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

By Christopher Hitchens

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.

In his Persecution and the Art of Writing, which I am assuming Professor Weinberger knows almost by heart, Leo Strauss made the surprisingly unesoteric observation that the best way to avoid the wrath of the censor is to present an apparently balanced debate in which the views of the side disliked by the censor are given a "straight" denunciation. Only a little subtlety is required to make these views slightly more attractive than the censor might wish. And many are those who have been seduced, or disillusioned, in this manner, even by debates into which no conscious "twist" has been inserted. (De Vries's novel also contains a hilarious scene in which the town atheist and the town clergyman have a public argument and succeed in completely winning each other over.)

That Franklin had the necessary cast of mind for this dialectic is not to be doubted. He even tells us himself, with an open and friendly face,

Some Books against Deism fell into my Hands; they were said to be the Substance of Sermons preached at Boyle's Lectures. It happened that they wrought an Effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them: For the Arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much Stronger than the Refutations.

But Franklin isn't done with the reader quite yet. He gives an account of a Deism in which it is quite impossible that he believed. Or is it true that he ever "from the Attributes of God, his infinite Wisdom, Goodness & Power concluded that nothing could possibly be wrong in the World, & that Vice & Virtue were empty Distinctions, no such Things existing"? Everything in his life and writing argues against this likelihood, and Weinberger wittily appends a note on how to distinguish between "dry," "wet," and "very wet" Deism. Only the ultra-dry Deists denied human beings all free will, and even then the idea that the world was as good as it possibly could be was dependent on the fatalistic and tautological conviction that it was, ex hypothesi, the only possible world in the first place. Franklin was never a Pangloss, and his bald statement of what such a belief would entail is the equal of Voltaire's.

He seems to have disclosed his true ambition only by appearing to disown or abandon it. At about the midpoint of the Autobiography, having already familiarized us with his suspicion of all established churches, he relates his intention, in 1731, of setting the world to rights by establishing a "Party for Virtue." This would form the "Virtuous and good Men of all Nations" into "a regular Body, to be govern'd by suitable good and wise Rules." This apparently platitudinous project was to involve a "creed," which would comprise "the Essentials of every known Religion" while "being free of every thing that might shock the Professors of any Religion." This was as much as to say that a frontal disagreement with the godly was not to be entertained: an unsurprising proposition in that or any other epoch. The party's manifesto included some ecumenical boilerplate about one God, divine providence, and the reward of virtue and punishment of vice "either here or hereafter" (my italics), but its point of distinction lay in the clause stipulating that "the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man." Having laid out this essentially humanist appeal with some care over a couple of pages, Franklin writes with diffidence that the pressure of other work led him to postpone it indefinitely. Weinberger believes, to the contrary, that he made this project his unostentatious life's work, always seeking to unite men of science and reason, and even, if rather belatedly, abandoning his pro-slavery position and becoming an advocate of emancipation. There is good evidence that he is right. Franklin's decision to become a Freemason, for instance, can be interpreted first as somewhat anticlerical and second as signifying his adherence to a common brotherhood without frontiers. And there is the usual Franklin joke: with great attention to the proprieties of frugality and thrift, he still straight-facedly suggested that the "Party for Virtue" be actually named "the Society of the Free and Easy."

It is precisely Franklin's homespun sampler quotations about frugality and thrift that made him rich and famous through the audience of his Almanack. And it was these maxims, collected and distilled in the last of the Poor Richard series and later given the grand title The Way to Wealth, that so incensed Mark Twain as to cause him to write that they were "full of animosity toward boys" and "worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel." A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss. When I re-read The Way to Wealth from the perspective of Jerry Weinberger, I could not bring myself to believe that it had ever been taken with the least seriousness. In the old days at The New Statesman we once ran a celebrated weekend competition that asked readers to submit made-up gems of cretinous bucolic wisdom. Two of the winning entries, I still recall, were "He digs deepest who deepest digs" and "An owl in a sack bothers no man." Many of Poor Richard's attempts at epigram and aphorism do not even rise to this level. My favorite, "'Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright," is plainly not a case in which Franklin thinks he has polished his own renowned wit to a diamond-hard edge. The whole setting of The Way to Wealth is a "lift," it seems to me, from Christian's encounter with Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim's Progress. And the heartening injunctions (of which "The Cat in Gloves catches no Mice" is another stellar example) are so foolish that it is a shock to remember that the old standby "God helps them that help themselves"comes from the same anthology of wisdom.

Franklin's moral jujitsu, in which he always seemingly deferred to his opponents in debate but left them first punching the air and then adopting his opinions as their own, is frequently and slyly boasted about in the Autobiography, but it cannot have afforded him as much pleasure as the applause and income he received from people who didn't know he was kidding. The tip-offs are all there once you learn to look for them, as with Franklin's friend Osborne, who died young.

He and I had made a serious Agreement, that the one who happen'd first to die, should if possible make a friendly Visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate State. But he never fulfill'd his Promise.

At a time when some noisy advocates are attempting to revise American history, and to represent the Founders as men who believed in a Christian nation, this book could not be more welcome. I close with what Franklin so foxily said about the Reverend Whitefield, whose oral sermons were so fine but whose habit of writing them down exposed him to fierce textual criticism: "Opinions [delivered] in Preaching might have been afterwards explain'd, or qualify'd by supposing others that might have accompany'd them; or they might have been deny'd; But litera scripta manet." Yes, indeed, "the written word shall remain." And the old printer left enough of it to delight subsequent generations and remind us continually of the hidden pleasures of the text.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/free-and-easy/304323/