THE entrance of the United States into the polity of nations is an event associated with two names which in their respective ways may stand without apology beside any others in the history of the world. No country that has won her independence by the sword can point to a Hero, outside of legend, of whom it is safer to make a boast and a pride than George Washington; for while few of that great kind are so fully known, still fewer can be known so fully without prejudice to their greatness in the world’s opinion. Nay, this present writer, being in his small way hazardous and profane, is prompted to opine that if Washington has a fault it is his faultlessness, and that some limitation of the Great Man — some lack in the dynamic element of personality — results in very lovely fashion from the perfection of the Gentleman. In that noble simplicity, that single nobleness, one misses the erring child of sin, and almost confesses to a regret. Be that as it may, however, Washington is a very definite and a very comely figure among the Heroes of the nations; and the recognition accorded him by his countrymen is not beneath his merits, nor smaller than the part which he played in the drama of national deliverance or rebirth.
Few will hesitate a moment before conceding that the other great name of the American revolutionary era is that of Benjamin Franklin. Waiving all comparisons between those two, so equal and so different, one may say at least that there is no third name which could replace either of them; none that could break the solitude of Washington were there no Franklin, none that could be set beside Franklin’s were there no Washington. Local memory, it is true, rightly makes much of local men, and every one of the states whose story goes back to the epic time has her own son or sons to be proud of. Certain states, and these among the greatest, are even deeply committed, by a just pride as well as a less reasonable partiality, to be the praisers and defenders of contemporaries of Franklin who were none too friendly to their country’s best friend; and from this source flows perennially an influence tincturing with a strain of denial, of exception and animosity, the broad current of national recognition and approval. But this tincture does not modify perceptibly the character of the stream, far less poison or pervert it; nor, however unwillingly a section in Pennsylvania or a family in New England may acknowledge the preëminence of Franklin, is it ever claimed that the place filled by his name could be filled, if we would but redistribute our attention, by some, or any, other. Franklin and Washington, these two alone, of their age and country, stand out from the rest of their generation and take rank as world-personages, like Socrates or like Hannibal. And to assert this of these two is not to belittle by the comparison any one of a host of distinguished patriots and good Americans besides, whom America, in this part or that of her diversified homelands and her multiple consciousness, does well to remember and to praise. For there are ancient European kingdoms, inhabited by no mean people, which have not produced three world-personages in a thousand years.
Nevertheless, be it said at once that I have here placed side by side the names of the two protagonists of the revolutionary drama — the one upon its military, the other upon its diplomatic scene — not in order to claim for them a status above and apart from all others, nor even in order to draw some comparisons, ingenious or useless, between those two great men themselves; but solely for the sake of pointing a curious difference in the character of their subsequent fame. Of the recognition accorded to Franklin we can hardly say, as we can say in the case of Washington, that it is not insufficient and it is not irrelevant. That it was insufficient in his own day, nobody with any knowledge of the matter will deny; and a very little observation will show that in later times it has more and more had for its point of reference a mere side issue, and so has tended to become largely irrelevant. The reasons for the original insufficiency are to be found in a number of historical circumstances which may be noticed presently; but let us first consider that irrelevance of reference, which grew into vogue later, and its causes.
And I think we may say at once that the main cause is to be found in something that is not in the least peculiar to Franklin’s case, but is a law of universal history, or of human psychology as making and mirroring history. It results from what we may call (in rather terrific terms) the naturally asynthetic habit or constitution of the human mind; or, in plainer words, the inability of the average man to grasp a whole of any complexity or to take account of more than one thing at a time. The effects of this are to be seen wherever we look. In the shaping of individual lives, and in what passes for the progress of nations, there is seldom discernible any broad path, the traveled way of foreseen purpose and adequate comprehension; but only a narrow line zigzagging from point to point of momentary interest or momentary expediency. Each new departure is prompted by the perception of a fragmentary fact, by an exclusive devotion to a particular aim. Things, however, are naturally synthetic, — the universe hangs together, — and whatever relevant fact is left out of account to-day is so much arrears which tomorrow or the next century has to work off as best it can.
What I have called the narrow line, then, which ought to have been a broad path, has created a world of arrears on its way; has ignored, that is, a world of circumstance which ought at each particular point and moment to have been taken into account. Now it is the indefeasible privilege of arrears that they never lie behind you for good, but always gather in front of you, ultimately, for evil. So the day when these historical arrears mass themselves and gather in front,— very rude petitioners and very many, asking to be reckoned with at last and brought into the working system, whether of thought or action, somehow,— it is a day of obvious crisis and urgency, and something more. It is a day when the natural human intelligence — represented by the folk-soul, the social consciousness, the general mind of a people — is called to judgment in several senses. For the apparition of a critical period, a momentous situation, means that there is presented to the general mind for solution a kind of chess-problem difficulty, a universal topic the discussion of which implies or demands a power to take account of a good many factors and to render a judgment that does justice to all. It is an occasion, if there is ever any, to bring forth the psychological fruits meet for repentance. And yet, what actually happens? For a moment, indeed, the general mind, finding the air filled with unrest and question, bows to the discovery that things are, after all, not so easy; that they are complex and simultaneous instead of being, as it had supposed, simple and successive. For a moment it even tries, or seems as if it would try, to see the whole subject as it has been set forth by the few philosophic and egregious persons who are convinced of the need for a comprehensive survey, the need to keep in sight all the factors which must be reconciled in a new synthesis, a new starting-point for life and action. But that moment is a brief one. The mood of balanced thought, seeking to be just, soon breaks down, being too exquisite to bear the rubs of life; the attempt to see things steadily and see them whole is soon abandoned, like an armor too heavy to wear or a sword which does not fit the hand. The general mind, the contemporary folk-soul, has its own way of doing justice to a large and complex subject: by summarily reducing it to a unity once more — a unity which is obviously not a synthesis — expressed in a formula of the most partial and passionate description. But this having been done, a new irrational formula having been found, the general mind has no longer any misgiving as to the sense and reality of the question at issue; and on one side or the other, such is the fascination of the fragment and the formula, will fight to the death. So it comes that some of the widest movements (the Reformation, for instance) have had the narrowest war-cry; and it is likely that if ever the heavens fall at last, it will be on that day when all the hungry of this world cry at once for bread.
Now, in the traditional fame of great men —the subjective immortality which they have, not in books nor in the balanced judgment of the informed and synthetic few, but in the undying heart and memory of a people — this same simplifying passion of the folk-soul is generally traceable and is always at work. Here also it is never quite at ease with its subject, never quite comes to terms with it, till it has reduced an originally complex expression to a simple and likely formula. It is true that nearly all men of real greatness are distinguished by a certain universality, actual or potential, of intelligence and character: but what does the folksoul care for that? Their universality is just the particular point about them which it is least inclined to commemorate, whether this be owing to envy or because it instinctively flees the monotony of a recapitulated excellence common to all. It makes very sure of its man, indeed, at the stage of probation: rarely will any impostor or meagre person pass the proofs by which its suffrages are to be won. But, its man having been accepted once for all as a good man and true, it begins to lay aside punctilio and to put itself at its ease. It is not minded to make a virtue or a hardship of knowing him henceforth — the whole man with his many merits and his irrelevant universality — as who should say intimately and all the time. Enough if it knows him from all others, and knows him well enough for the uses of every day. For this purpose it discerns that the part, if not greater than the whole, is more convenient and more characteristic. Therefore it presently ordains, by the irresistible ukase of a silent, simultaneous consent, that he shall have his one aspect, his mark, his character — in the primary sense of that word — which he shall be known by, and in which so much of his personality as is not implied shall be, at least, taken for granted; that is, ignored without prejudice. Thus the folk-soul is ever making of its room of Time a picture-gallery, hung round with worthies — worthies of the nation, worthies of the human race — all in costume. It makes of History a theatre, and sees to it that there shall be no confusing resemblances upon the scene, and no double parts, but that every actor shall answer promptly to his mask and badge. And often, when there is already a complete costume broadly expressive of the personality and the part, it will yet add thereto some extra favor, some graceful supernumerary trifle, by way of putting the button on the cap of individuality rather than of greatness. Be it not forgotten that if the boy Franklin has his whistle, and pays too dear for it, and draws a lesson from this experience in the very act of making fun of himself, so also the infant Washington has his hatchet, and uses it with the innocence of a child upon the cherry-tree — and then has the almost intolerable virtue not to tell a lie.
And if we might follow the subject further, some interesting consequences would come to light. We should see that when for any reason (to stick to our simile) the costume in the picture has grown rather faint, but the figure is still discernible, — or when the character on the stage of secular memory has somehow lost its badge, or a generation has come along which does not know what that kind of badge means, — then, as a number of ready instances might make clear, very curious things will happen. Leaving that excursion for another day, however, let us return now to Franklin and consider how, and how far, this law — the law which excludes double parts in history, and which simplifies, if not the basis, at least the reference of individual fame — has been, and still is, at work upon him. Let us see, that is, what remains of a character richly human and variously gifted when the popular need for selection, the instinct to unify and formulize, has had its way with it: and what remains of a most illustrious career when its greatest period and its chief work are tacitly left out of the account, not deliberately in the interests of an individual, it is true, nor with any motive of injustice, but by the natural action of that law of historical attribution which gives, so far as popular memory is concerned, to one man always one work, and each work to one man alone.
To consider the second point first. I have not apologized for calling Franklin and Washington the two outstanding personalities — the two world-personages — of the Revolution; nor do I think that it is diminishing the honors of either to say that they were equally potent in their respective parts, and the services of each of them indispensable and supreme. In the moment of action, and while history is not being remembered, but being made, they stand unmistakably side by side and work with equal steadfastness for a cause which could dispense with neither. Nevertheless, it might already have been foretold that this which I have called a law — this natural tendency of the human mind to attribute to one man one work and each work to one man only — would be sure to arrange the view of events and of agencies, by and by, in a perspective of its own: and that in this perspective one heroic figure would stand splendidly in the foreground and the other stand artistically remote, if not out of the field altogether. And if this must be so — if one sole name had to be chosen for unanimous commemoration and praise in connection with the winning of Independence
— if one figure alone, among the many upon the historic stage of events, might bear everlastingly, for the generations to look at, the supreme badge, decoration, and symbol of patriotism and nationality
— what more natural than that, to those who had this choice to make, all other services should be lost sight of in presence of the splendid and conspicuous deservings of the unambitious, brave, good man who led the armies of his country through a seven years’ war for national existence? That result, that election, would indeed have been almost assured, — so spectacular and convincing is the scene of a soldier’s action, and so strong the appeal of military achievement to the imagination of every people, — even had Washington been less worthy, in his own merits, to be the pride and boast of his countrymen. But if the victorious commander in a war of liberation must always fill a space in the world’s eye and in the nation’s heart which no other servant of his country can challenge or emulate, — not even another soldier, visibly covering himself with glory in the immediate presence of his chief, — how small must be the chances of any wide, popular, and proverbial recognition falling to the lot of a fellow-worker in the same cause whose services, however they might be unceasing, potent, and indispensable, were yet necessarily rendered in a remote scene of action, in inconspicuous ways, against difficulties unestimated and unknown ? I say nothing now of other influences which contributed to keep Franklin’s essentially national career from receiving that degree of explicit recognition which was consistent even with the historical apotheosis of his great compatriot and friend, consistent even with the esoteric nature of a diplomatist’s labors and the unacclaimed character of the victories he may achieve. Here I am only concerned to point out that although Franklin had a public career which places him with the great personages of history, and although he served his country in circumstances of difficulty, and by the exercise of qualities, which entitle him to rank among the heroes of the nations, yet we need not wonder, still less need we suspect injustice or ingratitude, if we find that that career and those qualities— of devotion and endurance, magnanimity and strength — are almost entirely excluded from the popular and traditional conception of the man and his life, the conception which the name Benjamin Franklin stands for, both at home and abroad, to all save the closer readers of history. For the purposes of the general mind and of popular recollection, the great events of his time in which he played so vital a part have been finally orientated in relation to another biography. Across that page of the epic of history, the name of Washington alone is written broad, for most men and for all Americans. It did not follow from this that Franklin should lose altogether his just fame, who was so great a man in so many ways. But it did follow that the point of reference should be shifted, if possibly it could; that the stress of recollection should be laid, not upon his share in a common task, however invaluable and unique, but upon whatever else for which he was distinguished was more individually and personally his, and afforded good matter for remembrance.
And such an adjustment of the focus of attention was so easy in this case as to be almost inevitable: he was so great a man in so many ways. The memorable influence, indeed, which he exercised during the last twenty-five years of his life was made possible, largely, by the fame which at the beginning of that period was already his, and which has ultimately asserted itself — somewhat to the general loss, as I think — over the other and later associations of his name. By what he was then, and by what he did, and by what men thought of him, he was already marked for remembrance. And there lay behind him at that time, still unknown to all save himself, an earlier personal history unexampled in its kind, and unique in its blending of practical, social, and intellectual interests and powers: the record of which in his Autobiography was by and by to come as a new revelation of a man already wonderful, and to usher him by yet another door into an immortality with the most worthy of the world and the exemplars of his race. As a pioneer in the growing modern cause, which he virtually created, of Social Service, and as a type of the perfect citizen in all his activities; as an occasional writer seeking to increase the intelligence and mutual toleration of his colonial neighbors by words of humor and wisdom which found their way to the firesides of all the world, and even into the languages of Asia; as an experimentalist who had made the most sensational contribution to human knowledge and power, in the physical realm, which science had yet recorded, and as an observer whom nothing to which he gave his attention, whether in the operations of nature or the ways of men, eluded or confused; as the acknowledged founder and exemplar of a new creed which did not call itself a religion nor even a philosophy, though it has had its many devotees and its occasional sages since then, — the creed, namely, of living the useful life and making an occupation of doing the greatest possible amount of good — for no other reason than that you are intelligent and human, and that intelligence and humanity should do their work — to the world in which you find yourself; as a man, finally, whose qualities of intellect and character made so profound an impression upon the men of powerfullest intellect and noblest character in his own generation, from the hour when he first appeared among them, and whose sociability made him as much endeared as his keen wit made him a thousand times quoted; — on all these accounts Benjamin Franklin was entirely sure to have taken his own place, and been a conspicuous name in the roll of human worthies and the history of thought, even had he never stood for twenty years before the world as the representative man of a new people and the moral champion of a nation struggling to be born.
But the very length of this incomplete statement of Franklin’s qualities has brought us betimes to that second point which we had to consider: how much, namely, of a total personality so rich and various, is likely to be represented when the popular tendency to select among the characteristics of a great man rather than to unify them in remembrance — the tendency to create a familiar figure of the mental world by means of an individual mark or moral formula — has had its way in the matter? Ostensibly, very little, I think; yet implicitly, perhaps, a great deal. Very little; for we may say that what fame, what general and diffuse recollection does is not so much to give explicit account of any great men, as to keep them within the horizon; leaving real knowledge regarding them to be always the reward of individual search. It merely keeps an index finger pointed steadily toward a wide field of worth, which will repay careful survey; it merely endorses with a mnemonic mark or brief description a large human document which each generation in succession will do well to read: and the whole effect is no more exhaustive or definite than if it were said, “This contains, or in that direction there lies, much which I, the folk-soul, do not actually remember, but which the world cannot afford to forget.” And here we have — at the cost of another vicious digression into the vague, let me say it — here we have the explanation of that extravagant spirit of praise by which the small biographer of greatness is possessed sometimes to madness, and for which he has become a byword to all the sensible and indifferent. In whom, indeed, shall zeal and exactness be found if not in him, a convert and a discoverer? Faithful study and nearer acquaintance have revealed to him that the human being behind the name which he treats of was vastly more comprehensive than the current report gives out — that the great man was greater than those who think they are keeping his memory green have ever suspected — greater, perhaps, than the biographer himself had been in the habit of supposing but a little while ago! From the hour when this recognition is fully effected, he, the biographer, is virtually a militant writer, a propagandist unrestrained. He is under a vow to make headway at all moments, by asseveration and argument and emphasis, and, unless the gods forbid, by eloquence itself, against that insufficient conception of his subject — perhaps a most perverted misconception of it — which he finds everywhere prevailing and more disastrous than neglect. Actual perversion, however, is comparatively rare. We rather have to acknowledge (what has been already hinted at) that though the “formula” or popular point of reference of a given individual’s fame is apt to appear at first sight meagre and poor in proportion as the personality so ticketed was humanly rich and extensive, it may nevertheless — in a latent way, and by implications that are not present to the consciousness — render a kind of justice and give account of a great deal. An isolated aspect though it is, and an arbitrary mark though it seems, it will yet have in it, usually, something of the core, something of the quintessential; else it could hardly have had, in any serviceable degree, that representative value for which it was chosen. Meagre as it is, it may be largely interpreted. It admits of vivification, unfolding, and expansion, like those tiny specks of shriveled paper imported from Japan which, when placed in a medium of clear water, blossom into beds of flowers and ramify into forests of trees.
And doubtless with good will and leisure it would be easy to perform that miniature miracle in this case also, and, by such a process of vivification and unfolding, to recover the great and vital and many-sided Franklin even out of the shriveled formulas to which his fame has been reduced for the purposes of current and convenient vogue. The current formulas are two; each having, upon the whole, a world to itself. While the American consciousness tends, generally and in the mass, to proverbialize the name and memory of Franklin (and that with no small satisfaction, no small patriotic pride and relish) as the Humorous Philosopher of that continent and people, the European consciousness, on the other hand, tends to remember him as a type of the practical intellect, as the master of prudential maxims and worldly good counsel, as the guide and example to those who have their fortunes to make, and as the preacher of the great (and truly damnable) truths that a penny saved is a penny got, and that honesty is the best policy.
It will be seen that these latter terms represent various gradations of the same formula, various ways, rather, of regarding the type which the formula presents: from the one which implies absolute respect, to the one which sneers dislike or wantonly hoots derision. That small matter of difference shall be as the mental fashion of the time dictates, the social and political sympathies or antipathies of men, the working convention and cue of different schools of writers. In Blackwood of the olden days, for instance, in the Anti-Jacobin of Canning and Frere, or (coming nearer to the homes and hearts of some of us now living) in the National Observer of Henley, one would expect, to dnd, and would be disappointed if one pid not find, the meanest construction fiut, with a profligate abundance of high spirits, upon the idea which the name of Benjamin Franklin stands for to some sincere admirers. But this merely means that by being out of sympathy and by regarding only the negative aspects of a moral idea, you can easily make a great man seem small, or a generous aspiration seem the ambition of a green-grocer. On these conditions you can, at a very small expenditure of intelligence, talk with withering scorn of the Gospel of Getting-On, or can smartly declare (with Kingsley, I think) that the man who taught that honesty was the best policy would presumably have been a thief in a world without police. Of these vagaries in depreciation, however, some are to smile at, not without enjoyment; others are to commiserate, not without contempt. They belong to the psychology of the persons affecting them, and are not especially relevant to our subject at all; being but the expressions of a particular feeling toward life, or at least a particular sort of pretense about the matter, which is an article of quite general utility as an implement of criticism at certain times or in certain places. The Old World generally has esteemed Franklin quite justly, if upon a too narrow basis of recognition, and has not grudged him his place among the sages and the exemplary men of the nations. Only, the sagacity with which he is credited is too generally assumed to exclude, or at least to make very little account of, what are called ideals, aspirations, the deeper insight or the wider outlook of the soul; while the example which he is supposed to have afforded becomes too readily, as contemplated by a certain kind of good folk, a mere apotheosis of what is called the self-made man. Not to say that he is anywhere conceived of as an arid personality, the light of his intellect is held to be a dry light, shining in the “practical” domain. And as this word “practical ” is apt to imply too absolute a reference to the comforts of life and the things which the Philistine cares for, it is a simple step from this to the negative conception of Franklin as one in whom there is a certain indifference to, if not a certain denial of, the things which the poets and the prophets and the supreme personalities in the realms of intellect and morals care for. Inadequate and unworthy as this view assuredly is, it might yet be significantly interpreted as resulting by a process of desiccation and shrinkage from that more large and generous tribute paid to Franklin in his lifetime as a man animated by a spirit of beneficence which embraced all mankind, and to whom the perfecting of human beings and the bettering of their conditions of existence seemed the one master-interest of life, the business and goal of all religion and all philosophy and all science. Or we might trace it more directly to the impressions, or to the generalized after-impressions, left by the Autobiography: a famous work which, charming and veracious as it is, lets no one into the secret of Franklin, but only tells us much about the runaway apprentice, the steady journeyman, the thriving master-printer out of whom the great man grew. But however we explain it, and whether we take it at its best or its worst, the prevailing European view is but a meagre account, after all, to give of a mind so capacious, a heart so generous, a nature so temperamental and dynamic as Franklin’s. If you see no further than that, you may indeed carry in your mind the image of a very marked and definite personality, but you miss a whole world of manhood and of human nature. And the loss will almost equally be yours whether, with George Brandes, you regard him as one of “the utilitarian writers,”, or whether, with Stevenson, you opine that Benjamin Franklin would have patted you on the back because, forsooth, you had hit on a way of buying a postage stamp and getting your own again in the form of small change representing the undiminished purchasing power of the piece you had tendered in payment.
The popular and prevailing American conception of Franklin, on the other hand, — that which presents him as the Humorous Philosopher of the new continent and the new race, — is fully more worthy of the subject and of our curious attention. A mere gayety of the folk-soul though it seems, and a most tangential way of taking, or taking off, a great and important personality, it is yet more richly implicit, more psychologically representative, has in it more of the core and the quintessence, than the European view which we have just noticed. Franklin’s humor was indeed one of his sincerest qualities, if it was not his most distinctive gift. It developed early, and it pervaded the grave occupations of his long lifetime. It was the mind within the mind, the pleasant spirit always at play within the mass of his intellectual framework. A permanent potentiality of humor — slightly to amend a famous definition — might be given as the formula or brief description of the most powerful and serious intellect which America has produced. Incapable of a mere levity, he was yet most open-eyed to the fun of everything, and welcomed every new instance with a twinkle of recognition or a memorable saying. It has been alleged, and not without warrant, that Franklin would have got a joke into the Declaration of Independence had the framing of it been his affair. As a fact, one of his very best jokes, he who made so many, was a story related to console the author of the said Declaration, what time he was afflicted by a sweeping pest of amendments upon his great work, and came to Franklin for comfort in his woe. And, for a further token, we know how the solemnity of signing that fateful and historic implement — an act which made some good men feel that they were assuredly putting a rope round their traitor necks for the king to hang them by in his own good time — was relieved by an opportune and surprising remark from the same Franklin, which put the signatories in a mood to go to their execution as gayly as to their second wedding.
And here we see how wisely the folksoul will sometimes select, from a whole world of choice, just what is most concisely and truly representative, and will contrive to include by implication (for those who can unfold it) even that which it seems to have deliberately passed by. It seemed agreed, in obedience to that law of historical attribution and personal difference which has been already discussed, that as little stress as possible should be laid, for the purposes of everyday recollection, upon the later — the more public, historical, and national — developments of Franklin’s character and career. It was a great deal to cut out from an individual record, and he had need to be a great man to bear the deduction. And yet, in a sense, no such deduction has been made after all; that which seems to have been suppressed having been only translated. If not everything, certainly far more than may be at once apparent, is resumed and made good again, as an element of Franklin’s greatness and fame, under the category of his humor. For Franklin’s humor, if we consider it carefully, is no mere personal quality. It is an historic and a national thing, like the migration of the Dorians or the invention of gunpowder. Like those two events, it marked, if it did not make, the beginning of an era. Of all the talented compatriots who were his contemporaries, he alone, it is confessed, had an effective and developed sense of humor: had, indeed, any sense of humor at all. Further, it is virtually acknowledged that, until he appeared, no American was capable of a joke. The historical bearings of these facts will be at once apparent to the perspicuous reader; especially if he be a Celt or other foreigner who for his sins has been condemned to long residence in the southern parts of Britain. There is no need to make things disagreeable, at this time of day, for the discomfited party in a famous quarrel, and one would fain not incur the imputation of that meanness. But it is certainly a significant fact that so long as the Americans remained English colonists they were unable to develop any faculty of humor, or even, it would seem, to make a joke: a joke, which is but the first stirrings, the infant kick, of that faculty. Still more significant is it that the first American who did possess the faculty of humor and who could both see a joke and make a joke with the best, was the man who — without prejudice, be it said, and without robbing any one of his laurels — did more than any other man to put an end to a connection which pressed so heavily upon the good wits and the young gayety of a promising people. Nor would it be easy to overestimate the value of Franklin’s humor as an aid and agent in the great historical work which he did. By his humor, hardly less than by his other qualities of intellect and character, he won an incomparable personal esteem and liking wherever he went in the Old World; and this esteem and liking for an individual American proved to be, both early and late, between the years 1765 and 1782, an asset of the American cause inferior to none that history can name or research discover. And in the hurried and expectant days of '75 and '76, when the organization of the Revolution was going on, and Franklin’s presence in the land was felt as an inspiration and a power, his flashes of high and courageous cheer, and his humor varying from gay to grim, supplied an element which the moral atmosphere of the place and time — charged as it was with the gifts of individual men living at a like high tension — would have completely lacked without him. If this element did not quite “go round” for the whole country, and there were still to be found patches of undisturbed dullness or semi-animation (inhabited by royalists and lukewarm patriots respectively), be sure it invigorated and refreshed all who came within his personal circuit; and that the memory of his grave and strenuous gayety in those days entered into the Franklin legend at a later time and decided the aspect in which, more than in any other, his countrymen should take pleasure to remember him. Finally, at no period of his life is one more aware of Franklin’s humor as a constant force of his nature, pervading and sustaining even when ostensibly most latent, than during those years in France when his position and his anxieties gave an epic, almost a tragic, cast to his story. One is conscious, then, of a certain rare and steady exaltation, as of a strong man moving in the midst of hazards — a perilous complexity in the play of his mind as he encounters the forces or abides the issue — an heroic and defiant resolution and riskiness of mood which has in it one knows not how much of the fervor of the fight and how much of the fun of the fair. In the darkest hours, and when the odds were heaviest against him, he fought for the dear cause of his heart and spirit with holy glee, and held the position committed to his keeping — the citadel of the Old World’s policy — not only by wisdom and endurance, but by grim detachment and indefatigable good cheer. The permanent potentiality of humor was one of the Great Powers which fought for American Independence.
Bearing these things in mind, we shall not be led astray in this instance by the simple explanation which so often deceives. Under that fallacious guidance we might argue, with apparent good reason, that the two conceptions of Franklin which prevail popularly in Europe and America respectively, and which contradict each other in so curious a way, are but two aspects of the once familiar personality of Poor Richard, developed separately into contrasted types: the one centring all attention on his shrewd worldly judgment and his thrifty counsel, the other projecting his epigrammatic talent and his humorous vein. However it be with the first of these, the second, I cannot but think, has another genesis. It has come into being not by the way of print at all, but by the reëcho, within and adown the popular memory, of that which was once an immediate impression of thousands, a living voice in the ear. At the heart of the American fondness for Franklin in his character of humorist there is a subconscious and inherited recognition of the historical relations and power of that distinctive quality of his. They feel, even when they do not know by what channels the sense of it has come to them, that it is associated with their pride of country and the beginning of things for them. And they are right. For Franklin’s humor, in which the strength and riches of so gifted a mind and so original a nature gathered and culminated, was itself a Declaration of Independence for all his countrymen, a challenge, and in the end a victory — and so well meet to be unto them for a national boast and joy for ever.
I have dealt more fully with those two ways of regarding Franklin than I had intended, and it may be well to point out what, exactly, the discussion thus far establishes or seeks to establish. It might be hastily inferred, from a careless or captious reading of the preceding paragraphs, that the argument has worked round to defeat itself, and that in the end I have been able to make out for Franklin but a dubious character or a meagre renown compared to that which at the beginning was affirmed to be his. The seeming contradiction, however, is exactly what proves the argument good. For it is to be remembered that I have been referring throughout to that conception of Franklin which floats at large in the mind of Christendom, to that kind of acquaintance with him which is in the main traditional and unverified, which is not in any instance — to repeat a phrase I have already used — the reward of individual search. What conception is held by those who know him more nearly and more fully, by the historical students and the readers at first hand, is another question altogether. There is many a name in history and literature which has a safe position and commands a large esteem in the minds of an informed few to whom it is definitely known or specially interesting, yet which to all except these is either nonexistent or means nothing. But the preceding pages start already with the assumption that Franklin belongs to that small band of greatest men, of worldpersonages, about whom those who have no knowledge feel that they know something and those who are not specially interested yet find themselves entertaining a prepossession and a feeling. Starting from that assumption, my concern has been, firstly, to point out that nearly all historic characters which enter into this larger fame have to submit to a process of abstraction or diminution, fitting them to the measure and capacity of the world’s not too synthetic mind; and, secondly, to consider how this has worked out in Franklin’s case. As a fact, we have seen that in regard to a character of such extraordinary comprehensiveness there has been a curious division of opinion or of interest between the Old World and the New; that the Old World has formulized him, finally, as the supreme type of the self-made man and philosopher of practical views, while the New World has kept more vividly in mind his human and humorous personality — not without the sense, perhaps, of an intellectual challenge and a national triumph being somehow implicated in it all.
And now it only remains that I should define an alternative view of Franklin which has strong claims upon our recognition at all times, and especially at this time, on the eve of his bicentenary. The two ways of regarding him which have just been considered are alike in being in the main the results of vague, unverified knowledge, or traditional recollection. They are the contrasted forms or formulas into which the Franklin legend has shaped itself. Behind each of them lies the reality of the whole man and his life, in which both of them find their justification, if also the death-sentence which is the ultimate due of all half-truths. A different Franklin legend, however, might very well have arisen — vague, unverified, popular, and traditional even as these are — from another phase of his career or character than that which they ostensibly refer to; and behind it also would still have lain the reality of the whole man and his life. This other legend, which has never clearly emerged, should have been founded upon the dramatic career of a famous personality in international history.
For only in passing, and on the way to fulfillment, was Franklin one of the men who make themselves. When that preliminary work was done, and the man and the hour were both ready, he entered upon his true career as one of the men who make nations. During a period of twenty years he had in his charge and keeping the most lonely cause — lonely, at least, until he found it friends — and the most momentous issue then stirring in the world. His representative character and his tutelary office were not only universally recognized by thinking men, but entered into the popular imagination of all Europe. To say that his name had a prestige and a vogue is to say but little; it carried a connotation that was almost unique. Not in our day has Christendom had before its eyes a man moving in the realm of high diplomacy and international action whose very name has sounded such a rally of all the intellectual qualities which command the respect, all the liberal causes which win the sympathy, of mankind — nor one, again, whose name has carried that sense of a sheerly personal and individual influence, of a sheerly moral and unofficial power — which Franklin’s did at the era of the American Revolution. Nor was the real part which he played in the making of history less considerable than the prestige with which wondering opinion invested him. What course he would take was a question of more moment than what kings might decree, and the news of his being in this place or in that was more sensational than the report of a battle. And indeed the result of a mighty battle — that longdrawn battle which is called a war — turned, again and again, less upon anything that could be achieved or hoped for in the field of action, than upon whether his wisdom and resource would ever fail, his devotion slacken, or his patience give out. All were taxed to the utmost, and far beyond the capacity of any but an extraordinary man : his patience not least. For in those days he also, at his own side of the world, was waging an heroic warfare against tremendous circumstance to keep the good cause hopeful still; and was doing it not only single-handed, but subject to all the vexations and injuries, all the sapping of his position and the heaping up of his difficulties, which could result from the insane malice of one colleague, the morbid egoism of another. Nor is the story less dramatic for the psychological interest thus belonging to it, or for the fact that the triumph of a nation’s cause is seen as an aspect or result of a great man’s daily triumph over the ceaseless provocations which, had he been of less wonderful build and balance, should have proved him small before they had done with him. And when the long ordeal of his magnanimous watch and ward was ended at last, and the battle happily won, he went home in the late evening of his days to a country which had scarce a glimmering sense of how he had served her in those years of his exile and his silence. Yet, aged as he was, he went home not to die, nor even to rest; but to devote the potent and vigorous lees of his life to the inspiriting and upholding of a people which in winning its independence had also forfeited some ancient supports, and had yet to form the national Constitution and the social character that should fit it for the new time and guarantee its endurance. In that cause were enlisted the hopes and fears of many men of the first quality which that country had produced in a fertile and forcing season: here a political genius in the flush of his great constructive youth, there a man of immediate aims in the midday fullness of his mental power — of this kind, indeed, a senate of notables. Yet there was none among them all whose loving confidence in the great future of an inchoate and disorganized nation was so splendid and so absolute, or who bore such a part in achieving the task of the hour — the making of the Constitution — as the eightyyears-old patriot who was half worn down with sickness as well as service, and for whom his death-bed was already calling.
Then he died; and it is only by remembering the peculiar circumstances of the time, and the events which followed soon after, that we can cease to wonder why he was not universally mourned as the moral father of his country and celebrated, along with Washington, as its second founder. But in truth what he had done was very imperfectly realized in that age by the best-informed of the people at home. The land also was full of men of emphatic, if somewhat local personality, each a leader in his own section or province, who had been much before the public eye during all the years while he was away. Finally, there were not wanting sinister influences, subtly and persistently inhibiting the development of that large, explicit, and national recognition of Franklin’s services which a very little thing might have called into full being and activity even during his lifetime. Had that consummation been realized even for a day, though it had been but the day after his death, the character of his fame would have been fixed differently, one cannot doubt, for the rest of time. For there would then have come fully and simultaneously into the national consciousness a conception of Franklin which — instead of the legend of the Philadelphia printer, almanack-maker, and humorist, or instead of the legend of the moral philosopher who taught men how to thrive in business and inculcated the practice of honesty as one of the best tricks of every trade — should have given us the legend of that historical Franklin, the most famous patriot, the wisest statesman, the most successful diplomatist of his age, a man with whose name all Europe — whatever America may have been doing or thinking of, then and since — once rang from side to side, and whose presence in the world filled the mind of his generation with the ideas of enlightenment, magnanimity, and freedom.
Howbeit, too many causes worked together at the time of his death — both the general causes spoken of earlier and those more particular causes which have just been named — in determining that his subsequent fame should involve but little reference to that part of his record, that aspect of his living reputation. It was felt indeed that a true patriot and a wonderful man had passed away. Yet he was eulogized then and celebrated later rather with reference to his personal qualities than to his public services; rather in his character as a national worthy than in his character as a hero of the nation. And even the fuller story of his life, which a succession of admirable biographers have been able to set forth in a way that was not possible formerly, while so much of the truth was still imprisoned in archives or lost in lumber-rooms, has not appreciably displaced the working conception of Franklin which owed its existence in great part to envy and to accident. The fuller story has been accepted as a continuation of the narrower theme: an historical chapter in the life of the philosopher, an addition to the biography of the selfmade man. The sense of that career transcending social relations — the sense of the great part played in universal history by a Franklin who for most of his contemporaries had no antecedents, and who for these later times should seem neither printer nor provincial, philosopher nor man of science, but an authoritative historical figure like Richelieu, an international being and a moral force like Grotius — this has never been projected simply and largely upon the imagination of the world as it would assuredly have been had he lived a less manifold life and left to posterity no choice but to remember him by these things or not at all.
To aim at displacing permanently these popular conceptions of Franklin, inadequate or unworthy as one may consider them to be, is beyond my measure of presumption or of hope. The existing fact has too many attachments in the general mind, and that mind is neither constituted nor accustomed to entertain the whole truth about Franklin or any other man whom it has elected to keep famous, upon issues partial and secondary, it may be, but sufficient for its purposes. Nevertheless, not in this instance alone, but also in many others, it is well to remember from time to time what it is convenient to forget from day to day. And this, I think, is such a time in relation to Franklin. The bi-centenary of his birth, which is now so near, is sure to have its commemorative festival and its literary results, as well as its more ephemeral letterpress in the journals of the Old World and the New. On such an occasion, an occasion preeminently genial in all senses of that word, one may expect to find comment and thought taking, more inevitably perhaps than usual, the line of least resistance, — a line which must in this case lead to an undue preoccupation with, a somewhat fond delight and moral reveling in, the recollection of those youthful circumstances and that earlier civic career of Franklin to which the Autobiography is an open sesame available for all. The runaway apprentice, we may rest assured, will be much in evidence. The shabby youth walking up the main street of Philadelphia, with the penny loaf under either arm, will arrest the gaze of others besides his future wife. We shall be asked to contemplate, twice or thrice, the moral spectacle of the independent young master-printer, the ideal of clarity and vigor in mind and body, trundling home his purchases of paper on a wheelbarrow. And for a little while once more, as it was in the olden days, the wisdom of Poor Richard will be a common possession. All those things, however, if they are delightful and memorable and improving, are also a little domestic; they are a little particular and preparatory. But of the things for which they were a preparation
— of the part played in world-history by a certain great and illustrious Franklin of whom the Autobiography knows nothing
— of this it is not so sure that an adequate and yet succinct and vivid account will be by any one attempted, or that a serviceable conception of it all will be brought home to those (a wide public!) to whom knowledge of history comes, when it comes at all, either as the news of the day or the revived topic of the hour.