvement with the new Enlightenment ideas then in the air. Not yet 20 years old, he wrote a deistic pamphlet, “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain” (1725). In it, he argued among other things that humans have no freedom of choice, they are not moral agents. Perhaps that freed him personally to slip into indulgent behavior, ignoring Deborah who got only one letter from Franklin.
Ambition again called and Franklin returned to take a job offer in Philadelphia. By the time he arrived, however, his prospective employer had died. And so, Franklin, now 20, set up his own printing business that in two decades would make him among the richest men in the northern colonies. Meanwhile, as he confessed later, his sex drive sent him to “low women,” and he became alarmed enough to escape into marriage with Deborah. By then, he had an illegitimate son, William, whom Deborah willingly took in and their common law marriage lasted half-a-century until 1774.
Franklin’s work ethic (sociologist Max Weber would later feature him as an example of the “Protestant work ethic”) now went into overdrive. He and his partner won the first job printing Pennsylvania currency, a commission Franklin obtained by publishing a pamphlet on the necessity of paper currency. Soon, he was the official public printer of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. In 1729, he launched the Penn Gazette, soon reputed to be the best of the colonial newspapers. A few years later, he published Poor Richard Almanack, which dazzled the European Enlightenment: The backwoods philosopher with the magical pen converted philosophy into folk wisdom. 
Franklin published the Almanack from 1732 to 1757, long enough to make it a staple reading not only in the colonies but Europe. Like the European Enlighteners even in his way of coming at ideas, Franklin liked to quote their beloved Cicero and like them insert into his writing quotations in Latin. While publishing the Gazette, Franklin published the first political cartoon in the colonies and identified the danger of lead poisoning. As the business made money, Franklin invested, entering additional partnerships with printers, so that by the late 1740s, he was among the wealthier men in northern North America.
Public service, science, politics
By now, Franklin had involved himself in social improvements in Philadelphia, including the famous Junto for debating philosophy, natural philosophy (science), and morals; the Library Company of Philadelphia; a paid police force and voluntary fire department; and, in 1743, as the idea of the Junto blossomed, the American Philosophical Society. He was reiterating on his side of the Atlantic developments that virtually defined the organization and expression of the British and French Enlightenment, which created informal institutions of all kinds, including academies, to conduct work outside the universities controlled by the Catholic Church. (Franklin became a member of the principal European academies.) Next came education, with the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia and then the College of Philadelphia (Franklin president of both), predecessors of the University of Pennsylvania. In the course of this, Franklin “invented” the matching grant. And, for good measure, threw himself with enthusiasm into the Freemasons (which much later he would persuade Voltaire to join).
Franklin and friends, reflecting what small clusters of educated men were doing in England, began to experiment with technology and science. Franklin’s contributions to everyday comfort and safety include the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal lenses, the odometer, and the glass harmonica. In theoretical science, he set out to discover the identity and laws of electricity. First in France, he did his experiment in a thunderstorm, but back in America a much more dangerous version of the experiment. Franklin created the distinction between conductors and insulators, invented a battery, and showed that electricity was a single “fluid” with positive and negative charges that in states of electrification had to be in exactly equal amounts. His crucial principle today is known as the “law of the conservation of charge.” Franklin added to the English language the words “conductor,” “charge,” “discharge,” “condense,” “armature,” and “electrify.”
Then came many minor political offices and election to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and an important role in organizing a militia that became critical in the French and Indian War, which forced the colonies to organize for the common defense. 
It seems to have become too much. Franklin was rich at age 42 and retired from active business. As a silent partner, though, he continued to earn some £600 a year. To be a “gentleman” was in a sense a “known” position, so Franklin announced that that is what he had become. In 1757, Franklin’s reputation and evident talents moved the Assembly to send him to England as the state’s agent, ostensibly to seek permission for the legislature to tax certain lands, but with the unannounced goal of ousting the proprietorship of the Penn family and making the colony a Royal Province.
Franklin frankly admired the British Empire; he thought it the world’s most impressive political structure and he gave evidence of wanting to be part of it. Ambition. He would stay in England, the largest city in Europe, the heart of the Empire, for 20 years (with one two-year break), living with the widow Margaret Stevenson and her grown daughter. He brought his own son, and some of his enslaved Africans, but Deborah and their daughter stayed home.
Some readers may shake their heads in wonderment, looking back just a few decades and remembering the impression of Franklin as a plump, pleasant, grandfatherly man in homespun, flying a kite in the rain, and perhaps intoning, “Early to bed, early to rise…”
In fact, Franklin was the consummate cosmopolitan, meeting Enlightenment intellectuals including David Hume, James Cook, and Joseph Priestly. Awarded an honorary degree by the University of St. Andrews, he became “Dr. Franklin,” and inclined to disparage vulgar, provincial America. He instead had Royalist pretensions, playing upon a connection with Lord Bute, which he parlayed into the appointment of his son, William, 31, governor of New Jersey.
He had acquired for himself the position of the British postmaster in America. He headed back to the colonies to tour all post offices, a trip of some 1,780 miles. But he soon was back in London; he never saw his common-law wife, Deborah, again.
With the Stamp Act of 1765, a British imposition that evoked explosive anger in the colonies, Franklin blundered badly. He obtained for his printing partner in Philadelphia the job of printing the hated stamps for Pennsylvania. Franklin’s public reputation in America seemed ruined; his partner almost lost his life. Franklin salvaged his reputation with a four-hour testimony before the British Parliament denouncing the Act and his public reputation survived. From 1765 to 1775, as British-American relations deteriorated, accelerating toward open conflict, Franklin wrote some 126 newspaper pieces trying in every possible way to bridge American and British public and political opinion. Neither side appreciated it; to Americans, he was a British agent, to the British, he was an American agent.
A blowup in the middle of this campaign, in 1771, with opposition to Franklin by Lord Hillsborough, the new head of Britain’s American Department, depressed and frustrated Franklin. His response, typically, was to redouble his efforts. He began in a defiant mood to write his Autobiography, the first part about his early life by common consent the best, telling the world that a free man could succeed whatever the odds and need not kowtow to aristocrats (like Lord Hillsborough?) Further troubles landed Franklin before the Privy Council to be dressed down by the solicitor general, and fired as Royal postmaster. In 1775—perhaps a remarkable coincidence, but far more likely inevitable at the brink of war—Franklin sailed for America in March. 
Triumph for Franklin—and America--in Paris
Arriving in Philadelphia, he found his reputation still robust. The Pennsylvania Assembly immediately elected him to represent the state in the Second Continental Congress. Some Americans expressed fears that Franklin might be a British spy. The Congress, however, sent him to Europe as their agent, part of a commission to obtain military aid and diplomatic recognition from the French. Franklin, who signed the Declaration of Independence, now had become a traitor to England, and if his ship had been captured by the British, he would have been hanged. The British ambassador to France, when he heard of Franklin’s safe arrival, publicly lamented that Franklin had safely crossed the Atlantic.
The story, again, is too well-known to require much detail, here. Franklin played to perfection a part calculated to win over the French public. He was the backwoodsman from the forests and farms of the courageous colonists ready to fight the overbearing, royalist British Empire in the name of freedom and independence. He was the democratic folk genius who proved that natural man in a free, classless society, unencumbered by kings, aristocrats, priests, and endless artificial culture could do anything.
Franklin’s image appeared everywhere. On snuffboxes, candy boxes, rings, statues, and prints. He violated all protocol with his frontier dress, fur cap, wigless, without a sword, even at the Court of Versailles, the most formal and elaborate court in all of Europe. (Some French women began to fashion their wigs after Franklin’s fur cap.) The French aristocrats, and the court itself, were thrilled, delighted, and caught up with the idea of America. The liberal ideas bred by the Enlightenment won profound sympathy for the oppressed Americans.
 A small drama occurred in 1778 when the aging Voltaire, exiled from Paris for three decades, was permitted to return because he was dying. The two titans of the Enlightenment met, reportedly with tears among spectators greeting the convergence of the French and American philosophical and political causes. John Adams, also part of the commission sent by Congress, reported
“Neither of our philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected; they however took each other by the hand. But this was not enough. The clamor continued until the explanation came out: Il faut s’embrasser à la française [they must embrace in the French way]. The two aged actors upon this great theater of philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms and kissing each other’s cheeks, and then the tumult subsided.”
Franklin extracted the diplomatic recognition of the new republic that he sought and obtained loan after loan. It was suave and smooth, but not easy. Franklin suffered from gout and kidney stones, was encircled by spies, and his fellow members of the commission seemed to dislike and distrust his new persona. 
In 1783, he first secured the new republic's military and diplomatic alliances with the French government (the Peace of Paris). But the commissioners also managed to sign a separate peace with Britain. Perhaps only Franklin could have finessed an apology for this to the Comte de Vergennes, King Louis XVI’s chief minister. Franklin’s letter is viewed as a historic tour de force in diplomacy. In 1785, Franklin reluctantly left behind his celebrity in Europe, his friends among the Enlightenment philosophers (and reportedly some marriage hopes with the brilliant women in their circles, including the widow of Nicholas Condorcet) to return to America.
Philosopher found a new republic 
Franklin had contributed to the writing of the Declaration of Independence (1775), the Articles of Confederation (1777), and now was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. A separate essay at the very least would be required to explain the ongoing argument over whether the U. S. Constitution is a deist document or a traditional Christian document. The language of course is one clue and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution do contain deist language. There is a reference to “Nature’s God,” a deist phrase, in the Declaration. Both references to religion in the U.S. Constitution are exclusionary: the First Amendment and Article IV, Sec. III: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office…”
At the same time, other language and acts are conventionally Christian, calling for the intervention of “Providence” and prayerful support of the public. But a chief point made is that of the 56 members of the Constitutional Convention only a handful were professed deists. On the other hand, the educated in Europe and America in the 18th century increasingly embraced naturalism and its implications: Nature with fixed laws was created by God, some argued by an evidently benevolent God to benefit his creatures, including man, and, given God’s perfection, nature operated for eternity without God’s providential intervention, and certainly not with the apparatus of a divine Son in human form sent to straightened out such problems as the Original sin of Adam and Eve. Only one member of the convention, by the way, was a clergyman.
And it is patent that an intellectual initiative on any scale is likely to reflect the leadership of an intellectual minority. In the instance of the Constitution, the professed deists were Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin—surely candidates for supposed intellectual leadership. Among the most influential Enlightenment intellectuals during the Revolutionary period, Thomas Paine, a protégé of Franklin, published the deist tract, Age of Reason. The Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen, argued for deism in his widely read: “Reason: The Only Oracle of Man.” Deism was notably hugely popular in colleges in the 18th century. Scholars argue that most of the founders were “theistic rationalists,” such as Unitarians, whose position was that a powerful, rational, benevolent Creator had established the laws by which the Universe functions and no revelation, such as a miracle, can be credited if proved by science to contradict those laws. Even John Adams, unaffected by deism, became a conservative Unitarian.
Franklin wrote: “Frequent recurrence to fundamental principles…[is] absolutely necessary to preserve the blessings of liberty and keep government free.”
Worth contemplating, here, is that no Christian nation ever had found its way to genuine liberalism—a government founded on freedom of thought, speech, publication, and action including economics. Deism became for America’s philosophical leaders the foundation of commitment to reason, which implied individual autonomy—including individual judgment protected from government force and therefore a government prohibited intervening in matters of conscience (prerogatives of moral agents). That in principle limits government to retaliating against those who would initiate force against others—that is, violate individual rights. (The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay colony scarcely felt that government must refrain from enforcement of morality.) 
Fame came at a price. In America, rumors had spread about Franklin. Congress seemed to evince no gratitude, turning down all his requests, even when he resorted to submitting a “Sketch of Services of B. Franklin to the United States.” He received no answer. Franklin hit back by signing a memorial requesting that Congress abolish slavery. Congressmen responded with an angry defense of slavery, which Franklin ridiculed in a newspaper piece. Nor would the Senate go along with a House proposal to declare a month of mourning for Franklin. All expressions of affection—and there were many—came from France.
Franklin, who died in 1790, aged 84, had his posthumous honors. Following the publication of his Autobiography in 1794, he became the hero of America’s artisans and self-made businessmen. He created, in fact, our modern folksy image of Franklin, but his achievements came to personify the American dream throughout the 19th century.