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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ben Franklin and the Making of America

Each year around July 4, Ways of the World explores some facet of historical American society. Independence and Revolution involved not just political and military issues, but social and economic ones as well. In these articles, we have emphasized the role of common, ordinary people, the decisive leadership they showed and the actions they took that effected massive changes in the structure of society and lifestyles.

This time, we want to talk about one of the Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, who in many ways personifies the kinds of changes that were taking place.

First, an editorial note: in the last couple of our articles, on immigration and the Gulf oil spill, we were quoting specific facts and numbers and we were anxious to document those. So we used footnote references right in the text. In this piece, facts and care are still important, but the style is less rigid. We won't use such detailed data or footnotes. Be sure, though, to see our list of sources at the end, which come from well-known historians and biographies. We also take some poetic license; not everything below is described in chronological order. Hopefully, we won't offend any real expert's historic sensibilities.

Reading, Writing and Printing
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the 13th of 15 children and the youngest son. His father Josiah was a dyer and candlemaker in Boston, but with so many older male siblings, there was no chance Ben would inherit any of the family business. Further, Josiah could afford only the most minimal schooling for Ben; he attended Boston Grammar School – later called Boston Latin – for only about a year and was tutored at home for some months. Fortunately, he did learn to read well and was introduced to classic literature, about which he was very enthusiastic. He also liked to write; he taught himself to draft arguments by dismantling some famous piece, scrambling the author's points and then trying to reassemble them into a sensible statement.

To earn money, Ben was apprenticed to his older brother James, who had a printing business. James began a newspaper, the New England Courant. Very early on, commentary and opinion in the paper ran afoul of the Massachusetts colonial authorities. After the second of these incidents, Ben left town, moving to Philadelphia.

Ironically, Ben attracted positive attention from government officials in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania with his book collection and his writing skills. After spending a couple of years in London, he was able to open his own printing and publishing operation in Philadelphia, which he ran from 1728 to 1748. The firm produced the Pennsylvania Gazette and in 1732, the first edition of Poor Richard's Almanack. They were contractors for the New Jersey governor, printing copies of laws, other official documents and paper currency. Franklin, in fact, had managed to design a currency that was hard to counterfeit. He "retired" from the business in 1748, at age 42, and would continue to draw income from the firm for another 18 years. He then entered public life, although he was already well known for his numerous essays, letters and, of course, Poor Richard.

So here was a man who started from little and was making his own way. His name even personifies this: "Franklin" is derived from the Middle English frankelein, which means freeholder, a landowner who is not part of the nobility – exactly what Americans are. Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer-Prize historian we have cited here several times in the past, wants not to push this "self-made" concept too far. Wood highlights the patronage granted to Franklin by those government officials and others, indicating that there was significant outside support. Even so, with no well-placed family background and lacking the school connections others had – Harvard, Yale and the like – he still succeeded to a great extent even before he entered the scientific and government service that eventually brought him world renown.

Loyal Subject and London Diplomat
Importantly, at the same time, Franklin remained loyal to the Crown. Even as he encouraged the new society in America and the spirit evolving around and through him, he expected that America would become a nation within the strengthening British Empire. In the late 1750s, he became a representative for Pennsylvania and later for Massachusetts at the Royal Court in London and the Privy Council. He even thought for a time that he would be named to positions in the London government itself.

So it was that he was surprised to learn that the Prime Minister still expected his appointment as agent for the Massachusetts Assembly to be approved by the Royal Governor. "But I represent the people," he argued. "The people can name who they want as their agent." Well, no, they couldn't. At the time, other political issues interrupted and that particular Prime Minister was turned out of office. His successor demanded no such endorsement and Franklin was allowed to remain in that role.

Americans Worthy in Their Own Right
Additionally, the great issue of taxation without representation began to grate on Franklin. The decisive Stamp Act in 1765 brought all of the American representatives in London to the office of Prime Minister Grenville to plead their case that the colonies could be taxed only by their own legislatures. Franklin, while arguing forcefully for this principle – and in fact serving as the spokesperson before Parliament when they voted the Stamp Act's repeal – still persisted at trying to forge accommodation between rulers and colonists. He argued that perhaps import duties could be seen differently since they concerned foreign relations. But then, Parliament enacted the burdensome Townshend duties. As we've described here before, the American colonists' reaction to this dramatic; they aimed to live without imports so they wouldn't have to pay the duties. Some years before, Parliament had tried to limit manufacturing activity in the colonies, viewing the region as a source of raw materials and a market for final goods. But those goods themselves would be produced in England, benefiting the producers there, not businesses in America. That prohibition was dropped, but Franklin then saw with the Townshend duties that Parliament seemed to be taking still another opportunity to pull money in from the colonies. He wrote to his son William that he was becoming convinced that there was apparently no middle ground, that "Parliament has a power to make all laws for us, or that it has the power to make no laws for us."

Franklin was sent home in early 1775 when a scandal erupted over under-handed business dealings by the Royal Governor of Massachusetts. Franklin had tried to smooth relations between the colonies and London, but his attempt to keep the Americans and the English together actually came across as playing both sides against the middle. No one was happy. Franklin surely felt bad as he left London, by now understanding that separation was on the way. There were other, personal stakes for him as well. His son William was holding a government office in the colonies and he believed that the Crown should continue to rule in America. While father and son remained in contact through later years, their personal relationship was broken in the move to Independence.

Individuals Worthy in Their Own Right
Daniel Walker Howe, another Pulitzer-Prize historian, gives the description of Franklin that prompts us to write about him in this series of articles about how America became itself. Howe's discussion covers the concept of "self-construction", of "making something of oneself", which was a new idea in colonial America. "The prevailing attitude toward self-construction . . . was that individuals are valuable in their own right and that they should develop their full potential while exercising self-control. [This encompasses] not only the existence of a self . . . but also the capacity of the individual for critical reflection upon that self, with the power to modify it through conscious effort." This perspective then prompts questions about the structure of society: how is government organized to foster self-development? Can some individuals' fulfillment be achieved without the exploitation of others'? Howe points out that "classical political theory . . . had taken it for granted that some persons would be excluded from participation in this process and even sacrificed to the development of others." In America, though, there were conscious efforts to "apply the doctrine of self-development to people previously excluded from it" and to suffer internal struggles for that to happen. We note with interest, then that late in life, Franklin himself belonged to an anti-slavery organization.

So Ben Franklin, born in 1706, 26 years before George Washington, was perhaps the first American to rise from modest circumstances to great leadership and to understand what that process meant and why it mattered, not only to himself but to his new country.

+ + + + +
Obviously, any bibliography on Ben Franklin would be voluminous. Here is what we consulted. We do not refer directly here to his Autobiography, but it is mentioned frequently in all of these sources.

Daniel Walker Howe. Making the American Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Originally published by Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. 4, 9, 22.

Walter Isaacson. Benjamin Franklin: an American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2004.

Benjamin Franklin: An Illustrated History of His Life and Times. New York: TIME Books, TIME, Inc. 2010. The price of this book is $12.99. The numerous portraits, sketches and photographs of objects are easily worth several times that. Find it at your local supermarket! Thanks to two friends for pointing it out to us.

Gordon Wood. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Penguin Group. 2004.

Gordon Wood. "The Invention of Benjamin Franklin". Chapter 2 of Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: The Penguin Group. 2007.

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