Free and Easy

Probably nothing afforded Ben Franklin as much pleasure as the applause and income he received from people who didn't know he was kidding

There came a time many years ago when I decided to agree to the baptism of my firstborn. It was a question of pleasing his mother's family. Nonetheless, I had to endure some teasing from Christian friends—how could the old atheist have sold out so easily? I decided to go deadpan and say, Well, I don't want his infant soul to go to hell or purgatory for want of some holy water. And it was often value for money: the faces of several believers took on a distinct look of discomfort at the literal rendition of their own supposed view.

Now turn, if you will, to the opening words of Benjamin Franklin's short essay "How to secure Houses, &c. from Lightning:" "It has pleased God in his Goodness to Mankind, at length to discover to them the Means of securing their Habitations and other Buildings from Mischief by Thunder and Lightning."

Franklin proceeds to describe the apparatus of an elementary conductor. Now, you may believe if you choose that the author of that sentence was sincerely of the opinion that God had decided to deny this blessing to his mortal creation until the middle of the eighteenth century of the Christian era. Or you may decide that an excess of humility led him to downplay or omit his own seminal role in "discovering" electricity. Or you may wonder whether he was deliberately ridiculing a theistic view by setting it down so innocently, yet in such a way as to actuate a stir of unease in even the most credulous reader.

I came up with the preceding example myself, after reading Jerry Weinberger's elegant and fascinating companion to, and analysis of, the work of our cleverest Founding Father. In its title the word "unmasked" is purposely provocative and misleading, as is fitting for a book that derives from close reading and a Straussian attention to the arcane. This is not an exposé of Benjamin Franklin's folie in respect of the fair sex—though it doesn't suffer from lack of attention to this intriguing subject. It is an attempt to describe, rather than to remove, the disguises that he assumed in a long and sinuous life.

There are two kinds of people: those who read Franklin's celebrated Autobiography with a solemn expression, and those who keep laughing out loud as they go along. For centuries the book has been seriously put forward as a sort of moral manual, especially for growing boys—an ancestor of the precepts of Horatio Alger, made more lustrous by its famous provenance. But Weinberger is of the school of cackle. I deliberately postponed re-reading the Autobiography until I had finished his book, and then—deciding to read it in a bar in Annapolis—was continually interrupted by people asking me to share the joke. When I pointed to the cover, I met with really rewarding looks of bemusement.

The conundrum begins quite early, when Franklin refers to his habit of disputation, as acquired from his father's "Books of Dispute about Religion." He remarks that "Persons of good Sense" seldom fall into this habit, "except Lawyers, University Men, and Men of all Sorts that have been bred at Edinborough." This is dry, but with little or no edge to it. A few pages farther on we read of the tyranny exerted by his brother, who wanted both to indenture him and to beat him, "Tho' He was otherwise not an ill-natur'd Man: Perhaps I was too saucy & provoking." Surely an instance of what I call moral jujitsu (of which more later), in which pretended humility can cut like a lash. We descend into vengeful farce not long after this, when we meet the case of Mr. Keimer, Franklin's dislikable first boss in Philadelphia. Young Ben challenged this nasty Sabbatarian to keep a three-month Lenten fast, during which both would abjure all meat.

I went on pleasantly, but Poor Keimer suffer'd grievously, tir'd of the Project, long'd for the Flesh Pots of Egypt, and order'd a roast Pig; He invited me & two Women Friends to dine with him, but it being brought too soon upon table, he could not resist the Temptation, and ate it all up before we came.

This Falstaffian scene of the hapless hypocrite demolishing an entire pig demonstrates comic genius. And only a few pages before, we met Keimer as he resented the attention paid to his young apprentice by the governor, and "star'd like a Pig poison'd." The image of porcine cannibalism makes a good counterpart to Franklin's disavowal of the vegetarian idea. Seeing large fish being gutted, and noticing smaller fish inside their bellies, he felt entitled to convince himself that there was nothing offensive in resuming his fish diet. Again, you may if you wish take this as an anecdote about nutrition, offered for the moral elevation of the young, but bear in mind the village atheist in Peter De Vries's Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, who could not conceive a deity that created every species as predatory and then issued a terse commandment against killing.

"Created sick, and then commanded to be well." This is one of the first, easiest, and most obvious of the satirical maxims that eventually lay waste to the illusion of faith. Franklin was well aware of this annihilating expression, which he employed in his "Dialogue Between Philocles and Horatio," written in 1730. Weinberger seizes hold of his professed and repressed attitudes to religion, and employs them as a thread of Ariadne through the labyrinth of Franklin's multifarious writings. The first and most obvious of Weinberger's targets are those who really did take the Autobiography at face value. It is no surprise to find D. H. Lawrence among these, because a more humorless man probably never drew mortal breath. But it is astonishing to find Mark Twain saying in effect that the book had made life harder for his Toms and Hucks, who had to bear this additional burden of schoolmarmery and moral exhortation, imposed by those determined to "improve" them at any price.

In fairness to Twain, whose fondness for imposture and joking was renowned, he may not have scanned Franklin's early and anonymous Massachusetts journalism, in which the pen name "Silence Dogood" was an almost too obvious giveaway. To write as if in emulation of Cotton Mather's Bonifacius, or "Essays to Do Good," and to subvert its style and purpose so blatantly, must have repaid the tedium of many a New England Sunday. The 1747 "Speech of Miss Polly Baker," in which a common whore made a notably eloquent speech in defense of her right to bear bastard children, fooled almost everyone at the time. We may be right in speaking of an age of innocence, in which Miss Baker's apologia (she is "hard put to it" for a living, "cannot conceive" the nature of her offense, and half admits "all my Faults and Miscarriages") was received with furrowed and anxious brows. But the only wonder, once you get the trick of it, is how Franklin was able to use such broad and easy punning to lampoon the Pharisees of the day. He even tells us in the Autobiography how it became a delight to him to pen anonymous screeds, put them under the door of the newspaper office at night, and then watch the local worthies try to puzzle out their authorship. I always used to think when I saw the customary portraits of Franklin, with his spectacles and his Quakerish homespun garb and his bunlike hair, that there was something grannyish about him. It took me years to appreciate that in youth, at least in prose, he had been quite a good female impersonator. So that's one mask off.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In