A wise advisor for troubled times
JERRY WEINBERGER in City Journal
Franklin was as American as apple pie. Talk about a man on the move in the social flux! Born to a poor but hard-working family, he got but two years of formal education and was, at 17,
a runaway apprentice on the lam in Philadelphia with nothing but his wits and some bakery buns on which to subsist. From this bad start, he pulled off the American dream: at 19 in London, a pal of the coffeehouse intellectual elite; rich and retired from his vertically integrated publishing empire at 42; famous scientist soon after; big-time politician and public improver and then bigger-time revolutionary diplomat; Constitutional framer; and everlasting glory as the face of the $100 bill.
There were two things Franklin wasn’t so good at: the family and religion. In matters of faith, he was at best a Deist, denying that God interferes in any way with human life; and in matters of the family, he was a decent father but a poor husband who reacted with indifference to his wife’s death in Philadelphia while he was in London hobnobbing with the rich and famous. So we need to revise a bit: Franklin perhaps was not as American as apple pie, but he was as American as the carnival hustler’s corn dog.
Franklin was, in fact, an American for all seasons. On the one hand, we read in the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac and elsewhere homilies about sobriety, thrift, hard work, self-reliance, the way to wealth, the virtues of marriage, and especially (as for Tocqueville later on) the importance of tolerant religion and divine reward and punishment. If men are so bad with religion, he once said, imagine what they would be like without it. The famous Autobiography is a tale of self-redemption and self-mastery. There we learn that, from reading the Enlightenment philosophers, Franklin became a free-thinking libertine, even a nihilist, until he realized the practical and moral danger he was in, cleaned up his act, put himself to thrift and incessant work, and then dedicated his life to public service and easy-going, do-good piety.
On the other hand, the bourgeois and pious Ben Franklin is hard to square with much of what he wrote throughout his life, especially about morality, the family, and religion. The bourgeois, believing Franklin is a fiction, and more than a few people who knew him, including John Adams, thought so. But despite his skepticism, he was so happy in his life that he offered to live it over again, exactly as it had transpired. So what was the secret to his felicity? What was Franklin’s idea of happiness and the good life apart from bourgeois virtue and tolerant piety?