The Man Who Found the Wagons



by Esmond Wright.

Harvard University Press, $25.00.

MARK TWAIN THOUGHT him vain. Hawthorne and Melville called him money-obsessed. “I can’t stand Benjamin,” said D. H. Lawrence. These and other negative judgments by litterateurs over the years have hurt Franklin‘s name. Close to a half century ago Carl Van Doren produced a long, pugnaciously enthusiastic biography, and loyal specialists work tirelessly to this hour completing the multi-volume Yale edition of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. But teams of specialists cannot win match-ups against D. H. Lawrence in his hit-man mode. Present-day university faculties number self-avowed Emersonians, Thoreauvians, and Melvilleites in their ranks, but in my lifetime as an academician I have never heard a colleague acknowledge a feeling for Franklin as a presence, a preceptor, or a guide to life.
Esmond Wright’s Franklin of Philadelphia confronts literary mockers and abhorrers head on. The author, a professor of American history at London University, is convinced that Franklin is “the most modern-minded of all the Founding Fathers,” “more engaging and even more understandable [today] than in the past,” and his biography is persuasive on both points. More striking, though, is the book‘s success in suggesting the moral interest of Franklin’s example. Partly because of his gifts and daring, partly because of the character of the place and age, this statesman-scientistbusinessman was engaged almost ceaselessly in fabricating new ways of being in the world—in (as we say) shaping and exploring new selves. His awareness of himself as fabricator was intense, but it was also remarkably proportioned, indeed almost impersonal; in constant, purposeful touch with the claims of self, he nevertheless remained rock-certain that they counted for far less than the claims of society. Esmond Wright locates the roots of this certainty not primarily in Franklin’s Puritan background but in inner resources—in Franklin’s humor and detachment and firmly ironic sense of life, in his capacity for steadfastness without stiffness, in his scorn for lazy aristas, and above all in his joy in action and labor. We see an adaptability that delights simultaneously in itself and in service of a public cause, a variousness that has integrity at its core. And Wright’s portrait of this nature at once clarifies the idea of public happiness and induces fresh speculation about the character of heroic virtue in the culture of democracy.
Large matters, obviously. They’re not thrust at us unrelentingly; the biographer pays his dues, defining the complications of the provincial and international scenes in which the postmasterbecome-minister-plenipotentiary played his roles, and providing enough technical information to enable amateurs to assess the originality and range of the scientific contributions. There are lively sketches of Franklin’s boyhood and apprenticeship in printing and journalism in Cotton Mather’s Boston, and of his ascent to early prosperity in Philadelphia (“at the age of twenty-four, [he] was the most active master printer and publisher in the most thriving city in North America). Colonial urban and frontier chaos, the pleasures of Assembly and congressional politicking, of coffeehouse London and Paris and Passy salons—all are made vivid. So, too, are the satisfactions of Franklin’s numberless moves as municipal activist—founding a club of artisan self-improvers, a city police force, a fire company, a fire-insurance company, a hospital, an Academy for the Education of Youth, the American Philosophical Society. Always the basic civic assumptions are kept in view, as in this summary of first principles:
Become aware of what you need: if you really want it, then join others of like mind, as in the volunteer fire company, or pay for it; if funds are short, as they will be, then club together and raise a public subscription where the state’s resources are puny; and when the state cannot or will not provide public resources, then “the people” must do it for themselves. Almost all Franklin’s projects began as self-help, and as insurance. It was a short step then to campaigning for “causes.” Because the city watch was poorly recruited, he began a seventeen-year campaign that in the end led to a law taxing property to finance a reliable city watch. A six-pence-permonth levy to have the streets swept led to a law, which Franklin drafted, for paving, lighting, and cleaning them. [He] reached democratic solutions not from any collectivist or utopian dogma but from a pragmatic, self-help orientation. . . . At the root was the conviction that the individual is only truly himself in a gregarious, not in a solitary, setting.
Nearly two thirds of this book centers on the hero’s operations abroad. He was first a special agent charged with the task of persuading London to end the tax-exempt status of the proprietors of estates held under royal charter, (The huge landholdings of the absentee Penns, of Pennsylvania, Calverts, of Maryland, and others had to be protected; the costs of this protection were borne exclusively—and bitterly—by the colonials in residence, small farmers and merchants.) Later, in Paris, Franklin was a commissioner seeking loans and favor for his countrymen’s revolution; still later he was a peace negotiator with Great Britain. Throughout he was a passionate patriot. He broke with his son, William, over the latter‘s Loyalism— and with a heat that overturns the Lawrentian caricature of him as a monster of prudence, a martyr for measure. The heat can be felt in a July, 1775, letter he wrote to a longtime English friend:
You are a member of Parliament, and one of that Majority which has doomed my Country to Destruction—You have begun to burn our Towns, and murder our People.— Look upon your Hands! They are stained with the Blood of your Relations!
The biographer’s command of historical realities is most impressive in the exposition of the view‘s of Empire— Franklin’s view and that of official Whitehall-and-Westminster—that were in unmistakable conflict long before any colonial of consequence had begun to imagine independence as destiny. The shrewdness of the psychological inquiry is most marked in the chapters on Franklin in Paris playing Newton and Rochefoucauld, imperturbable gallant and “symbol of republican simplicity and virtue,” never flagging in the pursuit of his basic political and diplomatic mission, but sometimes disconcerting John and Abigail Adams. During dinner one night with Mme. Helvétius, a friend of Franklin’s and the daughter of a count, Abigail saw troubling things. La Helvétius “called Doctor Franklin merely Franklin, kissed his cheeks and forehead when she greeted him, and . . . sometimes held his hand and sometimes carelessly threw her arms around his neck.” Still worse, Abigail wrote, after dinner she threw herself on a settee, where she showed more than her feet. She had a little lap-dog who was, next to the Doctor, her favorite. This she kissed, and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chemise.” Abigail saw shocking indecorum; Franklin’s eyes—the eyes of a quintessential Yankee become man of the world — probably saw earthy aplomb.
THERE ARE FLAWS in the book, inevitably. The author descends into cant at one point, proposing that surviving may have been Franklin’s highest achievement:
Today we have learned to appreciate—as few in previous generations did—that to survive is itself to conquer, that in a world of turmoil there can be—despite the homilies of Poor Richard—few constants even of the spirit, that in adaptation is strength, and that if at the end it is possible to say — preferably with a wink and a grin—J’ai vécu, then that itself is triumph.
Candor about the defects, mistakes, and occasional fatuity of his subject leads Professor Wright now and then to lose hold of his strong theme (the coexistence of opportunistic flexibility and genuinely unselfish resolve). Determination to avoid idolatry has its costs.
But it is a commendable determination, and, in any event, the book’s balance and lack of illusion aren’t the features of it that I like best. What’s invaluable, finally, is the responsiveness to the hero’s lifelong embrace of possibility. Franklin was suckered more than once by people of substance who created expectations in him that they had neither the intention nor the means of satisfying. But he could not be soured. When others approached him with their often not less than astonishing expectations, he made them welcome. General Braddock arrives in Virginia at the head of an army in need of hundreds of wagons and horses for the campaign to capture Fort Duquesne; officialdom waffles; no experienced provisioner, altogether without commission to cope, Franklin copes. The Pennsylvania Assembly needs a general—a leader who can take six hundred men out to the frontier, make soldiers of them, build stockades, secure defenses against the tribes; no general, no expert on discipline or the manual of arms or columns of supply, Franklin copes, Time and again he expressed relish of the situations created when fearful need and outlandish hope caused others to assume the existence in him of talents beyond his own fantasy. Time and again, as readers, we feel that relish, because the biographer draws attention to it, appreciates its worth.
The terms now used in describing such relish, such a temperament (for instance, “He loved a challenge”), lack vivacity. At the phrase “Can do” we snicker. We assume that boosterism or mindlessness or obliviousness of real suffering or innocent piety about human goodness must accompany the belief that Something Can Be Done. But in Franklin’s case no, and as his qualities come into ever clearer sight, we do not care that the language in which they are conventionally described is gray: the qualities are vibrant. Bring them to life in a narrative set in a society that was as open-textured and hospitable to sudden dazzlements as a solo by Thelonious Monk, and you have excitement. Let the hero of the stories be a figure “one part of [whom],” as Esmond Wright says of Franklin, “stay[s] always single, amused and sardonic,” and you have exhilaration. I find it moving that a British scholar should read our Ben Franklin’s life so animatedly and so well.