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January 17, 2009

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Gordon S. Wood – ISBN – 9780143035282

This is a dazzling review of the portion of Franklin’s life surrounding the American Revolution. It details how this brilliant, loyal citizen of the British Empire became a committed American. The Crown demonized and humiliated him, thereby driving him to become a formidable opponent and devoted revolutionary who was easily as important as George Washington.

As with most such works it begins with an outline of his bio as a younger man, tracing the development of attributes he exemplified throughout life. Amongst them were his (and the era’s) attitude that a gentleman was free only when liberated from the necessity of labor. According to British custom labor was a demeaning necessity for the poor, while gentlemanly status was provided by inheritance or by past labor. Americans were amongst the worldly few offered opportunity to earn the status, yet those born to it still looked askance at those who had earned it. Many workmen became wealthy, but few made it to gentleman. Franklin, of course, was born to poverty, earned his “gentlemanly” status by age 42, and began the struggle to be accepted by “his betters.” He was confident that he was brighter and more successful, but the peers and nobility were reluctant to accept him as an equal, never mind their better.

He was a genius of the age--or any age! He contributed more than most, commonly eschewing authorship of his ideas and inventions. He was responsible for creating many societally important venues: volunteer firefighters, public libraries, scientific forums . . . along with the lightening rod and the Franklin stove. Where applicable he always declined patents which would have commanded royalty payments. He was, in fact, the quintessential American success. By the time he was in his sixties he was one of the most famous people in the world. Oh, did I mention his study of electricity?

While negotiating in England over the Stamp Act it was clear that the English didn’t consider the colonists their equal. Indeed, they used the term “American” as a pejorative. Himself a celebrity and recipient of British honorary degrees, he reacted with humor, reason, and grace . . . or at least colorful satire. Ultimately he experienced a sense of protective outrage. He posited that the colonists were prospering as providers of important exports to Britain, and were likewise an important market for British products. Equal, perhaps?

Parliament was insistent that it was in charge. Grumbling about the king might be acceptable, but challenging them was unconscionable. They wouldn’t accept that the colonists were as much freeborn Englishmen as were those in London. Americans were offended by this treatment. They understood that this relationship was beneficial bilaterally, and were not unwilling to tax themselves for the benefit of the English Crown, yet they were offended by Parliament’s imposition of “taxation without representation.” Parliament disagreed, mostly as a power play.

There were important men in Parliament who agreed with Franklin that “men of good will” might head off this crisis, but prevailing attitudes militated against that outcome. There had been varietal other “matters” which had riled the colonists (all are covered in detail), but the Stamp Act was a bridge too far.

Franklin held diplomatic status for several of the colonies for years whilst he lived in England, and he interacted with the French before he became the negotiator for the financing of the Revolution. When he was dressed down for hours by the Parliament it proved to be the last straw. Humiliated, he returned home and became an ardent supporter of the Revolution.

Despite American’s basic antipathy to the French, Franklin managed to avoid any hint of distrust. It helped that the French and English had no love for one another. Franklin was able to convince them to assist the colonies make war upon England, knowing that it was in French interests to weaken Britain. Without doubt the Revolution would not have succeeded absent French involvement and support. Thus was Franklin as important to the success of the Revolution as Washington.

No one better exemplified the uniqueness of Americans than Benjamin Franklin. Tocqueville later observed that Americans celebrated work as “the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.” He was astonished that Americans thought not only that work itself was “honorable” but that “work specifically to gain money” was also “honorable.” Europe, at the time, was still dominated by a contrite, settled (I’d add, lazy) aristocracy which saw labor as demeaning, and wholly scorned work for profit.

Generations after the Revolution he was recognized as the American who lit the way for thousands of admirers. History is at last resurrecting Ben as one of the most important Americans; an honor justly earned. “Franklin was symbolic of the bumptious capitalism of the early republic—the man who personifies the American dream—[and it is that] image which stays with us.” That and his masterful efforts in serving the new United States.

Posted by respeto at January 17, 2009 3:52 PM